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Insomnia, Difficulty Falling Asleep and Fitful waking

Insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, fitful sleep and waking up several times, waking up early and feeling exhausted……… and what do cherries have to do with this?!

Does this sound like you? We all have times in our lives when our sleep goes awry. There are so many reasons that can affect us. Commonly there might be worry and anxiety, pain, grief, the early years of parenting, travelling through time zones. Not least may be anxiety over family members and friends, the pressure of work and commuting, job security and finances.

The quality of our sleep is essential on so many levels and when we don’t have it, all our body systems are affected. Current research is suggesting that it’s the bedrock to our greater health and wellbeing.

So, what can we do to help ourselves that can be as natural as possible, relax our buzzing brain and retrain our circadian rhythm, especially when it comes to feeling stressed and wired? Many of my clients have come to me with sleep issues as part of their overall concerns, so I hope that a few suggestions might be useful.

My first suggestion would be kinesiology. Your experience of sleeplessness will be brought on by your own unique experience of stress triggers that need to be addressed, while practising some self-help techniques. When sleep patterns change it can be attributed to an imbalance in the meridian system. The meridians, our channels of energy that are associated with our body functions and organs, these can become out of kilter through jet lag, night shifts, getting up in the night, even changing the clocks twice a year is enough, etc. There is a kinesiology technique to help ‘re-set’ them accordingly and bring them into a nice steady flow whereby they are brought back into correct circadian rhythm.

A kinesiologist can help with physical pain reduction or to enable painful emotions to be released if these are a cause of sleep disturbances.

Naturally as a therapist I would say that! However, real benefits can be gained by trying a few of these suggestions for yourself without any special knowledge, so do give them a chance to work for you. They are in no particular order but being strict about your sleep routine would be my first choice.These sum up the self help suggestions I offer to my clients.

Sleep routine: this can be really helpful for the times when work, travel, lifestyle, childcare, worries, etc, have caused erratic changes of behaviour, or maybe you are someone who hasn’t really had any particular routine.

The body works best when it has a good 6 – 8 hours of restorative sleep. We all have internal body clocks and rhythms and sleep is governed by our exposure to daylight during the day, particularly early morning light. Getting outside for at least 30 minutes a day will enable us to absorb serotonin from sunlight, which is stored, then converted into melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) that’s released as light levels fall.

When evening comes try to have your last evening meal early enough so as to allow at least 3 – 4 hours digestion time before bed. No snacking after that but if you are a little hungry then eat tryptophan or magnesium rich foods which aid drowsiness. Eaten with a complex carbohydrate that is low GI, this will help carry the nutrient where it’s needed to the brain and help us get off to sleep. Choose magnesium packed foods to eat at your evening meal too.

These foods are:

  • Bananas – high tryptophan levels
  • Cherries – rich in melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone
  • Turkey and Tuna – both high in tryptophan
  • Pumpkin seeds – high in magnesium (make a pumpkin seed butter and spread on a couple of oatcakes)
  • Green leafy vegetables – packed with magnesium
  • Low GI grains – brown rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, oat cakes

*Avoid all refined carbohydrates, like white bread, white rice, pasta, sugary snacks and drinks which cause a sugar spike that will in turn cause a restless irritability and a mind that won’t switch off; avoiding refined foods both at the evening meal or as a snack can make a real difference, and when chosen for the main evening meal will lesson the craving to snack later.

* Avoid all forms of caffeine from at least 3.00pm to allow time for it to no longer act as a stimulant. De-caff still has caffeine so its better to stop this too. Likewise alcohol given its high sugar content will cause a sugar spike. Try to limit your liquid intake of water or herbal tea too close to bedtime if your sleep is broken by needing to use the bathroom.

We need to set a bedtime to allow ourselves up to 8 hours sleep before rising the next day. We should keep to this whether it is a weekend or not, or even if we slept badly.Trying to ‘reclaim’ time with a lie in the morning will be a shortlived answer to re-setting your body clock, as this will jeopardise the ability to feel sleepy that same evening – and we are back into a spiral of sleeping badly. So no matter how drained you feel, still get up and be as active as possible getting that boost of preferably morning daylight, even if it is just sitting in your garden with a morning cuppa or looking out of an open window.

At least 2 hours before that intended bedtime, switch off all stimulating appliances; phone, iPad, laptop and the television. Lower the lighting and listen to music, an audio book, a podcast or read. Bright lights, especially the blue light emitted from devices will block the brain receptors which signal drowsiness.

Try to maintain this routine for a couple of weeks at least (hopefully instilling a lifetime habit) because consistency brings the re-set of your circadian rhythm back into sync.You will have re-trained your body’s erratic rhythms so as to fall asleep soon after your chosen bedtime and increase the levels of deep, restorative sleep.

It’s also important to only associate your bedroom with sleep and not spend time there with a television, iPad, phone etc. These have no place and will present a temptation if they are there even if not switched on. Should your bedroom allow in streetlight which is a stimulant, then use black out blinds and line the curtains with backout material to ensure no chinks of light pass through. If needed, wear an eye mask and use earplugs to block out any further stimulus.

It is also worth noting that we can be sensitive to the electro magnetic stimuli around us as an invisible energetic force that disrupts our energy. So actually switching off appliances and even taking the plugs out of the electric sockets and switching off and unplugging your router connection, can make a difference too.

Poor sleeping can take many forms; an inability to drop off, waking early and being unable to get off again and fitful, restless sleep where you never actually feel you have got off at all. Patience with the sleep routine will eventually bring the reward of sleep unless pain or another health reason are the cause of the problem. If after 20 minutes of not being able to get off, then get up out of bed, go into another room and read something ‘unexciting’ or listen to soft music, then return to the bedroom and settle down again 20 minutes later.

Taking a sleeping pill only sedates the body and will not give the deeper levels necessary to detoxify and repair, if we are to awake feeling fresher and not groggy.

Breathing Exercise: this simple exercise can help lower breathing rate thereby inducing muscle relaxation, calming the mind and helping to let go of the days concerns. It can be used at any time you are feeling stressful, anxious or panicked, besides bedtime. Useful before bedtime or if you have to get up for 20mins before trying to settle again.

To use the 4 – 7 – 8 breathing technique, focus on the following breathing pattern. Empty the lungs of air with a full out breath. Breathe in quietly through the nose for 4 seconds, then hold the breath for 7 seconds, then exhale forcefully through the mouth, pursing the lips and making a ‘whoosh’ sound, for 8 seconds. Repeat the cycle for up to 4 times.

*There are many breathing techniques to help relax the mind and body and I plan to write an article for the blog with more suggestions.

Yoga or other forms of gentle exercise can help us to wind down before bedtime. There are mudras associated with sleep to try as well.

Meditation or Mindfulness can also help to slow us down and take a ‘mental’ rest from our cares.

Sometimes a mineral deficiency can lie behind poor sleep. Look at your diet to see if you eat enough iron rich foods; if you are vegetarian or vegan this can happen. A simple blood test for ferratin levels can reassure you. Here are some iron rich foods to include in your diet anyway – organ meats, lentils and white beans, spinach and other green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate (just a small block or two!)

Take a look at your B vitamin intake as well. Foods to include are whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet), red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products, beans and lentils, sunflower seeds and almonds, dark, leafy green vegetables. We need B vitamins to make our neurotransmitters. Vitamin D, which we get from daylight, regulates 100’s of functions and where we are in the Northern Hemisphere we can’t obtain enough, especially over the winter months. This vitamin can easily be taken as a supplement if required.

Magnesium: is a mineral of particular importance and is involved in more than 600 chemical reactions in the body. As a nation apparently, we are only consuming about half of the recommended daily amount in our diet. Its role in helping us to wind down is that it is a muscle relaxant. Whether through increased uptake of magnesium rich foods at the evening meal, supplementation, or a magnesium enriched body cream – or my favourite, adding a handful of magnesium crystals to a warm bath and soaking for 20 minutes. The magnesium will be absorbed through the skin and also through breathing it in, causing us to relax more and drift off.

The other benefit of having a hot bath before bedtime is that afterwards, as the body cools off and body temperature drops, this also signals the best conditions to fall asleep. Whether or not you like a hot blanket or hot water bottle in the bed, keep the room itself slightly cool for the best sleep conducive conditions.

Lavender essential oil: Lavender has long been used as a herb that can relax the mind and body and help de-stress, add a few drops of oil to your hot bath after you have run it. There are lavender balms you can rub into your wrists and pillow sprays etc; other essential oils that are helpful are Vetiver and Wild Camomile. Camomile is also recommended as a tea to be sipped in the evening. Likewise Passiflower

Hops: Hops have a reputation for causing drowsiness. They are predominantly grown in Kent and in past years the manual pickers worked shorter shifts with breaks because of the sleepiness caused by the aroma of the hops. Look out for a hop pillow to sleep alongside to get the benefit.

Ashwagandha: Ashwagandha is a herb known to cause relaxation and drowsiness. It can be taken in tablet form, as a powder stirred in water, or as a warm tea to drink in the evenings.Half a teaspoon stirred into warm milk, or a milk alternative, sipped before bedtime can be very soothing.

*Try my Sleeping Beauty recipe to be found on the Recipes page

Sour Cherries: Cherries, particularly sour or tart ones, contain melatonin, the hormone which causes drowsiness. It’s readily available as a supplement, perhaps combined with magnesium as a syrup, or in tablet form.

*Eating cherries in the evening is an option too. I have included a recipe for Cinnamon Spiced Cherry Crumble on the Recipes page you might like to try.

Meridian Acupuncture point: There are meridian energy acupuncture points around the inner and outer ankle bones, which have a connection to our ability to sleep and if these are unbalanced in some way, stimulation by massaging around the ankle bones can help to bring back balanced energetic flow. Finally, but not least. Try keeping a gratitude diary and think of all the things in your life you appreciate each evening. The very simple ones are often those we almost take for granted. It really can help bring perspective and reduce the life sapping mind set we can all too easily fall into that can cause us a restless night.

I hope you find some of these helpful and wish you Sweet Dreams!