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“What lifestyle changes can I make to get a better night’s sleep?” A sleep expert answers your questions

Posted by for Sleep

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 40-year-old HR coordinator and mental health first aider learns about the simple lifestyle changes that could make a big difference to her sleep.

A little about me:

Age: 40

Occupation: HR coordinator and mental health first aider

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 5.5-6.5 hours, which used to be enough for me

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8 hours

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: my partner says I grind my teeth, and recently I’m having really vivid nightmares that I wake up exhausted from. I also have dreams of running in which I see my feet below me and then feel myself falling to the ground. This makes me physically kick out in my sleep, and wake myself up saying “sorry” repeatedly to my partner!

Do you measure your sleep in some way (e.g. using your phone or wearable): yes, my FitBit

How much water you drink on average per day: 2-3 litres

How much exercise you do on average per week: 45 mins four times a week

Day 1

After an Easter Sunday with family, lots of carby food and wine, we get home about 9pm. As a rare treat I do my skincare and jump straight into my pyjamas before pottering about the house watering the houseplants to chill out. I also start my diffuser with some sleep oil.

I then sit down to watch TV while house-hunting on my phone and having some Easter chocolate. All of this somehow gives me a second wind, and I don’t head to bed until 11pm after a cup of ‘sleep tea’.

I don’t have an alarm set for the next day and manage to drift off pretty quickly which is rare for me, but I still wake up a few times from 6am onwards, drifting in and out of vivid dreams (I’m on my period at the moment and my dreams have been super realistic and exhausting over the last two nights).

My FitBit says I was awake for two hours and 14 minutes in total last night, and tells me my sleep quality was ‘fair’. My partner also says I wasn’t annoying, which is a plus!

A woman watering a plant with a white and gold watering can
“As a rare treat I do my skincare and jump straight into my pyjamas before pottering about the house watering the houseplants to chill out.”

Day 2

I wake up feeling super rested. I had planned to do a morning workout but I spend some time on my phone instead, swapping between researching possible holidays, scrolling Rightmove, looking at Instagram home blogger accounts for interiors ideas and answering work emails (which I promised I wouldn’t do on my day off).

After about 90 minutes of that I have a veggie bacon bap and a decaf green tea, water and my vitamins. The day goes by, but by the time 4pm hits I feel like I need a coffee – I don’t generally have caffeine so this is pretty rare for me, perhaps the after-effects of yesterday’s wine?

I get home about 7:30pm after a long day of walking around a new area of London, scouring windows of estate agents for anything that might be in our budget and having a heart to heart about what we should do next. Overall I feel uncertain and pressurised to know the next steps – it is rare for me that I don’t know what they are (house, work and fertility-wise) and I hate the lack of planning and control.

We stop and have a pizza at a pub about 5pm, and we don’t eat again for the rest of the evening. Instead we watch TV, and I instigate planning our holiday days for the balance of the year. My partner wants to watch The Chase and I want to plan, so I flip between checking work emails on my phone and looking at ideas for trips and houses.

I’ve got the first blood tests for our fertility investigations tomorrow, so I put the laptop down about 9pm and have a chamomile tea as I’m worried sleeping will be hard. I’m also really not looking forward to my inbox after days ‘off’.

I head to bed about 11:50pm after watching utter rubbish on TV, with my alarm set for 6am. I really struggle to get to sleep, and find myself staring at the darkness or getting annoyed about the noise my diffuser is making rather than feeling relaxed by it. 

Day 3 

As predicted, last night was not a good night for sleep – I ended up getting less than 5.5 hours sleep, and it was all really poor quality.

I’m working from home today and have our first fertility blood tests at 8am, so I get up with my alarm at 6am, feed the cat and immediately check my work emails (it’s like a reflex at this point).

After I’ve done that I work out for 45 minutes, then hit the shower – I planned to give myself 30 minutes to shower, dress and get out for my appointment, but 20 minutes later I’m still scrolling Instagram so have to scrabble to get out on time.

I end up eating breakfast – ginger tea, yoghurt and fresh apple – at about 8:45am, nearly three hours after I woke up. However, for such little sleep, I feel surprisingly productive and well today, although I do find myself yawning towards the end of the day.

A woman lying on her bed scrolling on her phone
“I planned to give myself 30 minutes to shower, dress and get out for my appointment, but 20 minutes later I’m still scrolling Instagram.”

While I’m working from home the expectation seems to be that I use my commute time to work, so I have a short lunch break at my desk (when I wanted to do my physio), and then end up working through until 8:30pm.

We end up eating dinner late around 9:30pm while planning our meals for the week, making a food shop list and watching TV. My partner goes to bed about 11pm, and while I feel physically tired, I don’t feel mentally tired enough to fall asleep, so stay up watching TV until about 12:10am.

At that point I feel too tired to move from the sofa (it’s a real effort to get up) and don’t even wash my make-up off, but when I get into bed I can’t sleep. I have a toss and turning night, I have my physical kick-out, and wake a couple of times around 3am and 6am. I end up getting five hours and 39 minutes, and my sleep score is ‘fair’.

Day 4

I have a perfect, productive, pre-work plan for the days I’m in the office: I get up at 6:30am to feed the cat, change and get ready to work out at 6:45am, shower at 7:30am and get out of the door by 8.15am with a face of makeup, full stomach from breakfast and laptop and lunch packed for the day.

It’s a great plan.

The reality is I bounce off the walls to the kitchen half awake at 6.30am to feed the cat. As my brain and sight engage, I check my emails. It’s after 7am before I start my work out. When I’m working out, I get distracted by things that are messy around me, so at 8am when I should be getting ready to leave, I haven’t showered yet, and am cleaning the kitchen worktops. By the time I’m ready at 8:35am, I’m 20 minutes late leaving for work and run out not feeling my best. I’m 10 minutes late for work after a massive rush and haven’t eaten any breakfast (this is sadly how most days go and I end up feeling guilty for being late and don’t feel set up for the day ). I grab an apple at 11:30am and a rare coffee (double shot).

I tell myself I deserve to leave work on time after working through lunch and not leaving the building, but I end up leaving an hour late and work on my commute home.

Once I’m there I grab the car and do the food shop, so that by the time I’m home its 9:30pm. This means dinner is late again, about 10pm. My partner goes to bed before me at 11:30pm after he’s snoozed on me for 30 minutes or more watching TV, but I decide to stay up again – this time answering personal and work emails on my laptop with the TV on in the background.

It’s 12:30am by the time I think about heading up to bed. I’m yawning, yet I can feel my brain is super active, so I decide not to train tomorrow morning to give myself another 20-30 minutes to sleep in and try to get to work earlier.

I use my pillow spray and diffuser before getting into bed at nearly 1am. It takes me 20 minutes to drop off, and I end up getting a little over five hours. This is my worst quality sleep so far this week. I have eczema and when I wake up, I’ve really scratched myself, too.

Day 5

I set my alarm for 7:10am with the intention of skipping my workout, getting more time to sleep and still getting to work early, but I end up hitting snooze twice. Pre-covid I had time for hobbies and used to perform cabaret a few nights a week, and instead of getting ready I look through some performers’ stories with envy. I feel wiped out and like walking through treacle and although I leave home earlier and haven’t worked out, I’m still late.

I don’t end up eating breakfast but have a coffee about 11am and a Diet Coke about 4pm.

I leave work late and get home at 8:30pm – the minute I’m home it’s coat-off and cooking without down-time. We at 9:30pm and watch The Blues Brothers while looking at more houses. Although I spend the evening yawning it’s 11:45pm before I’m brushing my teeth. I do my skincare (which I’ve neglected the last two nights), and get into bed with the lights dimmed and the diffuser going.

I’m keen to try and get to bed the same time as my partner for once rather than slipping into bed later like I usually do. I get to bed about midnight and I get 6 hours 10 minutes sleep.

Comparatively, I wake up feeling really refreshed, and dive into a boxing cardio session with gusto!

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “You seem to be bubbly with drive and good intentions but you’re out of balance and – I feel – pretty stressed. You may not even realise how stressed you are. I want to help you particularly as you’re about to embark on fertility treatment. It’s interesting that you’re a mental health first aider as in this case, as always, charity needs to begin at home.

“So where to start? Firstly, you need a reset. No amount of aromatherapy candles and diffusers are going to help you to get the kind of restorative sleep that you really need at the moment – you needs to make some significant lifestyle changes. You need to start by applying my 5 non-negotiables and in particular you need a good nutrient-rich breakfast first thing in the morning and to get to bed earlier at least four or five nights a week.”

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan Stylist's sleep expert
Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “I suspect you’re a perfectionistic over-thinker so you need to lay off the sleep measurement for now. The data is just fuelling your stress levels. Boxing cardio is good but I suspect you also need to do some calming exercise with an emphasis on breathing.

“These are uncertain times for you and you need to give yourself the right resources to deal with whatever lies ahead. This means prioritising your self-care and giving yourself the kind of restorative sleep that you deserve.”

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If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email lauren.geall@stylist.co.uk with your name, age and any sleep problems you’re dealing with, using ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Other images: Getty/Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.

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