Top tips to improve your sleep
By Vera Martins, PhD, Naturopath, Herbalist
There is nothing like a good night sleep. From leaving you feeling amazing (and beautiful!) to endless health benefits, no one can argue that looking after your sleep should take priority. Poor sleep has been linked with weight gain, hormone imbalance (think irregular cycles and low libido), heart disease, diabetes, a low immune system, decreased brain performance and anxiety, amongst other health issues. Sleep can be affected by many factors, including stress, hormonal changes, and certain foods.
Here, I share my top tips to master a good night’s sleep:
Keeping stress at bay has to be my first and most important tip of all. Stress is known to be one of the major culprits behind sleep problems, as it can disrupt the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis for short), a delicate mechanism that controls the so-called “stress response” by secreting the stress hormone cortisol. When the “stress response” is chronically triggered by day-to-day events (you are late for work, had a fight with your partner, are worried about money), your cortisol production may become out of balance, e.g. cortisol may be high in the evening, as opposed to low, which impairs your sleep.
Reduce stress by:
- Breathing! Research has shown that deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Check-in with your breathing throughout the day and practice Four-Square Breathing (also called Box Breathing Technique) on a regular basis. Pranayama (an Ayurvedic practice of controlling the breath) is another great technique to adopt.
- Practicing daily meditation – start with 10-15 minutes in the morning to calm your mind and set the tone for the day.
- Giving yourself permission to “do nothing” (it could be curling up in the sofa with your favourite book or simply spending some quiet time tuning in with yourself).
- Practicing yoga – yoga is an excellent way to engage the body, the breath and the mind. It’s three in one! Yin Yoga particularly will do wonders to a busy racing mind. If you have that “tired but wired” feeling, try a Yin Yoga class in the evening and you will be set for a good night sleep in no time.
Let’s be honest, even with the best of intentions, it may be difficult to escape a stressful period here and then, or maybe you are just having trouble in slowing down at times. Fortunately, there are some great supplements and herbs that can help you navigating through those moments such as magnesium, B complex vitamins and adaptogens. The latter are a class of herbs known to have a balancing effect on the HPA axis, modulating cortisol. As the name says, they help the body to “adapt” to stressors, restoring balance. Top adaptogens in my list are ashwagandha, siberian ginseng, rhodiola, schisandra, licorice, and holy basil.
If you suspect stress may be an issue, you can seek help from a qualified medical professional or naturopath. They will be able to get your cortisol profile checked and advise on supplements and herbs to suit your individual needs.
2.Check your sex hormones
Your sex hormones, particularly progesterone, known as the “relaxing hormone”, can also impact on your sleep. Progesterone is a hormone produced during the luteal/second half phase of the cycle and also by the placenta during pregnancy, in women. If progesterone levels decline, during periods of chronic stress and naturally during peri-menopause and menopause, your sleep can suffer.
Stress (again!) can affect your sex hormone progesterone. Progesterone and the stress-hormone cortisol have the same precursor, meaning that if stress is high, cortisol is produced at the expense of progesterone. In addition, during peri/menopause your sex hormones, including progesterone, rely more on the adrenal glands for production. If your adrenal glands are “busy” dealing with a situation of chronic stress, there will be less progesterone, and consequently less sleep.
If you suspect you may be going through peri-menopause/menopause or suffering from chronic stress, talk to a medical professional to get the relevant hormones checked.
3. Top-up your magnesium
Research has shown that magnesium has an all-around effect on sleep quality, by improving the ability to fall asleep, increasing the number of sleep hours, and reducing early morning awaking. It is best taken as a supplement before bedtime in the form of magnesium bisglycinate (also known as magnesium glycinate, diglycinate or chelate). Magnesium can also be applied topically (e.g. magnesium oil).
4. Consider herbal aids
When it comes to sleep, herbal medicine has plenty to offer. As a qualified herbalist, I often turn to herbs to support my patients in need of a good night’s sleep. Two of my top sleep herbal picks are Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and Hops (Humulus lupulus), both of which work by increasing GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric acid) activity, a brain chemical that has a key role in promoting sleep and relaxation. They can be taken as tea, capsules or liquid extracts. It is always a good idea to talk to a qualified herbalist before taking herbs.
5. Watch out for your diet
Be aware of foods and drinks that can negatively impact on your sleep.
- Tyramine-containing foods, particularly in the evening, as this substance causes the release of norepinephrine, a brain stimulant. Foods with high content of tyramine to avoid include aged cheeses, red wine, some beers, cured meats, and smoked fish.
- Alcohol intake, particularly in the evenings. Too much alcohol can have a detrimental effect on sleep quality as it reduces REM sleep (the restorative part of the sleep cycle) and can interrupt the circadian rhythm, a study has shown.
- Caffeine (in coffee but also green tea and black tea) is a stimulant that can stay in your system for several hours.
- Foods rich in L-tryptophan, an essential amino acid that increases production of serotonin, one of the most important brain chemicals regulating the sleep/wake cycle. Foods rich in L-tryptophan include free-range organic eggs, organic dairy products, organic free-range poultry, wild salmon, oats, brown rice, quinoa, legumes, pumpkin seeds, and bananas.
6. Get out in the sun
Sunlight helps regulating the circadian rhythm, which tells our bodies when it is time to sleep and to be awake. Sunlight also plays a role in Vitamin D production, which is essential for a healthy body. Getting your boost of sunshine in the morning is the best! Go for a short walk first thing in the morning if you can or, alternatively, take a break at during the day for a 10-minute walk.
7. Create a nourishing sleep ritual
Turn your bedroom into a peaceful, uncluttered and nourishing space – make it beautiful, use essential oils such as lavender or jasmine (in a diffuser or spray), and use the bedroom only for sleep or calm activities such as light reading, listening to calm music or meditating. A bath with essential oils and Epsom salts (they are rich in magnesium) is another trick. And remember to avoid screens (including TV, computer, iPad, and mobile phone) at least 1 hour before bedtime as the blue light they emit can decrease melatonin production affecting sleep.
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