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5 Tips to Improve Your Sleep

Emma and The Valley of Two Moons - Original Painting by Elise Mahon

I love the depths of winter and the permission it grants us to slow down, return to stillness and surrender ourselves to deep sleep and the dreamtime. What if the sleep you find yourself in is not so deep?

Have you considered reimagining evening routines that do not revolve around screen time or watching TV?

By turning down the lights as evening falls, we start to turn inward and our nervous system naturally follows suit. We switch gears into a state of beingness instead of doingness; the sacred place where receptivity and surrender replace the unrelenting wound-upness of our time.

During deep sleep we are able to access the restorative function of our body’s inherent repair system. The most common issues affecting sleep find their origins in the fallout of stress in our lives and the effects of light exposure on our natural sleep/wake cycles. Here are the top 5 things that I have found to be most helpful to allow the body to surrender to deep and restorative sleep.

1. Ensure adequate Magnesium levels

2. Balance your Blood Sugars. Riding the blood sugar roller coaster often contributes to cortisol spikes in the middle of the night, leading to night waking. To help balance blood sugars, eat 3 square meals per day that include healthy fats, adequate protein and plenty of vegetables. Avoid refined carbohydrates. Don’t eat too much before bed, however if you have a fast metabolism you may benefit from a nutrient dense snack before bed that contains some fat and protein.

Often I see sleep problems occurring in women who are over exercising as well as not getting enough calories into them. Not only does this throw off night time blood sugars but it registers as a significant physiological stress on the body, triggering HPA Axis dysfunction and elevated cortisol levels.

People with HPA axis dysfunction can sometimes be more sensitive to a low carb diet, where the restriction of carbohydrates seems to aggravate their sleeplessness.

3. Regulate your Nervous System. If your nervous system is in a continual state of overdrive and fight or flight, it contributes to a dysregulation of the HPA Axis. The HPA Axis refers to a master neuro-hormonal regulating system in the body governed by the Hypothalamus, Pituitary and Adrenal glands (HPA). Longterm HPA Axis dysfunction eventually leads to conditions that we commonly refer to as adrenal burn out.

There is very little in our day to day lives that anchors us in a feeling of peace, calm and safety in our world. Explore various self care practices to see what works best to get you there: let go of the crazy to-do lists, take a warm bath or a walk in nature, practice mindfulness, breathe, go to a yoga class, do some Qi Gong, listen to relaxing music, find your joy, practice gratitude and self compassion. What's gets you to that place of feeling peace, calm and safety within your own being?

A simple breath practice can be a great place to start if you are not sure where to begin - 5 minutes twice a day of a breathing practice focusing on a prolonged exhalation can be quite restorative to the nervous system. Inhale for a count of 4-6, hold for a count of 6-8 and exhale for a count of 8-24 depending on your lung capacity.

4. Respect Light Exposure. Mimicking light exposure to reflect that of a normal day and night cycle will help normalize your circadian rhythm and natural sleep-wake cycles.

Keep your bedroom completely dark at night. Use black out curtains if you need to. Don’t turn on the lights if you get up at night to pee. Avoid the use of nightlights. If you need a nightlight in a strategic location to avoid tripping over the dog, opt for red or orange incandescent bulbs of not more than 4-7watts. Do not use these nightlights in your bedroom. Avoid LED nightlights as they give off blue light.

Spend time outdoors exposed to bright natural light during the day for at least 30 minutes per day without sunglasses. The most important times for this exposure are at sunrise and around noon. Get 10 minutes of bright outdoor natural light exposure around sunrise, and another 20 minutes by noon. If you are not wearing sunglasses at this time, be smart, don’t look directly at the sun to avoid eye damage. If your schedule or geography does not allow for exposure to natural outdoor full spectrum light, invest in a light box and use that instead. Nothing beats the great outdoors!

Avoid exposure to blue light in the 2 hours before bed until morning. Our body interprets the blue light we receive from screen time, electronics and LED lights as full on daylight. Exposure to this blue light in the two hours before bed disrupts our normal circadian rhythm giving the body the message that sleep is nowhere near on the upcoming agenda. Exposure to blue light also creates a more wound up feeling in the nervous system.

Avoid screen time, television and the use of ipads, smartphones and other screens in the two hours before bed. Turn off all LED and fluorescent bulbs at that time. Ideal lighting options for the hours before bed include low wattage bulbs, especially red and amber coloured bulbs. I like to use nightlights fitted with 4-7 watt incandescent bulbs and 15 watt incandescent appliance bulbs that fit in regular light fixtures. I find the 15 watt bulbs adequate to read by. I also like my amber coloured Somnilight reading light. And nothing beats lighting a candle or gathering around the fire.

5. Create New Evening Routines. Reimagine evening routines that do not revolve around screentime or watching television. As evening falls, create an oasis of safety, comfort and calm in your world. If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace, you might find that the age-old practice of gathering around the fire is more relaxing and beneficial to your sleep than watching the news or other television programming. Read by soft light, listen to an audiobook or a guided relaxation, listen to your favourite music or an inspiring podcast, write, tell stories, imagine, share about your day, practice gratitude, play, pray, chant, sing, dance, meditate, do yoga, go for a walk, cuddle, hug, share foot rubs, make love, take a warm bath, connect with your loved ones.

May you find new ways to befriend nightfall and surrender to the call of the deep restorative well of sleep.

Illustration by Elise Mahan @elisemahan

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