Updated: Oct 9, 2018
Some people are born lucky, they have the ability to sleep through anything! These annoying people fall asleep watching TV, or reading a book, and can take a cheeky power nap without getting anxious that they don’t have enough time to fall asleep. If this sounds like you, then you probably don’t need to read any further!
On the other side of the coin, are people who struggle to get enough quality sleep. Ever since I can remember, I have had trouble sleeping. As a child I saw a sleep therapist and was given sleeping tablets, lavender, valerian, and even a mini speaker to put under my pillow to play Kenny G music to relax me (totes cool). I used to have nightmares and be scared of the dark and unable to sleep in a room on my own. As I grew older, I got over my fears, but still had major anxiety around sleeping.
As I reached my 20’s I got hit with Chronic Fatigue (all those years of not sleeping!?) and suddenly all I wanted to do was sleep. Despite all of the extra time in bed sleeping, I couldn’t sleep enough to feel refreshed.
Sleep has eluded me my whole life. As a uni student, some nights I didn’t sleep at all. As a PT and group fitness instructor I over trained, under slept and panicked about waking up at 5:30am, which resulted in me waking every hour in case I slept in! As a small business owner stress takes a huge toll on my sleep quality. And then recently I discovered I have toxic mold exposure, and Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS) which makes sleep even more difficult.
As a wellness coach and someone with chronic illness who is extremely motivated to get better, I spend every spare minute learning about the body. Almost every day I hear or see information about how important sleep is. Some days this feels like a kick in the face when I have tried everything I can to be a good sleeper. We have all heard the studies about the importance of sleep, and so this blog won't be covering that.
In short failure to get enough sleep can push you closer towards disease, accelerate aging, stress, decrease your performance and tolerance to stress and illness, and generally make you feel emotional and ratty. Poor sleep habits can make you gain weight, and even just one night of poor sleep will induce food cravings the next day, and negatively influence your hormones to make you more hungry, but less able to use the food your eat for fuel!
As a lifelong sleep hacker, I thought I would make a shortlist of the very many things I have tried over the years, in regards to what helps sleep, and what hurts sleep.
Lights after dark – TV, screens, bedside clocks, street lights through the blinds, night lights etc. As humans our circadian rhythm revolves around the sun. We are programmed to be awake and alert during the day, and at night time we are programmed to release a hormone called Melatonin which helps induce sleep, and keep us asleep. Light exposure, particularly from the blue light spectrum destroys Melatonin and consequently compromises sleep quality. Ways to overcome this might include using softer ambient red lights at night, avoiding screens after sunset, wearing blue blocking glasses, turning night shift mode on your phone or computer to a warmer spectrum of light, making sure your room is completely dark for sleeping, purchasing a blue blocking iphone or ipad cover.
A Hot Room – As the sun goes down, our body temperature lowers which also helps program us to sleep. We all know how hard it can be to sleep in hotter temperatures! Maintaining a cool, dark room and sleeping environment is important for quality sleep. Avoid heated blankets, hot packs, body heat from others, too many clothes (sleeping naked is a good choice if you are comfortable with it), or take a cool shower before bed.
Sleeping tablets and pain killers – While these might seem like a good idea at the time, they often substantially compromise sleep quality and can create a viscous cycle of reliance. I know when I used to take them, the very thought of not taking one made me anxious that I wouldn’t sleep, which over time programmed a reliance on these drugs. Pain killers and sleeping tablets also create nutritional deficiencies and other hormonal regulations problems.
A high sugar, or high refined carbohydrate diet will set you up for blood sugar problems which will stress the body, and create sleep disturbances. High sugar diets place us further along the spectrum toward insulin resistance, and mean we are often woken up during the night as blood sugar crashes, with a profound need to eat to get back to sleep. This is termed Night Eating Syndrome (NES), and something I suffered with for years (at the time I just thought it was because I burned so much energy as an aerobics instructor!) Swapping to a clean whole foods diet, balancing blood sugar, increasing vital nutrients and taking Relora (see below) were key in overcoming NES. Processed foods, artificial sweeteners, GMO ingredients, food additives etc are also wellness hurters.
Low carb diets. A risk with going too low in carb intake in your diet will often cause sleep issues. Especially for females. Many people still think that carbs are best eaten in the morning and not at night. The opposite is in fact true, and your body is best suited to avoiding carbs in the morning. When cortisol levels are the highest, we are least insulin sensitive, meaning it’s the worst time to eat them. At night our cortisol levels are the lowest (or should be!) Eating quality carbs at night will help improve sleep. Great options are sweet potato, pumpkin, white rice, potato starches etc. Avoid refined carb items like cookies, and sweets which might help you sleep initially, but often interrupt sleep quality down the track.
Not having a routine. The term social jet lag was coined to describe the fatigue and health issues faced by an inconsistent sleep wake cycle. The time that you go to bed and wake should be roughly the same each day, even on weekends. The more erratic your sleep and waking cycle is, the worse you will feel.
High daily stress levels will add to night time stress. Where possible reducing daily physical, lifestyle and emotional stress will assist in sleep. Supplements like Relora (magnolia bark extract) are a great and cheap way to help reduce stress, assist blood sugar management and boost immune function. Of the many clients who have used Relora, all report reduced cravings too!
Toxin Exposure. Toxins from your diet, metabolic byproducts, or environment will decrease your ability to sleep and upset several body systems, specifically the liver. If you are waking often between 3-5am, it’s correlated in Chinese Medicine to liver issues. Use natural products, eat clean food, check your house for mold, avoid light pollution, Electro Magnetic Frequencies (EMF's) etc which are all forms of toxic exposure. Alcohol is another huge sleep hurting toxin. If you have ever had a big night on alcohol, you will know how it can initially make you pass out and sleep, but the quality of sleep is lacking.
Poor gut health
Poor gut health will mean higher levels of inflammation, higher immune activity, decreased liver function, hormonal imbalances, neurotransmitter imbalances, malabsorbtion issues and more. Your gut makes 400x the Melatonin than your brain, and 500 x more serotonin - meaning if your gut health is poor, you are programed to feel wired, anxious, hungry and unable to sleep! If gut health is off, sleep will be too.
Blue blocking glasses - help block out the blue light spectrum that breaks down Melatonin. At the other end of the day, it's helpful to get bright lights into your eyes first thing, to help regulate circadian rhythms.
Sleeping masks help block out snippets of light that might be filtering in through your curtains. Ear plugs are another cheap addition to control light and noise. Your skin has sensors for light, so blocking your eyes isn't enough. Make sure you have good curtains, and get some electrical tape to block small power indicator lights that might flash on alarm clocks, fans or power outlets.
Essential Oils - We have found lavender essential oil to be helpful in calming the mind and body. If you want to use essential oils, make sure you select a Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade (CPTG) oil like Doterra in order to get the therapeutic effects, not just the fragrance.
Supplements – Not sleeping tablets! Melatonin, gaba, magnesium, 5HTP, Relora, Phosphaditalserine L-glutamine are all great supplements I have used to increase sleep. My nightly sleep stack involves a mixture of these, and it changes depending on how I feel before bed but the staples are always magnesium, melatonin, L-glutamine powder and one of the others depending on my mood.
Melatonin will help induce sleep, and keep you asleep. It's especially great for overcoming jetlag, and is a potent antioxidant. Taking 3mg before bed helps you to fall asleep. The recommended dose is 3mg, but I have had great results with clients taking up to 20mg.
Magnesium should be the first point of call for anyone with stress, anxiety or sleep issues. Magnesium is crucial for over 300 physiological functions and most of us are severely depleted in this essential nutrient. The recommended daily dose is often said to be around 500mg, but it's better to opt for 10mg per kg of body weight, especially if stress is an issue. It's important to get a highly bioavilable form of magnesium that is chelated with amino acids. My favourites are Gaba Mag by Trilogy Nutrition, Uber Mag plus L-tryptophan, Mag-tech by Natural Stacks.
L-Glutamine is fuel for the gut lining and helps boost immune function. Studies also show it helps increase growth hormone release, and assists sleep. 1 heaped teaspoon before bed does the trick.
GABA, Taurine, 5HTP, and Phosphaditalserine are calming substances that reduce anxious thoughts and help sleep quality. It's a great idea to see which one works best for you, or to cycle them.
Himalyan Sea Salt - If sinus congestion, headaches or anxiety are an issue before bed, a half teaspoon of salty water assists. I often forget about this simple sleep hack, but it's super effective for those who might have adrenal dysregulation, electrolyte imbalances and fatigue.
Heart Rate Variability Training - I purchased this a year ago to help reduce stress, and increase heart rate variability, a key indicator for wellness. I use the inner balance plus sensor from heart math, which plugs into your phone or computer and helps you train your heart rate and breath to increase coherence and heart rate variability. It pulls stress out of your system, and is mega relaxing! the Read more about how it works here
Set a nightly Routine - This helps create 'wind down' time, and tells your body to prepare for sleep. Performing fascial release, writing a gratitude diary, heart rate or breath work, reading or any other relaxing activity is great to have before bed. Avoid stimulating activities that will perk you up.
Go to bed before 10pm - this is so so powerful, especially for many of us night owls. If you push and stay up beyond 10pm, you will often find you get a 'second wind' and can stay up for hours later. Most of the sleep research sleep between 10pm-6am is best.
Exercise and Movement - We were designed to move! Simple. Failure to move enough through your day will have systemic negative consequences on hormones, brain function blood sugar, immune health etc, all of which will reduce sleep quality. Even if you don't feel great, you must move well, and often throughout your day. One of the worst periods in my life was when my Chronic Fatigue Specialist told me to stop exercising for 2 months and everything got so much harder, and depression hit an all time low. Since then, no matter how tired I have been, I have always made an effort to move because it is vital for every aspect of health.
Acupressure sleep induction mat - I recently purchased this sleep inducing mat which is incredible. I was ultra skeptical it would work for me, but I am pleased to say I have fallen asleep on it several times!
Sleep tracking - can be a good idea if it doesn't add to your sleep anxiety. Sleep Cycle is a great iphone app that helps track sleep quality and sleep cycles. If you enjoy seeing what is working for you and what isn't, this app is for you. It also has an inbuilt alarm to help you wake up in your lighter phases of sleep so that you wake more gently and feel more alert.
Aside from all of the above, its important to investigate health issues which might be causing your sleeping issues. Parasites, bacteria, toxins, blood sugar, stress, gut health, liver issues etc might need to be addressed.
The more tools you have in your tool bag, the more relaxed you can be about going to sleep. My anxiety around sleep is slowly disappearing, and I'm confident as I overcome my deeper health challenges, my insomnia will disappear too. I hope this saves you some time, money and energy and helps you to be better in bed. Sweet dreams to you all!
Any questions - let us know :)