Getting a good night's sleep

Getting a good night's sleep is an essential requirement for a healthy well balanced life. Sleep allows the body to rest and rejuvenate. How much sleep we need is a subject of some debate. However, the  most recent research  supports the view that most adults need about 8 hours a night to function well and thrive. Children and teenagers need longer.

Some people are lucky enough to be able to fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow. However,  the fact that in the UK alone some 50 million prescriptions are issued for sleeping tablets, suggests that an awful lot of us out there are struggling. Sleep disturbances can be caused by  an underlying medical condition or may be due to the side effects of medication. If this is the case for  you then this is an issue that you will need to address with your GP.

Without wanting to over medicalise things lets take a quick look  at the types of sleep problems that there are and  suggest some ways of dealing with the problem.There are 3 medically recognised types of insomnia - transient, acute and chronic. Transient insomnia lasts for anything up to a few weeks  and is usually linked to a specific event that causes worry or anxiety. In acute insomnia your body has learned poor sleep patterns over the period of a month or more and keeps repeating this pattern. The good news is that these types of sleep problems can be amenable to self help solutions.  Chronic insomnia, however,  is a condition which lasts for more than 6 months and usually requires some kind of medical intervention.  However, the over-riding issue here is that an underlying inability to sleep peacefully - be it due to physical or emotional  causes  - needs to be identified and addressed.

So, if  you or someone you care about is having problems sleeping you might want to  follow a simple check list to see if you can fix the problem yourself.

Firstly, it may be worth  looking   at your sleeping arrangements to see if changes need to be made here.  Is the bedroom the right temperature for sleeping? Is it dark enough at night? Also, ask yourself whether your  bedroom is  a haven of tranquility. If it's not then look at what has to change. A good starting point is to take out all the electrical gadgets and sensory stimulation, such as the TV, mobile phone or PCs. Also, are there piles of washing and ironing everywhere? By addressing these issues you will go some way towards achieving optimum mind/body relaxation.

Also, another important issue is to develop a pre-sleep routine that enables your  mind and body to unwind. Activities like  meditation, yoga or qi gong breathing are conducive to promoting relaxation. If you're new to yoga and you can't get to a class you might want to look at getting a basic DVD - there's lots out there. An American Yoga teacher called Barbara Benagh has produced Yoga for mornings and bedtime,  which many people find useful. Relaxation can also be  achieved  whilst listening to certain types of music.  The calming effects of Mozart has been well documented and,  in his Music for the Mozart Effect series, the musicologist Don Campbell has compiled a series of CDs  to aid brain function, deep rest and rejuvenation   He is also the author of The Mozart effect for Children. The transformative power of  Mozart  works for listeners of all ages. I urge you to try Mozart for relaxation - see my shop.

Establishing a good pre-sleep routine is a good way to start but is only one part of the equation. The next stage is to look at the pattern of your life and how you  interact with your surroundings and nature. Work at trying to get in touch with your own circadian rhythms or internal biological clock. Aim to get up and go to bed at similar times each day. Eat at regular intervals and avoid eating a meal after 7pm. If your lifestyle doesn't allow this and eating late  can't be avoided then try to avoid a heavy meal that is loaded with dense carbohydrates. Aim for something light. Celery and lettuce is thought to help promote sleep and are good food  choices. Make up  a bold and beautiful  salad. Alternatively,  if you're feeling adventurous and you have a juicer, how's about trying a juice made with pineapple, grapes, lettuce and celery.  See the Hamlyn Juices and Smoothies book that I use which contains recipes for 200 delicious drinks for health and vitality.  Also, beware the sleep saboteurs alcohol and coffee! The stimulant effects of coffee are well known but what may not be so well known is that, although alcohol may seem to be be sleep inducing, it adversely effects the quality of your sleep. So don't be tempted to turn to it if you're feeling in need of help in this area. There's so much else out there that you could reach for that is both health and life enhancing.

As with so much else in life having good nurturing  relationships and being satisfied in all areas of your life will also go a long way  to feeling rested. Only you know what's needed here. So, if you think that there is a problem, address it. That's often easier than it sounds and you might need to do some soul searching. Difficult choices may also need to be made but the benefits will speak for themselves. It might also be worth mentioning here about shift work. The ill effects of  sleep problems in  shift workers has been well documented over the years. So, if working  shifts/night duty  is destroying both your sleep and your quality of life you may need to seriously think about alternative ways of working.

A word about complementary therapies and sleep. Certain herbs such as Valerian, Passionflower, Melissa and Hops  have been used  over the centuries to  assist sleep and can be bought over the counter in  tablet or tincture form. Just a cautionary note, though. Bear in mind that,  just because these remedies  are natural,  doesn't mean that they're harmless.  So read up as much as you can about what you're going to try before taking anything and, if you're taking any prescription medication, check with your GP/pharmacist first. A herbal sleep remedy  may work for you and there is some  evidence around to support their efficacy. These remedies are not for everyone, however, and should be avoided if you're taking other prescription medication for sleep or have  mental health problems,  are pregnant,  breast feeding, under 16, or allergic to alcohol/related products. It might also be worth noting that, unlike a prescription sedative, herbal remedies need to be taken over time to be effective. Also, they're not without side effects and Passionflower may cause daytime drowsiness and nausea.

You could also  introduce aromatherapy oils, such as  lavender or orange  into your life.  (Over the coming weeks I'll be writing an article about complementary therapies, so you might want to keep an eye out for this.) A few drops of lavender oil can be dropped onto a muslin square by your pillow, or onto an aroma-stone. Lavender can also be added to bath or you could make up a massage oil. (NB - Lavender should not be used if pregnant.) Lavender or orange oil can also be placed on an aroma-stone. EFT may also help, particularly if you wake at night and have problems getting back off - see the managing your emotions section.

Finally, you might want to look at your daytime activity to see whether your mind and body is being fully utilised. If you've recently retired,  after a busy professional life,  physical exercise  may not be enough to utilise your energies. Some kind of intellectual stimulation may be  required.  Look at your strengths and what you enjoy doing and see whether you can create an outlet for these. This could be in the form of writing, doing some kind of voluntary work, or ad hoc consultancy. Alternatively is there something that you've always wanted to do? Like learn a new language, or an instrument? Or maybe, depending on your budget,  a combination of all of these. The aim is to get engaged and stimulated by life again.

So again to sleep, perchance to dream. This is a crucial area of life to get right. Sleep is both transformative and regenerative and there's plenty of evidence around to support that we need both the right kind and amount of sleep to function effectively. There is a direct correlation between  the  quality of our life and the sleep that follows. From my perspective, for someone with no underlying health issues,  if you aim to optimise heath and fitness then the desired sleep should follow. So, here's to a good night's sleep!