Sleep Diaries: what impact does our diet and lifestyle really have on our sleep?

“Is it unhealthy to sleep with the TV on?” 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 28-year-old writer wonders if she should wean herself off her late-night Netflix habit.

A little about me:

Age: 28

Occupation: writer

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 8

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: the same, but with less disruption and less unhealthy methods used to get off to sleep – and to be able to get to sleep quicker

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: no, but I do experience sleep paralysis on a sporadic basis

How much water you drink on average per day: 2 or 3 pints maybe, if squash counts!

How much exercise I do on average per week: it currently depends on weather, but try to get out on a run, cycle or equivalent indoor exercise activity 2-3 times a week

Day 1

I wake at around 3am from severe pains in my head – a migraine that I thought I’d medicated away hours earlier. I struggle to get back to sleep because the ache in my head prevents me from relaxing. I do eventually, and wake early at 6am to call in sick from my editing shift booked for later that day.

I go back to sleep until around 10am, when my housemate comes in with painkillers and breakfast – marmite on toast and a cup of sugary tea. I rest in the dark for a few hours, and resurface around 2pm when the pain is beginning to subside. My appetite is really low, so I snack on blueberry yoghurt throughout the afternoon and cook myself a pasta bake around 4pm.

In this photo illustration a Netflix logo seen displayed on a smartphone.
Sleep Diaries: I find it difficult to fall asleep without Netflix on.

Spend a lovely evening chatting with my housemates in the kitchen, and head up to bed around 10pm. This would’ve been a lovely opportunity to turn my light straight out and try to get an early night (by my standards, anyway). Instead, I set about trimming my fingernails and putting together a to-do list for the next day. Not the best winding down activities.

I thought about reaching for my book to help my thoughts to stop buzzing from one thing to another, but decided against it mostly out of laziness. I flicked on an episode of Dawson’s Creek on my phone’s Netflix app, flipped the screen down so I could just hear the sappy 90s pop music and the predictable melodrama, and drifted off to sleep fairly easily, save for a few delays when I could hear something interesting happening on the show.

Woke up around 11.50pm, and felt proud. I’m always happy when I’ve managed to fall asleep before midnight, even if I inevitably wake again. 

Day 2

Woke up naturally around 9am because I didn’t set an alarm (a job perk of being a freelance writer who isn’t on shift that day), I half watched and half listened to an episode of Dawson’s Creek for around 15 minutes as I came to. It didn’t really matter what was happening, it was whatever episode my phone had played out to throughout the night – it just served as background noise as my brain woke up.

I’m recovering from a mammoth three-day migraine so I pop two paracetamol, as well as a Vitamin D supplement (which I try to remember to take daily), with my morning orange juice and decaf coffee. I don’t drink caffeinated coffee unless it’s before exercise or I really desperately need a morning boost. I eat porridge with skimmed milk and pomegranate seeds for breakfast. 

After tidying and cleaning my room, I sit down at my kitchen table around 11am to start work on an article, with a peanut butter and chocolate snack bar on hand for sustenance.

I remain this way for the majority of the day, save for lunch time around 2pm when I make myself (slightly overdone) poached eggs on toast with spinach, which I eat while I chat to my housemate about various dating trials and tribulations and how much we both miss going to the cinema during Covid-related lockdown.

Finishing up at work around 6.30pm, I cook a new recipe from a veggie cookbook I got for Christmas – broad bean and chive gnocchi. My housemates and I share a bottle of Prosecco and chat into the evening – not your usual Monday night, but we’ve just gone into lockdown, so need’s must. The booze makes me slightly peckish, so I have some crackers with cheese and a splash of milk before heading to bed

I make it upstairs around 10pm and I struggle to wind down. I watch Netflix for around an hour and then try out a Headspace sleepcast to get my mind to quieten down. I struggle to get off my phone, scrolling through my meal plans for the week and agonising over what coffee pods to order. The lockdown boredom is real already. The Headspace sleepcast helps to relax my body for sleep but my mind is still alert. I relent and put Netflix on, which lulls me off to sleep.

Woman working with laptop on the bed
Sleep Diaries: I prefer having something on in the background at night,

Day 3

I briefly wake at 5.30am and switch Netflix off, sleeping soundly until my alarm at 8am, which I snooze at least 3 times. I find it really difficult to wake up properly – I give myself 15-20 minutes resting time in bed before embarking downstairs for a shower, a decaf coffee and some breakfast (Crunchy Nut cornflakes). I’m really preoccupied with work and leave half my breakfast uneaten, and find it hard to focus until late morning.

I work through until around 2pm, when I take a lunch break and eat beans on toast with spinach and cheese. I’m feeling irritable because of the amount of plate spinning my article requires, so decide to take a jaunt to Sainsbury’s to use their laundry detergent refill machine on my lunch. It’s something to do that will get me out of the house. I arrive to find that the machine is broken, so buy ingredients for banana bread instead to make sure I have something to occupy my mind in the evening.

I battle through writing my piece throughout the afternoon but become distracted and hungry by 4.30pm, so I snack on a banana. I work through until around 6 and warm up some leftover vegetable pasta bake for dinner, then I bake banana bread to combat the monotony and welcome the lockdown back in true fashion.

Afterwards, I watch a few episodes of the Graham Norton Show (eating a couple of slices of banana bread) and go to bed around 11pm. I read my book for around an hour, turning on Netflix around midnight to lull me to sleep, I feel a little queasy, and realise I shouldn’t have eaten cake so late at night. I wake up at 1.15am and turn Netflix off, sleeping through silence until the morning. Result.

Day 4

I wake at 4.30am feeling anxious about my 9am interview for my article. I do manage to quickly get back to asleep, though (unassisted by Netflix). My alarm goes off at 7.30am and I struggle to get myself out of bed.

I have decaf coffee, orange juice and banana porridge for breakfast and plough through the interview just fine, all that anxiety for nothing – as usual. I spend the morning planning out the last bits I need to do to finish the piece, and then head out around 1pm for a walk in the park with a friend after finishing off my pasta bake for lunch. My lunch break walk is over an hour long and I walk over 5km. I hit up a local organic store on my way back and fill up my plastic containers with washing up liquid and detergent and walk home feeling like a good little eco warrior.

I finish my piece by around 5.30, after a lot of procrastination. I do an abs and arms workout after snacking on a banana, and warm up leftover gnocchi for dinner and eat it with cherry tomatoes.

It’s a relaxed evening for me, reading my book and watching TV in bed. I cheekily sneak downstairs for a couple of slices of banana bread around 9.30pm, which I think gives me a sugar high again and I struggle to get off to sleep. I use a Headspace sleepcast in desperation around midnight, though, and am off to sleep within 10 minutes.

Day 5 

I have quite an interrupted sleep, waking at 2am, then 4am – where I switch on Netflix on my phone as a comfort blanket of white noise – then 5.30am, where I turn Netflix off again. Somewhat restless.

I have more vivid dreams than usual, first dreaming of working in my local pub in my hometown, and then about going on a drunken dog walk with my family. I clearly have home on my mind in these troubled times.

With no looming deadline today, I let myself sleep in. I resurface around 9.30 for breakfast (porridge with pomegranate seeds, again), decaf coffee and juice. After working in the kitchen for a couple of hours – and excitedly receiving the delivery of my new coffee pods – I head out for a run. I make myself a caffeinated espresso for extra energy before I go. It’s freezing cold, but refreshing, I manage 3.5km and head to Waitrose for some groceries before heading home.

I work through the afternoon, finishing up around 6pm. I take hours to make dinner – red lentil dhal with roasted cauliflower – and I hoover the stairs as an extra workout (!) while I wait for it to cook. I end up eating two helpings, as well as another banana bread slice, while I watch TV with my housemate.

I go to bed around 11pm, feeling relaxed. I fall asleep fairly quickly but fail to stay asleep for long all night. I wake briefly, roughly once an hour, turning Netflix on and off to try and sooth me, but oddly don’t feel too tired by the following morning. 

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

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “I’m not sure where to start with this, as you have some pretty unhealthy and unhelpful habits which won’t be helping your sleep or your chronic migraines. But I really want to help, so let’s go.

“I think at the core of all this, you could be needing some therapeutic or even life coaching support to help with the Netflix-on-phone and comfort eating. Going to sleep seems to present you with some anxiety. And anxiety which you might not even be aware of, hence the late night carb/cake overloading and needing Netflix to get to sleep.

“So, what are you avoiding thinking about or feeling? Can you explore this with someone so that you feels safe to go to sleep without unhealthy props? The Netflix habit might also be exacerbating your sleep paralysis.”

Falling asleep with your TV or phone on means you’re also soaking in blue light from electronics, which can mess with the quality of your sleep by suppressing production of melatonin (the hormone that keeps your sleep/wake cycle in check), and it can delay sleep onset (the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep). 

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

    Dr Nerina continues: “Squash isn’t great – even if it’s low/no sugar. It would be much better if you could hydrate with water or herbal teas, and it will help your migraines.

    “You also need to adopt a more nutrient-rich diet and get more daily physical activity in, as again this will help with the headaches.

    “The book reading is good – you should keep at it as ideally this needs to replace the nighttime Netflix. And I really don’t recommend you start measuring your sleep as it might just cause more anxiety.

    “Good luck with it!” 

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      If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at digital.commissions@stylist.co.uk with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

      Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

      Images: Getty/Unsplash

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      Kayleigh Dray

      Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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