How to protect your sleep under pressure...

June 30, 2020
Danielle North

Sleep is not just about getting enough rest for the next day, sleep is a fundamental healing process.

Several years ago, I carried out an unconscious experiment - it's not one I recommend. For about three years I operated on roughly 3 hours sleep a night. You might wonder if I made up for that deficit with daytime napping or weekend slumbers but no, I worked from 6am to 3am during the week and then partied till dawn at the weekends. Like I said, it's not something I recommend.

I won't go into why I did that here, but the inevitable car crash is plain to see. One day, in my early 30's, my prime, I woke up, cemented to my mattress unable to get out of bed. What followed was an intense period of recovery, and the proof that sleep is actually valuable! The initial recovery from burn out took 3 months. That was just to get functioning in the world again. I went into total retreat, disconnected from social media, stopped working and had no contact with friends, family or the outside world. During that period of retreat I mostly slept. My extreme lifestyle needed an extreme recovery. The second phase of the recovery took a further 2 years as I learned to live within my limits in a healthy way. One of the first things I did during my recovery was protect my sleep. I had learned first-hand the consequences of not sleeping and was determined to respect sleep for the precious resource I had realised it is.

It's unlikely you are pushing your sleep limits as hard as I did, but in times of heightened stress and pressure your body needs good quality sleep, you're not designed to be “on” all the time. Like Nature, who has periods of dormancy leading to rejuvenation, your body needs you to switch off. Sleep is not just about getting enough rest for the next day, though – sleep is a fundamental healing process. It’s where your cells renew themselves; it’s where repair and detoxification happen. Sleep is essential to nourishing your health and vitality.

If you're under pressure, here are some ways to protect your sleep to ensure good quality rest. There are lots of suggestions, you don't have to do them all at once, choose what works for you at this time and experiment with the results...

Before you sleep

Tune into your rhythm

We all need different amounts of sleep and each of us will have an optimum time to go to sleep and wake up. Spend a week exploring yours. How many hours is best for you? When do you wake up naturally? What’s the best time for you to be in bed, when do you naturally fall asleep? Once you have enquired and found your natural rhythm, stick to it as much as you can. Any small move away from your regular rhythms will have a noticeable impact.

Create an evening routine

Once you know your rhythm, the next step is to create an evening routine. The simplest habit you can build into this is called electronic sundown. Historically we would have experienced the evening light decreasing as day turned to night. Darkness is our body’s cue to prepare for sleep. Now our homes and offices are artificially lit, and “blue light” from television screens, laptops, smartphones and iPads keeps us active long into the night. Not only that, but the content we are viewing also often raises adrenaline, spiking cortisol levels at a time they are not required. Electronic sundown is simply a way to reset, which you do by turning off all of your electrical items 90 minutes before you go to bed. Then you can start to wind down naturally with a warm (not hot) Epsom salt bath and a normal printed book, slow your system down with camomile tea or turmeric milk, lie in the yoga pose Savasana (also known as corpse pose) or whatever routine suits you best. If you have LED ceiling lights in your home, turn these off in favour of low lamps or candles, as evidence suggests that LED lights can delay melatonin (a hormone which triggers sleep) production by 90 minutes.

Take technology out of the bedroom

An extension of electronic sundown would be to switch your smartphone to airplane mode overnight (your alarm will still go off) or, better still, buy an alarm clock and don’t sleep with your phone in your bedroom at all. The temptation to check emails or surf social media when you wake in the middle of the night can have a severe impact on the quality of your sleep. As soon as you look at the screen your melatonin production stops, your brain wakes up and before you know it the sun is rising without your body having had an opportunity to repair and rejuvenate overnight. Also ensure any LED lights in your bedroom are covered, even the faint glow of a TV on standby can stop melatonin production.

           • Reduce stimulants

Coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, chocolate, some medications such as cold and flu remedies and fast-acting painkillers all contain caffeine. While this might give you a nice buzz and keep you going when your energy levels are low, it can interfere with your quality of sleep. Limit them to before lunchtime. Alcohol and nicotine are also stimulants.

When you go to sleep

           • Turn the heating down

The body needs to lower its temperature in order to fall asleep, so a hot bath right before bed or a room where the temperature is too hot will actually keep you awake. If you enjoy a soak in a hot bath, take it earlier in the evening – two or more hours before bedtime – so your body has enough time to cool down. Remember that Epsom salts will also raise your temperature as part of their natural detoxifying process, so take that into account when adding them to your bath. If it works for you, open the window a little at night to regulate the temperature and keep air circulating. If you live in a hot climate, use a thin cotton sheet and a fan to stay cool.

Pillow positions

Side sleepers, have a pillow under your head as usual and put a pillow between your knees.

Back sleepers, use a lower pillow than normal under your head and place a pillow under your knees to take pressure off your lower back.

Stomach sleepers, use a flat pillow for your head and place another pillow under your pelvis or abdomen.

Yoga Nidra

This Sanskrit term means Yogic Sleep and refers to a form of deep meditation used by yogis to access a state called “conscious deep sleep”. In other words, it allows you to experience deep, dreamless sleep while remaining awake.

Because Yoga Nidra is so good for reducing tension and anxiety, one of the benefits appears to be improved and more peaceful sleep. Listen to a Yoga Nidra recording before you go to sleep here.

Essential oils

Essential oils that might help you sleep include lavender, bergamot and vetiver. Try rubbing vetiver into the soles of your feet at bedtime and sprinkling lavender on your pillow (or mix a few drops into your Epsom salts and add to your bath). Put a few drops of both bergamot and lavender into a diffuser in your bedroom before you go to bed.

•   Breathing

When you go to bed you can practise this breathing exercise pioneered by Harvard-trained holistic health doctor Andrew Weil. It’s called the 4-7-8 breathing exercise and here’s how to do it:

  1. Touch the ridge of tissue behind your top front teeth with your tongue and exhale completely.
  2. Then breathe in through your nose quietly for a count of four.
  3. Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  4. Blow air out through your mouth for a count of eight, making a “whoosh” sound.
  5. Repeat the process three more times.

According to Dr Weil, this technique is a powerful way to help you fall asleep, because it delivers more oxygen than normal breathing to the parasympathetic nervous system, which becomes over-stimulated during times of stress.

This is extract is adapted from my book Pause, published by Aster.

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