Liz’s guide to a good night’s sleep
Few things are more fundamental to wellbeing than a good night’s sleep – it’s not called ‘beauty sleep’ for nothing. Like many my age, I’ve found childcare, hormonal upheaval and the whirring of an overloaded brain have led to a decline in my sleep quality. But setting good sleep strategies can make all the difference to how we look and feel.
Research shows if we are struggling to get a good night’s sleep we should get outside more during the day. But as well as outdoor activity, setting the scene for sleep is important. Bedrooms should be a sanctuary where all electronic devices are left at the door! Screens emit a light that disrupts the brain, blocking production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
When my two elder children were teenagers we had a ‘no screens in the bedroom’ rule, but this became harder to manage for their younger siblings with the rise of the smartphone. Now, I insist these are at least switched off – and I unplug the household Wi-Fi box at night as an extra (unpopular) measure. It’s not just the glare from screens though, as the light from digital clocks, radios, security sensors and charger units can all disrupt sleep patterns. Either shroud these bright blips with a dark cloth or stick a piece of black tape over them. If all else fails, wear an eye mask.
Winding down before bedtime with a regular routine is also helpful. Sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley recommends preparing at least half an hour before bed – listening to music, sewing, taking a bath or reading a book. Room temperature makes a difference too: a bedroom should ideally be between 15 – 21°C. An electric blanket disturbs sleep patterns by increasing core body temperature.
Last, but not least, it’s a myth we need less sleep as we age. It just gets harder to get and so we tend to sleep less, but differently, like an afternoon nap. But the reality is that if we get less deep sleep, we feel less refreshed. Most experts agree the optimum is around seven hours a night. It’s not just about the here and now either – some new studies are linking low quality sleep with future early on-set dementia and Alzheimers’ disease, as poorer long term sleep patterns may affect brain chemistry. So it’s worth setting a sleep schedule – and sticking to it.
Seven steps to sounder sleep
Here are seven tips to a good night’s sleep:
- Spend part of your day doing outdoor activities.
- Avoid caffeine (including chocolate) six hours before bed.
- Keep to a regular bedtime.
- Don’t flop into bed – take time to wind down.
- Resolve arguments so nothing festers in the mind overnight.
- Cover or remove all light sources – invest in black-out blinds if necessary.
- Block outside noise or a spouse’s snores with soft foam earplugs.
If you can’t remember when you last greeted the morning feeling rested and refreshed, it’s time to take a leaf out of nature’s book and supplement your sleep with a little herbal help. Here’s what to try before you hit the pillow…
Valerian for relaxation
If sleep keeps evading you, there’s nothing like a cup of soothing valerian tea at bedtime to help put a stop to night-time tossing and turning. Sometimes described as Nature’s tranquilliser, valerian has been used for centuries to relieve mild insomnia. It is especially valued as a sedative for its lack of side effects compared to more conventional sleep remedies, which can leave you feeling groggy in the morning. It is non-addictive and works by calming the brain and body.
Camomile to help sleep
This lovely plant with its daisy-like flowers is another well-known natural remedy for sleep. It is thought to help relieve problems ranging from stress and insomnia to spasms associated with IBS, as well as anxiety. Try it in a soothing night-time tea – put one teabag or 5-8g of loose camomile into a cup of boiling water. Cover and leave to infuse for a few minutes before drinking. Alternatively you could put a few drops of the essential oil on a tissue and tuck by your pillow.
Passionflower before bedtime
The vibrant blooms of this distinctive South American climber yield soporific fruits that are often used to calm nervous tension that can lead to sleeplessness. Native to South America, the passionflower is widely used in remedies for anxiety and nervous tension, where it is often found combined with valerian and/or hops. It has no side-effects and does not cause drowsiness. A single dose of the herb, or a cup of passionflower tea, before bed will help to bring sweet dreams.
Lavender for relaxation
Lavender has been popular for its calming, soothing properties for thousands of years. Lavender was used to scent water used for bathing by the Romans and Greeks hence its name – the Latin word ‘lavare’ means to wash. Invest in a lavender pillow or, alternatively, sprinkle up to four drops of lavender essential oil onto a tissue and tuck in your pillowcase to inhale the aroma as you drift off.
Lemon balm to calm nerves
Research shows that components in lemon balm’s volatile oils have antispasmodic properties that have a calming effect on the central nervous system. It is now often used with valerian as a relaxing tonic for anxiety, restlessness and insomnia. Lemon balm can be taken as a tea, tincture or in capsule form. To make your own tea simply put a small handful of leaves into a mug, fill with boiling water and leave to infuse for around 10 minutes before drinking.
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- Light from digital clocks, radios, security sensors and charger units can all disrupt sleep patterns
- Your bedroom should be between 15 – 21°C, and avoid electric blankets as they disturb sleep by increasing core body temperature