An intuitive way to approach sleep
Ask a poor sleeper what they do to get to sleep and they’ll give you a list as long as their arm, ask a good sleeper what they do and they’ll probably just say they put their head on the pillow and that’s it - infuriating to those who don’t drop off easily!
Good sleeping doesn’t start in the bedroom though. We can learn to help ourselves to sleep by gentle habits throughout the day that tap in to our bodies natural need for sleep at night. First you might want to check in with your intuition on your natural tendencies to sleep and energy - how much suits you best, are you more of a night owl or up with the larks and do you get affected by monthly and yearly seasons?
Let’s start from waking up time:
When you wake up, whether you feel fuzzy or perky, it’s important to get some natural sunlight on your face as early as possible. Here in the UK that can be a challenge for at least 4 months of the year when it’s still dark when we wake up, and also for those who need to wake so early they won’t see the sun until they are already well on with their day. If that’s the case, turning lights on brightly in the morning will help and you could use a SAD lamp as well if you have the ability to sit facing it for a period of time. Make sure you do get natural light on your face as early as you can in order to stimulate the hormones that signal “hello day, we’re ready!!” to your body. It’s also important you wake up at around the same time every day, including weekends, because it’s been shown that making up for sleep on the weekends (also called social jet lag) perpetuates sleep struggles slipping you into a vicious cycle of needing to bank sleep to make up for poor sleep in the week.
Do you down a caffeinated drink as soon as you can when you wake up? You might want to delay that if you can cope without it for a bit longer. This is especially the case if you suffer from the classic afternoon slump when you’ll also be tempted to have another caffeinated drink to get you through. Research shows that delaying caffeine consumption to around 1 1/2 to 2 hours after waking up stops that afternoon slump from happening, and so you’ll have a better quality of sleep and the cycle will continue in your favour because you’ll feel less of a need to stretch for a cuppa the second you open your eyes the next morning. If this sounds like something you’ll struggle with, see if you can delay by 15 minutes, then 30 and so on until you get to 90 minutes and you’re into that zone of benefitting from the caffeine without the comedown.
On the subject of caffeine, bear in mind if you drink caffeine through the day that it will still be affecting your system more than 12 hours after your last cup. The “half life” of caffeine (that is the time when you’ll still have half the amount in your body) is 6 hours, and the 1/4 life is 12 hours, which is why most energy and sleep experts recommend no caffeine after 12pm to be sure you’re preparing for sleep in the best way possible.
Did you know you can be smart about eating to help your body pick up signals about sleeping times? It’s a good trick for combatting jet lag because we are designed to eat in the hours that the sun is up, so forcing yourself to eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner times in the place you’ve travelled to helps to shift your body clock more easily than if you stick to the times at home. It’s advisable to finish eating a good few hours before bedtime as well, preferably up to 5 hours if you can, because that’s the time at which we stop digesting food and our bodies natural focus will be on sleep and recovery. This is why many of those who practice intermittent fasting find that their sleep improves if they are shifting to eating times during the day only.
More intuitive questions to ask yourself as we move through the day here - do you find an afternoon drop in energy? This is when our core body temperature naturally dips and we go into a short phase of benefitting from some rest which might be a nap, lying down with closed eyes or some meditative breathing exercises.
What about your best work times in the day? We can all benefit from shifting and adapting our daily habits to benefit the time when we have best work flow, creativity and energy and then the other times we can use for going for a walk, taking a break, doing exercise, socialising etc.
When it comes to exercising, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves to tune in to whether we are doing it in the most helpful and intuitive way possible.
When do you prefer to exercise, what type of exercise and how does it feel at those times?
Say for example you love your Peleton or spinning classes and you get a real buzz out of them. You might have already found that doing a class at 8pm at night leaves you too pumped up to get to sleep well that night and so affects your energy the next day too. In comparison, if you jump on the bike in the morning it probably leaves you feeling energised, motivated and driven for the day, working with your natural hormones and neurotransmitters, which is really beneficial particularly if you have back to back meetings or a slightly unfulfilling day ahead of you.
If you love your yoga - and this of course very much depends on the style of yoga and the teacher in that particular class - you may have found just the opposite to the spinning example. That is as long as you’re not doing one of those rocket yoga sessions with a pumping DJ soundtrack and an aggressive teaching style - that may be counted as a more energising/stressful workout session!
It’s important that you know you and what helps you on each day.
Once you get to actual bedtime you want to give yourself the most calming environment for peaceful sleep by having your room dark, quiet and cool, all of which have been shown to make a significant difference to your sleep quality. Removing all screens up to 2 hours before lights out is important too as phone, tablet or computer screens all disrupt the signals to get to sleep and stay asleep even through to the following morning when you’re more likely to wake up earlier if you’ve been looking at a blue light screen the night before. This is obviously a bit of a problem in our tech filled lives, but putting those away until you wake up could be the best thing you do for yourself today.
The most important and the most intuitive thing women can do is understand how our monthly cycle might affect our energy, how we sleep, what we want to eat and what exercise feels best. For so long we’ve lived with the patriarchal notion of going continuously at top speed every day of the month and year. But tapping into our natural rhythms, whatever stage of life you’re in, is incredibly nourishing to support our energy through hormone changes, mental health ups and downs and sleep shifts. In the final week of the month (assuming you’re still having a cycle) before your period, progesterone drops which often leads to poor sleep, higher anxiety and a need to turn more inward and be self reflective. Recognising and being OK with that means it can be more powerful to approach the rhythm of life with that knowledge and adapt accordingly rather than trying to push through regardless. Be compassionate to your energy dips in that week and go with the flow rather than against it.
Sleep may feel like one of those natural processes that doesn’t feel particularly natural sometimes. But if you allow yourself to tune in to what really works well for you rather than what you are told to, you may find that you are able to release into sleep without having to launch a full assault every bedtime. Happy sleeping!