My perfect bedtime playlist

I’ve been converted to Classic FM. Over the last few weeks the radio station has been doing a splendid job of sending me off to sleep with its gentle, soothing sounds. Plus, I’ve realised that I can combine two of my favourite pastimes – reading and listening to music – before I go to sleep. I’m now actively looking forward to the end of the day so that I can go to bed and enjoy some relaxation-time before dozing off…..does that make me a little bit sad, I wonder? Probably more than a little bit sad, actually.

Whilst I have a new, unexpected, love of Classic FM (at bedtime anyway), I can’t help but wonder what my perfect bedtime playlist would consist of.  It requires some careful consideration, but as a starting point, the following songs spring to mind – it’s almost as if they were made for drifting off to sleep:

♫  Cold Water Music – Aim

♫  The Killing Moon – Nouvelle Vague

♫  Tonight – Lykke Li

♫  Here’s Looking At You, Kid – The Gaslight Anthem

♫  Tap At My Window – Laura Marling

♫  Playground Love – Air

♫  Asleep On A Sunbeam – Belle & Sebastian

♫  Do You Realize?? – The Flaming Lips

Let me know what you think. Don’t be shy, tell me who sings you to sleep at night.

Boozing and snoozing

Party time! Don't be surprised if you're tired and grouchy the day after though....

I’ve really embraced this assignment and I’ve had a lot of fun! (For those of you who are confused, let me explain: A couple of weeks ago I announced that I would be testing the impact of certain foods and drinks on my sleep quality, commencing with alcohol.)

I started conservatively with a glass of fruity Spanish red (Torre de Rejas Reserva Bodegas Lopez Mercier, La Mancha, 2003) on the first Friday and Saturday nights of my experiment. Then I really stepped things up….One glass of pink champagne, and one-too-many glasses of the sommelier’s choice of white and red, at Michel Roux Jr.’s Le Gavroche with friends last Wednesday was a real treat. On Thursday, I enjoyed several glasses of the house white at The Slaughtered Lamb pub in Clerkenwell to celebrate a friend’s last days of freedom before marriage. Add to that half a beautiful bottle of Mas de Daumas Gassax Rose Frizant NV (from Joseph Barnes Wines in Saffron Walden), savoured on Saturday night with my other half.  Oh, and I can’t forget the sweet Lady Gray tea, flavoured with a generous measure of amaretto, that I sipped on Sunday evening. In short, I’ve consumed a lot of booze!

So, what have I discovered about the impact of my alcohol-fueled fun on my sleep? Well, it’s all a bit hazy……

Just kidding. Even when I was struggling to walk in my M&S heels, I was focused on my goal: to reveal the real effect of alcohol on sleep. In just a few days of assessment, I have made the following not-so-astonishing discoveries:

  • Sedating: Alcohol is a wonderful relaxant and, at the end of a hectic week, there’s little that can beat the instant calming effect of a beautiful glass of wine.
  • Sleep inducing: I had no problems dropping off to sleep after my evening drinking. In fact, staying awake would have posed greater difficulty.
  • Sleep disrupting? Sometimes….

According to sleep experts, alcohol disturbs normal sleep patterns and often leads to a night of broken sleep, making it harder to get up the next day. The message, therefore, is lay off the booze as it can cause sleep problems. This message is too simplistic for my liking….surely giving up alcohol is a little extreme??!!

On the nights I over-indulged, then yes, I admit I didn’t have the most restful nights’ sleep. Whilst I nodded off almost instantaneously, the nights were punctuated with trips to the fridge for water and visits to the loo.  And yes, the morning after I wanted nothing more than to hibernate from the world and recover with a “fat” Coke.

On the other hand, a small glass of wine in the evening, together with a glass of water, or maybe followed by herbal tea before bed, had no noticeable impact on my sleep. I slept as usual and noticed no change in alertness the next day.

My discoveries lead me to this conclusion: “enjoy alcohol in moderation”, said whilst sitting on the fence!

I’m not advocating including alcohol as part of your bedtime routine; there are many alternative ways to relax before bedtime and, in my opinion, relying on alcohol to unwind is no good at all. But always living by rigid rules is no good either and I don’t see the need to give up alcohol. It’s all about moderation. So, if you have a cold beer or a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc a few nights a week, enjoy it, and don’t worry about it.

I know I won’t be. For now though, I think it’s time to give my liver a rest……For my next project I’ll be testing the sleep-enhancing properties of warm milk. Yummy!

You can find drinking limits and other useful information on the Drinkaware website. It goes without saying, but please don’t drink and drive, people.

Image: George Stojkovic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Eating, drinking, sleeping

Will these carrots improve my sleep? Or help me to see better in the dark?

Eating, drinking and sleeping….Three of my favourite pastimes! We’ve all heard the old wives’ tales and sleep experts’ warnings about the effect of your eating and drinking habits on your sleep. Without even thinking, the following examples spring to mind: “Steer clear of caffeine – it’s a powerful stimulant and it’ll keep you awake”; “A hot milky drink before bed helps promote sleep”; “Drink chamomile tea in the evenings – it’s a natural sedative”; “Don’t eat a heavy meal too close to bedtime”; “Avoid alcohol in the evenings – it may help you to fall asleep but it’ll disturb your sleep patterns”; “Avoid protein, eat complex carbs instead before bedtime” …..Rules, rules, rules…

I wonder: Do our eating and drinking habits really have such a huge impact on our sleep as we’re led to believe? Is it really realistic and practical to, say, avoid alcohol in the evenings – should I be pouring a glass of wine on my cereal in the morning, instead? Am I really going to suffer from terrible sleep if I eat a chicken breast before bed rather than a bowl of brown rice?

According to an article published on the Financial Times’ website earlier this week (“Carrots and sticks” published 6 July 2010), Truett Tate, the Group Executive Director for wholesale banking at Lloyds, certainly believes that diet has an impact on sleep. It was reported on the Financial Times’ website that Mr Tate has started distributing carrot batons and celery sticks around the office to encourage his staff to adopt a healthier diet, with a view to improving their sleep patterns. It was also reported that senior staff are said to be keeping diaries on what they eat and how much sleep they are getting.

It’s an interesting idea and, as they say, “eat well, sleep well”. Whether it’ll work or not, I don’t know yet. But it’s great to see employers looking after their employees’ welfare and acknowledging the importance of a healthy lifestyle and good quality sleep.

Over the next few weeks or so I will be testing the impact of certain foods and drinks on my sleep quality. And, since it’s almost the weekend, I will be commencing this exercise by investigating the effects of alcohol on my sleep – hurrah!

Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sleep tip: Listen to music at bedtime for a restful night’s sleep

When I was 16 and taking my GCSE exams, I’d listen to the same three U2 songs, from their album The Joshua Tree, the night before each of my exams. Just 10 minutes of music helped me to wind down after an evening of frantic cramming.

“Listen to calming music before bed” is an often repeated sleep tip because it can help you to relax, leading to better quality sleep. In a 2005 study in Taiwan, researchers proved that listening to about 45 minutes of relaxing music before bedtime can improve your sleep. According to the BBC news website, the study participants who listened to music before sleep reported “a 35% improvement in their sleep, including better and longer night-time sleep and less dysfunction during the day”. For the full BBC news article, click here.

Since my teens, music hasn’t really featured in my bedtime routine. Unless you count falling asleep in a taxi on the way home from a bar or club, that is. Well, that is all about to change. I’ve bought myself a very stylish little radio for the bedroom (any excuse for a bit of shopping!) and last night – for the very first time ever – tuned into Classic FM.

I’ve never really listened to classical music before. I’ve always thought it was for posh people and intellectuals, privately educated, harp-playing sorts; not for people like me who went to a rubbish Comprehensive School and learned to play the recorder, very badly, in a room that smelled faintly of sick. Last night I discovered classical music. I learned that it can be tranquil and soothing; you can get lost in it, if that doesn’t sound too clichéd. Apart from the occasional chatter disrupting the music, I found my introduction to Classic FM enjoyable and very relaxing. It really helped me to settle down to sleep.

Now for something very clichéd: Last night, I also learned that you don’t have to be a certain “type” to like or dislike or appreciate something, so why restrict yourself?

I really should stop writing now before I start spouting nonsense about the meaning of life, but before I go, here – a la Jerry Springer – is my final thought:

To keep a happy relationship happy, discuss your bedtime routine with your bed-mate before making any changes that might affect them – listening to half an hour of Classic FM in bed might send them crazy rather than to sleep. And we all know that a grumpy partner does not make for a restful night’s sleep….

Is watching TV before bed a bad idea?

Don't let Jack Bauer terrorise your sleep routine! Credit: sunnyd_57’s photostream Flickr/Creative Commons

Watching TV is a common pastime in the evenings. Yet many sleep experts would tell you that watching TV before bed is a bad idea if you want to get a good night’s sleep. Turn the TV, and all other electrical devices (computer, radio, computer games), off at least two hours before sleep time, they say. Or should it be three hours before? Ultimately, I think, it depends on:

  1. what you’re watching immediately before you go to bed and how you’re affected by it; and
  2. whether you’re able to control (i.e. limit) your TV viewing so that it does not encroach on your sleeping time.

Taking each point in turn:

1. What you’re watching and how you’re affected by it

If you watch a violent or tense TV programme before bed and you’re sensitive to these images, it follows that you’re unlikely to be relaxed enough to sleep immediately afterwards. For me, watching 24 immediately before bed is a no-no, as I’m too wired to fall asleep.

Similarly, if you’re watching a TV programme that you find very stimulating (for me, this might be Question Time or The West Wing) just before bed, then it’s likely that you’ll find it difficult to sleep as your brain will be too active. You’ll need to do something relaxing and peaceful afterwards, to slow down your mental activity in preparation for sleep.

Having said this, in my experience watching TV can help to calm an overactive mind at the end of a busy day and, for some, it may be an important cue for bedtime.  In my days as a city lawyer I often used TV (and the odd glass of wine too) as a way to switch off before bed. And my other half regularly spends the last 15 minutes or so of the day watching the music channels to relax before bed.

2. Controlling your evening TV viewing

A study carried out by the BBC’s Newsround programme (as reported on the BBC Breakfast show on 19 February 2010) concluded that modern technology keeps our children up at night, preventing them from getting a good nights’ sleep. The study suggested that children miss out on sleep because they stay up watching TV or playing on computer games.

It’s not just children who stay up too late watching TV when they should be sleeping. A study published in the Journal Sleep by Drs. Mathias Basner and David F. Dinges in June 2009 (“Dubious Bargain: Trading Sleep for Leno and Letterman”) found that many Americans let television dictate when they go to sleep. They concluded that “giving up some TV viewing in the evening should be possible to reduce chronic sleep debt and promote adequate sleep in those who need it”.

This is interesting. Just the other night I accidentally started watching The Bodyguard on TV. I’ve seen it many times before, but despite my good intentions for an early night, suddenly I was hooked and I ended up watching it until it’s conclusion (an hour after I’d planned to go to bed).

If this regularly happens to you and your sleep is suffering, it’s time to alter your bedtime routine to make it more sleep-friendly. Set yourself a cut-off time for TV viewing (any must-see viewing after this cut-off point could be recorded using Sky Plus or your DVD recorder) and do something less engaging and relaxing instead.

A word on watching TV in bed

Again, many sleep experts warn against watching TV in bed. They advise us to reserve our beds for sleeping and romance only, so that we associate our beds and bedrooms with falling asleep. This rigid approach may be necessary for some, but if watching a little TV in bed helps you to relax and drop off to sleep, don’t worry. Do be careful to turn the TV off when you start dozing though, otherwise it’s likely to disturb your sleep during the night.

Ultimately, I think, it’s about personal choice and common sense – enjoy your evening viewing if it helps you to relax but don’t let your TV take precedence over your precious sleep.

Reading Grazia: good; reading sleep studies: bad

Credit: Foxtongue Flickr/Creative Commons

What am I talking about? My latest bedtime routine discovery.

I love reading, always have. Particularly in the evening though, curled up and comfy in my pjs in bed, and – in an ideal world – with the soothing pitter patter of rain drops against the glass of my bedroom window. Reading is very relaxing for me and, now that I come to think about it, reading a chapter or two (or, sometimes, just a page or two) at bedtime often sends my eyelids into free fall.

What I’ve come to understand over the past few weeks, though, is that not all reading material is good for bedtime perusal. Perfect bedtime reading for me is a light novel or magazine (Grazia being a particular favourite on a Tuesday night) – essentially, something that helps me to unwind and my mind to switch off. The magazine supplements from the weekend newspapers are great, as they’re easy to dip in and out of – when I go to bed feeling alert, the longer features are just the right length before I start nodding off, whilst the tit-bits of information and gossip scattered throughout are ideal when I need just a few minutes of quiet time before sleep.

At bedtime, I can’t read anything that engages my mind too much.  Cookery magazines and books are chief sleep-stealers. I find them too stimulating. Instead of sleeping, I find myself planning menus. Books about sleep and sleep problems are just as bad, as I become too engaged in the information they impart. I’m still thinking about the various methods of solving sleep issues when I should be sleeping!

So, for other bedtime readers out there, the next time you’re having trouble dropping off to sleep, consider if your reading matter may be to blame.

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.”

“The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to” said F. Scott Fitzgerald….

Last night was a real struggle. I just couldn’t fall asleep. I felt too hot. I kicked off the covers. Then I felt too cold. I couldn’t find a comfortable position. I tossed and I turned. I stared, angrily, at my other half who was soundly snoozing at my side. Then I wondered how long I’d been tossing and turning for. I checked the time on my BlackBerry: 2:41am. I’d been in bed, awake, for over four hours. I calculated that – oh God! – I only had about four hours sleeping time remaining. Four hours! And that was only if I fell asleep right now. That wasn’t going to happen. And I had so much to do – I didn’t have time for this…

Even if you’re generally a good sleeper, I’m sure you’ve experienced a bad night like this at some point for no apparent reason. So, what can we do if sleep just won’t come?

I quizzed the Sleep Geek on this very point.  Fortunately he has some simple suggestions for us to try the next time sleep is a struggle. Here are the Sleep Geek’s top 10 tips for dealing with those occasional, but frustrating, sleepless nights:

  1. Avoid clock-watching by removing your alarm clock and your mobile phone or BlackBerry from sight. Clock-watching during the night will only remind you that you’re awake and add to your anxiety.
  2. As difficult as it may be, try not to worry about not sleeping. The more you worry, the harder you will find it to fall asleep.
  3. A slight drop in body temperature is a trigger for sleep – try opening your bedroom window slightly or hanging your feet out of bed.
  4. Breathe slowly and deeply.
  5. Get up and do something you find relaxing, such as reading, listening to music or drinking a hot milky drink.
  6. Take a warm bath.
  7. Get out of bed and do something mundane, such as tidying your living room. If this doesn’t make you feel sleepy, at least you’ll have a lovely, tidy room!
  8. Calm a racing mind by writing down your thoughts and worries, whether it’s a family problem or what you’re going to cook for a dinner party you’re hosting.
  9. Try eating a light snack.
  10. If the above tips don’t work, but you find that watching TV in bed, for example, usually helps you drift off to sleep, then that’s fine. The key is to find the best solution for you.

If you regularly don’t get the sleep you need, why not begin your quest for quality sleep today? Begin by experimenting to work out your perfect sleep routine, and please let me know how you get on.  Anyone suffering from chronic sleeplessness (anything beyond a week) should make a visit to their GP.

Using lavender for better quality sleep

It seems that the belief that the scent of lavender enhances sleep is more than just an old wives tale. I’ve been doing my research and just look what I’ve found:

  • A study at the University of Southampton in 2005 found that sleeping in a lavender-scented room improved sleep quality by 20%.
  • A study at Wesleyan University in 2004 found that the scent of lavender essential oil increased slow-wave, or deep sleep, resulting in the participants feeling more energetic and alert the next morning.

For almost two weeks I have been conducting my own mini experiment by sleeping in a lavender-scented room. I began my test using the power of Google – a quick search suggests that it’s best to dilute lavender essential oil, as using it in its pure form can cause skin irritation (it’s probably best to do a spot test before using it in any form though). Then, after emptying my bathroom cabinet of all its lotions and potions, I found a small empty plastic bottle with an atomiser lurking at the back (I knew it would come in handy for something one day!), filled it with water and a few – about 15 – drops of lavender essential oil. Ta da, my very own lavender room spray!

For the last 13 days I have been generously spritzing my bedroom with my homemade air freshener before bedtime. I realised by night two that that, actually, I really don’t like the smell of lavender. My other half, meanwhile, does like the scent and yesterday commented that he had started to associate the smell with going to sleep. Oh dear.

Whilst neither of us noticeably experienced improved sleep quality, our test highlighted that scent can be used as part of a sleep routine as a cue to promote sleep. Next, we will be testing some of the lesser-known essential oils for promoting sleep – such as chamomile or jasmine – until we find a scent that works for us both!

If you like the scent of lavender, here are some alternative ways of using it during your bedtime routine (don’t tell my other half though!):

  • Place lavender-scented sleep stones and/or lavender flower heads in your bedroom for a longer lasting aroma of lavender.
  • Encourage someone lovely to give you a bedtime massage using diluted lavender essential oil.
  • Use a lavender-scented body soak in a warm bath for a relaxing nighttime treat.
  • Inhale the aroma of lavender oil – dab the oil on a cotton wool ball or tissue and breathe in the scent.
  • Use a lavender-scented moisturiser or body lotion.

How to cope with early starts

The Sleep Geek: A man in glasses who knows a lot about sleep

Rising earlier than usual often means getting less sleep than usual. In addition, the thought of getting up early can cause stress and worry, making falling asleep more of a challenge. The result of an early start is typically fatigue, lethargy and increased appetite. Simply put, you feel rubbish and want to eat rubbish.

Thankfully there are some simple ways to make an early start a little easier. The Sleep Geek has helpfully shared his tips for handling early mornings in his new article “Early Starts and Little Naps” – read it by clicking here.

Is your messy bedroom messing up your sleep?

Credit: evelynishere Flickr/Creative Commons

Whilst I wouldn’t describe my flat as untidy, I have a tendency to create organised-ish piles of “stuff” rather than finding a home for my things. Every once in a while my mini mountains of paperwork, books, magazines, clothes, etc start to topple Jenga-style. Or, more frequently, I accidentally kick or push them over or walk into them or fall over them.

You see, I’m quite a clumsy person. You know the person who always manages to spill their drink in a nice restaurant – that’s me! I’m constantly banging my head, cutting and burning my fingers, tripping over my feet; I’ve trapped my fingers in car doors, safe doors and sun loungers; and not so long ago I slipped over on the wooden floors of my flat and couldn’t walk properly for two days.

My latest act of clumsiness happened last night, just as I was drifting off to sleep. I turned over into my favourite sleeping position – on my right side  – and somehow managed to whack my bedside table with my hand. Of course this caused everything that I’d carefully balanced on top of it to come crashing to the bedroom floor, and in the process created a domino effect, scattering the precariously stacked books and magazines underneath. My side of the bed suddenly resembled my teenage bedroom and I – having been jolted awake by the crash, and the sore hand – now had to decide whether to clear up the mess or leave it until morning. Whilst tempted to roll over and ignore the chaos, I just couldn’t. So, much to my other half’s annoyance, I flicked on the bedroom light and sorted the clutter back into messy mounds. The whole process irritated me, so that when I finally returned to bed I was too wound up to sleep. I finally fell asleep resolute in my decision to give the entire bedroom a proper spring clean and clear-out.

I haven’t quite got round to that yet….but I will. The unlucky incident (that’s what I’m calling it, anyway – it could have happened to anyone!), reminded me of one of the Sleep Geek’s top tips for creating the perfect sleeping environment – keep your bedroom tidy and clutter-free. The reasoning is that piles of paperwork and dirty clothes, for example, can create stress and tension, making it difficult to relax enough to sleep. By contrast, if you associate your bedroom with rest and relaxation, your bedroom (as well as your sleep routine) can itself become a cue to sleep.

Not only this, but clearing up my clutter could save me from one or two bruises!