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Stylist Sleep Diaries: How waking up at 2.20am every day impacts my health

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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How well do you sleep? In a new series of diary entries from women across the UK, Stylist is exploring one of our most prolific obsessions…

Here, a presenter for the early morning Smooth Radio show explains why she has to sleep in two separate shifts, and the struggles that go hand in hand with such a complicated sleep routine…

Name: Nicola Bonn

Age: 37

Profession: Radio Broadcaster and Beauty Journalist

Ideal amount of sleep: 8/9 hours a night

Actual amount of sleep: two separate sleeps of around 4 hours

Describe your sleep in three words: Really bad quality

Rate your sleep out of 10: 4/10

I used to have a really good relationship with sleep before I started my crazy job. I would read a book and then nod off for eight to nine hours, no problem. But I’ve been a radio presenter for the whole of my career, starting when I was 24, and I’m finding that the longer I do it the worse my sleep is getting. I’ve worked on lots of different shows over the last 13 years and the early breakfast show that I’ve been working on over the last four years is one of the hardest.

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I arrive in the office at 3am to prep for the show, which starts at 4am and ends at 6am, and then I’m home by 6.30am. On paper it’s the perfect job, and people always say they’re jealous as they have much longer working days. But while the job is brilliant, the effect it has on my sleep is really difficult. I have to split my sleep into two parts – one before the show, and one after I get home.

It’s hard to explain the fatigue to people who don’t do night shifts or sleep splits, but I feel like I’m permanently jet lagged. It’s horrible; I’m tired all the time. It’s a lingering background feeling that means you never feel quite right. The only time I really realise how bad it is, is when I go on holiday; I go away for two weeks every year and get back into a normal sleeping pattern, and that’s when it hits me how much better I feel.

Nicola arriving at work and immediately drinking a giant-sized cup of tea

Sleep One

8pm: Once we’ve tidied up the house, my husband and I will sit down to eat dinner. We usually have something light, like a stir fry – when you’re getting up in the middle of the night like I am, you really feel a heavy dinner in your stomach. Although sometimes it gets to the evening and all I want to eat is a steak!

8.30pm: We’ll chill out with some Netflix and catch up on our lives.

9.30pm: I start getting ready for bed. Because I also work as a beauty journalist I have to test out lots of beauty products, so I’ll usually do quite an intense cleansing routine. It’s a really important part of my day – it’s my time to switch off. I’ll get into my pyjamas and go into the bathroom on my own and rub a nice cleanser onto my face. I’ll follow this with an acid toner and then a serum, which I’ll really massage in. Then I’ll finish the routine with a face oil scented with something soothing like lavender. I always spent a bit of time doing this, around 10 to 15 minutes, because it really relaxes me and it’s the only real time I get to myself in the day.

9.45pm: My husband will come into the bedroom and we’ll have a little chat, then he’ll either get into bed with me or go downstairs and watch TV for a bit. If he does this he will usually come to bed around 10.30pm, but he doesn’t wake me because I’ll have my earplugs firmly in.

Either way, around 9.45pm I’ll get into bed and read, either on my kindle or my phone. I’ve just got a new phone that lets me switch off the screen’s blue light; I think part of my problem with falling asleep is that I’ve been looking at too much blue light. Before I start my book I’ll spritz my pillow with This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, to get me in the zone for sleep.

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I really love reading and I read such a mix of books; a lot of them are about women and their journeys, but recent books I’ve enjoyed include This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The only thing I won’t read before bed is anything about parenting or work; I can’t start thinking anything inspiring because it will just get my mind working! I work on a beauty podcast which I’m really passionate and excited about, but if I read something that could inspire me then I know I won’t switch off. So the content of the book has to be removed from my life.

The amount of time I spend reading depends on how tired I feel. Sometimes it will be five minutes before I start to feel my eyes close, but other times it might be 40 minutes and I’ll still be wide awake. Either way, once I’ve closed my book I’ll rub some Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Balm on my temples and wrists to help me drift off.

There’s a stress at night time because of the pressure to fall asleep – you know you’ll be exhausted if you don’t. Sometimes I will drop off straight after my routine, but at least twice a week I find myself awake past 11pm. Before 11pm I’m quite chilled about it and will just read more of my book if I can’t drift off, but the later it gets the more upset I feel, because I know it will affect me that night and the next day. But after 11pm I know I’ll only have three or so more hours to sleep and that I’ll be exhausted for work.

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A 2.30am selfie snapped by Nicola

I try not to look at the clock when I can’t sleep because that just makes things worse. But the best thing is when you check the time and it’s actually earlier than you thought, meaning you’ve got more time.

When I can’t sleep I try a breathing technique that I read about in an article once. I breathe in for a count of six, hold my breath for a count of seven, and then breathe out for a count of eight, over and over until I drift off. I sleep on my back and I can breathe in and out really deeply; the out breaths in particular really help me. So if I do get to my emergency point of the night, which is anything past 11pm, I’ll try to fall asleep using the technique.

2.20am: My alarm goes off and I’ll get up and go to work.

One of the cleansers tested out by Nicola before bed

Sleep Two

6.30am: I walk in the door and go straight to the bathroom to take my makeup off; I only wear a little bit to work. I use Liz Earle Hot Cloth Cleanser and then apply a moisturiser that I’m testing. I won’t do the whole cleansing routine again – I can’t be bothered in the morning, I just want to go to bed.

6.45am: I’ll eat something small like an oat cake, or something with more carbohydrates, like bread or a bagel, depending on how I feel. Doing the early morning shift gives me a bit of a sick, acid-like feeling in my stomach; lots of people who work the same hours tell me they feel the same, and I think it’s because your stomach just gets really confused. So I’ll try to eat something when I get in, and I’ll usually have some fruit or a yoghurt after my first sleep before I leave the house for work.

7am: My husband usually makes the bed for me by the time I come home. I love our bed; we have a super king size one that takes up loads of space, but it’s great. We’ve invested in really nice pillows that are firm and supportive, but not too hard. We’ve also just bought a Simba mattress, which is really comfortable, as is the rest of our bed linen (we usually opt for grey or white colours). Bedding is everything!

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Nicola recording her beauty podcast

My second sleep routine is pretty much the same as my first one, minus the cleansing ritual, so once I’m in bed I’ll start reading again. I try not check my emails, because otherwise I start thinking about things and before I know it I feel ready for a full day of work. So I’ll try to keep myself relaxed.

I’ve got blackout curtains that are a must for anyone sleeping in the day, and I’ll put earplugs in too so that I don’t get disturbed by any daytime noises. Earplugs are my life – I could not do it without them! I ordered a job lot of them off of Amazon; I like the bright pink and yellow laser lite ones.

7.15am: I usually find it so much easier to fall asleep in the second sleep, even during the day when it’s light (my blackout curtain is great but it doesn’t block out all the light). It’s weird but I get my best sleep during the day.

Midday: My alarm goes off because I usually work in the afternoon. The absolute latest that I’ll get up is 12.20pm, ready to start all over again.

These hours are not good for the body, there’s no doubt about that!

Nicola runs the Outspoken Beauty podcast, one of the UK’s most honest, no holes barred beauty podcasts featuring a range of celebrity guests. All the latest news and episode information can be found at the Instagram page @outspokenbeautypodcast

Eye mask courtesy of Oliver Bonas

Images courtesy of Nicola Bonn