The western modern world is designed to keep us increasingly stimulated. Even in the cocoon of our homes after dark, we have social media, the news, Netflix and the latest page-turning bestseller to engage us and this is in addition to an increasingly unmanageable number of life issues to worry about. We may be ‘advancing’ at an incredible rate technologically, but some of the most basic human needs are paying the price. Many of us used to take a good night’s sleep for granted, but nothing is more affected by stimulation and stress. Sleep now needs to be not only a serious consideration in our lives, but a self-care discipline.
Any new parent or suffering insomniac will tell you that life falls apart without enough good quality sleep. Sleep deprivation impacts mental health, productivity, immunity and cognition. Because we’re so digitally distracted and accustomed to feeling exhausted, many of us don’t understand that sleep deprivation is exactly what we’re struggling with. We simply can’t experience wellbeing without quality sleep and we’re fast forgetting what wellbeing truly feels like. Do you remember what it feels like to be well-rested? If not, there’s work to do.
So, how do we recreate the conditions for good sleep in our lives? There are some obvious points – turn the lights out at a reasonable hour and make sure your bed is supportive and comfortable, for example. But many find that quality sleep eludes them, even with these foundations in place. This is where working on sleep becomes a series of self-care steps – practices that not only improve our slumber, but our broader life.
Create the setting:
This means considering the physical space that you sleep in. Is your bed, bedding and linen comfortable, hygienic and preferably hypoallergenic? Is your room clean and organised? When the lights are out, is it amply dark? Are you affected by sound in your space? If any of these essential conditions are suboptimal, they need to be corrected. This might mean investing in new bamboo sheets, installing blackout curtains, committing to a thorough Spring cleaning session or adjusting to sleeping with ear plugs in.
Learn about your sleep/wake cycles:
Humans display a set of really clear indications of tiredness that we’ve learned to ignore and soldier through – yawning, poor focus, irritability, sore eyes, heavy and weak muscles. We know when we need to sleep, but we push through – whether that’s in the name of productivity or the illusion of ‘relaxation’. Start questioning yourself about whether you really need to watch another episode, or if your body is really crying out for bed. Try to practice non-judgement here – you may, in fact, be an ‘early to bed, early to rise’ person, and you never knew it! The idea is – go to bed when you’re tired, and it’s easier said than done. Don’t get too caught up in how long you sleep for either – there’s a lot of good evidence emerging that shows that we may not be designed for long, eight-hour stretches of sleep after all. It might be that you function better on two shorter bouts of sleep throughout the night, or an afternoon nap if you can have it. Taking into account the logistics of your lifestyle, let yourself discover the when and how much when it comes to sleep – specific to your needs.
Beware the blue light:
Our digital devices really do mess with our sleep, not just because they keep us stimulated and engaged when we ought to be winding down, but because the blue light they emit affects our brain chemistry – namely our production of melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’. A good rule of thumb is to switch all devices off for 2-3 hours before sleeping, and spend that time in low, warm light from candles or dimmed house lights but this is not always practical. Blue light blocking glasses and device apps that alter screen light like Flux can stand in as compromises.
Foods and fluids:
It’s good practice to stop eating and drinking at least two hours before bedtime so that digestion is complete and you won’t be disturbed by needing the bathroom as you doze off. However, the 30-60 minutes before your head hits the pillow also represents a window of opportunity when it comes to augmenting your sleep. You might try a wholefood magnesium supplement, a relaxing herbal tea or combination or a good source of glycine, like hydrolysed collagen protein, all of which can help you enjoy a longer, deeper sleep.
Clear the slate:
Worries, anxieties and emotional difficulties have the potential to deeply affect our sleep. Sometimes it feels as though we’re caught in loops of thought and feeling that we’ll never wade out of, but simple written techniques like journaling, unwinding with guided meditation or prayer can be surprisingly effective at putting our minds to rest – at least enough to sleep. The ultimate aim is to feel as though you are laying your head on the pillow with relatively clear ‘whitespace’ in the mind and the perspective to see that all of our worries can, and indeed must, wait until tomorrow.
Of course, solid, healthy sleep emerges from a self-caring lifestyle – all the chamomile in the world won’t help you unless you’re eating well, staying hydrated, exercising adequately, managing your stress and attending to your soul. In this way, ensuring great sleep really is a set of self-care disciplines that help with far more than simply shut-eye.