Sleep well and life’s a dream; sleep poorly and it can feel like a nightmare. During deep sleep our bodies repair and regenerate while our minds recharge. Levels of Human Growth Hormone increase during deep sleep too, increasing energy and alertness, boosting our immune systems and enhancing our creativity and focus. ‘Good sleep can make us faster and stronger at the gym and smarter and sassier at the office,’ says personal trainer, yoga teacher and nutritional therapist Jacqui Porjes. Pharmacist Shabir Dyer agrees: ‘A good night’s sleep will make you able to concentrate more and give you bags more energy.’
Who doesn’t need more energy and oomph, particularly at this time of year. When you’re being pulled in all directions and there never seem to be enough hours in the day, sleep is often the first thing to suffer. Big mistake!
The good news is that there are simple, and maybe surprising, fixes that can supercharge your sleep – perfectly naturally.
1. Power up with magnesium
‘Magnesium is the super-sleep mineral yet as many as seven out of ten women in the UK aren’t getting enough in their diet,’ says Jacqui Porjes.
The highest sources of magnesium in food lie in nuts and seeds – specifically roasted pumpkin seeds, almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, peanuts and walnuts. Brown rice and green leafy vegetables are no slouches either. So add dry roasted nuts and seeds to your morning muesli or porridge; or really up the ante by sprinkling them over a brown rice and supergreen risotto.
Supersleep extra? You can also absorb magnesium through your skin by adding a handful of good old Epsom salts (from chemists) to your night-time bath (just like Gwyneth and Victoria).
2. Ponder your sleeping relationship
Cosying up in bed is all well and good (research shows it can boost levels of the loved-up hormone oxytocin) but if your partner is the type who acts out war movies in his sleep, then you may need to rethink duvet-sharing. Research from the University of Surrey shows that, if you share your bed, you are 50 percent more likely to be disturbed during the night than if you sleep alone. Their data also revealed that people who sleep alone are far less likely to wake up in the night and also spend an extra 30 minutes in deep sleep (the type that really rejuvenates and recharges us).
Supersleep extra? Not ready to give up the cuddles? Try sleeping apart during the week and cosying up at weekends. Or share late night and early morning and go solo for the supersleep hours.
3. Try Magnolia
Sleeping pills are addictive and leave you feeling groggy the next day, so Shabir Dyer suggests Magnolia Bark as a natural alternative: ‘It is known for reducing cortisol, the stress hormone responsible for sleep disturbances especially during the festive season when you are chasing your tail.’ It can also help to relax nerves and muscles and is particularly useful if you tend to wake up in the early hours and can’t get back to sleep.
Supersleep extra? Take Sleep Tight (£25, victoriahealth.com) before bed. Avoid during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. It not only contains magnolia, but a host of other sleep-friendly herbs and micronutrients.
4. Snack smart
Paleo might help you shed pounds but eating a really low-carb diet (fewer than 14 grams of carbs per meal) could be the reason why you’re waking up in the early hours. When your blood sugar levels drop (common in low-carb eaters) cortisol levels can spike, leading to anxiety and sleeplessness. Hip yoga retreat Yobaba Lounge (yobabalounge.com) serves raw power balls for snacking – not only do they keep blood sugar levels even, but they are packed with magnesium-friendly nuts and seeds. Mix together ground nuts and seeds with crunchy peanut butter, honey, chopped up dried banana and dates, a little coconut butter, plus the juice of a lemon. Form into balls and chill.
Supersleep extra? Eating a small snack that combines protein, fat, and carbohydrates (such as almond butter on oatcakes, or a couple of power balls) an hour or so before bed can help. If you wake up in the night, a similar snack might help.
5. Switch from blue to red
Nothing signals ‘wide awake’ to your brain more than ‘blue’ light, the kind that shines out from your TV, laptop, smart phone and iPad. Even when your eyes are shut, light can pass through your closed eyelids and retina into the hypothalamus and researchers at Ohio State University found that just four weeks of blue light left hamsters lethargic and depressed.
The key is to switch from blue to red or orange light as night-time approaches. Grab an app that syncs with sunrise and sunset, shifting your screen from blue and bright to red and dim. F.lux (free for Windows; various charges for other systems; justgetflux.com) will get rid of that nasty blue glow.
Supersleep extra? Go retro in the bedroom with red lightbulbs – it gives a great boudoir feel, quite apart from the sleep benefits.
6. Steam yourself to sleep
‘One of the best ways to encourage sleepiness is to simulate a temperature drop with a hot bath an hour and a half before bedtime,’ says aromatherapist Annee de Mamiel. Coming from hot water to cool sheets will make you sleepy as the drop in body temperature signals sleeptime to the brain. Superboost the sleep power of your bath with soporific essential oils – vetivert and chamomile activate alpha wave activity in the back of the brain which, in turn, promotes relaxation.
Supersleep extra? Aromatherapy Associates Relax range (from £18, aromatherapyassociates.com) and This Works Deep Sleep range (from £12; thisworks.com) are great bedtime soothers. Both use vetivert and chamomile in their super-sleep blends.
7. Hang like a bat
The National Sleep Foundation no longer embargoes evening exercise but, even so, it’s best not to take that manic spin class right before bed. However some forms of late-night exercise actively help press snooze rather than red alert. Aerial yoga (where you hang from a sling) encourages the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system, explains Jacqui Porjes. It’s not just the gentle rocking; the sling itself also provides soothing compression on the skin. Plus muscle tension decreases by 35 percent when you’re inverted.
Supersleep extra? Standard inverted yoga postures such as shoulder stand, head stand, Fish, Plough and Legs up the wall are superb just before bed, says Jacqui. Or hold gentle forward bends for several minutes.
8. Split shift sleep is fine
It’s only relatively recently that we have come to expect a full night’s sleep. In the past people commonly woke up for a few hours in the middle of the night before falling back to sleep for a second bout of slumber. ‘It’s perfectly normal to have periods of wakefulness at night,’ soothes clinical psychologist and sleep therapist Rubin Naiman. His advice is not to stress over night-time wakefulness but to use it for meditation, musing or creative thought and, if need be, catch up with a nap the next day. Studies show that any deep sleep (whether in an eight hour block or in a 30 minute nap) primes the brain to function well.
Supersleep extra? Practice yoga nidra or ‘yogic sleep’ if you wake in the night. Scan the body and mind for sensations and emotions, recognizing them and then gently releasing them.
9. Sip a melatonin smoothie
‘Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland at the base of our brain which helps regulate sleep,’ says Annee de Mamiel. ‘We can naturally boost levels of melatonin in our bodies by eating certain foods.’ To make a super-sleep smoothie, blend together a banana, a handful of frozen cherries (ideally the tart type) and a tablespoon of grape skin powder. ‘The cherries and grape powder both contain melatonin, and bananas are rich in magnesium and potassium, helping you relax.’ Annee uses Bioflavia organic red wine grape skin powder (£20; bioflavia.co.uk)
Supersleep extra? Pineapple, strawberries and oranges can also help melatonin – so ring the changes with your smoothie.
10. Digitalise it
Make your phone work for your sleep, rather than against it. Turn your phone settings to ‘do not disturb’ – nothing kills sleep as much as text or Twitter alerts through the night. If you’re really addicted consider an app that blocks you from Twitter, Facebook and other distracting websites after a certain time.
On the other hand, MotionX-24/7 (69p; 24-7.motionx.com) is seriously smart – seven years in the making, it monitors and analyses your sleep cycles and helps you wake up at the optimal time. You can choose to fall asleep to white noise or music (useful if you suffer from noisy neighbour or yapping dog syndrome). It encourages you to exercise too (also vital for a good night’s slumber). Seeing your sleep graded can feel a little like going back to school (55% – could try harder?) won’t be for everyone but, if you like the scientific approach, this could be your new best friend.
Supersleep extra? Meditation has been proven to help sleep but if you struggle with just sitting, download Headspace (from £4.99 per month; headspace.com) which gets you meditating almost without realising it.
A version of this feature first appeared in Top Sante magazine.