2020 was probably the worst year most of us will have faced in our lives to date. It certainly was for me! But it wasn’t all bad – I did manage to write a book at the same time as working to help people overcome their insomnia, conducting a research study, homeschooling two children and dealing with 3rd degree burns (ouch!). What I learned over the past year is a great deal of resilience. Moving into this new year, how can you improve your sleep in 2021?
Many people have found that their sleep has been badly affected over the past tumultuous year. People have been struggling getting to sleep or staying asleep. The coronavirus pandemic is still with us! Today yet another lockdown has been announced in Scotland and England. We must stay at home again.
Why improve your sleep in 2021?
If you regularly get between 7-9 hours’ sleep per night then you are more likely to maintain a good weight, reduce depression and anxiety, boost your immune system as well as long term reductions in risk of cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. However, when we are stressed or sad, we tend not to sleep as well as usual. This has been a huge issue due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
If you aren’t sleeping as well as you would like to, here are a few tips to help:
Increase your exercise
It is really important to exercise, both to improve your sleep and also to improve your physical and mental health. If the weather is kind, get outside in the late morning or at lunchtime for a brisk walk every day. This will give you some exercise as well as getting vital daytime sunshine – which helps to improve not only your sleep but also boosts your mood. Remember the Joe Wicks workouts during the first lockdown? If you can’t get outside, there are plenty of free YouTube exercise classes, or apps, to choose from where you can exercise in your own home at a time that suits you.
Watch what you eat
What you eat can impact your sleep, but also how you sleep can impact what you eat. People who do not get enough sleep tend to put on weight by eating more and also choosing more fatty and sugary foods.
Helpful for sleep
There are some foods that may help sleep. For example, cherries are packed with vitamins C and E as well as antioxidants and melatonin (which is our sleepy hormone). Tart cherries have an especially high proportion of melatonin and studies have found a link between drinking tart cherry juice and better sleep.
Proteins such as milk, poultry, tofu, eggs and salmon contain tryptophan, which is a precursor of melatonin (meaning your body uses tryptophan to make melatonin as well as serotonin). Turkey has a particularly high proportion of tryptophan making it especially good. Nuts like almonds and walnuts also naturally contain melatonin, as well as being packed with other essential minerals such as magnesium and calcium, vital to your health.
Eating kiwi fruit before bed has also been suggested to improve sleep. A 2011 study found that adults who ate 2 kiwi before bed, fell asleep more quickly than those who hadn’t eaten anything. This was a relatively small study, so the results are not conclusive but very interesting.
Complex carbohydrates such as brown bread or oats before bed can help you to feel satisfied and calm as you fall asleep. They also help you to not wake up hungry during the night. Conversely, eating fatty or spicy foods near to bedtime can make sleep harder due to indigestion.
Not helpful for sleep
There are some things that can be especially bad for sleep. Alcohol (a sedative) may help you fall asleep quickly, but it disrupts your sleep quality during the night. This means it makes your sleep worse overall. Also, caffeine can have a huge impact on sleep. It makes it harder to fall asleep and causes you to struggle to fall back to sleep after waking. Try not to drink caffeine too near to bedtime (2pm at the latest would be a good idea if your sleep is struggling).
Relax before bed
Make time to wind down before you go to bed to help you be in a good place to be able to sleep. A bath before bed, or reading a good book can be a great way of relaxing your mind and body before bed. Also, when you get into bed, try not to start worrying about whether you will sleep well tonight. This is a self-fulfilling cycle. Anxiety about sleep itself is a major topic that CBT-I for insomnia helps to deal with.
If your mind is whirring at night, you may like to make some time during the day to help deal with those thoughts instead of having a busy mind at night. Writing things down can be really helpful, as can meditation or mindfulness. If you are feeling very down or anxious, then take it seriously.
Your mental health
If you are feeling very low, anxious or depressed then you should speak to your GP, contact the NHS 111 (call 111), or in the England only you can contact the NHS urgent mental health helpline (24 hours). Also, there are organisations that you can contact for help such as Mind or The Samaritans (call 116 123).
If your mental health issue is primarily your sleep (or lack of it), then contact me (Dr Lindsay Browning) to see if I am the right person to help you as a qualified sleep specialist. To help improve your sleep in 2021, a 5 session CBT-I course can be exceptionally effective at overcoming insomnia. Alternately, a one-off session can resolve more minor sleep issues to help you get better sleep in 2021.
Call 0118 9010544 or sign up for my monthly sleep tips email.