How do you sleep? Annabel and I compare our nightly tallies: obsessively texting each other, ‘I got seven hours!’, ‘I lay awake all night’, ‘I woke up at 5am’. You get the picture. Sleep has become a midlife obsession for us, and we’re not alone. 80% of Brits suffer from lack of sleep, which costs the UK economy £40bn a year in lost productivity.
As part of our Age-Well Project, we’ve overhauled our nightly routines. We now joke that we treat getting to sleep as a job. It requires dedication and time. A few months ago, I decided to throw money at the problem. Indulgent, I know, but as a freelancer I only get paid when I’m productive. And when I’m sleep deprived, my productivity nose-dives. So I went shopping. Below is a list of what worked, and what didn’t.
I can’t survive without:
SILK EYE MASK
My number one sleep aid. I’m so light sensitive that, despite lined curtains and a black out blind, I still need an eye mask! I buy silk ones online. I’ve read claims that they also have beauty benefits, with natural amino acids present in the silk soothing the delicate skin around the eyes. I can’t say I’ve seen much evidence of this, but I know an eye mask buys me a couple of hours extra sleep on a summer morning.
My number two sleep aid. Living on a main road and under the flight path into Heathrow, noise pollution is a constant problem. I’ve experimented with many different brands of ear plugs, but my favourite by far are Macks Super Safe – very cheap and very effective
What I actually need to get to sleep:
This is a controversial one. I first bought melatonin to help beat jet lag, but have experimented with it recently for regular sleep. Made by the pineal gland in the brain, this hormone regulates the body’s circadian rhythms. It’s not licensed in the UK, so I buy it online. It’s powerful stuff, and it does help me sleep better – and returnto sleep if I wake in the night. I’ve found I need to take it at least an hour before bed, otherwise I feel drowsy in the morning. It also gives me some very trippy dreams.
Keep in mind, though, that melatonin supplements can negatively interact with many different medications, so be sure to check with your doctor before taking, and research it thoroughly. I have read some negatives reports about it, but it does work for me.
DEEP SLEEP PILLOW SPRAY by THIS WORKS
Getting to sleep involves all five senses. And drifting off in a beautifully scented room is one of life’s great pleasures. I find this pillow spray very soothing. I use it every night, and gift it to insomniac friends.
An ancient herbal remedy, lavender aids sleep and reduces stress. I dab a few drops on my pillow each night. It definitely helps. Professor Russell Foster, head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at Oxford, explains that scent is a key way to prepare for bed. He says in today’s Times, ‘Many people will have a certain smell, like lavender, that they associate with sleep. It tells the brain ‘It’s time to sleep’.
Soothing but not essential for a good night’s sleep – for me:
We’ve heard multiple reports of overcoming insomnia with nightly magnesium supplements. This mineral is essential for bone strength and over 300 biochemical processes in the body, so a deficiency produces a myriad of symptoms, including insomnia. Research indicates that half the population may be deficient in this ‘sleep mineral’. So I started taking supplements….. and slept worse than ever.
Nutritionist Jackie Lynch from Well Well Well explained to me that occasionally people react to magnesium supplements and I may be one of them. She recommended a nightly bath with BetterYou Magnesium Flakes. Magnesium is absorbed well transdermally (through the skin). So I enjoyed a nightly bath with a couple of cups of the flakes and got a decent night’s sleep. Was it relaxing in a warm bath with a book that did it, or the magnesium? I don’t know. But life gets in the way and I’ve found it hard to fit bath time into my nightly routine with any regularity.
I love a night-time tea and camomile is the classic bed-time herb, used for millennia to aid sleep. Its sedative qualities are attributed to apigenin, an antioxidant which binds to receptors in the brain, decreasing anxiety and helping us sleep. I keep a jar of camomile flowers in the kitchen (from Chiswick Teas) and I make myself a small cup in the evenings. A large mug of tea in the evenings means getting up in the night these days so I keep my fluid intake small – more espresso-sized than grande! It’s definitely very relaxing.
Extremely expensive and not very effective:
DREAM DUST by MOON JUICE
After coming over all Gwyneth Paltrow, I ordered myself some Dream Dust. This Californian herbal supplement is recommended by Paltrow’s lifestyle site Goop…..It’s a blend of plant extracts, including camomile flowers, ashwagandha, jujube seed, schisandra berry, polygala root – all but one of which I had to Google. I stirred a teaspoon into my camomile tea and I did rest well. But, and this is a big but, a small jar costs £39. And it lasted less than two weeks. So I won’t be buying it again.
SOUND SLEEP COCOON by DERMALOGICA
This is essentially a night-time moisturiser with benefits. The makers claim ‘motion-activated essential oils work all night to promote deep, restful sleep for healthier-looking skin by morning’. Another extremely expensive option, it smells divine but I can’t say that it guaranteed a good night’s sleep.
Please note, I’ve provided links so you can investigate further but we’re not affiliated to any of the brands and don’t make money from any purchases.
Free and extremely effective:
By tracking my sleep obsessively, I’ve realised that the best things in life are indeed free. If I have more than one drink in an evening, I have a broken night’s sleep. My relationship with alcohol is evolving as a result: I’m just not interested in drinking more than a small glass, even on an evening out, when I know it will lead to disturbed sleep.
I set two alarms in the evening: one to tell me to wind down and get off my screens, and one thirty minutes later which tells me, literally, to GO TO BED. So, with my pillow spray, lavender oil, melatonin, eye mask and ear plugs, I do. And it works.
Let us know how you get to sleep! We – and all the other insomniacs out there – would love to know your tips: pop them in the comments below.
There’s a whole section in our book about sleeping well, and why it’s key for healthy longevity. And we’ve blogged here about why sleep is so important as we age. And you’ll find plenty on the site about the link between diet and sleep: we’ve tried avocados and kiwi fruit in the quest for some shut eye. And with a hot weekend ahead, I’ll be making my sleepy-time ice cream.
SLEEP APPS AND A PODCAST
There are plenty of sleep apps around and I’ll write about them in a later post. My feeling overall is that it’s better to get phones/screens out of the bedroom and fall asleep with a book (all sleep experts recommend reading before bed – the left-to-right eye movement replicates that of REM sleep, thus lulling the brain towards sleep.)
The relaxation app, Calm, has many recordings designed for sleep, some voiced by celebrities. The latest, just in time for Wimbledon, is John McEnroe. They cannot be serious! I can’t imagine a less soothing voice.
On the subject of voices…..we recorded a podcast with Stu from 180 Nutrition – born and raised in the UK, he’s now a wellness entrepreneur in Australia. We loved talking to him and it was an opportunity to discuss The Age-Well Project in depth. You can listen here.
Hopefully it won’t send you to sleep!
You guys are just awesome!
Don’t forget Mathew Walker’s book Why We Sleep or his podcast with Peter Attia, both excellent.
Jamie, Daintree Australia.
Susan Saunders says
thanks so much!
Rosamund jonkers says
I believe that you are fairly sceptical about treatments that are not scientifically proven, which is why I like your blog.
Can you point me to any scientific evidence that Magnesium can be absorbed transdermally.? I bought some Magnesium flakes and tried foot soaks without effect but then read that it is a fallacy that it can be absorbed through the skin. It seemed unlikely that it could be absorbed this way. I think in your case it is the hot bath that has effect.
Susan Saunders says
There isn’t a lot of scientific evidence for this. My point was more that I hadn’t got on with magnesium supplements so had tried another route. Best, Susan
Kate Alexander says
Very useful research thank you ☺
I’ve also had some hypnosis sessions that, so far, have helped hugely in terms of breaking the bad habit of waking up in the middle of the night and my ‘busy brain’ thinking it would be good to get a (very) early start to the day….
I do still wake up, but usually go back to sleep pretty easily; otherwise I use one of the sessions here (that were recommended by the hypnotherapist that I saw): https://www.hypnosisdownloads.com/sleep-problems
Annabel Streets says
Thanks, Kate – that’s a very helpful suggestion!
Would you be willing to share where you get your melatonin from, the brand and what dosage you take. Just read an interesting article on the value of melatonin to aid post menopausal sleep with suggested dosage of 0.3 to 1.0 mg
Sleep Sci. 2017 Jan-Mar; 10(1): 11–18. doi: 10.5935/1984-0063.20170003
PMCID: PMC5611767PMID: 28966733
Susan Saunders says
I go through phases of using melatonin. The brand I buy is called Now and I get it via Amazon from the States (it’s not licensed in the UK). The postage costs a fortune. The dose is 5mg.
Thanks Susan, much appreciated. I’ll look into it. Good wishes, Catherine