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Re-store: Sleep for a healthy brain and body

‘What happens when you’re not sleeping affects what happens when you are’ Eric Ho

Sleep – and how we can get the quality and quantity of it we need – was the subject of Eric Ho’s webinar on 5 November.

A functional health coach as well as a practising lawyer with private practice and in-house experience, Eric speaks with a combination of personal experience (good and bad) and specialist expertise in the subject.

Explaining how he’d routinely burn the midnight oil as part of the day job, confident that he’d catch up on missed sleep later, Eric told the webinar that such as strategy is:

  • A bad idea and doomed to fail, and
  • Avoidable in the first place anyway.

It starts with the why. What is the single biggest reason you have for wanting to get a better night’s sleep? Once you’ve identified your key motivating factor, you’re more likely to take the first, almost-impossibly-small, step towards that goal.

Food and drink, exposure to light and dark, electronics and physical movement all affect the production of the hormones that determine how well we sleep. So, how we manage and influence these factors during our waking hours has an enormous bearing on how long, and how well we restore ourselves overnight.

Food and drink

Alcohol can help us get to sleep at night but the benefit stops there because it then works against us staying asleep by disrupting the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep. This is when the brain compartmentalises our day’s events and takes the edge off emotional experiences. Alcohol disturbs this process of emotional repair.

Coffee can have a similar effect – assuming it lets you get to sleep in the first place! A good tip is to wait an hour after waking up before having your first coffee. This allows your cortisol levels to rise naturally before you stimulate them artificially. Then, experiment to decide when in the day you should stop having anything caffeinated.

Foods containing refined sugars, refined flours and industrial seed oils should be avoided. In human evolutionary terms, these are relatively new introductions into our diets and our bodies have not yet adapted genetically to cope with them. As a general rule of thumb, if it wasn’t around in your great grandmother’s day, don’t eat it.

A good way to assess the impact of alcohol, caffeine and processed foods on your sleep patterns is to eliminate each one, separately. Simply remove them - or cut down significantly – and note any improvement. You could even try a 30-day paleo reset to get to the root cause of foods that are not only affecting your sleep, but sources of inflammation that will impact your health and wellbeing.

If sleep problems return when you reintroduce the food or drink item, you’ll have the information you need to strike the balance between indulgence and meaningful restfulness.

Balancing fats and carbohydrates in our diet helps promote quality sleep. Similarly, a nose to tail approach with meats and fish (such as by way of bone broths) helps to get the maximum nutrition from animal-based food sources.

Light and dark

Are you an early bird or a night owl? If you’re an early riser, you’re lucky as your circadian rhythm – our internal sleep-wake cycle - is more in tune with nature and modern life than the night owl’s.

A great way to support the circadian rhythm – and therefore sleep better – is to get outside first thing in the morning and expose yourself to natural daylight for at least 30 minutes. This will help keep you aligned with the day/night light/dark cycle. Another recommendation is to steer clear of electronics such as computers and mobile phones for the two hours before going to sleep. The ‘blue light’ in these devices effectively tells our brains it’s daytime. We then duly respond by going into full waking mode, thus stopping the production of melatonin, a hormone vital to sleep cycles.

Keep temptation at bay by leaving your phone in another room when you go to bed. Go even further by banning all electronics from the bedroom or taping over standby lights and LEDs and investing in blackout curtains.

Movement and exercise

Physical exercise and less strenuous, yet regular, movement will also contribute to a good night’s sleep. Human beings were never meant to sit at desks and tap away at laptops. We were designed to hunt and gather food, make fires, build dwellings and protect our loved ones. Even if you have the fitness of an athlete, sitting down for extended periods is as bad for your health as smoking. Movement is crucial to hormone production which is why many people use the Pomodoro technique. Named after the 60-minute timer device that resembles the tomato of the same name, the Pomodoro technique involves breaking time down into 25-minute work segments interspersed with 5-minute breaks spent walking around, making tea, emptying the washing machine, etc.

4-7-8 breathing

If, after experimenting with the advice and techniques above, you still struggle to nod off, or wake up at 3.00am with your mind racing, try the 4-7-8 breathing technique. This powerful yet simple to perform exercise is a core part of many meditation and yoga practices and can help relieve anxiety and insomnia. All you have to do is:

  • 4: count to four as you breathe in through your nose
  • 7: hold that breath for a count of seven
  • 8: exhale through your mouth while counting to eight

Eric will be back on 19 November to with Recharge: Staying healthy when you’re stuck at your desk or on your sofa. Click here to find out more.

If you want to download the free “Restore” handout and resources that Eric shared during the webinar, you can find those here: www.bumblebeewellbeing.health/restore.

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