This month on the 14th (November) sees the release of my new book called The Art of Sleeping. This little book explains the concept of sleep, why we need sleep, the consequences of sleep deprivation and advice on how we can tackle our lack of sleep.
My expertise is nutrition but this is only a small section of this new book which has been written as a result of personal interest and experience.
Here I explain more…..
Why have I ventured from nutrition into sleep?
When I started out in the world of nutrition, we had only just established the 5-a-day guidance. I clearly remember my tutor at the time saying that when she trained, vegetables were considered to be a decorative part of the meal as we focused more on protein and starchy carbs for good health.
Fast forward more than 15 years and our understanding of health/nutrition has radically evolved thanks to the advances in research. As a result of this we are establishing a more comprehensive understanding that in order to maintain good health and a life free of disease many other factors play a role which goes way beyond the basic message of eating well and keeping active.
Mental health is now a major public health issue and sleep is regarded as being a key pillar to achieving optimal health. The greatest revelation that interests me and is likely to influence how we talk about health in the future is how all of these factors are so closely interlinked. This will inevitably make the delivery of messaging to the public a little more complicated.
I have never slept well and even though I eat well and lead a very active lifestyle I have become very aware of the impact that sleeping badly could be having on my health. There is a fine balance to achieving optimal wellness, but the Achilles’ heal for many people, including myself, is sleep.
Burning the candle at both ends
Many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve our goals whilst also being viewed as competent and successful in what we do, but the one thing that is often compromised is sleep.
Burning the candle at both ends as we work hard, train hard and play hard has resulted in an increase in anxiety and behavioural traits (mostly an over-reliance on technology and social media). This all affects our ability to sleep.
Too much time dwelling and not enough action
After looking at the research, speaking to experts and other people that have issues with sleep it became clear that not only do we not get enough sleep, but we spend more time dwelling on the issue rather than taking action. This is also an area of our health that is difficult to control as we all have the power to dictate whether we get up and go to the gym or choose to eat a quinoa salad over a burger, but sleep is a little trickier to get a grip on.
Why did I write this book?
Given all of this insight and my personal experience, I decided to write a book on sleep. I’m not a sleep expert in terms of the psychologists and researchers that investigate the science on this topic. However, I am a trained health professional that understands how to read and interpret the research.
I hope I can also relate to readers as genuinely being someone that has personal experience of what it feels like to sleep for just 4 hours every night burdened by your thoughts that repeat over and again on a continual loop.
The personal sleep ritual
The crux of this book is about establishing a sleep ritual that is personal to you. As with everything to do with health, one size does not fit all as we all lead very different lives. Whilst similarities do exist, we all have our own way of dealing with things.
Change the narrative around sleep
Once I changed my daily narrative around sleep (“I slept so badly last night”, “I’m so tired”) and took action, I started to sleep much better. It sounds simple, but it’s not in some cases and there are those who suffer greatly with insomnia that may need to seek help professionally.
There is a lot of information about sleep out there! What I hope to achieve with this book is to share useful insight and structure the relevant information in a way that helps you to put the basics into practice so you can create a consistency in the way you tackle sleep rather than freaking out and counting sheep.
The BED method
The acronym is BED, which stands for Behaviour, Environment and Diet. Much of this is common sense but if it was that easy, we would all be sleeping well, right!
In simple terms I hope to help readers to understand the basic concepts of sleep and then complete their own sleep diary to offer insight into their own sleep landscape.
From here it’s about taking what is pertinent to you whether that means decluttering your bedroom, investing in new bedding, taking a bath before bedtime or investing in a dietary supplement to help you to sleep better.
Have I always struggled with sleep?
I consider myself to be very healthy, but sleep has always been my enemy.
Surviving on very little sleep
The body is an amazing thing that adapts to survive but our strong will and determination to cope can only override the natural balance of things for so long. I have gone for months at a time in the past surviving on as little as 4 hours sleep a night. Luckily, I work for myself at home which made using coffee and napping an easily accessible way of functioning on little sleep.
Nodding off has always been the issue for me. Most frustrating are those moments when you finally get to sleep but then wake up feeling ‘refreshed’ only to realise it is just a little past midnight which is never a good feeling.
How did my poor sleep pattern occur?
Not sure where this developed but I spent many years working unsociable nights in bars, restaurants and clubs. I was also getting up early to study or work a day job that inevitably fought against my circadian rhythm. I’m also not one to complain and would much rather ‘push on’ to achieve my long-term goals.
Like many people that struggle to sleep, anxiety has also contributed at times. Opting to work freelance comes with a degree of anxiety but the upsides to this way of life have always outweighed any of the negatives for me.
Like many non-sleepers I also had to battle with the anxiety that occurs at 2am when you’re still awake daunted by the prospect of having to get up at 6am to complete a day jam packed with meetings and deadlines.
Visualisation and meditation
I have learnt useful ways to deal with anxiety when it rears its ugly head such as breathing and visualisation which I touch on in the book.
Try not to shun these techniques as ‘hocus pocus’ as they really do help if you dedicate a little time to practicing them and include them in your personal sleep ritual if you have to.
Phone apps can also help with meditation/breathing/visualisation. Aside from this, and I’m a big fan, podcasts and audio books are also useful ways to help you to settle the mind and promote sleep.
I sleep much better now which is only after I took control of my sleep habits and established my own personal sleep ritual. I still have my moments of poor sleep but understanding what it is that is causing this and knowing what to do to tackle it helps me to get back on track pretty quickly.
What disturbs my sleep the most?
Again, everyone is different but mostly my issue is nodding off which is usually the result of an overactive mind. If things are totally manic with work and the flat gets untidy and cluttered this also prevents me from sleeping well.
I do wake occasionally through the night which is a real bummer as trying to get back to sleep in the early hours of the morning also creates anxiety about how little sleep you are going to get before you have to get up and perform your daily tasks.
What is the link to food and nutrition?
The link between diet and sleep does exist but other factors can compound the issue.
Food and drinks that harm sleep
What you eat and drink can keep you awake, and the culprits are normally stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, but sugar can also play a role. Eating too close to bedtime or indulging in very rich foods can also make it difficult for some people to get to sleep as they impact on digestion and may exacerbate heartburn and reflux.
Supplements may help some people such as magnesium, but this is often in those that do not get enough from their diet.
I often take valerian before bed, which is a traditional herbal remedy to help with mild anxiety, and also used to help aid sleep.
What’s my go-to for sleep?
We’re all different, but this is my personal take on the topic.
Nothing induces a good night sleep more than the state of my bedroom. I am naturally quite a messy person, but my bedroom has to offer the perfect sleep oasis.
Fresh bed linen
I invest in really good quality bedding that is crisp and white and quite anally I wash and make the bed fresh twice a week as nothing feels better than getting into a freshly made bed.
I would always recommend that you spend as much as you can on good bed linen even if that means just having one set. I always buy mine in the sales and choose a nice high thread count cotton that is breathable and hypoallergenic.
I use lavender bed sprays and burn a candle before going to sleep. My favourite pillow spray is Deep Sleep by the company This Works. My go to for lavender candles is Diptyque but another fave if I’m not feeling quite so flush is True Grace.
It’s not to everyone’s taste but I have a string of red lights (chilli lights actually!) on the headrest of my bed that provide enough light for me to read but do not upset the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone).
Keep your room free of clutter
I keep my bedroom clutter-free and make sure everything is put away and set my clothes out for the following day as even this in the past has provided a mental distraction preventing me from getting to sleep.
I also keep the window open all year round, as I would rather have a cold room and snuggle into the duvet to get cosy. This may sound weird, but my partner and I also have separate duvets as the weight of a whole duvet to wrap myself into helps me to sleep.
What’s my one sleep tip you must do no fail?
Aside from bedroom hygiene I would say that you shouldn’t torture yourself rolling about for hours in bed if you can’t sleep. I know when it’s game over, so I just get up, make myself a warm drink and sit in the living room with the lights dimmed low. Often what keeps me awake is thinking about work.
Jot things down
Positively, some of the best ideas come about at this time so I either jot my thoughts down in a workbook (never the laptop or phone! – blue light does you no good and the temptation to check emails and social media is not great either) or I read until I feel sleepy and ready to get back to bed.
Believe me, this really is the best way to tackle this issue as again it’s about taking action! It can feel weird being up out of bed in the dead of the night but why spend 4 hours rolling around when you could strategically spend 1 hour using the techniques you have established work for you to help you to get back to sleep.
I can’t guarantee sleep as disrupted sleep can come in waves. What I can assure you of is that by reverting and sticking to your established sleep ritual you will have a much better chance of tackling the issue head on rather than putting up with it and looking for short-term coping mechanisms.
You can listen to me chatting to Rhiannon Lambert about sleep on her Food for Thought Podcast here.