Milk & Honey

©iStockphoto.com/TheBiggles

I’m not talking about the cocktail bar in Soho, London. Oh no, I’m talking about something far more exciting: the sweet, creamy bedtime drink! Yes folks, I really know how to live dangerously!

A warm milky drink is often touted as a soothing, sleep-enhancing remedy. It’s not just an old wives’ tale; there’s science behind it. Milk contains tryptophan. The intake of tryptophan has a calming and sedative effect on the body, which helps to promote restful sleep.

Drinking milk neat doesn’t appeal to me, but add a drizzle of honey and my sweet-tooth is happy. Plus, the honey encourages sleepiness too. In 2006 researchers at the University of Manchester discovered that glucose can switch off the brain cells that normally keep us awake and alert. Hence, why we often feel sleepy after eating a big meal. (To learn more about this research, check out the New Scientist article “Why we need a siesta after dinner”).

All this science is new to me, too. But it helps to explain why a mug of frothy milk and honey has been one of my favourite bedtime drinks over the last couple of years. I used to drink it occasionally because I liked the sweet taste. Now I know that it’s helping me to get a great night’s sleep too.

For the past week or so I’ve been indulging in this warm, sweet, milky treat. I’ve been using semi-skimmed milk, to avoid packing on the pounds, and adding a generous drizzle of Springwell honey, from Essex. Yum. It’s so tasty and satisfying and comforting. It certainly helps me to prepare for retiring to bed, and combined with a great book and Classic FM, I’m so relaxed I’m practically comatose by the time the lights go out.

‘Til next time, sleep well….

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

When size matters….

Mmmm, I love my bed. I could happily live in my bed, it’s that lovely! Not only is it soft yet supportive and super comfy, it’s also big! I like having space to move around, and my king-sized beauty gives me room to wiggle and turn, without jabbing my other half in the ribs each time I roll over.

Whenever my other half and I voyage up north to keep the parents happy, we’re forced to downgrade to a double. And, inevitably, our sleep suffers. Too short for my other half’s 6ft 4in frame and too narrow to breathe frankly, a double just doesn’t cut it for us.

It’s not just me being a princess. Studies have shown that couples sleep better in a bigger bed. In a press release for the Sleep Council in 2004, bed expert Jessica Alexander says “Before trials only 15% said they would buy a larger than standard bed while afterwards, 50% said they would”.

And it’s not surprising that a double bed can reduce restful sleep when you learn, as I did recently, that sleeping in a double bed with your partner provides each of you with only slightly more space width-wise than an itty bitty cot mattress! Fat chance of sleeping like a baby, then!

If you’re thinking about buying a new mattress, check out the Sleep Geek’s handy guide, by clicking here. And don’t forget my top tip: size really does matter!

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….

Showers forecast for this summer

Not this kind of shower….fingers crossed…Credit: laffy4k Flickr/Creative Commons

Well, the sunshine continues to shine on England…I love the sunny weather, but after a full day of working in my oppressive, airless little flat yesterday, I was feeling horribly hot and grumpy. Hmmph!

Even “Mary Queen of Shops” (one of my current TV favourites) couldn’t lift my mood. I shifted uncomfortably on my sticky leather sofa and sulked. By bedtime, I remained clammy and cranky, not in the slightest bit sleepy. Taking a leap of faith, I decided to try one of the Sleep Geek’s tips for sleeping on humid nights such as this: a bedtime shower. The rationale being that a shower helps to lower body temperature, which is one of the cues to your body that it is time for sleep.

My lukewarm shower was lovely. Cooling, cleansing and soothing – I didn’t want to get out. It even washed away a little of my bad mood; I was certainly feeling less agitated as I clambered onto my bed.

Sadly, my fresher, cooler skin didn’t last long in my muggy bedroom. But, with the additional aid of my Chillow, I was able to drop off to sleep without too much trouble. Zzzzzz.

My conclusion: Wind down and freshen up on hot nights with a lukewarm shower before bed, but plan additional means of keeping cool all night long.

How to keep cool at night this summer

After a bitterly cold winter, it seems that summer is finally with us. How I love the long hot summer days; sitting in the park surrounded by friends, all smelling of suntan lotion. How wonderful….

But the summer heat also brings hot, sweaty, sleepless nights. Particularly when you live in a flat in central London, like me. Even in the depths of winter my flat is balmy, so during the warmer months it can be unbearable. And have you tried sleeping in Shoreditch with the windows open? The continuous stream of traffic, copious sirens and late-night drinkers hardly make for a restful night.

Thankfully the Sleep Geek has some wise words to help me – and you – survive those sticky summer nights: just click here for his practical hints and tips.

The excellent advice includes two product recommendations, one of them for the Chillow; a product the Sleep Geek describes as “a brilliant budget product” for combating overheating in bed. For those of you who haven’t seen or heard of the Chillow, I’ve included a couple of images. Essentially, it’s a blue pad, the same size as an average pillow, that sits on top of your existing pillow and is designed to keep you as cool as a cucumber all through the night. It is also praised highly by my mum and my other half’s mum – two ladies with high standards and impeccable taste. With all these commendations, I’ve just got to try it.

So, on this sticky evening, and for the next few nights, I will be testing the Chillow. Look out for my review next week, sleep-lovers.

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.