Everyone’s Guide To A Brilliant Night’s Sleep

Illustration: Moebius

“My pillowcases are too loud, do you want them?” asked Sophie. “I’ve only used them once.” Sophie’s sleep is so disturbed that if the fabric of her pillowcases is not soft enough, the sound of her head rubbing against them wakes her up.

Good or bad sleep is not only the time you spend asleep, it’s the quality of your sleep. If you wake up exhausted and tense even after seven hours, you are not sleeping restfully. 

The most common signs of not having good, restful sleep are:

  • Forgetfulness: you find yourself forgetting things – people’s names, where you put your keys – because of a sense exhaustion.
  • Communication problems: spoken language is affected, so you might find yourself saying the wrong words, or the words in your sentences might be jumbled up. You might also have problems finishing sentences or expressing yourself clearly.
  • Irregular hunger patterns: This could be linked to hormone imbalances in your menstrual cycle if you are a woman – see below. In August 2014 Columbia University released a study that shows that getting less sleep as a teenager leads to obesity in later life: “Nearly one-fifth of the 16-year-olds reported getting less than six hours of sleep. This group was 20 percent more likely to be obese by age 21, compared to their peers who got more than eight hours of sleep…Daytime sleepiness and fatigue are known to affect what and how people eat, by altering appetite and stimulating cravings. Energy levels may also play a role. “ This could be caused by people falling into bad eating habits when they are sleep-deprived, though.

What can cause bad sleep?

This depends on how you define bad sleep. Bad sleep could mean anything from waking up in the morning feeling as exhausted as when you went to bed, Restless Leg Syndrome, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep, sleepwalking or nightmares. With regards to nightmares,  Papworth Hospital in the UK says:

“Nightmares usually start between the ages of 2 and 5 years and are most common between the ages of 6 and 10. They are more frequent in women in adult life. They are most pronounced towards the end of the night when REM sleep is most prolonged.”

“Nightmares may be related to anxiety, a previous stressful situations or a result of sleep deprivation. They can be a feature of narcolepsy, REM sleep behaviour disorder and due to drugs. Investigation such as polysomnography is only needed if one of these causes is suspected.”

“Usually no treatment is required for nightmares. However relaxation techniques and imagery rehearsal therapy in which the dreamer is taught to change the content of the nightmares into a form which is more pleasant, may be effective.
Causes of abnormal dreams and nightmares

  1. Psychological and Psychiatric disorders, e.g. anxiety, depression, schizophrenia.
  2. Diseases affecting the functioning of the brain such as narcolepsy, REM sleep behaviour disorder, Parkinson’s disease.
  3. Drugs. Many drugs can increase the frequency and intensity of dreams including dopaminergic drugs, beta blockers and antidepressants.”
Illustration: Carl Escher

Hormones and sleep

The hormones melatonin and cortisol that are produced by our body regulate the circadian rhythm, that is: our sleep pattern. I found this very concise summary of how it works on Honest Nutrition:

“Sleep allows an overactive adrenal to rest overnight, also allowing your melatonin to give you a good night’s sleep. Cortisol and melatonin are agonists, and fight for dominance. Cortisol is a stress hormone made by the adrenal gland and melatonin is an antioxidant sleep hormone produced by the pineal gland at night, in darkness. Normally melatonin takes over the night, slowing down cortisol production in the adrenal gland and encouraging proper rest and repair cycles. Then it wanes and cortisol and other adrenal hormones take over during the day, giving you energy. They should switch off in a normal daily cycle. If the adrenal won’t shut down properly overnight due to stress, one may have inadequate melatonin resulting in an improper rest and repair cycle wearing you down. High cortisol levels are also associated with encouraging the depositing of fat in the abdomen, specifically. So reducing cortisol may also inhibit the formation of abdominal fat.”

It’s interesting how this relates back to the link between sleep deprivation as adolescents and obesity in later life.

So if melatonin is key to getting good sleep, how can we get more of it? It’s available in capsules, but we can synthesize it in our own bodies from the amino acid triptophan. Low levels of this essential amino acid (it’s called essential because we cannot produce it ourselves, we have to get it from eggs, cheese, sea fish, meat, pulses, spirulina etc.) have also been linked to low levels in serotonin, the hormone that controls moods and depression. There’s a Wikipedia page on it here.

Sleep and periods / menstrual cycle

According to the London Sleep Centre, “Women are among the most chronically sleep deprived members of society, with women from age 30-60 averaging just under 7 hours of sleep per night during the week. This is contributed to by […] the multiple roles many women have as wage earner, homemaker and mother. In addition of course, physiological differences due to changing hormone levels [have] an important effect on sleep quality.”

“Studies have shown that hormonal changes in the menstrual cycle can and do interfere with sleep for an average 2-3 days per monthly cycle. The interference with sleep appears due to a bloated feeling but clearly contributed to by other factors. The most marked disturbance occurs during the first few days of menstruation. An second time of disrupted sleep occurs as progesterone levels fall towards the end of the menstrual cycle. There may be difficulty falling asleep in this time period. The premenstrual period, the last few days before menstruation commences, is also associated with poorer sleep with insomnia common but sometimes hypersomnia or increased daytime sleepiness may also occur.”

Panic attacks

For a few years I suffered from panic attacks. They could occur at any time, day or night, but the worst were in the middle of the night. I would wake up and experience my heart beating like a machine gun and uncontrolled breathing, with horrible feelings of fear that I couldn’t shake. It would take hours to get back to sleep, sometimes getting back to sleep was impossible. After a lot of experimentation, I found that, for me at least, this breathing exercise works:

  • Sit up. Really, sitting up is important for this. 
  • Breathe in. Imagine that your body is filling up with light from the base of your spine, as you hold your breath for a count of four. 
  • Slowly release your breath for a count of eight. Release all the anxiety and horror your are experiencing. Breathe out as if you are breathing out through a straw.
  • Repeat until you feel more settled. Eventually your heart beat will return to normal and so will your breathing. Concentrating on your breath and the visualisations help to distract your mind from feelings of doom and disaster. This is a variation on Reiki breath techniques, which are very similar to Pranayama breathing, should you wish to find out more about therapeutic breathing.

After doing this a few times, my panic attacks subsided. I still get one or two a year, but they are probably related to general “life anxiety” than “poor sleep hygiene”, as it’s called.

Illustration: Heinz Edelmann

Safe and effective solutions for a good night’s sleep – before you go to bed: 

  • A hot bath before just bed can leave you feeling tired and relaxed. As you are running the bath, add one tablespoon each of sea salt, Epsom salts and bicarbonate of soda. This will help to maintain healthy skin and promotes relaxed muscles.
  • Hot milky (cow, soy, almond) drinks before bed increase your sense of comfort and wellbeing.
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol intake before sleep – not drinking yourself to sleep – helps to promote good sleep patterns over the long term, no matter how difficult this may be to establish at first.
  • Avoid exercise – even yoga – before you go to bed, but make sure you work in exercise somewhere into your weekly routine. Your body should be feeling tired and in need of rest.
  • Avoid eating or feeling too full, and at the same time feeling hungry can also trigger sleeplessness.
  • Cigarettes contain nicotine which is a stimulant. “Just one more before I go to bed” can cause you to stay awake for longer than you want.
  • I can drink coffee or tea (Indian, Chinese or Green Japanese) just before going to bed without any problems later but many people can’t. Caffeine is a long-term stimulant, so you could find yourself waking up at 3 or 4 am, unable to get back to sleep, knowing you are due to be up in a couple of hours – frustration! You could experiment with adding a crushed cardamom pod to your pre-bed-time coffee, which is said to relieve the over-stimulation of caffeine.
  • Looking at screens – phones, tablets, PCs, as these screens emit UV light which will disturb your sleep patterns. TV screens emit bright light which can stimulate your brain and stop you from falling asleep. Ask yourself: do I really need to watch the news and get myself all upset, just before I go to bed? 


Illustration: Maurice Sendak


  • Turn your alarm clock away from you
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night, do not check what time it is as this increases the anxiety that you feel about not being asleep.
  • Papworth Hospital recommends “Always get up and go to bed at the same time seven days a week, however short your time asleep is. An alarm clock is helpful to maintain this; you must resist any temptation to lie in. You should not use weekends to catch up with sleep as this will upset the rhythm that your body has become used to during the week. […] However, you should not spend excessive amounts of time in bed if you are sleeping poorly, but continue to maintain your regular routine. The purpose of this is to encourage your body to rest at the right time.”
  • If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, cool your body down by taking off your bed covers for a while. This cooling down triggers sleepiness. Wandering around the house, getting a drink of water, checking on the kids, having a pee, this qualifies as cooling your body down, and helps to ease anxiety.

Vitamin deficiency has also been linked to insomnia, especially:

  • Magnesium – cocoa powder is the richest source of magnesium with 520mg/100g, but because chocolate also contains sugar and is known as a stimulant, it’s best to avoid just before bed. Also high on the list of magnesium-rich foods are: whole grains (wheat, rye, barley), nuts (brazil, cashew, almond), pulses (soy, lentils, peanuts, red kidney, chickpeas etc.) shellfish, sesame seeds and tahini, oily fish (sardines, mackerel, anchovies etc.)
  • Zinc – found plentifully in shellfish (oysters, whelks, winkles etc.) offal (liver especially), cow’s milk products (parmesan, dried skimmed milk, cheddar etc.) pulses, nuts, seeds, curry powder and, thankfully, cocoa powder – though see Magnesium above.
  • B group, especially B6 – again, whole grains, offal (liver and kidney), oily fish, especially salmon, pulses, nuts, avocados, bananas and plantain and tomato paste.

Source: Healthy Eating, Alison Forbes.  

Lavender capsules

Ananda Apothecary recently published this article which claims that four recent, independent studies have found that ingested lavender helps with anxiety and sleep support. The studies used Silexan, which is a lavender oil preparation in gelatin capsules. There are not a lot of aromatherapists who recommend eating / drinking essential oils, because they can be dangerous and because the intensely acidic environment in the upper digestive system can neutralize their effect, so if you are tempted to try lavender, I would strongly recommend going for a commercial preparation instead of DIYing. However, if you are tempted to go that way, please let us know how you fared!

If you found that this blog post is helpful, please let me know. If you would like to leave a comment, that would be most grand! And if you know anyone who could benefit from reading this, please forward this article to them.

Have a great week


Silexan is a lavender oil preparation in gelatine capsules containing 80 mg. – See more at: http://www.anandaapothecary.com/weblog/2015/01/studies-show-ingested-lavender-essential-oil-effective-for-anxiety-relief-sleep-support/#sthash.o6z9ZDkW.dpuf
Four Studies Find Ingested Lavender Essential Oil Effective for Anxiety Relief & Sleep Support – See more at: http://www.anandaapothecary.com/weblog/2015/01/studies-show-ingested-lavender-essential-oil-effective-for-anxiety-relief-sleep-support/#sthash.o6z9ZDkW.dpuf


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