Sleep can have both physical and mental effects on your health, such as positively supporting you in training and in day-to-day life! Alternatively, having poor sleep can have negative effects on your ability to perform and recover optimally from training sessions as well as having negative effects on mood, cognitive function, energy levels, immunity, and inflammation – therefore leading to poor overall health.
What can be harmful to sleep?
Although research can be inconclusive and somewhat minimal, there are some strategies that may impact sleep quality:
Bright light: Our body works in wonderful ways, and light (or lack of it) allows us to tell the body when it’s time to wake or when it’s time to go to sleep, this is due to the hormone melatonin. We now live in a world where we cannot escape light, because of screens. And when we view screens continuously the melatonin production can be disturbed, and our bodies don’t know that it is time to rest. So, if you find yourself endlessly scrolling just before bed and you struggle to stop completely, could you possibly reduce the time to 30 minutes rather than an hour while dimming the light on the screen so your body can still feel “sleepy”? Alternatively, if you’re not in control of the light in your bedroom, perhaps invest in blue light-blocking glasses or black-out blinds to keep the room darkened. Avoiding blue light may allow you to fall asleep faster, so, ideally aim for at least 60mins prior to sleep.
Noise: It’s evident that when we hear a constant sound or an abrupt sudden noise this can frustrate us and again leave us longing for the ability to get to sleep without a disturbance. If you sleep in a noisy environment, earplugs are certainly something worth trialling or another option could be to play music or peaceful sounds to cover over the noises that are so often keeping you awake. Again, this is something that can reduce the quality of your sleep i.e. wake you up in the middle of the night and not allow you to sleep the whole way through. So, aim for strategies for how best to avoid it!
Temperature: Being too hot or too cold can be associated with increased levels of insomnia! If you feel your room to be on either side of what you feel is the right temperature, then be sure to find ways of adjusting it i.e., lighter/heavier bedclothes and pyjamas, keep the window open/closed, do you need a fan in the summer months or a heater in the winter months – these are all small considerations to take into account. A comfortable and cool room can limit the time it takes you to fall asleep and optimise the quality of your sleep!
Alcohol: Yes, sometimes you find when consuming alcohol you fall asleep quite rapidly but it will impair the overall quality of your sleep. Alcoholism has been heavily linked to insomnia and thus insinuates it is not an optimal sleep aid. So, aim to avoid alcohol in the hours leading up to bedtime i.e., any time after dinner!
Caffeine: The majority of us consume caffeine every day to help us get through a busy day at work or give us that extra push midday when we need it. But the question is, is caffeine simply covering up the problem of extreme levels of tiredness? Consuming caffeine past a certain time, can impair the quality of sleep and lengthen the time it takes you to fall asleep. Due to the fact caffeine can block the receptors in your brain that promote sleepiness, therefore, leaving you feeling alert, which again suggests we should consume close to bed. So, aim to avoid caffeine within the 6 hours pre-bed – this includes, teas & herbal tea, and coffee.
What can be helpful to sleep?
Exercise: is something that may be beneficial to enhance the quality of sleep. Alternatively, if you’re exhausted before a training session it may not be the best idea to push yourself through it, but give yourself a break instead. Any physical activity during the day is suggested to improve sleep quality, especially in times of high stress. And this doesn’t mean you have to run a couple of km but instead find movements that you enjoy and will work for you! This could be yoga, Pilates, going for a walk, favourite gym class, because everyone is different – and it is well known the potential benefits of exercising daily is for more than just sleep quality so that’s motivation on its own to try it out!
Consistency: Aim to wake and go to bed at the same time each day i.e. a regular sleep schedule, to ‘set’ the body clock to sleep and wake at the designated times and support restful sleep within this period. Establish a set pre-bed routine, which might be as simple as the order you get into your pyjamas, brush your teeth, fill a water bottle, set things out for the next day etc. It sounds silly, but when your body comes to associate that pattern of behaviours with sleep it actually starts to physically prepare your body for sleep whilst in that routine and so it can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep once in bed.
Lavender: stress is very common nowadays, be it from work, family, money etc, it essentially doesn’t matter where it stems from but it can have a negative impact on sleep! So, no one food or pill is going to be better than getting 8+ hours of good quality sleep, but reducing stress levels is a way of aiding this. Lavender’s scent can promote relaxation and thus help improve the quality of sleep! So, maybe try to spray the scent of lavender on your pillow or use a candle or aromatherapy oils in your bedroom to create that feeling of relaxation!
Magnesium: If you have implemented the majority of the strategies above for a number of months and you are still struggling to improve sleep magnesium citrate might be worth considering. This may improve sleep in those that are deficient in magnesium. Meaning it may have little to no impact on those who have optimal magnesium intake. Again, a lack of research remains, for younger people and athletes. If you do find you’re struggling to hit the recommended intake, aim for foods such as whole grains, dark leafy veg, milk & yoghurt, beans & legumes, nuts & seeds.
Kiwis: There’s not much one food can do but there is some evidence to suggest that eating two kiwis before bed can aid sleep. Kiwis naturally contain serotonin, a neurotransmitter that, when levels are low, may negatively affect quality sleep, a simple but potentially highly effective approach!
Consistency is key to sleep
To optimise sleep overall aim to put in place a number of sleep hygiene practices. All the while avoiding what can harm sleep, aim to exercise and introduce a well-balanced healthy diet, and a routine in order to optimise sleep each night. As well as addressing any deficiencies and correcting them through diet or supplementation, this may include nutrients such as zinc, magnesium, and iron.
Remember this comes down to consistency as we can sometimes be too quick to say “that doesn’t work” when the process hasn’t been given enough time and you haven’t been consistent with the new habits you’ve created.