How well do you sleep? In a series of diary entries from women across the UK, Stylist is exploring one of our most prolific obsessions…
Here, a sleep expert explains the psychology behind her pre-sleep routine - and offers some top tips to help you drift off.
Name: Hope Bastine
Profession: Mindfulness and Sleep Psychologist
Actual sleep: 8 hours 15 minutes
Ideal amount: 8 hours 30 minutes
3 words to describe your sleep: delicious, non-negotiable, fragile
Sleep quality: 8.5/10
My relationship with sleep used to be very difficult. About 15 years ago, I had a tough year with quite a lot of trauma, which drew me into a hyper-insomniac state. I had blood and adrenaline pumping through my veins every night, and couldn’t fall asleep. I fell into a strange pattern of not sleeping for three days and then collapsing into sleep for about four hours on the fourth night, and then the cycle would start again. This lasted for a full year.
I went to university and discovered that my sleeplessness was destroying my ambitions to rebuild my life. So I threw myself into everything I could do to try and repair that. I have to be grateful for that period of my life because it gave me the strength in the long run to make me who I am today.
Fifteen years ago, there was very little available in terms of self-help books on sleep. I was studying psychology so I was well equipped to read and research journals and papers on the topic, but they weren’t sympathetic or helpful.
I ended up focusing my research and work into changing these awful papers into more practical and accessible advice that people could really benefit from. I wanted them to have a lot more compassion. They focused on restriction which, for someone who is quite anxious and already suffering, is just not helpful. Some of the advice for sleeplessness was just not realistic, such as completely cutting out caffeine – what if you are trying to juggle work and a life on no sleep? It’s more helpful to know the amount of caffeine you can actually have without it affecting your sleep. So I spread my research to these other areas too, to help me build a better relationship with sleep.
I was working in the NHS and clients were giving me nice feedback, saying that the advice I had given them about sleep was really helping them. I realised the knock-on effect that sleep deprivation can have on mental health, so I began championing good sleep as a preventative approach to mental health issues. I have now been working as a sleep psychologist for four years.
The most common problem that people come to me with is difficulty in getting to sleep. Their head will hit the pillow and, no matter how tired they are, their mind will be so full of thoughts that it takes them a long time to nod off.
My first golden piece of advice for insomniacs is to manage your caffeine content. I always advise people not to have caffeine first thing in the morning and I practise what I preach, so I’ll wait an hour after waking up to have my first cup. This allows the body to release adrenaline, which acts as a natural alarm clock to help you wake up. If you put a foreign substance such as coffee into your body first thing in the morning, it tells it not to do that natural waking process.
The best time to drink coffee is when you have a circadian rhythm energy dip, which is often between 9am and 11 am. Keep in mind that caffeine stays in your system for at least 12 hours, and 50% of us have a slow metabolism to it, meaning it could be in your system around 14 hours. Caffeine completely destroys the spindle fibre formations that help you get into a good restorative deep sleep, so count backwards from when you want to go to sleep in the evening, because you want all caffeine out of your system by then. Whatever you do, don’t have any caffeine after lunchtime. It’s an old piece of advice, but that is my top tip.
Plus, there are other ways to boost your energy levels. If I’m having a bit of a slump in the afternoon, I’ll have a Berocca or try ashwagandha – both natural, caffeine-free ways of getting an energy boost.
My second golden piece of advice is to treat where you sleep, and your process for getting to sleep, as a religious experience. It is very sacred and precious. You need to create your bedroom in a way that makes you want to go there. Make sure the colours in your room are non-activating, such as muted or pastel colours like white, grey or soft pink. I have a piece of art in my room called Waterlines by Richard Long, which is very calming – I lose myself in it.
Next, make your bedding as comfortable as possible; it needs to moderate the temperature but also feel really nice and soft on your skin. I spent a bit of money on hybrid silk and linen bedding from The White Company, and I sleep on a Simba mattress.
Plants in the bedroom are also really helpful sleep aids. I have English ivy, which improves the moisture in the room and stops me getting a dry throat or coughing in the night, which would wake me up. I have a chrysanthemum to remove toxins like ammonia from the air, and lavender and jasmine plants to reduce my heart and breath rate. Jasmine also improves the next day’s cognitive performance when you’re smelling it throughout the night.
6pm: I’ll eat dinner, which is usually grilled or baked fish, or turkey, with vegetables. I avoid eating heavy meals in the evening, such as something involving red meat, which is so heavy on your stomach.
I try to eat foods high in tryptophan, magnesium or B6 in the evening as this helps regulate sleep. New research shows that foods with prebiotics, such as artichokes, leeks, onions and garlic, can also help with the problem of night time waking, but this still needs to be developed. I’ll have cherries or chocolate, which both contain tryptophan, as my guilty dessert pleasure.
I’m also really careful about my alcohol consumption in the evenings. It destroys the body’s natural sleep architecture, meaning you don’t fall into deep sleep, which is the really restorative part of sleep. I limit myself to one or two glasses of red wine and finish it an hour before I go to bed. Our livers process alcohol at one unit per hour and research shows that it delays the release of melatonin for three hours. So even if it makes you feel sleepy, it doesn’t put you to sleep.
7pm: I rest and relax and catch-up on TV or social media.
8pm: I turn off all screens for at least 90 minutes before bed, so at 8pm I will start thinking about sleep. There are three stages to my pre-sleep routine: I relax my body, settle my mind and nourish my soul.
Relaxing my body starts with a bit of yin yoga or a hot bath in magnesium salts. I like the Tisserand Aromatherapy Sweet Dreams Bath Salts with a few drops of Neal’s Yard Lavender Oil. I use Caudalie Bath and Shower Gel or Om She Aromatherapy Body Scrub, and I finish off with Aveda Stress-Fix Body Creme.
Then I’ll do my beauty routine. I brush my teeth daily with Regenerate Enamel Science and once a week I use Dr Organic Activated Charcoal toothpaste. I use Bioderma Cleanser for make-up removal and Liz Earle Cleanse and Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser once a week.
When I’m in the bathroom, I always make sure the lighting is really low – I’ll either have the hall light on or use a candle – I like WoodWick ones that burn like a fireplace. I am very sensitive to my sensory environment, so low lighting in the evening is very important.
8.45pm: Next, I will settle my mind, by putting some Simba Sleep Spray on my bed before reading. Bed is for two things, sleep and sex, so I’ll do some guilty pleasure reading, which will be either poetry or literature depending on how I’m feeling. I like work by Anïs Nin, and I’m currently reading Lolita in Tehran by Nafisi Azar.
9.15pm: To nourish my soul, I’ll do a bit of journal writing followed by meditation.
10pm: I go to sleep. If I’ve managed my coffee and alcohol consumption, and done all of my steps, then I fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes, which is the normal amount of time. I’m a very light sleeper and live in a noisy area, so I have triple glazing to stop me getting woken up. I also have blackout curtains and keep a House of Hackney lavender eye mask nearby in case I need it.
I keep the temperature really low in my room as I like it to be cool, between 15 and 18 degrees. This is so important for women because our body temperature is always fluctuating with our hormones, and this is one of the leading causes of sleep disruption. So keeping the room cool can help with that. Basically my room needs to be a cave: dark and cool. And no mess – the piles of laundry stay in the hallway!
I don’t need an alarm clock to wake me up – I usually wake naturally between eight and a quarter to eight and a half hours after I fell asleep. I have my phone plugged in in the hallway (I never take it into my bedroom) with the alarm on though, just in case!