Whether it’s caused by anxiety over the pandemic, or our always-on lifestyles and inability to stop the scroll, we’re in the midst of a sleep crisis. In this episode, leading sleep psychologist Stephanie Romiszewski shares:
Sleeping well is a struggle for around a third of us. Leading sleep expert Stephanie Romiszewski, consultant physiologist and director of the Sleepyhead Clinic in Exeter, shares her insider advice on easing insomnia (and why that early night probably won’t help)
‘If you suddenly have an acute problem with your sleep, don’t worry about it. Without changing any behaviour, you will probably go back to normal. Worrying about the issue leads us to change our behaviour to incorporate strange techniques that don’t work. And that’s when you start having a chronic sleep problem.’
‘When people struggle with their sleep, they often try to alter their sleep window [the time you allocate for sleep every night]. They say: “I’m going to start to go to bed early, or lying in to catch up.” Suddenly, your body thinks you don’t need a regular block of sleep any more. You’ve reinforced to your brain that this new way of doing things is normal.’
‘You have a clock in your brain and every cell in your body, doing things like releasing hormones at a certain time. If we keep mucking up those timings, your body has no idea when to make you happy, sad, hungry, full, sleepy, awake, when to give you energy or make you feel chilled… Try to see that wake-up time as a reset button. No matter how badly or how well you slept, wake up at the same time every day. If you do this consistently, you’ll notice that even if you have a bad night, you’ll still feel alright at certain times of day.’Going to bed at the same time is not necessarily helpful’
‘Instead, go to bed when you’re really sleepy. Getting ready for bed usually wakes us up, so do it earlier: brushing your teeth, doing the dishwasher, the kids’ lunches for tomorrow. Then you’ve got an hour before bed where you’re in your PJs, watching your favourite programme, doing something you love and that makes you content. Then when you feel really sleepy, slip off to bed. If you’re consistent, this will start to happen around the same time every night.
‘If we told everyone to go to bed at 10pm, insomnia would be even more of an issue than it is now. We get anxious, which increases our heart rate and temperature. That’s the opposite of what you need to go to sleep.
‘Also, we have different stages of sleep. Deep sleep, which we have more of in the first half of the night, is important for cell restoration, tissue repair, and your immune system. REM sleep, which we have more of in the second half, is important for emotional processing and memory consolidation. On top of that, we all have different circadian rhythms – some of us are morning people, some night-time, and some in-between.’
‘In winter, we don’t get enough light in the morning. If you can wake up at the same time every day and also expose yourself to bright light, you will feel more alert and happier, too. Absence of light at night is also good for us because it improves our melatonin, which helps us fall asleep.’
‘We may have created some of [our sleep problems] ourselves with sleep tracking. I track sleep when I’m working with someone to help them, but wouldn’t ask them to do that every day, the same way I wouldn’t track anything in my life for no reason, unless there was a goal and I understood the science behind it.’
‘In small amounts, sleep deprivation actually improves your sleep. This is the part that blows people’s minds. I put people through a process called sleep restriction therapy to treat insomnia. A lot of people feel they’ve lost that ability to sleep, which makes us feel very out of control. So, we need to build up that drive again.
‘Every time something happens in your life – stress, an illness, a new medication, menopause, bladder problems, chronic pain – it’s going to affect your sleep. Try to see sleep as something that’s part of your life. Life’s not linear, and your sleep’s not going to be either. Even I get sleep problems sometimes: it’s not normal to get eight hours consistently every night, and you’re going to have blips.’
Find out more about Stephanie Romiszewski at The Sleepy Head Clinic, sleepyheadclinic.co.uk
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A doctor for over 17 years, Gemma Newman has worked in many specialities as a doctor including elderly care, endocrinology, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry, general surgery, urology, vascular surgery, rehabilitation medicine and General Practice.
Dr Newman's specialist interests are in holistic health and plant-based nutrition as well as lifestyle medicine. In her practice she has come to understand that body, mind and soul are not separate, and that it is only in addressing the root causes of stress and disconnection that we can truly heal, from the inside out.