Are you getting enough sleep? Often the answer is no. And then we read about how terrible a lack of sleep is for us, which leads to worry, which leads to an even more disturbed nights sleep! We just can’t win! Or can we?
Enter physiologist and sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. I’ve only recently discovered her through an Action for Happiness webinar on ‘optimising sleep’, and she is just amazing. She’s one of those people who you take to immediately – friendly, kind, open, supportive and highly qualified with something like 25 years worth of experience. So what did she have to say?
Firstly, let's look at the purpose of sleep, which is to replenish and restore our bodies and minds. Did you know that we spend a whopping third of our lives sleeping? If sleep wasn’t important, we wouldn’t still be doing it. Back in the day, when our ancestors lived in caves, it was imperative they were alert and aware of any danger at all times. But sleep still took a priority – that’s how imperative it is to our livelihood. Sleep requires respect – but do we really give it the respect it needs?
One of the first things that Nerina talked about was the importance of dropping some of the unhelpful beliefs we have about sleep.
#1: ‘I’m a terrible sleeper, I wake up two or three times every night’
It’s completely normal to wake up during the night and not just once or twice. Our natural sleep clock takes us out of deep sleep to allow us to check that we’re safe (back in that cave), and then we go back into the sleep cycle. So when you do wake up in the night, don’t panic, it’s part of your natural rhythm. If you struggle to get back to sleep however, keep reading for some top tips that you might find helpful.
#2: ‘It doesn’t matter if I go to bed later, I can sleep in tomorrow morning’
You can’t play sleep catch up. Going to bed late and waking up later is not the same as going to bed at a reasonable time every night. The sleep you get before midnight (preferably 1.5 hours), is the most enriching sleep of the night. What does this mean from a practical perspective? Stop falling asleep in front of the TV – that Netflix box set can wait until tomorrow! As the light levels drop, your body starts to release hormones to help you sleep. When you feel that sleepiness – that is your sweet spot – go to bed!
It’s also worth noting here that this enriching pre-midnight sleep can help to reduce Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and coronary heart disease to name a few. It also helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol which can be responsible for the fat accumulating around your middle.
Different Types of Sleeper
Nerina referred to different types of sleeper during the webinar and specifically outlined two:
A ‘Martini’ sleeper (someone who can sleep anytime, anyplace, anywhere – you have to be of a certain age to get that reference!).
A sensitive sleeper (who’s neuroceptive abilities are heightened – put simply, someone who is on alert for danger)
Do either of these ring a bell with you? What I found interesting, as a sensitive sleeper, is that we sleep when we feel safe. This means that someone who’s a Martini sleeper at home, may find they’re more of a sensitive sleeper when they’re staying at a hotel. They’re feeling more vulnerable and therefore their nervous system is heightened. And for someone who’s a sensitive sleeper, working on calming that central nervous system will help enormously.
Nerina’s Top Tips
Below are Dr Ramlakhan’s non-negotiable top tips for better sleep, and I bet there are some that you’re not expecting. The purpose of these tips is to help reset the nervous system – remember in order to sleep well, we need to feel safe and if our nervous system is out of whack, that will have a domino effect on your sleep.
1. Eat breakfast within 30-40 minutes of rising and include some protein. Eating breakfast helps to calm your nervous system first thing, which will set you up for the rest of the day. If you struggle to eat in the morning because you feel sick, it’s highly possible that the sick feeling is anxiety. People who wake up with anxiety and don’t eat, produce less melatonin, and melatonin is the hormone that helps you sleep. By eating a small amount you can help to break that cycle. Even a few nuts, or a small protein-based smoothie to start with. You can always have a ‘second breakfast’ a bit later when you’re hungry.
2. Do not substitute caffeine for food. If you like a coffee in the morning, that’s ok, just make sure you drink it after breakfast.
3. Drink 2-3 litres of water a day to ensure that you’re fully hydrated.
4. Go to bed around 10pm. Do something relaxing that doesn’t involve a screen for half an hour - read a book, meditate, journal etc. Then go to sleep. Remember that 90 minutes of sleep before midnight is the real quality sleep that you need the most.
5. Keep all devices out of your bedroom.
How to put yourself back to sleep – a meditation
Many of us wake up in the night and struggle to go back to sleep. Nerina suggests the following meditation to help you back into your slumber. Now, before you read on I want to prepare you that it sounds a little crazy, but I ask you to go with it, what have you got to lose?
Close your eyes and repeat silently to yourself:
I love my right foot
I love my right big toe
I love all the toes of my right foot
I love my entire right foot
I love my right shin
I love my right calf muscles
I love my right knee
I love my right thigh
This meditation is a form of self hypnosis. You will notice repeated use of the word ‘love’. Love is a safety word and, we know by now, that if you’re feeling safe, sleep will come. By starting with your extremities, you are taking the attention away from your mind and into your body helping you to find your inner safety and calm. Sound totally bonkers? Give it a go and let me know how you got on. I’ve tried it and it worked for me, even though I felt like I was slightly mad at first, the next thing I knew it was morning!
Nerina is a big advocate of taking magnesium citrate before bed every night. Magnesium is an important mineral responsible for hundreds of reactions in the human body including muscle relaxation. It can help with anyone suffering with restless legs, menopause symptoms and is great for athletes (that includes you bootcampers and gym-goers!)
CBD oil - Cannabidiol (CBD) is a chemical compound that’s derived from cannabis plants. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), it won’t get you “high.” Research into CBD is ongoing, but studies show that it may have beneficial health effects. Early results are promising for anxiety, pain, and even sleep. Nerina’s view on CBD oil? Use it occasionally, it certainly works for some – just don’t use it every day because unlike magnesium citrate, a mineral your body needs, your body will build up a resistance to CBD oil and it will become ineffectual.
It’s not just the night-time routine that counts
Nerina points out that good sleep hygiene is not just about our bedtime routine, but what we do in the day that counts too.
Waking up every morning
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up every morning? Start listing what you need to get done before you’ve even opened your eyes? Check your phone for emails? Tune into the news when your radio alarm goes off? Start planning your busy day ahead? How does it feel just reading that? A bit stressful?
Nerina suggests that you start your day from inside out, not outside in. When you realise you’re awake, don’t’ open your eyes and reach for your phone, just lie there a minute and breathe. When you’re ready, take a long, slow breath in and out three times, mentally saying ‘out’ on the out breath. This will help you stay in your body and not rush straight up into your mind.
How is your body feeling? If you’re feeling a bit anxious or stressed, then that’s your cue to start your day mindfully. If you have a meditation practice, meditate. If that’s not your thing, then just stay there for a few minutes and carry on slowly breathing. Slowing down your breathing tells your nervous system that everything is ok, you are not in danger. Get up and eat something, even if it’s a few nuts, again to calm your nervous system down. Rushing out of bed and gulping down a coffee may be what’s quick and easy, but as we’ve learnt, won’t help you in the long run. Taking a few moments to listen to what you’re body needs will set you up for the day and that night too. Try it for 21 days and see what happens!
Calming your nervous system during the day
We work in 60-90 minute cycles of energy which builds up and requires recovery, so you can build that recovery into your day. Every hour or so just stop for a minute (try setting a reminder on your phone or watch.) Have a laugh with your colleague, stand up and stretch your body if you’re seated at a desk, close your eyes, ground your feet and take a few deep breaths – you get the idea. You will quickly feel refreshed and ready to go again having allowed yourself that time – it’s self care in a couple of minutes that will have a positive impact on your sleep. Now I know how hard this is to do in practice, our watch buzzes the reminder and we’re in the middle of an email, so we think “that can wait, I’ll do it in a minute.” You could try and make a promise to yourself, like a personal contract that you’ll give it a go for a week. That way, when the watch buzzes and you go to ignore it, a little voice will pop up in your head, reminding you of the contract, reminding you of why you wanted to try this in the first place…
Other ways to help you practice self care that take a bit longer include a taking walk outside, connecting with friends and family, meditation, yoga, breathwork, an Epsom salt bath and gratitude journalling. Sound a bit hippy? In my experience it works wonders and there’s something out there for everyone.
My sleep has changed inextricably over the last 24 months, so it was really interesting to hear Nerina talk about how relaxing your nervous system throughout the day helps you sleep.
I used to have a terrible time sleeping. I felt awful every morning having been awake half the night and I spent the days completely wired through lack of sleep. I realised that due to peri-menopause that my hormones were all over the place and I was running on the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. So, I cut back on my slightly manic exercise routine and introduced yoga sessions alongside my beloved bootcamp. I started meditating for 10 minutes every day. I cut out caffeine completely and quite by accident I fell into a bedtime routine which included reading a physical book with lights out by 10.30ish most nights – lock down has been good for some things!
And now? Now I sleep well. I wake up for a wee (who doesn’t), but I never lie there worrying about it, I just get up and pee, keeping the lights off, my eyes half closed and try to stay sleepy. Oh and I never look at the time – or else I’ll start doing a maths sum in my head, trying to work out how much sleep I’ve had and how much time there is left before I have to get up! Not every night is perfect, but gone are the days of counting down the hours until morning.
If you’re interested in finding out more, check out Nerina’s website.
Dr. Nerina Ramlakhanis a physiologist who has specialised in maximising individual and organisational performance for over two decades. In today’s fast-paced world, filled with technology and deadlines, good sleep is becoming harder and harder to achieve. Nerina’s life work has been dedicated to helping individuals and organisations to regain a greater balance, vitality, meaning and peace by teaching them how to get better sleep!
Nerina uses her academic background in physiology, philosophy and psychology to guide her teaching, but her approach is highly practical. She has a strong belief that everyone can live a healthy and more fulfilling life by tapping into and nurturing their deepest inner resources – even in these hectic, technologically driven times that we live in.
As the original founder of BUPA’s Corporate Wellbeing Solutions, she is a regular speaker at many City groups. In April 2000, she set up her own consultancy and has worked in various industries including sport (Chelsea Football Club), legal, insurance, accountancy, healthcare and banking.
Nerina’s work has been featured in The Times, The Telegraph, The Independent, The Sunday Express, The Guardian, New Scientist, and The Evening Standard. She has talked about power napping on the Radio 2 Chris Evans show and has appeared on GMTV, CNN and more recently, SKY NEWS talking about technology addiction. She recently appeared on ITV’s This Morning show teaching the nation how to sleep peacefully.
Nerina is Author of Tired But Wired: How to Overcome Sleep Problems: the Essential Sleep Toolkit (2010), Fast Asleep Wide Awake (2016) and The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (2018)
Action for Happiness are a movement of people taking action to create a happier and kinder world, together. They run webinars, groups, courses, talks and happy cafes. If you’ve not heard of them, please do check them out