How to Get Better Sleep: Three ‘Must-Do’s
It takes up ⅓ of our lives.
It’s an opportunity to reconnect all of our information that we have collected throughout the day.
It’s a topic of many conversations when we catch up with our partners and friends.
As we age, it just feels more and more important.
And particularly as a middle aged woman in peri-menopause, it can be even more of a challenge.
For these reasons, I wanted to take a deeper look into sleep; why it matters and how we can help ourselves sleep better.
What happens when we sleep?
As adults, we need 7-9 hours a night. which will allow us to go through the 4 stages of sleep a night; stages 1-3 are recognised as non Rapid Eye Movement (REM), and the 4 is REM.
Stage 1 is where we start to move from wakefulness to sleep and is generally light and lasts just a few minutes.
Stage 2 is much deeper and is typically the longest stage of sleep.
Stage 3 is the “King” when it comes to feeling refreshed on waking and its length reduces as the night goes on.
When we reach the 4th, REM stage, in addition to our eyes moving underneath our eyelids, our breathing rate, our heart rate and blood pressure increases. And this is the stage that will increase in length throughout the night. But it is also the stage of sleep which decreases with age.
These stages repeat cyclically through the night. Being disturbed during any of the stages will mean a cycle does not get completed, therefore affecting how we are the next day. This is why a disturbed sleep can feel as awful as a shorter sleep.
The effect of sleep on our physical health
Our sleep is not just about how we feel the following day; it is so important for our physical health. Without wanting to scare, I found the information linking poor sleep on our physical health quite extraordinary.
Here are four of the impacts I found interesting: .
Cardiovascular Health: During our sleep, our heart and blood vessels are kept healthy. Sleep means that our blood pressure lowers meaning that if you struggle to sleep, your blood pressure can remain too high which is a risk factor in heart disease and stroke.
Diabetes: Decreased sleep is a risk factor for increased blood sugar levels. Even partial sleep deprivation over one night increases insulin resistance, which can in turn increase blood sugar levels. (Ryan)
Low Libido: Sleep deprivation has been associated with reduced sexual desire and arousal in women. As a result, insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders, may be a risk factor for sexual dysfunction. A lack of sleep and disrupted sleep have also been linked to a higher risk of erectile dysfunction. (Ryan) This is certainly not an additional factor we want to add to our sex lives at this time in our lives!
Weight gain: It's believed to be because sleep-deprived people have reduced levels of leptin (the chemical that makes you feel full) and increased levels of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone). Alongside the peri and post menopausal weight gain many women find, this is another double whammy we would prefer not to deal with.
The effect of sleep on our mental health
It is not just physically that we suffer when sleep is a problem. We have all experienced the low mood and the irritability that comes with a bad night’s sleep. Many of us are parents so we have been in the depths of no sleep for months and years when our babies were small. The impact of this is well remembered by most of my friends; the hazy, low energy, low mood and low concentration. It is a really tough time.
Prolonged periods of poor sleep can seriously affect our mental health. According to Mind (www.mind.org), if you are struggling with sleep, you might:
Be more likely to be anxious, depressed or suicidal
Be more likely to suffer psychotic episodes
Have feelings of loneliness or isolation
Struggle to make plans, concentrate or make decisions
Have problems with family and work relationships
Be more likely to suffer ill health, either physical or mental.
For these reasons, I really do try to ensure that I have a good sleep routine to assist me in my quest for decent sleep, equalling better mental health, and preventing some of the physical effects impacting me now, or in the future.
3 tips for a better sleep
So, armed with the knowledge of how we sleep, as well as the consequences of poor sleep, let’s take a look at the ways we can improve our sleep.
As someone who has been a long term sufferer of anxiety, I am no stranger to poor night’s sleep. For me, there have been times in my life where falling asleep is the problem. And others it’s been fine getting to sleep, it’s the problem when I wake up in the middle of the night, and am unable to fall back to sleep.
I understand that frustration. We’ve all experienced that feeling of worry when the alarm is set early to get you up in time for a flight, an interview or an exam. It’s horrid isn’t it? It feels like there is no deep sleep. There is the constant time checking. And by the time the alarm goes off, you are just exhausted!
No one wants a repeat of that every night. And if you struggle, I send you my best wishes, and really do hope that something you read in this post will help you achieve a good night’s sleep.
Tip one: establish a sleep routine
It sounds pretty dull, but trying to get a routine together to calm the mind and body and preparing it for sleep is amazing. Here are some things that I have researched and do myself with fair amount of success.
Set a regular bed time, as well as an awake time - try and be consistent throughout the week as well as the weekend. It means that your body will start to get itself ready for sleep naturally. Consistency really works for this. And getting up at the same time every day just helps to set the natural rhythm of your body.
Have a journal or notebook next to you to write down 3 things that you have been grateful for, or proud of that day. Sometimes this will feel more of a challenge than others. It will help you to end the day on a positive note.
Choose a pillow spray or body oil/cream designed to aid sleep. I have tried a number of different brands and it is very personal but as long as you love the smell and it makes you feel relaxed, the job’s a good ‘un! Lather yourself in it - even if it’s psychosomatic, imagine it’s really going to help. Hopefully it relaxes you and sends you into a calm state where you are inviting sleep.
Read a book before you go to sleep. It is tempting to scroll through social media, or watch the next episode in the series you are watching on Netflix but slowing your mind down with a good book is perfect. You will need to concentrate enough to actually read the words, and be immersed into the story, but you will need to switch off from everything else!
Tip two: get your sleep environment right
Make sure your bedroom is cool enough, and your bed linen is also the right thickness and the best material for you. Particularly as women, our sleeping environment is important. I like layers; I have my foot sticking out of the duvet, a very low tog duvet and a throw which can be removed if required!
In addition to the temperature of the room, try and get the room blacked out. You want it nice and dark, particularly in the lighter mornings so you are not woken early. If this isn’t possible, an eye mask is really worth it. I have used a number of different sorts but have found that a silk material that wraps thickly around the head is the best when it comes to keeping it on in the night, as well as keeping the light out of the corner of the eyes.
Try to keep your bedroom a relaxing space. With working from home over the last couple of years, it may be impossible to separate your working from your sleeping environment, but if it is possible, keep it as a haven of relaxation! Remove associations of work from the bedroom and try to avoid using electronic devices in there. Have a good book on your bedside table. If you have to work in your bedroom, ensure everything is switched off and you put things away, ideally a few hours before you will be going to bed.
Keep devices out of your bedroom. Get a clock for your bedside table so you don’t need to rely on your phone for the alarm. BUT just be careful not to have the time as your centrepiece! The last thing you need is to be watching the clock so something simple with an alarm is perfect.
Tip three: prepare for sleep during the day!
Our body needs to know the difference between night and day. Getting outside and getting some daylight is really important. Even if it is not a sunny day, just removing ourselves from the house or office for a walk will help and allowing the natural light into our eyes will help to send the messages to the brain that this is the day so the natural circadian rhythm can happen.
Doing exercise during the day is key too. Our bodies are designed to be actively burning calories and raising heart rates during the day. If we don’t do this, we are not physically tired, thus we will not sleep as well or as deeply. Just don’t do cardio exercise right before bed. That will do the reverse of sending you to the land of nod! A Pilates stretch in your pyjamas before bed or some gentle yoga would be perfect to calm the mind and remove the stresses of the day from your mind.
Avoid using devices at least one hour before you plan to go to bed. There is much evidence out there about the blue light emitted by these electronic devices which prevents the natural sleep hormones from being produced. However, it is not just this that will affect your sleep. If you are scrolling social media right up to your proposed sleep time, the chances are you won’t be able to stop! These Apps are designed to keep you on them and will keep your mind active and away from sleep.
Do seek medical advice if you notice a big or longer term change in your sleep. As someone with hypothyroidism, I have suffered from insomnia which is usually due to me not being on quite the right levels. There is also the utter exhaustion that comes with not being on the right levels. Peri-menopause and post-menopause is a time when many women find their sleep is disrupted so your GP can help advise you on your options if you are suffering. So if something changes with your sleep pattern, it is worth seeking advice from your GP.
Making a note of where you are in your menstrual cycle is helpful too. I, along with many women I know, notice a phase of insomnia the week or so before the start of my period. If you find that this happens to you, it is often quite reassuring to know that it is just a ‘blip’ in the sleep and that you will return to sleeping better but do seek medical advice.
Include some relaxation in your day - that doesn’t have to be a meditation, but doing some mindful activities can really help. Give your busy mind a break. This could be a Pilates class, or a task that you find relaxing; I know people who enjoy bread making, for example. Whatever it is, find your mindful activity and try to include something, even if it is for a short time, and do it every day. I love the Headspace app which you can get for free as it is a very easy way to get some mindful practice in without it feeling ‘airy fairy’! You may also find an alternative therapy really useful. I tried reflexology a month ago, fairly sceptical, but wow! Did I sleep soundly that night! I have booked more…!
I do hope that some of these tips will prove valuable to you. It would be great to hear your thoughts, and if you have any other tips, do comment below! Sleep well x
If you would like to try Pilates, www.raisepilates.com offer a range of classes, including some relaxing options. www.happyplacereflexology.co.uk and www.raisepilates.com are running a Sleep Workshop on March 30 2022. You will be guided through a Pilates sequence to calm the body and mind, and Alex will talk you through hand reflexology techniques to relax the mind and get you set for a wonderful night's sleep.