Iesha Small
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How I improved my sleep after years of insomnia: part 2

Autumn is a time when teachers and many others face insomnia. I share top tips I’ve made to improve my sleep (part 2).

In part 1 of this two post series I wrote about my struggles with sleep over the years and what I’ve recently been learning and trying from the book Sleep Smarter in order to improve my sleep. Here are some more tips I’ve learnt from the book that has had the single biggest impact on my quality of life this year.

All black everything

Any parents of young children will know the absolute havoc that British Summer Time and longer days wreaks on bedtimes. This year, having slept pretty decently for at least a year, our then 4 year olds turned into crazed, hyper active hyenas as soon as the clocks went forward and the days got longer. We were used to a life where sometimes they’d fall asleep before we’d even returned down stairs after their bedtime story. Suddenly, we’d still hear them giggling manically over an hour after we put them to bed.  Eventually we had to separate them at bed time and one of us had to hang around to calm the atmosphere like we did in the toddler days.

I had no idea that our skin has receptors that are sensitive to light. Sleep can be disrupted (or prevented) if there is excessive light in our bedroom. Even small coin sized patches of light have been shown to affect melatonin and body temperature [1] (which were outlined as important in PART 1). Presumably the extra light put S and E completely out of sync.

What I did

To solve the problem with the kids we bought some paper black out blinds which we used along with their curtains and it worked wonders. We already had some in our room so I went a step further. I tried a sleep mask but maybe I have a tiny head because it always fell off.

I had never given much thought to the light inside our room emitted from alarm clocks and the various LEDs indicating charging devices. I got rid of all the ones from my side of the room and after a while asked M if she’d consider moving hers out too. This is one of those steps where it’s hard to tell if there has been an individual effect but I do know that implementing the majority of the steps in Sleep Smarter has led to an overall improvement in my sleep duration and quality.  We both switched to analogue alarm clocks that are dark at night but have a light that you can turn on or off. Everything else charges on the landing with our smart phones.

For people who can’t do without their devices, red light is meant to be less disruptive to sleep than blue light.

Calm your brain whirr

Disrupted sleep over time is probably the clearest way for me to realise I am stressed or worried about something before I am consciously aware of it. Over the summer I was not aware of being stressed but I did have a number of deadlines and very tight time scales. Also I was about to leave teaching completely after a 14 year career and a degree of success so presumably there was some subconscious worry about the future and change.

What I did

There were a number of suggestions about calming your brain whir in Sleep Smarter. One was mediation, which I already practice via the Headspace app. The one that I personally found most helpful at this particular time was taking a small action towards doing something I needed “to do or let go off.” You know, things like that phone call you were supposed to make, or that set of books you were meant to mark or that difficult conversation you know you have to have. I knew I had some deadlines and I hadn’t really made a proper start on any of them. I resolved to take action addressing at least one of the items every single day. Whenever I woke up at night I wrote down whatever I was thinking about or was bothering me in a notebook I kept next to my bed. I then looked at it the next day and did something to address it.  If needed, I listened to either an audio book or an old 20min mediation guided trance from Paul Mckenna. It’s so, so cheesy but I’ve found that it’s the only one that consistently helps me fall back to sleep over many, many years.  Once again I listened on my old iPod rather than my phone.

What you eat can improve your sleep

I know it sounds kind of obvious but I’d not really thought about how the food I ate might affect my sleep. I knew that alcohol and caffeine could affect sleep but I don’t have much of either on a day to day or week by week basis and hadn’t given much thought to anything else. As discussed in part 1.  A large part (95%) of our body’s serotonin is in our guts and serotonin can affect mood and sleep. The health of our guts and the quality of what we put into our bodies is hugely important for all health not just sleep. Sure, I kind of knew that but because I’m generally healthy with a good BMI I’d not been particularly intentional about what I ate.

What I did.

My mum was right about cod liver oil but it's too disgusting Click To Tweet

Chapter 7 in Sleep Smarter is very comprehensive about food, sleep and nutrients. I won’t reproduce it all here but here are some of the changes or re adjustments that fit with my tastes and lifestyle.

  • Increased my green leafy vegetable intake, especially spinach because I love that.
  • Started eating avocado at least one a week
  • Made more of an effort to eat fish. My preferred on a day to day basis are sardines and tuna and smoked salmon.
  • Felt happy that my regular breakfast of banana and kiwi had load of good stuff in for sleep
  • Started adding chia seeds to my porridge or lunch
  • Switched my breakfast or brunch to something protein heavy usually involving eggs or avocado (+ spinach).
  • Had a great excuse to eat more pickled stuff. I’ve always loved kimchi, pickled onions and similar. I was thrilled to discover that pickled food are a great source of probiotics which can help with sleep. I’ve been eating pickled gherkins like that are going out of fashion.

 

My dinner times are largely untouched because we already have a pretty decent diet there.

Reading this chapter made me realise my mum was right when she used to make me and my brother take a spoon of cod liver oil every morning for our health. However, it’s too disgusting for me to go back to now even though she was right and the health benefits are proven.

Other notable mentions

There were a number of other suggestions to improve sleep that were mentioned in Sleep Smarter. I’ll leave some here without comment.

  • Have more sex. Orgasms help many people feel sleepy[2]
  • Cut off wifi overnight night.
  • Cut out lie ins and go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time (with a 30min window) every day, even the weekends
  • Give grounding a go. The easiest way for most people is to be barefoot outside for a fixed amount of time.

What next?

Read part 1 (if you haven’t already) for other actions I took to improve my sleep. Autumn term can be a stressful time for teachers and that stress can spill over into disrupted sleep patterns. For anybody with Seasonal Affective Disorder it may also be the start of sleep problems. If that’s the case for you try at least one of the suggestions above or in the previous blog consistently for two weeks and see if it makes any difference. I’ve tried all of the steps above in conjunction and they have made a real difference to my quality of sleep overall. Share this with anybody who you think would benefit from reading it. And let me know anything that you have tried.

 

Enjoyed reading this blog post? Subscribe for future ones  you’ll also get a free copy of my ‘9 Lessons for unexpected leaders’ pdf.

 

If you are a school leader who feels like you don’t fit the traditional mould or know anybody else who is then my book The Unexpected Leader may be for you. Read about it and pre-order on Amazon 

[1] Page 75. Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success by Shawn Stevenson.

[2] The chapter about the benefits of sex started on page 69. I have no idea if that was coincidence or not.

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How I improved my sleep after years of insomnia: part 2