I have had many periods of poor sleep during my life. The biggest cause of sleep deprivation?
Looking back, I know that I got away lightly with my kids’ sleeping patterns and that some parents suffer years of disturbed sleep with their children. But at the time it was hell.
“Sleep during the daytime naps,” they said. Oh yeah? What if my boy has a weird sixth sense and opens his eyes as soon as I close mine?
Sleep deprivation is used as a method of torture. It leads to mental illness, anxiety and physical exhaustion. After eight months, I was a broken woman.
We had to get tough and let him cry it out. You may think that’s cruel. But seriously folks, it was him or us.
Back in time
At University I went through a stressful time in my first year – a combination of being away from home, trying to make new friends in a big city and struggling with one of my chosen subjects of study – economics.
My work was suffering, so I went to the tutor who advised me to read my economics books in bed, to bore me into unconsciousness. Worked a treat.
In my twenties I bought a beautiful flat with my sister. It overlooked a main road, so we invested in some secondary glazing. The traffic noise didn’t bother me that much. Afterall, I had no control over it.
Then the neighbours moved in downstairs and no amount of sound proofing could keep out the noise of their 3am mid-week parties, or midnight floor-sanding. Yes, really.
I knew we had to move on when I realised I dreaded going to bed. One hour of sleep followed by several hours staring at the ceiling, with my heart pounding hard in my chest, feeling the anger welling up. It just had to stop.
And so to bed
Years later I married a man with sleep apnoea – a condition which makes him stop breathing in his sleep. When he wasn’t snoring, he wasn’t breathing.
I knew about sleep apnoea having worked on a campaign about the condition when I was in PR, so I immediately recognised the symptoms: loud snoring, followed by death-like silence, followed by a sudden gasp for breath.
It goes unnoticed by the sleeper, but is terrifying for his wife.
He visited a sleep clinic. The test results showed that he’d been having on average 80 episodes every hour, putting enormous pressure on his heart and making him lethargic. He was given a machine which blows air into his nose to help him breathe. Subsequently he had his tonsils and adenoids out (as has one of my kids for the same reason).
So now that he has a hollow head, his apnoea has gone.
I still don’t sleep uninterrupted. Occasionally I wake to find a small human standing in the darkness, silently starting at me. Is there anything more eery than that?
Here are my top tips for a good night’s sleep:
Even if all you can manage is getting off the bus a stop early, or parking the car a block further away from the office, a brisk 15 minute walk which gets the blood pumping a bit faster can work wonders. I definitely fall asleep more quickly now that we have a dog who needs walking twice a day.
Cut down on caffeine
I drink a lot of tea, and usually one cup of strong coffee per day, but after 6pm there’s an embargo on caffeine. Even the slightest whiff of caffeine in the evening makes my heart race and raises my blood pressure.
Digest and wind down
Your body needs at least three hours to digest and wind down.
At the risk of sounding like an old nag, eating a heavy meal after 8pm is a sleep-killer. Heavily salted or spicy food has me gasping for water at 3am.
If you get hungry before bedtime there are foods that help to promote a good night’s sleep:
- Nuts, which provide both protein and healthy fat and will fill you up quickly;
- Popcorn contains the hormone serotonin which helps you to relax. It’s low in calories if you don’t smother it in butter or sugar and you can snack on it slowly throughout the evening;
- Bananas contain melatonin, which is a hormone our body produces to help us sleep. Melatonin production slows down in old age, which is why older people need so little sleep.
- Oats are a good snack as they are high in fibre and the carbohydrates will fill you up. Just don’t overdo it, otherwise the indigestion will keep you tossing and turning.
Ban the gadgets
Tempting as it is to check your phone, or scroll through Facebook just before bed, the blue light from those screens suppresses melatonin production, as well as stimulating the mind.
Manage your stress levels.
I have found a few tips to manage my stress over the years. I keep a notepad by the bed to write down any chores/revelations/people I need to phone that occur to me in bed. This seems to stop them swirling around in my thoughts and makes me feel positive about ticking them off my list the next day.
I practice deep breathing to take my mind off whatever is bothering me. If I focus purely on the activity of breathing deeply in and out, my mind will stop going off in a dozen different directions and sleep will follow shortly. The most upsetting type of late night stress, is when you’re fretting about not being asleep! It’s a vicious circle.
Try to stop fidgeting, find a comfortable position and remain there, breathing deeply. Fight the urge to get up and watch a film, sleep should eventually come if you practice absolute stillness.
If your partner snores, find a good set of comfortable ear plugs.
I’d love to know what you do to drift off to sleep. Let me know in the comments below.
Much love, Vx[Disclosure: nothing to see here]