We are in a global pandemic. All of us are affected in one way or another, some of us more than others and it’s not surprising that people around the world are suffering from anxiety and stress during this uncertain time and as a result of this, are experiencing unrestful or sleepless nights altogether.
Being completely transparent, I am one of these people. Having crossed half the world last week to ride out isolation back in England, I have been struggling to sleep. Having been camping out in the amazonian rainforest for the winter to travelling through several major airports to being quarantined in a small four walled square box and wondering how I am going to support myself going forward being self employed, it is quite reasonable to be experiencing disruptive sleep.
I am a firm believer of practicing what you preach so I have written this to provide some background on sleep and stress and how they are interconnected and to share some personal tips that have worked for both me and clients in the past, and are working currently. I hope they are as helpful for you as they have been for me!
Stress is a major contributor, if not one of the biggest disrupter to our circadian rhythms.
When the body finds itself in a stress response, our sympathetic nervous system becomes hyper-activated which releases the hormones epinephrine (AKA: adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These hormones are usually released when we are in the ‘fight or flight’ response. Living in modern society, we have become much more akin to finding ourselves in this response, meaning our bodies are constantly in over drive and are more hypersensitive than they should be.
The stress response has a number of negative effects on our bodies including;
- Suppression of our bodies immune function
- Suppression of appetite or an increase in irregular feeding behaviours (often we find ourselves emotionally eating or eating late at night and craving unhealthy foods)
- Increased alertness, vigilance and arousal
- Inhibition of digestion and gastric motility
- Increased blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rates
Stress also causes an increased level of cortisol production in the body which further supresses the immune system. How do we manage cortisol? Through sleep. What does stress do? Affects our sleep.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out the vicious cycle we can fall in to here. Our bodies systems and processes are delicately intertwined and they respond directly to the state of our mind and also our external environment.
Sleep has always been a hot topic when looking at addressing an individual’s health and wellbeing but now more than ever, getting enough sleep is super important.
Our circadian rhythm (our sleep rhythm) isa powerful regulator of our immunological processes and response. When we don’t have enough sleep, our immune function is lower, leaving us more exposed to viruses and infections.
In addition to this, when we are tired or running on empty;
- Our thoughts and actions may be impaired
- We may not feel like we are thinking straight
- Have difficulty concentrating
- We have irritability and decreased moods
- We often tend to crave and eat sweet and salty foods as our blood glucose levels. If we skip meals, or eat meals snacks rich in simple carbohydrates, it can cause us to go in to a hypoglycaemic state, inducing the stress mechanisms inherent in the body which contribute to release of cortisol.
- Inflammation in the body may increase and we may have difficulty addressing pre existing inflammation in the body
Sleep is also essential for growth, repair and reproduction of cells and muscles and is necessary for hormone release that control our endocrine system and our metabolism.
What is enough sleep?
On average, we should be aiming to get 8 hours of sleep in. Pre COVID-19, I know many people who were not achieving the optimum 8 and instead running of 5-6 hours of sleep due to working late hours, their lifestyle choices or perhaps from having small children. My advice to these people is to always, always, make a conscious effort on getting a few extra of hours sleep.
Sleep is so important when it comes to overall health maintenance. If we only do one thing in this lockdown, we should all be making the effort to get in to this routine.
Without sleep our cognition and our physiological bodies cannot function optimally, we are exposed to making rash decisions as we are not thinking straight and we are more predisposed to anxiousness, stress and illness.
So what can you do to tackle both stress and sleep?
I have put together a few starting points to consider that can effectively address both any troubles sleeping and help reduce feelings of anxiousness and stress.
Those of us social distancing are house or apartment bound for the majority of the day meaning that we are far more sedentary than usual. We are also not likely to be used to being in the same environment for long periods of time, often leaving the house to go to work, to school or for socialising.
Getting regular exercise helps promote sleep cycles as well as relieving stress and helping focus our mind elsewhere. If you are struggling to sleep exercising before 2-3pm could be beneficial. Cardio based exercise is great in the morning to fire up our system and start our day on a positive note. If this isn’t possible, its recommended to do light exercise in the evening to help wind our bodies down rather than ramp them up and stimulate them.
Yin yoga is perfect for this and it will help stretch out your body after sitting around for hours on end and as the evenings become lighter, going out for a walk in the latter part of the day will also help break your day up.
Routine and planning ahead
If you are used to having a routine in place then many of us could be feeling a little lost. If you are still working from home then it’s likely you still have the basis of some sort of routine.
For those of us who have been thrown off track, it may be beneficial to try creating a new routine. Start by sticking to your regular waking and sleeping times, avoid taking naps during the day as this will only confuse your body more and mean you are less likely to sleep at night. Keep your eating patterns the same and dedicate specific hours of the day or a specific day of the week for different activities. This routine will help you navigate the days if you are feeling lost and give you something to look forward to or work towards.
Reduce TV, computer and phone screen use
I am becoming increasingly aware and conscious of how much screen time I am exposing myself too at the moment. Whilst the use of technology has been bringing friends, families and communities together, our exposure is rapidly increasing. Try and ensure you have at least 30minutes to 1hour away from technology before you go to bed and read a book or have a bath. If you are feeling up to a challenge, why not try a Digital detox for a few days or even a week and instead use your time to engage in other activities.
Aromatherapy is a fantastic tool for promoting sleep and stress relief. It’s been used for years around the world as our sense of smell bypasses our cognitive brain (where we think and ultimately, worry) and stimulates the limbic system which plays a role in our emotions and behaviour. The inhalation of essentials oils helps us relax as well as allowing us to absorb the individual health properties of the plants we are using.
Aromatherapy at home could be lighting a high-quality candle infused with essential oils, using a room distiller or hot steaming our faces. We can also use essential oils on the body when diluted with a ‘carrier oil’ such as fractionated coconut oil or almond oil. If these are not available to you then adding a few drops to a cream or body oil that you regularly use or regular coconut oil will suffice.
Lavender is the go-to for both stress relief and promoting restful sleep. Dilute the oil with fractionated coconut oil or a face oil if this is all you have available and apply to the temples, forehead and the back of your neck. You can also make your own pillow spray by mixing a few drops of each with filtered water and spraying over your pillow and bedsheets before going to bed.
I have listed some other oils you can try for stress, sleep and immunity below. My favourite brand is DoTerra who have very high quality and sustainably sourced ingredients and are a trusted source if you intend to ingest specific ingredients where it is indicated that it is safe too. They also do a range of fantastic pre-made blends.
Stress: Bergamot, Ylang Ylang, Basil, Balance blend
Sleep: Wild orange, Rose, Sandalwood, Serenity blend
Immunity: Oregano, Rosemary, Sandalwood, Frankincense, Melaleuca (tea tree), OnGuard blend
It’s really important to keep ourselves mentally stimulated rather than allowing our minds to worry about what the news is telling us or what the future holds.
Have you always wanted the time to learn about something specific or read that book you were given for Christmas two years ago? This is your chance.
Currently I am making my way through the unopened books on the shelf and learning a new language, mastering the guitar as well as getting my pencils and paint out and getting creative.
Yoga, meditation, hot baths, listening to music or breathing exercises are my top five ways to relax.
Giving yourself a personal massage is also a great way to relax, try using some of the oils mentioned above and give yourself an indulgent massage. I find a hand massage is always welcomed, we do everything with our hands yet hardly ever give them any love!
If you want to try yoga, meditation or breathing techniques, there are many free resources out there for you to try, or perhaps if you are making a conscious effort to reduce your use of technology try some bedtime reading, but just don’t do this in bed!
Yoga nidra is also a great tool to help you wind down in the evening. Yoga nidra is a form of meditation that helps you withdraw focus and shut down your senses through guided relaxation techniques such as breathing and visual imagery techniques, helping us activate our parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system).
There are lots of free resources and phone apps where you can find yoga, meditation, breath work and yoga nidra. We all have different tastes and styles so you may have to try a few before you find an online teacher that you personally connect with.
Get your bedroom environment right
Ensure your room is dark enough, use your spare time to give your bedroom a spring clean and remove any clutter, creating a serene and peaceful environment.
One that may be harder for some than others is to not be in your bed, or your bedroom at all during the day, leaving the space purely for sleeping. I know this may be tricky for some of us if you’re in quarantine or you live in a studio flat.
Researchers also suggest that the ideal temperature of your bedroom before going to sleep should be between 18-24 degrees.
What to do if you wake up in the middle of the night
Try and get out of bed and sit in a chair in the dark, or on the floor in your room. Perhaps use this time do a short meditation or perhaps try and read a book util you feel tired enough to get back into bed again. Reading always does the trick for me!
Try and avoid at all costs 1) looking at the clock and 2) watching the TV or looking and using your phone as this will only simulate your mind further.
Binaural beats can help move us in to deeper states of relaxation and help us sleep better, as well as reducing anxiety by listening to varying tones of frequencies through headphones.
Journal or make lists before bed. Journaling is a great tool generally for us over-thinkers, but have you ever tried it before going to bed? Write your thoughts on anything you have experienced or felt during the day, or write a list of what you might need to do tomorrow which acts as a ‘brain dump’ on everything that is swirling around our minds, leaving our minds clearer and less likely to cause disruption to our sleep.
Caffeine reduction or elimination
Most of us are probably aware of the advice that we shouldn’t drink caffeine after 4pm if we have difficulty sleeping, this is because caffeine amplifies cortisol production for a number of hours after its ingestion. If you are a regular caffeine consumer then this process is even more amplified.
And what do we do if we are tired? We reach for the coffee!
Try making a switch to herbal teas or coffee alternatives like Dandelion coffee. Decaffeinated is a start in the right direction however there are a number of chemical processes that are required to make tea and coffee decaffeinated so its better to swap it out altogether. If you do swap it out altogether, make sure you do this slowly as it's likely that you may experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as painful headaches.
Some great relaxing herbal tea that may aid sleep and reduce stress are;
+ Lemon balm/Melissa
My favourite go to’s are:
Reishi mushroom blend - easily found online but our favourite stockist are Raw Living which has a variety of brands and forms from teas, hot chocolate blends and extracts you can add ½ -1 teaspoon of the mushroom powder to hot water or some milk (try hemp milk or oat milk).
Load up on the right nutrients
For those of us in lockdown it may be harder than usual to obtain some of the foods I would normally suggest for clients, however, getting as much of any of the foods suggested below will not only help provide the body with the nutrients it needs that aid sleep regulation and stress relief, but they will also boost your body with antioxidants which contribute to a healthy immune system.
Potassium – Leafy dark green veg, avocado, mushrooms, bananas, almonds, cashews, pecans, parsley, sardines, sunflower seeds, citrus fruits, potato’s
Magnesium – almonds, cashews, cacao, eggs, dark leafy green vegetables, legumes, wholegrain cereals, pumpkin and sunflower seeds
Omega 3’s – fish, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, flax seeds, beans (esp. kidney beans) and edamame beans, Brussel sprouts
B vitamins (specifically Vitamin B6) – avocado, bananas, carrots, chicken, eggs, legumes, lentils, mackerel, oats, salmon, sunflower seeds and walnuts
Tryptophan – bananas, beans, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, fish, legumes, lentils, oats, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
Carnitine – avocado, chicken, fish
Glycine – beans, eggs, fish and sea food variety of nuts and seeds
Inositol – navy and lima beans, most meat sources, eggs, oranges, peaches, strawberries, pears, green leafy veg, cauliflower, whole grains
Zinc – Peppers, egg, ginger, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, sea food, whole grains
Vitamin C – broccoli, brussel sprouts, citrus fruits, parsley, peppers, pineapple, tomatoes, sweet potato, berries
- When choosing fish, try and keep to anchovies, herring, salmon, sea bass and mackerel. Wild caught and responsibly sourced fish is best.
- When looking to buy meat, always buy locally and organic, grass fed and free range where possible.
- Free range and organic eggs are more favourable as are eggs from chickens that have been fed a diet high in omega 3’s.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables are a valid option as often when they are harvested they are frozen straight away, locking in the nutrients
As a former insomniac for several years and for someone in the same boat as many of you at the moment, these methods are a great start in promoting more restful and deeper sleep as well as helping towards the reduction of stress and an immune system boost.
For more information on any of the above information or to discuss consultations or coaching sessions, please contact me at email@example.com.