Self care tips to help you sleep well
Healthy Gut Diet and Lifestyle including the effect of foods, stress and other habits
Stress hormones, which we all run on all day, cause your breath to become more rapid and shallow (chest breathing).
Abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful way to decrease stress by activating relaxation centres in the brain.
Our digestive system can only be activated healthfully in a relaxation state, so switching from stress activation to relaxation activation is critical to allow digestion to occur.
- Gently exhale the air in your lungs through your mouth, then inhale slowly through your nose to the count of 4.
- As you breathe in, concentrate on your breath and draw it in towards your belly button. You should be able to see your abdomen push our slightly.
- Hold the breath for at least the count of 4, but not more than 7
- Slowly exhale through your mouth while counting to 8. Gently contract your abdominal muscles to completely release the remaining air in the lungs.
- Repeat until you feel deeply relaxed for a total of 5 cycles. You may be able to do only 1 or 2 cycles at first.
When you are beginning to use this technique, find a comfortable place to sit or lie, and place 1 hand on your abdomen, near your navel, and the other on your chest. This allows you to gauge where your breath is going. Once you are comfortable with your ability to breathe abdominally, it is not necessary to use your hands, and this technique may be used where and when ever you feel you need it, eg, on the tube or at your desk.
Aim to take 10 breaths first thing in the morning before you get out of bed and 10 at night when you get into bed before you go to sleep. Take 5 of these breaths when you sit down to eat.
We can’t emphasize it enough. Sleep is crucial for you health! To perform optimally, you need to focus on sleep as the number 1 priority for the day.
A fantastic night’s sleep is restorative for the mind, body and soul. But to sleep well, you need to consider what you are doing during the day, and in particular in the hours before you go to bed.
Sleep hygiene allows your system to wind down as nature intended, preparing you for sleep. In a natural environment, Melatonin, the ‘sleep hormone’ is released as the sun sets and it gets dark, make us feel sleepy and able to fall asleep. Blue light, from screens for example, fools our bodies into thinking it’s still day time and reducing the amount of melatonin that is release.
Melatonin is also a powerful anti-oxidant and so it has been suggested that it may reduce the odds of contracting COVID-19, in a similar manner to Vitamin C.
For my full guide on how to support your immune system as protection from COVID-19, you may want to read my article on the topic.
The release of melatonin is blocked by blue light, from screens for example. Our bodies are ‘fooled’ into thinking it is still day time. Therefore, avoiding blue light as well as stimulation before bed is key.
My tips for improving sleep are:
#1 Avoid screen time before bed
This is critical to make sure that melatonin is released as nature intended. Avoid computers, phones or TV for at least 1 hour before bed. At the time of writing, many of us are facing increased stress due to the COVID-19 situation, and you may need to start this winding down up to 3 hours before bed!
If you end up using your phone / computer in the evening, use an app such as f.lux to reduce the amount of blue light from the screen.
Do something that doesn’t involves screens in this time before bed. Have a bath, make something, read a book, meditate, draw, write in your journal, whatever works for you..
#2 Wear Blue Light Blocking Glasses
Wearing blue light blocking glasses before bed also helps your body’s circadian rhythm. You can also replace the light bulbs in your house with ones which don’t emit blue light, but have a warm red glow instead.
#3 Cool and darken your bedroom
Around 60-67 Fahrenheit or 15.5 – 19.5 Celsius is perfect.
You can use blackout shades/blinds on the windows or a sleep mask if necessary. This includes blocking all blue light including the lights from alarm clocks.
#4 Exercise, Meditation and Body Scans
If you wake in the night, try not to use a device – you can try a body scan instead: https://www.mindful.org/a-body-scan-meditation-to
This collection of free resources from Headspace also include meditation, sleep and movement exercises.
Getting a good sleep doesn’t just involve the hour before sleep but what you do during the day matters too. Michael Krugan in his book ‘The Insomnia Solution’ provides a number of exercises (mini-moves) which you can do during the day and at night that calm your nervous system to help you with sleep when you get to be
#5 Get some sun in the morning
Get outside, and get some sun or natural light, early in the morning to reset your circadian rhythm. The light that we exposed to during the day can affect how we sleep at night!
#6 Work on other health issues
If you have any sources of increased inflammation within the body, such as gut issues, these may be disturbing your sleep.
#7 Apple Cider Vinegar and Honey
This suggestion was has been popularised by Tim Ferris.
Try this before bed:
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar (unfiltered is best e.g. Bragg’s), 1 tablespoon of raw honey stirred into 1 cup of hot water.
It’s key to use raw honey – it will help to maintain your blood sugar throughout the night and has been considered a sleep remedy for thousands of years. The apple cider vinegar provides key amino acids.
Maintaining blood sugar is important as if it drops too low, your body releases cortisol. Although cortisol is considered a stress hormone, it’s also causes the release of glucose stored in the liver into the blood to maintain that blood sugar balance. This can cause you to wake in the middle of the night as cortisol rises at an increased rate. Balancing blood sugar, prevents this.
You can also try almond butter on celery sticks, and optionaly 1-2 tablespoons of flaxseed oil, before you go to bed. See what works for you!
#8 Intend to Sleep
When you go to bed, go with the intention to go to sleep.
Don’t use your bedroom for anything apart from sleep, sexual activity and mindfulness. Don’t watch TV, have conversations, worry or eat in bed!
If you wake up during the night, for longer than feels like more than 10 minutes, try getting up and leaving the bedroom. Do something really boring, like reading the dictionary! Avoid bright lights, TV, stimulating music during this time.
Many of us eat for comfort when we are stressed or tired, and can lose track of how physical hunger and fullness feels. We are simply not aware of when our body is telling us to start eating and when we should stop. This is not surprising as we are constantly surrounded by easily available food, at the gas station, from vending machines, or from fast food drive-throughs.
How and when we eat is as important as what we eat.
We no longer ask ourselves ‘am I hungry?’ or ‘am I full? Instead, we reach for easily available food whenever we have the urge. So firstly, we must recognise, when we are physically hungry, not just when we have the urge to eat.
We can relearn to listen to our bodies and their natural cues. I say ‘relearn’ as we are born with an awareness of these cues. You can’t force a baby or toddler to eat when they are not hungry. To break the habit of eating mindlessly, we need to pay attention whenever we have the urge to eat.
We can use the Hunger Scale to measure our true hunger and judge when it is time to eat. For most people, a good time to eat is when they are at 3 or below, and a good time to stop is when they reach a 6.
The scale can be used to see when we eat when we are not hungry. It’s important that we try not to judge ourselves. Eating is an emotional as well as a physcial thing. Instead, we can reflect and ask ourselves ‘why did I eat that whole bar of chocolate when I wasn’t hungry?’. It may be because I feel I’m stressed after a hard day at work. We can then reflect on what we can do instead of eating at that time…
I got sick a few years ago, with IBS type symptoms, that turned out to be due to parasites in my gut (Blastocystis Hominis and Dientamoeba Fragilis to name names!).
Nowadays, I’ve cleared up the parasites but that doesn’t mean I don’t get gut symptoms anymore.
Occasionally I get a flare-up of symptoms, and what I’ve noticed is this happens at the times when I’m the most stressed out, even when my diet is still good. And this happens for many other people.
We can have our diet dialed so that it’s perfect, and we can be exercising regularly and getting enough sleep, but if we are constantly stressed out, this can be causing us problems.
And this is backed up by research in mice, that have found stress affects the gut microbiota to the same degree as a poor diet.
From what we know, when we are stressed out and in flight or fight mode, blood is redirected from our gut and digestion to the muscles so we are ready to run away from a perceived threat. In the body’s view, digestion is just not important at that time. As the gut is serviced by a multitude of neurons, it makes perfect sense that stress and our modern hectic lives affects our gut.
What this means is that if we are our stressed, our attempts to treat small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), parasites, or IBS may not be effective, or they appear to work, but symptoms soon return after treatment. We need to address our stress to balance our gut microbiota and the messages the gut sends to the brain via the gut-brain axis.
And yes, this can be hard!
It can be easier to pop a pill, or change your diet, rather than address stress which can seem to be just a result of a modern lifestyle. We may need to take a step back, and deeply see how we relate to ourselves and all aspects of our lives.
Everything is Information
Our brains are constantly monitoring all aspects of our physiology, including our breath hormones, nervous system and gut, as well as the outside world. Every situation we find ourselves in and every thought we have affects our body’s chemistry on a molecular level.
The brain is always calculating am I safe or am I under threat
One of the big issues with the way we treat stress today is that we tackle it from only one angle. Whereas our stress levels are built up by many small stressful events throughout the day. We can’t tackle overwhelm from work stress, solely by meditating for 15 minutes in the morning or having a glass of wine after work.
It is better to work with stress in all its forms: psychological, emotional, technological, dietary, physical and chemical stress. Michael Neil offers a good introduction on ending psychological and emotional stress here.