Thoughts on the non-foodie things that nourish us
We all know that absolutely everything is easier after a good night’s sleep! Sleep is fundamental to our wellbeing, but somehow we manage to take it for granted at the same time as berating our lack of it! Often mis-understood and wildly under-rated, it is a sad thing that so many people these days are surviving on much less sleep than they actually need. Before we look at why that should be and what’s causing the epidemic of poor sleep these days, let’s take a quick look at what sleep is, and what it is actually does.
Although it seems we do nothing when we are asleep, our bodies are actually quite busy. While we are sleeping , our bodies and brains are restocking our supply of hormones, processing significant toxins, repairing damaged tissue, generating vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminating the effects of stress, and (importantly) processing heavy emotions. Without sufficient time to do this important work (ie 8 hours for the average adult) our systems become increasingly de-natured – our hormones become imbalanced, our immunity is suppressed, our ability to manage stress is diminished, our natural appetite and hunger levels go awry and our emotional flexibility is compromised.
Sleep itself is one of the (many) gifts of our pineal gland – a tiny, pine-cone shaped lobe in the very centre of our brains – often referred to as the ‘third eye’. When our circadian rhythms are in sync (the natural rhythms that control our daily, weekly and monthly cycles, like tides), the pineal gland releases the hormone and neuro-transmitter, melatonin, at bed-time. Melatonin works by suppressing the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm us down (primarily by countering the stress hormone cortisol which is produced by our adrenals). As we become sleepier, the brain slowly begins to turn off our voluntary skeletal muscle functions, directing energy inwards, to the important work to be done while we sleep.
For ideal sleep, our melatonin levels should be steadily rising at bed-time and our cortisol levels should be rock-bottom. And this is a system that has been devised over centuries of fairly constant night-time behaviour. Not so very many decades ago our night-time routines were very different from today. We would be aware of the sunset and benefit from the long-wave, red light from the sun at the end of the day, our evenings would be spent mostly in the dark with firelight or candle light (again, red-light) and our activities, for the most part, would be about ‘winding-down’ – reading a book, chatting before a fireside or taking a final breath of night-air before bed-time. These days our evening activities are very different often involving mental or physical stimulants like computer games, social networking, business emails, alcohol or the latest knife-edge TV drama – sometimes all of them at once!
What happens in this scenario is that stress, and therefore cortisol, levels go UP just before bedtime and the blue-light from so many screens pushes melatonin levels DOWN – the very opposite of what we need for a good night’s sleep.
When my clients present with sleep problems, the very first thing I do is work with them on what I call ‘sleep hygiene’ – the simple process of getting into the good habits that restore the natural circadian rhythms and allow peaceful, restful sleep. For a few people, there are specific physical imbalances or mental stressors that impact on the quality of sleep (and these should be dealt with in the context of a supported, ongoing and holistic approach to general wellbeing). For the most part however, just about everybody could benefit from improving their bed-time routine and making space for a little bit of self-care. So, to help you get started, here is my recipe for the perfect night’s sleep:
One long hot bath
Two large cups Epsom Salts
A few drops of essential oil (lavender, geranium, frankincense, mandarin or clove being my favourites)
A mug of herbal tea (eg lavender, valerian, chamomile or passionflower) or a delicious Turmeric Latte
A dry body-brush
A beautiful scented candle (made from soy wax if possible).
A natural body oil such as Argan Nut Oil
A good book
Someone to hug (optional!)
- Start your preparations early in the afternoon and avoid all caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, colas) from 3pm onwards.
- Eat your last meal 2 -3 hours before you go to bed and try and keep your evening meal light, just veggies and protein if possible, keeping your main meal for the middle of the day (you will be surprised how much a heavy meal, last thing at night, can negatively impact your sleep).
- No email, TV, computer games, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations in the full hour prior to bed-time
- Light the candle, run a deep, hot bath and mix in the Epsom Salts and essential oils (Epsom Salts work brilliantly to draw out toxins and the magnesium in them is a wonderful natural soother and muscle relaxant).
- Give yourself a gentle massage with a dry brush using long, gentle strokes, starting with your feet and legs, then hands and arms, moving towards your heart and finishing with circular, clockwise strokes around your tummy. This process massively increases lymph flow and improves night-time de-toxification
- Soak for as long as you can in the bath to get the full benefits of the Epsom salts and essential oils (at least 20 minutes but up to 40 minutes if possible).
- Massage a few drops of oil into your still-damp skin
- Avoid fluoride toothpastes – fluoride is known to calcify the pineal gland
- Relax into bed with a good book or a good lover (or both!)
If you are suffering from chronic fatigue, feeling tired and wired, struggling to fall asleep or waking regularly in the middle of the night, these are signs that your body wants something to change. Let me help you de-code these messages so you can make the subtle shifts your body is needing and improve the health of every cell in your body.
Chronic fatigue is increasingly prevalent as our as our lifestyles become more and more frenetic and our diets move further and further away from the whole, natural foods our bodies understand. As anyone who struggles with this knows only too well, the daily battle with fatigue is extremely debilitating and depressing, making it difficult for people who suffer to get through their days productively and positively.
If you feel that you are struggling under a heavy blanket of exhaustion, know that you are not alone and that there is a positive way forward. Having suffered and overcome chronic fatigue myself, here is my strategy for naturally re-discovering your rightful energy levels.
Drink more water
Without enough fresh water to flush through the system, it becomes sluggish which means things stay in the body for longer than they should and this definitely over-stresses all your organs and tissues which have to work extra hard to to compensate. If you can down at least two 8oz glasses of water first thing every morning that will set you up nicely for the day. Follow that up with hot water with lemon and ginger instead of tea or coffee and then aim for one big glass of water at least every two hours during the day.
Don’t kid yourself that you are getting plenty of fluids in your hot drinks. Caffeinated drinks, including tea, coffee and fizzy drinks are diuretics which means they actually deplete fluid levels. In addition they are all highly acidic for the system, and rev up the adrenals. All of which you really don’t need when you are trying to tune in to your natural energy levels.
Cut right back on sugar and hi-carb snacks.
We all know that feeling of being exhausted and reaching for a quick sugary pick-me-up. Only problem is, it doesn’t pick you up at all. You get a momentary lift as all that sugar hits your bloodstream, but because we are not designed to have so much sugar in our blood, the pancreas kicks in to release insulin which mops up all the sugar and then you feel worse than you did before, so you reach for another snack and the cycle goes on. This constant spiking of insulin levels is extremely bad for us, depletes energy levels and ultimately sets us up for weight gain and all sorts of other problems.If you must have a snack, make sure it contains fibre, protein and fat. Instead of sickly, processed chocolate try a fruit and nut energy ball. The fibre, protein and the natural fats in the nuts ensure the sugars are released more gradually into the bloodstream, this prevents those insulin spikes and roller-coaster energy levels.
It sounds silly, but most of us are simply not breathing properly and therefore not getting enough oxygen into our bodies. This creates brain-fog and tiredness. We are particularly likely to take shallow breaths when we are stressed and that causes our adrenal glands to release cortisol, which also affects insulin levels, and makes us very tired. My favourite trick whenever I am feeling overwhelmed or tired is the 4-7-8 breath. Breathe in through your nose for a slow count of 4, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then release your breath slowly through your mouth for a count of 8. Breathing in deeply and then exhaling slowly triggers our para-sympathetic nervous system (often called the Rest and Digest system) which tells our body we are safe so stress hormones and energy levels return to normal.
Never under-estimate the mind-body connection. Breath-focused meditation is a wonderfully accessible method to de-stress and relax, delivering all sorts of proven endocrine and neural benefits in the process. If you want to kick it up a notch, experiment with Pranyama, a yogic tradition of controlling the breath to strengthen life force and energy.
Eat foods that support the de-tox pathways.
Eating a variety of high-fibre veggies and fruit with every meal is essential to feeling full of energy. The natural nutrients in veggies are parcelled up in different combinations in exactly the way our body likes to receive them. This makes it easy for our bodies to get the nutrients they need to function properly. In addition the fibre keeps energy release into the bloodstream at a constant. Finally, veggies, especially leafy green ones, support the liver and other de-tox mechanisms making them more efficient at eliminating the toxins that drag us down and make us feel tired.
Avoid heavily processed and packaged food, especially fried foods.
Most of the additives, preservatives and fats in processed food are known toxins and hormone disruptors. In addition they also contain a lot of addictive substances (like sugar, salt and fat) which put a heavy load on our adrenal glands and make us lose touch with our natural appetite. Even writing that makes me feel tired, so imagine how your body feels having to process all that stuff! Occasional helpings of processed food are obviously not a problem, but to eat packaged and/or fast food at every meal is very taxing on the body, pre-disposes us to weight gain and chronic fatigue.
Our bodies are subtle and complex and small things can upset the balance and create a cascade of symptoms. But, equally, something simple and accessible can get us back on track.
By following these simple steps you will be doing a number of things that will help your body get back to where it wants to be; you will be supporting and encouraging a healthy digestive system, alkalising your cells to reduce inflammation, stalling the production of cortisol and supporting the mechanisms that help to mop it up. Sleep will improve, cravings will start to abate and you will feel a surge in new energy.
Fatigue is often a sign of imbalance in the body and, as such, should be taken seriously. If you are battling with fatigue, it is not all in your mind, you are not being stupid, or making a fuss about nothing. A lot can be achieved through diet but if there is as under lying problem such as an under-active thyroid, or over-active adrenals, it is worth having this checked out by a doctor or functional medicine specialist. Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence and get whatever help you can.