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 66-year-old complementary therapist wonders if melatonin tablets could be the answer to her sleep problems.
A little about me:
Occupation: complementary therapist
Number of hours sleep you get each night: 5 hours
Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8 hours
Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: Hashimoto’s disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
How much water you drink on average per day: 2 litres
How much exercise I do on average per week: 1-2 hrs per week normally but currently in front of computer a lot more due to workload
It’s Sunday, which means I sit down to a large lunch. Come the evening, I don’t feel like I want a large meal so just have some cheese and biscuits and water.
I then settle down to watch three episodes of a series on TV, before heading to bed where I spend a bit of time catching up with social media on my iPad. I have a heavy workload at the moment but am not aware of being particularly stressed – I fall asleep around 10pm without any issues.
Unfortunately, I suffer from acid reflux and I am woken up around five times during the night. I always keep a glass of water by my bed and drink this when I wake up, but I also do a bit of reading and learn that dairy can exacerbate acid reflux. Just like that, I decide that I’m going to try to change my diet and give up dairy products (unfortunately, that also includes chocolate!).
My body clock means that, as always, I wake up around 5–5.30 am, and I’m happy with this; I try to use this quiet time to meditate. As usual, I don’t eat breakfast, preferring to wait until lunchtime to eat. However, I do drink around a litre of water in the morning.
As a rule, I don’t drink tea, coffee, or any caffeinated drinks. I used to drink a lot of Diet Coke but I gave that up around July last year as I found this exacerbated the acid reflux.
My energy levels are generally very predictable – I have a lot of focus in the first half of the day and generally try to get the “thinking” side of what needs to be done then. By late afternoon I am usually less effective with detailed work and usually by 5 or 6pm I switch off.
I feel more tired and stressed than usual, so I have a hot bath with a couple of handfuls of Epsom salts. I suspect it’s because I’ve a) spent too much time in front of the computer today and b) the weather is very cold and wet, so I haven’t been outside for a couple of days either.
The bath helps, though, and I feel relaxed when I get into bed – so much so that I fall asleep almost straight away around 10pm. Again, though, I am woken up with acid reflux around four times during the night.
As normal, I wake up around 5.30am, and spend some time meditating before starting work. It’s a long day, and I wind down in the evening with two glasses of wine.
Feeling more awake than usual, I spend some time chatting with my husband and we don’t end up eating until late. This time, I swerve the cheese but do give in to some dark chocolate with nuts. Of course, though, wine and chocolate trigger my acid reflux, and so again I’m woken up around six times in the night.
I drink water, take some antacids, and start researching a quite radical diet change (advised by Hashimoto). This involves a liver detox for two weeks (so, no alcohol, no sugar, no gluten and no dairy) followed by adrenal detox as well as some supplements.
I also speak to a friend who has sleep problems and she advises melatonin supplements, which she says she’s been given by her GP. I’m looking into this, but I think the issue is more to do with the acid reflux rather than an inability to sleep.
Another thing I am curious about is this: I hardly ever remember dreams. I know, I know – it’s good that I don’t have nightmares, but it would be so nice to remember dreams. It only seems to happen around four or five times a year.
My day goes much as usual: an early start, with meditation in place of breakfast, and a busy day of work. I have a light evening meal after a tiring day, and a friend suggests that I take some antacids before I head to bed to help the acid reflux.
The result? I feel slightly unwell – just tired and achy, but not anything like a cold coming – and I have a strange sleep pattern. I’m still woken with acid reflux, albeit nowhere near as bad as normal, but the sleep I do manage to catch feels much deeper.
I also have an incredibly vivid dream, about someone telling me that I’d got a phone call waiting for me from someone called Simon. I can’t think of anyone close called Simon, though, so not sure what that was about.
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I wake up almost two hours later than normal today, which may be due to the fact that I’ve been feeling increasingly tired over the last week (I’m putting this down to heavy workload and also depressing weather).
After another busy day, I give in and treat myself to an early night; it’s the best sleep I’ve had in ages. Perhaps this is due to me cutting out food that I think exacerbates the acid reflux?
I wake up around 5.30am, which is my “normal” time, but stay in bed as I still feel tired. I fall back into quite a deep sleep and wake naturally around 7am.
So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “I know that you know this already, but you have a couple of medical conditions which could really benefit from better dietary patterns. I’m wondering whether a ‘little and often’ pattern of eating would be better for you than going for long periods of not eating and then having a heavy meal? Try to break up your day with snacks and mini meals, and see if that helps.
“I know that you’re waking up a lot because of your symptoms, but better sleep hygiene might also help – please get the tech out of the bedroom, especially if you want to remember your dreams. It really would help because your sleep will be ‘cleaner’ and deeper, and you might find you then have more access to your dreams.
“Now, some people just don’t remember their dreams. It’s my belief, though, that you can get better at it by journaling first thing when you wake up – the so-called ‘morning pages’ (take a look at Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way).”
Dr Nerina continues: “I hope that you don’t take your friend’s advice and start using melatonin tablets. Yes, the hormone melatonin plays a role in your natural sleep-wake cycle. And yes, some research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase, and providing some relief from insomnia and jet lag.
“Based on what I’ve read here, though, I really don’t think that you need them. Because, while they are safe to use in the short-term, it’s important to remember that they are a form of sleeping tablet which can create an unhealthy dependence. Plus, like all prescription sleep meds, they stop working after a while. You can find out more about melatonin supplements, including their side effects, via the NHS.
“I’m wondering if, given the nature of your work – you are a complementary therapist, after all – you could instead look at homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine or Ayurvedic remedies to help manage your medical conditions and improve your sleep.”
Dr Nerina finishes: And I know it’s hard when the weather isn’t playing ball, but you really do need to get out more and go for walks in the fresh air. Nature can be a great healer and the exercise would be good for your health too.
“Remember, people who offer support to others especially need to take care of themselves – self care is a priority. This is the oxygen mask theory, after all, so please put your own mask on first.”
If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at email@example.com with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.
Want more practical advice on how to achieve better sleep? On World Sleep Day (Friday 19 March), we will be hosting The Stylist Restival - a part sleep spa, part workshop. Tickets include four live sessions, one month free of Clementine, the all-new sleep app; plus a downloadable sleep guide. Book your place here.
Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan
Images: Getty/Unsplash/Ben Blennerhassett/Taisiia Shestopal
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.