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HOW TO RID YOURSELF OF SLEEP PROBLEMS…

HOW TO RID YOURSELF OF SLEEP PROBLEMS…

There are two distinct phases of my life that I remember as being ruled by sleep – or a lack of it! The first was with my first born: he didn’t actually sleep through the night until the age of 22 months, and there were plenty of nights when he woke 3 or 4 times through the night. By the end of it all I was run ragged & I felt permanently drunk on lack of sleep…but it surely taught me not to make the same mistakes when number two came along! So the second time around, a combination of far more sensible parenting (e.g. NOT running to check on him every time he moved or murmured) plus a little luck along the way meant I had a much easier journey (he slept through the night from 4 months!!).

The other time that the Sleep Curse hit me was shortly after I returned to live in the UK, and it was – very definitely – 100% stress related. For the first 6 months or so I would go to bed and simply toss & turn trying to get to sleep (& as anyone who has suffered from sleep issues will tell you, the more you “try” the more difficult – & utterly frustrating – it becomes). I would usually finally drop off at around 4 or 5 in the morning, only to be greeted by a bouncing 4 year old leaping on my bed at 6am. Weeks turned into months, and the exhaustion was becoming unbearable. Then something changed: for some reason, I suddenly found myself quite able to drop off…but then I would wake at around 3 or 4, and would be totally unable to get back to sleep again. I couldn’t believe that my original problem had totally disappeared – only to be replaced by another! I tried everything, from counting sheep to visualising relaxing golden beaches and warm sunshine, but I could never maintain my focus on those thoughts – my mind just kept getting dragged back to the same utter frustration of not being able to sleep. So there I would lie til 5 or 6, wide awake and “wired” – and good for nothing when the Bouncing Boy bounded in shortly afterwards.

 

WHY?

In my case, this was all about “mind chatter”. I would go to bed thinking of something – absolutely anything – & I simply would not be able to get it out of my head. I would lie there “spinning” on things: what I’d watched on TV, what I had to do the next day, even what football kit the kids would need next season! Nothing I could do seemed to make any difference, and every night felt like an endless battle.

I will NEVER forget what that utter exhaustion felt like, nor the sheer frustration of lying awake, trying to sleep, and feeling totally out of control of the whole situation. It was quite literally horrible – as was my level of patience with my boys as a result. I would spend my day times feeling I could literally fall asleep on my feet – and the whole thing felt pretty desperate.

 

 

There ARE ways out of this place: for me, the turning point was a meditation course which helped me with my mind chatter. I don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ solution, so I can’t promise that meditation will be your Golden Secret to sleep. Since my own issues, I have had endless clients asking me for help with sleep, so have researched (& tried out!) many different possibilities. My hope is that one – or maybe some – of those shown below will resonate with you. I honestly know the misery of sleepless nights, and I also know that it literally turned my life around the day I conquered the Sleep Curse…

 

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS…

 

The first, simple suggestion here is creating and maintaining an evening routine. As parents we surely know that developing regular bedtime habits helps our kids to sleep, (and we also know it is oh so wonderful to see them sleeping peacefully…)

 

 

So why shouldn’t a regular routine help us too? Once again, we are all different so we don’t need to be rigid: instead we need to experiment with what works best for us. There are however a few things that should be absolutes…

[You will see that several of the suggestions below are based in facts surrounding circadian rhythms, melatonin & serotonin. It is therefore worthwhile gaining a (very basic) understanding of these 3 concepts:

  1. Circadian rhythms are essentially our internal body clock, which runs 24/7 in the background of our brain (otherwise referred to as our sleep/wake cycle). These rhythms are basically the reason why at some times we feel drowsy, whereas at other times we are wide awake & raring to go. They are controlled by a part of the brain (the hypothalamus), but external factors such as lightness and darkness can also impact them.
  2. Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland. The gland is automatically ‘switched on’ when darkness falls, and this causes the hormone to be released into the blood stream, which in turn makes us feel less alert and more inclined to sleep. Conversely, during the day melatonin levels are hardly noticeable.
  3. Serotonin is a “happy hormone”. High levels of serotonin are associated with wakefulness; lower levels with sleep. The key here is that this hormone is synthesised by the pineal gland to make melatonin – hence both hormones are directly connected to good sleep.]

 

THE “DONT’S”

  1. Don’t drink caffeine for at least 4-6 hours before bedtime (caffeine suppresses melatonin production). Don’t forget this doesn’t just mean tea & coffee: think fizzy drinks & chocolate too, and do check food labels for caffeine content.
  2. Avoid alcohol (which disrupts sleep patterns – especially during the second half of the night when you would usually be sleeping more deeply) & nicotine (smokers’ sleep will be disrupted throughout the night by their cravings for nicotine).
  3. Don’t eat too heavily before bed, and be mindful of what foods you do eat. Eating some carbohydrates may induce sleepiness, but eating too heavily may lead to poor sleep. Foods rich in magnesium will relax muscles, foods which boost serotonin and/or melatonin levels will help encourage sleep.
  4. Avoid “screen time” before bed. Electronics & /or TV contain so many graphics that they will over stimulate you at bedtime. Electronic devices also contain a blue light which “suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths, and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree”. It is hugely important to turn off all such devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime (and 2 hours would be better still!). DO NOT use mobile phones, tablets etc in bed.
  5. Aim for a regular bed time & wake up time.  Resist the temptation to change this, even at weekends.
  6. Think of keeping your bedroom fairly cool at bedtime. Your body naturally cools down before sleep to encourage sleep: by keeping your bedroom cooler you will enhance this (ideally between 18-22 degrees).
  7. Do keep your room dark, either with curtains or black out blinds, or alternatively with an eye mask. Again, this is all about enhancing melatonin production. If you enjoy reading in bed, do so with a soft light.
  8. Try to keep clutter OUT of the bedroom. This will enhance your sense of relaxation, whereas clutter will do the opposite…

 

 

 

THE “DO’S”

  1. DO exercise during the day. Getting active will lift your mood & relieve stress – both of which are likely connected to your sleep patterns. It is also believed that exercise improves circadian rhythms “promoting daytime alertness and helping bring on sleepiness at night”.
  2. Doing vigorous exercise close to bedtime may be too arousing, but yoga and/or deep breathing exercises are definitely sleep inducing. Gentle mobilisation exercises are also helpful, as they will encourage muscular relaxation to combat the tensions of the day.
  3. If mind chatter is an issue for you, try journaling, or at least writing a ‘To Do List’ before bed to get these things out of your mind & on to paper.
  4. Consider the bed you’re lying on. Is the mattress good? Is the pillow right for you or do you wake with a stiff neck? Even the fabrics & colours you use on your bed may either enhance or deter sleep.
  5. Try drinking herbal tea before bed (chamomile is especially good for inducing sleep). Some say that milky drinks can help too, though there are mixed views on this one… It’s always worth trying it out to see what works for you.
  6. Consider any products you are using directly before bedtime. Many cosmetic companies offer a range of products which will help encourage sleep using things such as lavender essential oil, which is a relaxant. There are increasing numbers of companies that produce natural face and body creams, shower & bath products & pillow mists, all of which can genuinely enhance sleep if carefully chosen. It is vitally important to do the research and always read labels carefully.
  7. A warm bath can be incredibly relaxing, or for some a shower may have the same effect (make sure you do it mindfully!) Again, be careful which products you use: the wrong (chemically laden) cosmetics can load you up with toxins and make sleep ever more elusive. Alternatively, using products containing appropriate essential oils can enhance the sense of relaxation much further.
  8. Diffusing essential oils can be extremely calming – & will enhance your health on so many levels too. Lavender, frankincense, geranium are examples of oils to induce relaxation during the evening before bed. Lavender or chamomile are perhaps the best choices to have actually in the bedroom. [For more about which essential oils may enhance the mood you wish to create, click here].
  9. Establishing a regular mindfulness or meditation practice can help to calm “mind chatter”.

 

 

This was definitely what did it for me! I was so lucky in that I had the fabulous Mita to teach me on my 6 week Meditation Course, where I learnt to quieten my mind chatter by focusing on my breath. My main “take away” from the course was that when your mind wanders from the focus of your breath this is entirely natural. When I had spent hours lying in bed trying to do my own relaxation techniques, I had become sooo frustrated because I never seemed to be able to maintain my focus on relaxing – my mind was always grasshopper-ing off to something else. To this day I can hear my teacher saying “if the mind wanders this is totally natural: the mind is made this way. When it happens, you simply gently draw your thoughts back to your breath, back to the sensation of your breath within your body.” This for me was key: it was the thing that turned me away from frustration, and towards a true solution for my spinning mind…and sleep. On those rare occasions when sleep escapes me these days, I still hear Mita’s voice, and I know that softly focusing on my breath is my secret weapon to return me to the land of dreams.

 

Whether it’s you that is having problems with sleep, or someone you know, the above techniques genuinely work – and they are actually pleasant things to do. So if your body is crying out for a little more sleep – or for a little less stress & anxiety, as the two often go hand in hand – then please do try out these suggestions. We cannot over estimate the importance of sleep to both our physical and our mental health, and yet sadly this is so often overlooked…

 

 

If you do intend to try out some of these methods, it is a good idea to keep a diary of how your sleep patterns alter / progress as time goes on, so that you can then check back & see what might have worked best. If you would like a little more support or guidance with any of the above, do check out my “Notes for a Shaw Lifestyle” and my “Shaw Lifestyle Video & Audio Tips”, accessible here. There are various tools which you may find helpful, such as a Sleep Diary, a video of Mobilisation Exercises and an audio aid for Relaxation Techniques…

VITAL ELEMENTS OF POST NATAL FITNESS

VITAL ELEMENTS OF POST NATAL FITNESS

Following childbirth many women struggle with the reality of getting back into exercise and nutrition routines. The birth itself, whether straightforward or complex, creates a huge stress on the body, and this is followed immediately by the fatigue and anxieties of raising a new-born baby. Though undoubtedly a wonderful experience, most women suffer from extreme exhaustion, and some – especially first-time mothers – experience overwhelming degrees of stress & anxiety. The sheer responsibility of raising a new-born can make all other intentions fade into insignificance, so that exercise and nutrition are just not ‘on the radar’. In truth though, a considered exercise plan coupled with good nutrition will promote improved energy & a decrease in stress levels, bringing both health and psychological benefits. In addition, the RCOG (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) and the ACOG (American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) support the following advantages:

  • a quicker post-natal recovery
  • improved posture, energy levels, stamina, metabolic rate
  • a quicker return to pre-pregnancy weight
  • a better body image
  • increased self confidence

In my opinion, any new mum planning to exercise in the post natal period should look to work with a personal trainer with experience in this field. The first step should be a detailed consultation which will ensure a programme plan that is specific to YOUR experiences of childbirth and beyond.

Every woman’s experiences of pregnancy and birth are different, so programme design must be unique to the individual, and exercise prescription will be massively different depending on how active the new mum was prior to and during pregnancy, and on the actual birth experience (natural or caesarean, complex or simple). There are however certain generalised rules which will apply across the board:

1. New mums should be very aware not to hurry to start classic abdominal exercises. Regardless of whether diastasis recti abdominis is present (the stretching apart of the vertical muscles down the front of the abdomen, which creates a gap) the abdominals will have been extremely stretched, and it will take time and patience to return to form. It is however vital to start slowly rediscovering abdominal strength in order to support posture and to ensure that when you do start to work out your spine is protected.

2. Very early on it is simply a case of trying to sense the abdominal muscles, together with the pelvic floor. Begin by sitting on a chair, or on the floor if comfortable, or on a yoga block or Pilates ball. Breathe in to prepare, then on the exhalation simply squeeze the belly button back towards the spine and try to sense the two sides of the abdominals drawing together. This can be repeated as many times as is comfortable, (up to 20).

3. Pelvic floor exercises or ‘Kegels’ are essential to rediscover strength in this area (which was also massively stretched during birth), and to ensure a return to healthy bladder functioning. This involves trying to raise the perineal muscles up within the pelvic area: you can imagine the feeling of needing a pee and stopping yourself, or thinking of the base of the pelvis as the floor of a lift which you are trying to slowly raise up within you, floor by floor. These exercises are hard to master at first as there is little feeling in this over-stretched area. (They will be much easier for those who performed them before birth, and therefore have some understanding of the sensation they are trying to feel). It is vital that pelvic floor exercises be done at home as well as during structured exercise sessions. Regularly practising these simple exercises will help to avoid the embarrassment of stress incontinence, as well as being good for general health. In addition, the pelvic floor muscles will ultimately work in integration with the abdominals, and so also help to regain strength and tone here also.

4. Moving forwards, a trainer will explore slowly progressive abdominal exercises as appropriate to your level of post-natal fitness. It must be remembered that you are now working with a “new” and changed body, so you need to work slowly and with focus to ensure that you are listening to your body and developing your fitness sessions according to YOUR body’s limitations.

5. You should be working to re-establish muscle memory in terms of ‘correct’ posture, and this in itself will also slowly help abdominal work. Start by finding neutral spine in the supine position, then explore this in sitting and standing positions: aim to maintain this stance in all subsequent exercises, and in day to day activities. This will take time and practice, as the posture has changed quite considerably over the previous 9 months.

6. The re-training of the abdominals should be done alongside a graduated programme of fitness exercises. Both muscle strengthening and cardio work will be slowly built up again, with constant reminders of abdominal work and core strength throughout.

7. Nutrition remains hugely important in the postnatal period, and it is very easy, due to the stress and tiredness of having a new baby, to forget this. Remaining hydrated is of vital importance, especially if breastfeeding. Breastfeeding also calls on the mother’s calorie intake, (as does exercise), so she must accept that the return to pre-pregnancy weight will be a slow process: the first priority is to feed her body well enough that she and her baby can get through this challenging period in good health. This will be achieved by maintaining a healthy, balanced diet.

8. After the initial post natal period, group exercise can be very incentivising for many women, as the companionship and support of those who may share some of your experiences can be very positive. If there are yoga or Pilates classes specific to the post natal period, it is well worth checking these out.

9. Stress levels can be incredibly high when trying to adjust to life with a newborn. There is obviously undoubted joy at the birth, but this also brings with it sleepless nights, a ‘new’ and unfamiliar body, upside down hormones…and so the list goes on. Appropriate exercise and nutrition will be massively helpful in managing these stress levels, and must be prioritised, however hard that may seem. Additionally, all the usually recommended stress management techniques can be helpful. Perhaps the simplest and most effective in the early days is #breathingexercises, which can be practiced at any time, day or night.

It is so easy – and totally natural – to get caught up in what’s good for the baby at this stage. What we must remember is that THE most important thing for the baby is to have a healthy mum, so we must also prioritise our own health and wellness – both physical and mental. Remember: keeping your own cup topped up with those things that will enhance your health is what will enable your baby to flourish and thrive.

WHY POSTURE MATTERS: POSTURAL PERKS & TOTAL TONING!

WHY POSTURE MATTERS: POSTURAL PERKS & TOTAL TONING!

After many years in the world of dance good posture is second nature to me, but I am well aware how difficult it can be to correct ‘bad’ postural habits… and how massively detrimental these habits can be! I am passionate about the importance of correct stance for general health, and I also utterly believe that combining this with consciously controlled movement patterns and correct exercise technique is the most positive way to ensure that prescribed workouts are safe, and that they simultaneously create the ‘sleek physique’ that so many of us crave.

I often tell clients that the easiest way for me to help them to create ‘ideal’ posture would be for me to pick them up by the head and simply allow the rest of the body to dangle downwards…though I realise this is a little impractical (& possibly unethical!) in real life. My point is that so many of our postural imperfections come from the fact that we are fighting gravity – and we weren’t made to be this way. Our anatomy was designed for a life on all fours, and our ongoing efforts to undo this and stand on two legs have created endless postural imbalances. Add to this various other modern day habits which also conflict with the way our bodies were meant to work, it’s perhaps not surprising that posture has become such an issue:

• Children being forced to carry ridiculously heavy bags to school
• Teens spending hours sitting in front of electronic games (often holding massive muscular tension)
• Employees spending hours in front of an (often wrongly placed) computer screen
• A “one click society”, which encourages us to do EVERYTHING online and to be overly sedentary
• The modern epidemic of STRESS which often results in excess muscular tension from head to toe

I cannot emphasise enough how hugely important good posture is, and I advise 3 tips for improving posture:

  1. Simple mobilisation exercises daily
  2. An exercise regime which combines cardiovascular challenge and slower, calmer movements involving breathing techniques and stretches (such as Pilates, Yoga or Tai Chi)
  3. Daily self checks on where YOU are holding muscular tension

1. Mobilisation: if we think back to our roots as hunter gatherers we can understand that the movement patterns our joints were designed for were many and varied. We reached high to pick fruit, bent low to dig up roots, and ran to catch our prey. Today, many of us are overly sedentary, and even those of us who are more active often don’t exploit the full range of movement our bodies are capable of. If we walk, run or cycle we are only essentially working the hip joint bilaterally, (i.e. our thigh is moving backwards and forwards at a greater or lesser speed). This joint is also able to move outwards and inwards (ab- and adduction), and to rotate inwardly and outwardly. If we don’t exploit ALL these movement patterns the joint will become increasingly less able to carry them out (the basis of the concept “use it or lose it”). Looking at the shoulder socket we see similar problems. The movement potential in the shoulder joint is huge ( we can reach up high, reach behind our backs, reach out to the sides, and we can combine all these by creating large arm circles). On a day to day level however, our movement is very limited. We might typically pick up the kettle to make a tea or coffee, tap away at a keyboard or screen, turn a steering wheel and maybe pump our arms whilst running. These movements don’t even come close to what the joint is capable of! The USE IT OR LOSE IT principle can be addressed by ensuring those movements our body is craving are added into our daily routines by practising simple mobilisation exercises for just 5 or 10 minutes per day.

2. Varied Exercise: yes, running is good for us (providing good technique is adhered to), and cardiovascular exercise is essential for good heart health, but it is not sufficient alone. Equally, in spite of the massive benefits that Yoga, Pilates or Tai Chi offer in today’s overly stressed society, these too are lacking as stand-alone fitness methods. It is vital that we balance out our fitness needs, combining CV with relaxation, breathing, stretching and mobilisation. If Pilates or Yoga are performed with an emphasis on postural correction, this will then enhance the movement technique and breathing patterns in any CV based regime. Working in this way the one discipline will complement the other: amended posture and correct breathing will ensure muscles are used efficiently so that injury is avoided and each individual physique is able to work to it’s best ability.

3. Muscular Tension: this is something I honestly believe to be a disease of modern society. Be it from spending hours at a time hunched over a screen (our kids whilst gaming and ourselves whilst working), or from elevated stress levels resulting in stiffness in the neck and shoulder and/or headaches (often also rooted in muscular tension or trigger points), tension is rife. There is another contributory factor here which often goes unnoticed. One part of our ‘fight or flight’ response is our muscles taking on the ability to contract more quickly and more strongly (to flee the perceived ‘threat’). When the response is invoked bit by bit on a daily basis, muscular tension builds more and more, and when coupled with our sedentary tendencies, this can be a recipe for disaster. The key here is that much of this is habit: “something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it”. In order to correct these habits, we need first to become aware of them: to become mindful of our held tensions, and of the movements which create them. When you next sit at the computer, notice your neck and shoulders: are they as relaxed as they could be? Or are you holding excess tension? The same when you reach for your tea or coffee: all that is necessary is slight tension in the hand and fingers to create a grip, but many. many people hold tension all the way up their arm and into their neck and jaw during this simple, everyday movement. Check yourself regularly through the day: whilst cleaning your teeth, driving, waiting in a queue. As soon as we become more aware of these repeated movement patterns it becomes possible to notice our tension, and that is the first, vital step towards undoing it and learning to RELAX.

These are simple, doable steps for starting “undo” those not-so-good postural habits. It is easy enough to incorporate all three of these tips into your daily life, and if you do so you WILL start to see results. Remember: “a bad habit never disappears miraculously. It’s an undo-it-yourself project”

…good luck!

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