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Insomnia? Tips for more and better sleep

Ah, sleeping like a baby! Possibly the most misleading statement of all time. If by sleeping like a baby you mean having your pacifier popped in nine times a night and then waking at 5am for a 45-minute long babble, then you'd be closer to the truth. Oh Belle, if only you knew that your parents are ten times more fun after eight hours sleep! It seems that karma has caught up with me I'm told I didn't sleep through a night until I was three years old. I'm amazed I wasn't given up for adoption.

Funnily enough, I made up for the lack of sleep later. How annoying for my mum, who then had to put a bomb under my bed to get me up in the morning. And of course, the irony is that the very moment kids gain the ability to sleep in, parents lose the ability to stay in bed. I've come to view 8am as mid-morning anyway these days. And it's amazing how productive the early hours can be by 9am on Sunday we were feeding the ducks in the Botanical Gardens, having done breakfast, watched Dora, painted some pictures and been served countless cups of tea from Chloe's kitchen. Despite the sleep-deprived stupor, it was fun.

On the other hand, what's not fun is hours and hours of frustration and wasted time, as you lie awake in bed, unable to sleep. I remember that after Chloe learnt to sleep through the night it took me several months to get back into that rhythm too. Before I managed to catch up, I would lie awake, staring at the clock, desperate to sleep but unable to drift off. As each hour went by, I would get more and more annoyed. Google told me that I shouldn't clock-watch, but just get up and do something else for a while, going back to bed when the fatigue kicked in. The lovely husband told me that too, looking pointedly at the large pile of laundry. But sadly for him, I never did that… I was always convinced I would fall asleep any minute. Except I rarely did.

Fortunately, after some acupuncture, a dietary overhaul and the course of time, I eventually got the hang of it again. I am not sure what was most effective, but the combination worked. So if you are finding it hard to get to sleep or lie awake in the early hours, have a look at the tips below. We'll have you sleeping like babies in no time…. Or rather, sleeping like teenagers whose mothers are forgiving enough to leave them in peace.

Good night and sweet dreams!

Caffeine curfew

Caffeine and insomnia an evil Catch-22. You need the caffeine because you haven't slept, and then you can't sleep because of the caffeine. Try a caffeine curfew and avoid it from midday onwards, but bear in mind you may have to avoid it completely to relieve insomnia. We're not just talking coffee, but caffeinated tea, colas, energy drinks and chocolate. You can try all the usual caffeine-free herbal and fruit teas, but in particular try Rooibos tea. Rooibos (sometimes known as red or red bush tea) is a South African tea, naturally caffeine-free, super rich in antioxidants and very relaxing. You could also try the sleep-related herbal teas too by companies like Stash, Celestial Seasonings and Yogi.

Lay off the stimulants

Avoid caffeine as above, but also especially in the afternoon and at night avoid sugar, and refined carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, cookies etc). Sugar and refined carbs pour glucose into the bloodstream at a rapid pace, fueling your body's stress response. Instead, include complex carbs with your evening meal (for example brown rice, wholewheat pasta, beans, pumpkin, quinoa). If you need to snack, choose fruit or crackers with nut butter over candy and cookies. Lastly avoid juices and other sugary drinks, choosing water and herbal/fruit teas instead.

Blood sugar balance

Imbalanced blood sugar can trigger sleep disturbances in both adults and children. This is why it's important to eat a meal with a slow, sustained energy release in the evening instead of one based on fast-releasing carbs. Always include a quality source of protein with your meal which helps to balance blood sugar further. Fibre and healthy fats (found in fish, olives, hummus and avocado) also help to slow the release of glucose from carbohydrates. Example: chicken (protein) in a fresh tomato and olive (good fat) sauce with wholewheat pasta (complex carb, fibre) and green veggies (fibre).

Include a tryptophan-rich food at nightWhy does turkey make people sleepy? Because it's rich in tryptophan - one of the ten essential amino acids that in addition to helping the body synthesise protein, also helps to regulate appetite and improve mood and sleep. Tryptophan helps to produce messengers for the nervous system especially those contributing to relaxation and sleep. With this in mind, include a tryptophan-rich food source at every evening meal. This is fairly easy as chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, halibut, shrimp and salmon are all good sources of tryptophan. Vegetarians/vegans may find this harder, but check out this link for a detailed listing of quality food sources. Many legumes, vegetables and grains qualify too especially in combination with one another:

Eat foods rich in calcium and magnesiumCalcium and magnesium have a calming, tranquilising effect on the body. Quality food sources include seeds, nuts, root and green leafy vegetables.

Don't eat lateIf your body is having a hard time digesting your food, it will keep you awake. Try to avoid late evening meals and if you do, choose a light option such as chicken and vegetables instead of steak and chips.

Time your supplements carefullyMultivitamins and B complex supplements contain a broad spectrum of B vitamins that have many beneficial functions including boosting energy. They need to be taken with food, but don't take them with an evening meal if you suffer with insomnia. While some people have no issues, the B vitamin content may keep more sensitive individuals awake. I have a friend who has just discovered this correlation after battling insomnia for years. An amazing relief to discover the cause, but so annoying that she suffered unnecessarily for so many years!

Avoid TV before bedSo many people drift off while watching TV but studies show this actually diminishes the quality of your sleep. TV stimulates the adrenal glands and as a result, you are more likely to have disturbed sleep. Use your DVR and instead of staying up late to watch your favourite shows, record them to watch at an earlier time another day.

Consider supplementsEvery effort should be made to understand the reasons why you can't sleep, and I don't suggest you rely on supplements without trying all the other steps and consulting your doctor first. However there are some natural sleep-agents which are worth a try on a temporary or occasional basis: these include Kalms homeopathic remedy, Hylands Calms Forte (also homeopathic), Natrol L-Theanine (if anxiety is keeping you awake) and Natrol 5-HTP (especially if you are also bothered by depression and increased appetite). Remember, supplements can never compensate for eating an unhealthy diet, and you should always consult your doctor prior to taking supplements if you have a medical condition and/or are on medication.

And finallyIf you really can't sleep and have nothing better to do, come on over and do the night shift at my house. One of us might as well get some sleep after all!

The advice given in this article is not intended to replace medical advice, but to complement it. Always consult your GP if you have any health concerns. Catherine Burns BA Hons, Dip ION is a fully qualified nutritional therapist trained by the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in the U.K. Please note that she is not a registered dietitian. She can be contacted at nourishbda[AT]

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Published March 04, 2011 at 1:00 am (Updated March 04, 2011 at 8:36 am)

Insomnia? Tips for more and better sleep

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