The small changes that can make a big difference to your sleep

When New York-based sleep expert Frank Lipman is assessing a new patient, he’ll typically start at the gut.

“There’s a huge connection between what’s going on in the gut… and sleep,” Lipman says, particularly the part the gut plays in generating neurochemicals vital to your wider wellbeing. Whether they realise it or not, the poor gut health he sees in many of his patients is manifesting in equally poor sleep.

So assessing gut health and diet is the “low hanging fruit” he’ll go for first with his sleep-deprived patients, as he tells the sixth episode of Dominic Bowden’s WellBeings podcast.

He targets the usual suspects. Get rid of sugars, gluten, factory-farmed meat, heavily processed foods. Don’t accept that constipation, reflux or bloating are just part of life as we age, and don’t try to mask those with pills.

Work through the lifestyle or dietary factors likely contributing to that permanent sense of an unsettled digestive system and Lipman is confident that whether you expect it or not, your sleep will show marked improvement.

He sees sleep as at the core of a healthy life, but also sees modern lifestyles as punishing on the things that contribute to a good night’s sleep. Besides unhealthy diets, he points to our polluted environment, anxiety and stress levels, and simply not keeping in tune with the simple rhythms that healthy sleep patterns follow.

“More and more research is coming out, but what we know now is bad sleep over time can lead to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s – most chronic diseases that most of us are scared of in this day and age, sleep can actually be a factor in or be a cause of,” he tells WellBeings.

The better news is that tackling poor sleep can actually be pretty simple and the benefits of improving it can be far-reaching. He advocates sleep as one of the most effective anti-ageing weapons available to us.

He casts the importance of sleep against a human’s place in the “macrocosm”. We exist in a world where the primary rhythms are light and dark, day and night; so the equivalent rhythms in the human body are awake and asleep, he says.

“Sleep is your primary rhythm… If we’re not regimented, not sticking to this regular rhythm, it’s going to affect your sleep in a negative way.”

Tips he offers to get our bodies better in tune with those rhythms, and to help counter the pressures of daily life that can make sleep feel like a chore rather than relaxation, may be familiar or even seem obvious.

But the fact that so many of us struggle to sleep suggests that we’ve lost sight of how our bodies are designed to function, whether through keeping our gut in good order or building steady, reliable habits around when we hit the hay.

Frank Lipman’s tips for a better night’s sleep

  • Aim to go to sleep around the same time, consistently. It doesn’t matter if you go to sleep early or late (so long as you balance that out with your wake-up time), but train your body to prepare itself for sleep based on a daily rhythm.
  • Prepare yourself for retiring by slowing your activity, at least half an hour before bedtime. Lipman’s personal preference is relaxing music, ideally with a beat of around 60bpm – he recommends reggae, specifically Bob Marley.
  • Get natural light during the day, and avoid too much artificial light at night. Dim the lights if you can during the hour or so before you plan to sleep. Then when you go to bed, avoid any light leakage into your room. Darkness is needed for your body to produce the melatonin hormone which makes you tired; messing with the dark will mess with the hormonal process.
  • Besides keeping the room dark, keep it cool – below 20 degrees Celsius. The temperature is also important to melatonin production.
  • When you wake up, get some early morning light. Again, it’s all about getting your body in tune with the world’s natural rhythms.
  • Consider your wider lifestyle, particularly if you’re stressed or anxious – both great sleep killers. Regular exercise is essential, and Lipman swears by meditation which he says delivers “the exact opposite” physiological effects to stress.

Listen and subscribe to Dominic Bowden’s WellBeings podcast.

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