The Power of Sleep
Sleep. We all need it. Most mums are knackered, and lack of sleep is often cited as the reason why. It’s no surprise. From the moment we bring our beautiful bundle home, all bets are off when it comes to our nightly rest.
Confession time. When my sons were younger, I used to quietly rage at the mums who’d say, “Oh, he’s sleeping through 7 to 7! Isn’t yours!?” No. The dark shadows under my eyes were testament to the fact that we weren’t close to that for a very long time. In fact, bed hopping was the norm in our house until well into primary school.
As adults we need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. Let’s face it, most mums are not getting as much as that on a regular basis.
Why does it matter?
Well, apart from the impact on your energy each day, how well and how much you sleep impacts:
Your mood – who isn’t shoutier when they’re tired?
Your appetite - we’re more likely to reach for quick energy options when we’re tired, namely junk food and caffeine.
Your coping mechanisms – if you’re tired, you’re more likely to feel overwhelmed.
Your immune system – sleep strengthens your body’s immune response. When we get ill and all we want to do is sleep? That’s the body’s way of letting us know we need rest for recovery.
The truth is though, it’s very easy NOT to prioritise sleep as mums. Our evenings are sacrosanct. Our ‘me-time’. The only time of day when being actively needed pauses for just a few hours.
Tell me, how often do you delay bedtime to watch an extra episode of your latest box set? Or even turn off the TV then pick up your phone for a last scroll only to lose another half an hour? (So easily done…)
Hands up who goes to bed an earlier later than when they first think, “I should really go to bed,” because it’s easier to stay on the sofa?
I completely understand the battle but even if you have a balanced diet choc-full of nourishment, if you’re exhausted, it stands to reason that you will not feel your best. As a nutritional therapist, it’s my job to advise not just on food, but also lifestyle tweaks that can have a powerful impact on our wellbeing. How you sleep is front and centre of how you feel each day.
I know how often a small human hollers for us at night may be out of our control, but there are things we can do as mums each day to improve the quality of the sleep we do get.
Here are my top 10 tips for getting better slumber time.
1. Step away from the light… at least an hour before bed, put your phone down. This takes practice but it will make a difference. The blue light that screens emit suppress the production of melatonin, which helps the brain to regulate our circadian rhythm. To be avoided. Keep tech OUT of the bedroom. No phones, no laptops or tablets. If social media is your kryptonite, try setting a limit on your phone so you can’t fall down the rabbit hole of watching endless Reels.
2. Keep your bedroom as dark as possible – start with low lights in the evening to prepare the body for sleep. If your curtains or blinds let in light, try sleeping with an eye mask.
3. Glass of wine to take the edge off? You might feel like it helps you to relax in the evening, but alcohol disrupts our circadian rhythm too. If you tend to pour yourself a glass each night, try and go booze-free for at least 3 nights a week and see if you sleep better.
4. Try and leave a few hours after eating before bed. The better you have digested your meal, the better you’ll sleep. Avoid late night snacking for the same reason.
5. Try not to have caffeine after midday – caffeine has a half-life of 5-6 hours, so that post-lunch latte may be affecting how well you sleep, even if you don’t realise it. If you’re someone who recognises that caffeine makes them a little wired or jittery, try forgoing it for a week or two and see how you feel. If you have a lot of coffee and want to avoid caffeine-withdrawal headaches, cut back slowly. Start by just swapping out one cup of caffeine for a different hot drink.
6. Blood sugar balance is important. Too high and you’ll find it hard to wind down when you climb into bed. Too low and you may find yourself waking in the night. Eat an evening meal that contains some protein (meat, fish or pulses), some complex carbohydrate (opt for brown rice, not white; whole wheat pasta, not white) and some healthy fats (some olive oil dressing on your vegetables perhaps).
7. Doing TOO much exercise? Movement is integral to good health and moderate exercise can help you sleep, but over-exercising can have the opposite effect. Over time it may even lead to Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis dysfunction. A bit of a mouthful, but it’s important: a feedback loop from the brain to the body, the HPA-axis acts like a messenger to let us know when we’re burning out. If we ignore the message, fatigue can hit hard. In simple terms, it’s like running your engine with your foot on the pedal too hard for too long.
8. Eat for sleep. Foods that contain the amino acid tryptophan may promote sleep as the body uses it to turn into a B vitamin called niacin. Niacin helps the body create serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can help us sleep. So, opt for protein foods that contain tryptophan like chicken, turkey, cheese, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.
9. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. This helps programme the brain and our internal body clock to sleep well.
10. And breathe… The connection between stress and sleep is well documented. We all know if we go to bed wired, sleep may be a struggle. If mediation or yoga is not for you, aim to do 5 minutes of relaxation before bed - this can take the form of deep breathing. This can be as simple as a series of deep, slow breaths. Try the 4-7-8 breath - breathe in for the count of 4, hold for the count of 7, and slowly let your breath out for the count of 8. It takes a little practice but give it a go. Build up to ten rounds. Even this modest exercise can have a physiological benefit by helping to trigger your parasympathetic nervous system which acts like a brake on stress. I suggest using one of the fabulous breathing exercises on the Nourish App.
We could all benefit from more, better quality sleep. Just one small change can have a big impact so, if only for this week, why not aim to be in bed half an hour earlier each night and see how you feel. More energised? Better skin? Less hungry? Happier?
Let’s prioritise sleep when we can, mama.
Netflix can wait.
About the Author:
Thalia Pellegrini is a BANT-registered nutritional therapist with more than a decade of experience. Known as the Knackered Mums Nutritionist, she runs her clinic online and sees clients around the world. She offers her signature 1:1 Revitalise package, as well as her 6-month group program The Energised Mum Method and runs The Mother Retreat. She supports time-poor mums to nourish themselves and works to address health issues ranging from PCOS to PMS to perimenopause and low energy, anxiety and fatigue.