Researchers now pretty much agree you need around seven to nine hours of largely uninterrupted sleep a night. Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep (on average taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep); waking up frequentlyduring the night and having difficulty getting back to sleep; waking up too early in the morning and being unable to return to sleep
The main sleep hormone is melatonin, which your body makes from another hormone called serotonin. Natural sources of melatonin include porridge oats, sour cherries (eg as the juice concentrate Cherry Active), bananas, peanuts, grape skins, walnuts and liquorice. It is also concentrated in herbs such as St John’s wort, sage and feverfew.
Avoiding caffeine, at least after midday, is a no brainer because caffeine suppresses melatonin for up to ten hours. We recommend none after midday, and that includes green tea, if you have difficulty getting to sleep. You can supplement 5-HTP, an amino acid which your body uses to make melatonin, 200mg of 5-HTP half an hour before bed may help improve sleep.
Several minerals and vitamins are also involved in good sleep. Calcium and particularly magnesium are calming and aid muscle relaxation. Being highly stressed or eating a lot of sugar lowers magnesium levels. Magnesium is found in seeds, nuts, green vegetables and seafood; calcium is in these foods and also in dairy produce. Most supplements contain both. Try supplementing 600mg of calcium and 400mg of magnesium before bed. This is especially helpful if you wake in the night with stiff muscles.
Many people use alcohol to relax, which promotes release of the neurotransmitter GABA, switching off adrenalin. But alcohol only works for an hour or so. When the effect wears off, you want another drink. If you go to sleep under the influence of alcohol it disturbs the normal sleep cycle which can promote low moods. The net consequence of regular alcohol consumption is GABA depletion, which leads to more adrenalin, anxiety and emotional oversensitivity and less good quality of sleep. One study found that men who drank more increased their risk of sleeping problems by 25 per cent. The less sleep you get, the more potent and dangerous are the effects of alcohol; not only does it suppress dreaming REM sleep, but it also decreases deep sleep.
In the US and outside the UK you can buy GABA in 500mg capsules. Taking one to three an hour before bed helps promote a good night’s sleep. The combination of GABA and 5-HTP is even better. In a placebo-controlled trial, supplementing GABA and 5-HTP cut the time taken to fall asleep from 32 minutes to 19 minutes and extended sleep from five to almost seven hours.11 Taking 1,000mg of GABA, plus 100mg of 5-HTP is a recipe for a good night’s sleep. GABA is made from two amino acids – taurine and glutamine. Some sleep formulas include these helpful nutrients.
A trial has found that acupuncture can be effective. Daily treatment for seven to ten days led to the complete recovery of sleep in 50 per cent of subjects and an improvement in 21 per cent.
These and various other treatments may work because long-term insomnia may be due to ‘hyper-arousal’. Insomniacs often have a faster heart rate, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and more of the alert beta brain waves before sleep.
If you feel very stressed and fatigued but find your exhaustion lifts around 10 or 11pm in the evening, as you get a second wind, don’t be tempted to start doing all those chores you felt too tired to do earlier in the evening. The extra energy is usually the result of a burst of cortisol, as your body struggles to function and regulate energy to keep you going in what it perceives is an emergency situation. However if this continues long term, you are fast-tracking yourself to burn-out and exhaustion. So go to bed before this hits and save your adrenal glands from extra work they really don’t need.
Once in bed, spending a few minutes doing a simple meditation or relaxation technique can help to bring your body into a calm state where a good night’s sleep is more likely to follow. (Our Relaxation Collection includes a sleep meditation.)
If you find you frequently wake between 2 and 3am with a pounding heart or in a sweat, you may be experiencing a blood sugar low. Try having a small protein-rich snack (eg an oatcake spread with nut butter) before you retire to see if this alleviates the problem.
Keep your bedroom quiet and dark, wear comfortable night clothes, don’t have a big meal before bed, avoid coffee and alcohol and exercise regularly but not within three hours of bedtime. It’s worth knowing too that certain prescription medications can cause insomnia, such as steroids, bronchodilators (used for asthma) and diuretics. And if you do drink caffeinated drinks, research shows that consumption within six hours of bedtime can have significant disruptive effects on sleep.
Keep artificial light to a minimum in the bedroom because being exposed to bright light can turn off production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which peaks at around 1am. If you need to get up in the night, only use low wattage bulbs.
There is also a growing body of evidence that suggests electro-magnetic radiation from mobile phones and wireless internet connections can interfere with melatonin production. For example, in one small study, melatonin levels were 44% lower at 2am in those exposed to mobile phone signals, compared to those who weren’t.16 So it may be worth experimenting to see if turning off your mobile and any wi-fi modems at night aids your sleep quality.
If all else fails, having a nap in the day may help to reduce some of the health risks of poor sleep. Scientists from the University of Athens and the Harvard School of Public Health studied 23,681 healthy adults aged between 20 and 86 for an average period of six years. They found that those who nap at least 30 minutes three times a week or more have a 37 per cent lower risk of coronary mortality than those who did not sleep during the day.17
To help yourself get a good night’s sleep:
- Prioritise relaxing activities in the few hours before you go to bed, so you reduce your stress levels and get your body into a calm state ready for sleeping.
- Avoid alcohol before bed, and limit any caffeine intake after midday (and preferably avoid completely).
- Aim to follow a soothing bedtime routine, such as having a warm bath with Epsom Salts and lavender or listening to soothing music.
- Once in bed, do some simple relaxation exercises to get yourself ready for sleep.
- If you have difficulty sleeping, supplement 400mg of magnesium before bed, or experiment with 200mg of the amino acid 5-HTP half an hour before bed or a sleep formula containing both of these, plus GABA or GABA precursors
- Follow good sleep hygiene, ensuring your bedroom is quiet and dark and you are comfortable. Also turn off mobile phones and wi-fi connections at night.
It switches off the stress response and helps to engage the “rest and digest” side of your autonomic nervous system. In turn, this optimises your digestion, lowers blood pressure and helps your body to eliminate toxins and renew worn out cells.
Studies show that people who take time out to relax and meditate on a regular basis respond better to stress, are calmer and more optimistic. They tend to have normal blood pressure and a lower risk of diabetes and heart problems.
Buy The Relaxation Collection – 8 tracks including Relax to Sleep