There are times when I wake up in the early hours, only to toss and turn until dawn breaks and I decide, tired as I am, that I may as well get up and start the day. I know I’m not the only one who has trouble sleeping. ‘If only I could sleep better and get a little relief’ is one of the most frequent comments I hear from my patients. It seems so cruel that, while the rest of the country is asleep, many lie awake, with worries about their health popping into their heads. Certain medications, such as the steroids given to ease sickness during cancer treatment, have a stimulating effect that prevents sleep. Some individuals with dementia may experience disturbed sleep patterns. And pain and discomfort from so many conditions can often feel worse at night.
Sleep deprivation can make dealing with the daytime symptoms of illness 10 times worse, with pain more difficult to get on top of and moods taking a real hit if our body doesn’t get enough respite to rebalance itself. Sometimes prescription sleeping tablets may be necessary, but over years of caring for many patients (and in my own life, when serious illness has caused me distress), I’ve found that looking at the way we eat, what we eat and some complementary remedies, while not as potent as classic sleeping drugs, can help give our body a few restorative hours of slumber.
Poor sleeping habits can become habitual and, like most habits, it can take a while to rewrite the script that plays in our head. Eating well (more about that later) and establishing a relaxing routine around bedtime can help. A warm bath with a calming essential oil such as lavender, or if bathing isn’t possible, a foot soak in a bowl of lavender-scented water, can be enough to persuade the body to wind down, ready for rest. I love a mug of lavender milk, made with the lavender I’ve harvested from the garden, which you can make with cow’s milk or a non-dairy alternative. Vary the amount of honey you add, depending on your sweet tooth – I like to use lavender honey when I have it in the cupboard.
Try these other tips to help you nod off and get the rest you need to heal and recover well.
Fluctuating blood sugar levels may disrupt sleep patterns. Try to eat regular, smaller meals, and focus on dishes that contain a balance of wholegrain carbohydrates, protein and fats for sustained energy release. A bowl of fruit and seed-topped porridge for breakfast, a wholemeal bread sandwich with lean meat, hummus or egg mayonnaise for lunch, and a carb-rich evening meal (see below) would be a great start.
A starchy evening meal, containing rice, pasta, potatoes or bread, can promote a good night’s sleep as they seem to elicit the sleepy response. You could try my Spelt and Goat's Cheese Risotto, a simple Pasta with Tomato Sauce and Parmesan, or Fish Pie topped with broccoli mash.
Avoid spicy foods, which some people find energising and which can irritate the gut.
Watch your caffeine consumption. You may find that switching to a fruit or herbal infusion after 4pm can help you unwind. Calming teas include chamomile, bergamot and lemon balm. Before bed, switch to more traditionally sedative brews, such as blue vervain, valerian and hops. Milky drinks, whether that’s a glass of warm or ice-cold fresh milk, or my lavender infusion, are also fantastically soporific, not least because they can remind us of our treasured childhood wind-down routine.
The Nourish guide to non-dairy milk
Why I love pink milk
Sweet potato frittata