Are you sleeping soundly?

This month is National Bed Month. Organised by the Sleep Council (who wouldn’t want to work for them? An afternoon nap would count as research!) this month aims to raise people’s awareness of the importance of a good night’s sleep for maintaining health and wellbeing.

During sleep our bodies do an awful lot of work: processing thoughts and emotions from the day, organising memory ‘files’ in the brain, repairing cells and detoxifying wastes. In Chinese Medicine the hours between 11pm and 3am are significantly called ‘golden hours’, and are thought to be the time when the liver and gallbladder are highly active, processing toxins and attending to various functions. Sleep is a busy time for our bodies!

This is why a lack of sleep has such profound and varied effects. Poor sleep disrupts memory and concentration, causes muscle aches and pains, disturbs digestive functions, and generally makes us clumsier and less alert. A lack of sleep can make you want to eat more – not apples or salad or anything healthy, but more of the starchier refined carbohydrates that provide a quick pick-me-up. Good sleep is essential if you want to lose weight!

A common sleep problem is to wake up at around 3-4am. This can, in many cases, be linked to low blood sugar levels. Eating a small snack about 30 minutes before going to bed (assuming bedtime is around 11pm) can help alleviate this problem. A couple of oatcakes with nut butter is ideal, or a banana and a handful of nuts: the combination of protein and complex carbohydrates provides a slow steady release of sugars into the blood stream to support you whilst you slumber.

Partaking of a night-cap of whiskey or brandy may seem like a good idea for the soporific effects of alcohol, but ultimately, this leads to poor quality sleep and more work for your liver to do in processing the alcohol.

Herbal remedies can provide gentle effective support for sleep patterns. Valerian is a popular choice: don’t be put off by its strong smell, it is a fantastic relaxant for the nervous system, encouraging deep calm sleep and easing anxious, overactive minds. It is often combined with other herbs such as lemon balm, hops and oat straw in sleep formulas. The synergistic actions of these plants support relaxation and restorative sleep. If you are currently taking tranquilisers or other sedative medications check with an herbal advisor for any possible contraindications. Herbs have powerful actions, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is necessarily suitable or safe to take alongside prescription medication.

To aid sleep, do be mindful of your intake of stimulants like tea, coffee, sugary foods, and alcohol. Even decaffeinated versions of tea and coffee can be too much for some people. Depending on the strength of the caffeinated drink, it can take up to six hours for caffeine to clear your system, meaning an afternoon brew can still be keeping you awake at bedtime.

- Sally Duffin is a nutritional therapist and writer based in Holgate, York.