Qualifying as Level 3 Personal Trainer a few years back – simply to cut out the middle man -was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I didn’t just learn about training techniques, anatomy and all that stuff, but it also woke me up to all the other factors associated with a longer, more enjoyable life. The main one being sleep.
Sleep – glorious, heavenly sleep. It’s the stuff dreams are made of and it makes being awake work really well. Apart from breathing, it’s probably the singularly most important bodily function to ensure survival. And when it comes to diet and exercise, they can be rendered practically impotent if not supported by effective sleep. We can exercise hard, eat like a god and meditate to Nirvana and back, but it’s only when we’re asleep that the body really starts to mend, recuperate and re-build. So why on earth do we go about sabotaging it so recklessly? From the deep REM inhibiting properties of alcohol to the constant, imperceptible buzz and glow of electronic gadgets and gizmos, we immerse ourselves in a world of anti-sleep. We end up craving it when we least want to and putting it off when we most need it, leading to a life of reduced awareness and inhibited perceptions.
So what can we do to nurture this precious, life extending commodity? I have seen more than my fair share of sunrises and for all the wrong reasons – from the all night party to the sleep-wrecking demon of acid reflux. But even these days – with exercise, a plant-based diet, daily mediation and absence of alcohol, good sleep has been the biggest challenge on my journey of well-being. As someone who will wake up at the sound of a feather falling coupled with a mind that has the tendency to be as active at 3am as in any daytime hour, I of all people have had to do some serious work in this area. Thankfully though, it’s not brain surgery, simply brain power.
And while the Western proclivity for pharmaceuticals is by far the easiest option, it is the one to resist the most for true long-term wellness. And certainly, you won’t be springing out of bed for some morning exercise or pre-work meditation after a pill-induced, comatose eight hours. Sleep and habit – both good and bad – are inexorably linked, impacting by the often unassociated evening and even morning habits that top and tail it. The obvious one is alcohol. Unfortunately this is a double-edged sword. Often used to initiate sleep, it invariably interrupts it too creating a cycle of nightly drinking, and poor sleep resulting in impaired daily performance which in turn leads to sleep depriving worry and increased alcohol consumption to self-medicate. It is also believed that exercise taken first thing in the morning has a more sleep promoting effect than exercise taken later in the day.
Meditation has had an enormous impact on my general state of mind, and ability to sleep peacefully. My ten minute guided morning meditation routine ensures that my waking time is cushioned by calm leading to less anxiousness and stress throughout the day and thereby promoting better sleep when the time comes around. Prior to bedtime, I also make sure I eat – usually some oats and spelt flakes with oat milk, blueberries and banana.
This you may find surprising, but the don’t eat before bed adage needs to carry a caveat. While eating high protein foods can interfere with the sleep cycle, carbs can help regulate blood sugar while you sleep. Furthermore, metabolic rate for the fit and the lean actually increases during the night, busting the myth about pre-bed time eating contributing to fat building.
If you do wake up in the night, which I do every time without fail, resist at all cost the instinctive reaction to start thinking about stuff. I realise that this is far easier said than done, but the meditation practice of the day helps here too: focusing on the breathing and counting the breaths while text book meditation technique can help stop the/mind from spinning out of control. Also, don’t under-estimate the power of daytime list making. It takes away any need to scramble.
your head about what you have to do, which invariably penetrates your subconscious which then surfaces like a hunting shark when your early hours resistance is at its lowest. just remember the list is rendered useless if it’s too ambitious and not stuck too rigidly. At the moment, I have so many different projects and plans going on, I actually allocate tasks between specific times of day: an hour for this, half an hour for that; my exercise and meditation periods are planned to the minute – even tea break times. It just takes away the need to think about anything other than the task in hand. And believe me, that’s more liberating than you can possibly imagine. I even set an alarm to alert me to start and finish times. It sounds OTT, but it works!
So, when it comes to sleep time, the bedroom is a sacred space – reserved for just two key sleep promoting activities. Yes indeed, the act of love So, put away the phone, the tablet, and the computer; get the telly the hell out of the bedroom, and if you’re not indulging in the most desirable of those two activities, get involved in the other one and read a book. You know – one of those things that bends, stains and damages without breaking – and actually weighs enough to really mean something. It’s not that complicated.