The Importance of Sleep – the role it plays in your physical and mental health.

I wrote the following words for an article a while back. Having read something again yesterday about the importance of sleep to health, I thought it worth putting out again. I have added a bit more regarding  the possible protective role it plays in breast cancer.

Good quality sleep is so important. Ideally we should get eight hours a night. With families to look after and demanding jobs or even a thriving social life, we often do not get that peaceful night’s sleep that we should. Sleep plays a big role in your physical health and mental health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repairing your body and supporting good brain function. In children and teenagers, sleep also helps support growth and development so perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on our teenagers when we have trouble getting them out of bed! Lack of sleep can impact on us in many ways and even cause harm over time; deficiency can raise your risk of some chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and can also affect how well you think, react, work, learn and get along with others. It can affect our safety too; if we are tired when performing important tasks such as driving or operating machinery we can be prone to accidents. Children who lack sleep may struggle with school work and examinations.

Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you are sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day; it is forming new pathways to help you learn and take in information. It may be that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain , so if you are sleep deficient you may have trouble making decisions or controlling your emotions and behaviour. It will also play a part in anxiety and depression.

Sleep is important in regulating the hormones in your body such as insulin which controls your blood sugar, and important growth hormones in children. Another interesting point is that lack of sleep makes you hungry, so if you battle with your weight and controlling your eating it may be worth thinking about a few early nights!

Melatonin and sleep

The pattern of waking up naturally when it is light and sleeping at night when it is dark is a natural part of human life. A key factor in how we sleep is regulated by exposure to light or darkness. You may say this is obvious, but in modern times we do not really sleep in the way our ancestors did or indeed as animals do. Melatonin is a natural and beneficial hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain. During the day this gland is inactive. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal gland starts to function and releases melatonin. This has the effect of naturally slowing the body down and preparing us for sleep. When we sleep melatonin levels stay elevated in the body and then fall again with the light of the new day. So we see that light affects how much melatonin the body produces. During the shorter days of winter, your body may produce melatonin either earlier or later in the day than usual and this change can have an effect on mood, often called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Most of us know that the hormone melatonin helps regulate our sleep. But it also seems to play another role – suppressing cancer growth. Think of melatonin as helping to put cancer cells to sleep at night. Various studies have shown that women who interrupt their melatonin production by working night shifts appear to be at increased risk. Even living on a brightly-lit street may increase risk. Therefore, it’s probably best to sleep in a room with heavy curtains or black-out blinds and no lights. There is also something else you can do! Yes, eat more vegetables. Higher vegetable intake seems to increase levels of melatonin.

 All appliances should be switched off and try not to have a television in the room! Leave your mobile out of immediate range too! (It can be done!) All electronic devices can interfere with your sleep. One thing I try and do (and often find it hard to stick to) is to have a ‘wind down’ spell after 8pm. This means staying away from the computer and leaving unfinished work until the next day. Most emails can wait until the morning! Also, I try to avoid listening to late night news so that I don’t go to bed feeling troubled.

In the dark night hours, there is nothing much worse than laying awake tossing and turning. Every minor problem and worry about tomorrow becomes magnified and before you know it you have a whole list of possible bad scenarios bubbling up in your mind. The best thing to do in this situation is to get up. Instead of staying in bed worrying about how many hours sleep you will be missing and fearing you will be a wreck the next day, go and make a warm drink and try and clear your mind with some calm thoughts. Do something else for thirty minutes until you feel really tired. Just be sure it’s not something too stimulating or involving bright light.

When laying in bed, try relaxing all the muscles in your body from head to toe. This is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation and is a good way of winding down when you get into bed at night. Once you are laying quietly, work through your muscle groups from head to toe. Start with your face: lift your eyebrows and wrinkle the forehead, then close your eyes tightly before opening them and relaxing. Tense your lips, cheeks, and jaw muscles by grimacing, then feel the serenity come over you as you relax all your facial muscles. Work down through the body, tensing and then relaxing the shoulders and arms, the chest and abdomen, (breathing deeply and exhaling as you relax), the back muscles, hips and buttocks, and lastly, the legs and feet. After you have systematically tightened and relaxed all the muscle groups in your body, you should feel more relaxed and calm. You may even fall asleep half way through!

I love to listen to soothing music at night. It’s great for helping you drift off. There are many relaxation CD’s available online or you can listen via youtube.com. Also, there is now a brilliant App called Calm which you can download and listen to some brilliant bedtime stories! I challenge you to stay awake and listen til the end!

Sleep is very important in helping put away the thoughts from yesterday; with good restful sleep the brain can organise and sort the good thoughts from the bad and do away with ‘mind chatter’ so you can awake refreshed and ready to face a new day with new mental awareness. During the day and often the evening too, especially this time of the year, I have a Himalayan salt lamp plugged in. I have read various reports about their possible health benefits, such as cleansing the air, helping to reduce allergies, increasing energy levels, helping with sleep, treating Seasonal Affective Disorder, and producing an environmentally friendly light source. Whatever their benefits, I do know they certainly lighten up any room with their friendly warm glow and seem to freshen the air too. You can place them on a desk, in your living room, next to the bed or anywhere you choose.

When you are awake at night and feel the darkness closing in, remember that everything will feel better in the morning. Ok not everything perhaps, especially if you have any ongoing troubles, but you will be able to put things more into perspective when you are up and about, have opened the curtains, and chased away the night. And if you do lay awake worrying, remember also, that there is nothing at all you can do about anything in the night time hours, so you may as well get to sleep and think about it again another time!

As the sun sets, fold away your cares of the day and leave them outside your door. Then, wait to glimpse the moon and stars and know the Universe is wiser then we can ever be’.

Sleep Well!

 

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The Mediocre Life and Keeping Anxiety at Bay….

What could be better than having time out sometimes?

I read an article recently where the subject was about settling for a mediocre life. At first, I thought ‘hmm, this is going to be negative,’ but as I read on I realised what the person was trying to say. Sometimes in this tumultuous and changing world we just want to settle for a quiet life. We don’t want to strive and put ourselves out there and scrabble around on the ever rotating ‘hamster wheel’. We may not want to rush around trying to improve our minds even though we seem to be instructed to do this on a regular basis. Sometimes we may yearn NOT to have to strive to meet targets, not to keep up with the latest fashion or the latest upgrade in technology. Maybe we even want to escape the ‘health police’.

If we are prone to anxious feelings, feeling we have to adhere to all sorts of ‘performance rules’ may not do us a lot of good. When we are trying to get by and working at being positive we don’t really want the extra burden of guilt – the sort of guilt that comes from somehow feeling we are not doing all we can to help our well-being.

There seems to be a lot of judgement about, whether it be fiercely or kindly meant it can still unsettle us. I once listened to a medical person talking about diabetes. His theory was that diabetes 2 was largely brought on by neglect and leading a sedentary life, and that it should be renamed ‘the non-walkers complaint’, or something similar. In other words, he seemed to be saying most people brought this ‘complaint’ on themselves by following an unhealthy lifestyle. He may be right in certain circumstances, but I feel this is a dangerous sort of judgement to pass on a person who may have reached a distressing state of health by all sorts of circumstances. Who knows what leads any of us to a state of ‘dis-ease’? Do we start banishing patients from the hospital waiting room if they don’t meet certain criteria or if they have put on a few stones in weight? Most of us like to eat a healthy diet when we can, and take some excercise, but do we need to become so engrossed in studying the latest health craze that we forget to enjoy our food? The media bombards us with information about what we should and shouldn’t eat, what vitamins/shakes/woo-woo berries we should consume, the mantras we should chant and the mindfulness we should embrace. Most of the time I find it interesting but sometimes I want to run away crying ‘show me the chocolate cake’!

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Some days I long for calm. More and more I think about peace and ‘going with the flow’. I imagine a new sort of shop that plays gentle soothing music as I buy my groceries or my new jeans, instead of playing mindless, loud music that grates on the nerves. I think about walking in the woods instead of driving on the M25. I think about putting my feet up instead of going to sit in a draughty hall where I am shown how to contort my body and put my leg behind my right ear. Ok, not quite behind my ear but you know what I mean.

There seems to be too much going on around us for us to spend time worrying about how we should be living our lives; whether we should conform, expect our children/grandchildren to excel in every walk of life, live in the most stylish house, travel the world; whether we should be swinging from the chandeliers every night, (great if you have the energy!) and generally leading an exemplary life.

It’s interesting too, to notice that one can be too religious for some, and not spiritual enough for others. I find this crops up quite often in my life. I have come to the conclusion that everyone forms their own opinion of me and will stick to it whatever I do. So I just have to be myself. And do my best. Besides, sometimes I feel very spiritual, other times I want to question every belief I hold dear. But mostly I get by. I want to change my mind sometimes too. I want to be able to be objective, see all points of view. Not always easy but worth aiming for.

I used to be a nurse, and I count myself lucky that I was one once. I learned that everyone in life has a story, a past, but not always a future. It is easy to forget this in our busy world. And it is sometimes easier to forget than think of it. I am grateful that most of our carers and medical staff that treat us look at us as a person needing love and care and on the whole do not judge us, for how would that help?

When we weigh up everything, and come to the conclusion that searching for the quieter life sometimes, following the calm and slower path sometimes, and taking time out sometimes, leads us to appear mediocre, then I am all for it. Besides, we will have more time to spend loving our family, and what could be better than that?

      ‘Sometimes it’s in the quiet that we hear the loudest things’.

                                                Anonymous 

Blessing to you.

Gut Health, Anxiety and Self Image…

I’m writing about diet this week as I feel it plays a huge part in the management of anxiety. I am sure that we are often attracted to the very foods which can result in making us feeling jittery! Likewise, there are ‘angel’ foods that certainly help to keep us a little calmer.

Diet

It is easy to assume that our diet is nutritious. Even when we think we eat a balanced diet there is always room for improvement. With the busy lives most of us lead, it is easy to grab whatever food is going or eat fast food and ‘takeaways’. Highly processed foods not only are devoid of nutrients but can be positively harmful to our mood and well-being. The main baddies which we would all do well to avoid are: processed foods, all sugars, fried foods, cured meats, sodas, excess caffeine and alcohol. These foods can create inflammation in our bodies by harming our digestion. Poor diet will contribute to poor gut health which could lead to ‘leaky gut’ and IBS symptoms. If we do not absorb our nutrients as nature intended, are bodies can be more prone to disease and depression.

Many scientists now believe that the key to our well-being is related to our gut health. Our gut health is related to our diet. In a healthy gut, seventy percent of our serotonin is produced by the healthy microbes that live in the stomach. Serotonin is one of the most important chemicals in our brain for promoting the feeling of well-being. How often do we hear people say: ‘My gut feeling was to do this or not to do that’? Our feelings and lifestyle affects our gut in many ways and, in reverse, our gut health affects our thinking quite dramatically. When we are anxious we get ‘butterflies in our tummy’ and often a churning feeling, proving that there is a direct connection with our gut and our brain. So a quieter mind will help our gut feel more settled. There are many studies which show how beneficial pre and probiotics can be in aiding our digestion by supplementing our gut flora or bacteria, which in turn may help us feel calmer overall.

Whatever diet you follow, be it vegetarian, vegan, paleo or ‘hunter gatherer’ for example, try and make it as wholesome as you can. Just because a diet has a label doesn’t mean it is always healthy. It helps to do your research to find out what diet suits your body type best and also to ensure your food comes from the best source you can find. At the same time, don’t get too hung up about your diet either. Do your best to eat well but if you have a few lapses and indulge in a cake or two now and again don’t beat yourself up. If you enjoyed it, it probably did you good in a ‘feel good’ way!

Avoid any foods that trigger your anxiety and cause headaches like cheese and yeast extract. Acid producing food and drinks can make you jittery i.e. processed meats and sodas, whilst alkaline foods can be more calming, i.e. vegetables and most fruits, beans and lentils. Sometimes when you eat certain foods you may notice a pattern emerging –i.e. tiredness, mental fogginess or bloating, and this may indicate these foods do not suit you and may be best avoided.

I am not here to extol the virtues of one particular diet as I do not feel that one diet suits everyone, and also you may have certain ethical reasons for wanting to follow a certain diet, or you may prefer to avoid diary/wheat etc. All I suggest is that you eat good and nutritious food which is as unadulterated as possible. Other possible choices to consider for boosting your health are juicing and of course, drinking enough water. In these days of intensive farming and modern agriculture, some foods may not contain as many nutrients as they once did and therefore going for organic and bio-dynamically produced foods would be ideal. However, this may not always be financially sustainable and so you might want to consider a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to top up your diet. I feel this has benefited my own personal health but it is very much personal choice. If you do decide to supplement your diet it is worth asking for advice from a good nutritionist or naturopath.

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’      Hippocrates

Exercise

Exercise can really help to alleviate stress and anxiety. The problem can be that when we feel down or anxious we lose motivation to do anything, leave alone go out and take exercise. But take small steps if you really feel lethargic. Make the effort to go out and walk around the block and you will soon feel uplifted. Nature has a way of working magic! Who can fail to be cheered up by the sight and sound of a merry robin singing his heart out in the tree above our heads, or the beauty of the sun bursting through the clouds on a grey day? If you can get used to taking a daily walk you can increase your distances and improve your fitness. Walking, especially at a brisk pace can really improve your physical and mental health. Of course, you may be used to exercise and have just got a bit out of practise and if that is the case try and resume those sports/hobbies you have got out of the habit of doing. Sometimes it’s good to walk with a friend and chat as you go. Leave your worries behind you and concentrate only on what is around you and the power of nature. What works for me is putting on the headphones and listening to some inspiring music or listening to an audio of one of my favourite motivational speakers, whilst walking in the woods behind my house. Overall, exercise is one of the most effective ways of improving your mental health. Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety and stress. It will also help you sleep better and will boost your overall mood.

Self-Image

We have multi-billion pound industries devoted to telling us how we should look and present ourselves to the world. This begins when we are young children and is promoted on a world-wide and daily basis and is a never ceasing bombardment. This can affect people in all social and economic groups. Even the most self-assured amongst us may think twice before we go out if we are not feeling ‘up to the mark’. If we don’t feel we ‘fit in’ we become uncomfortable and try and be like everyone else. Society wants us to conform even though deep down it does not suit us. It is hard at times to remind ourselves that our lives are not dependant on what others think. Even when people are well-meaning, they are often taken up with their own lives and appearances and are not in the least worried about how we appear to them; often all the angst we go through when worrying how others see us is just a waste of energy. If you enjoy being a follower of fashion or the latest trends then that’s great, but if not, just be happy with whom you are. And remember, if you were a good and kind friend to someone, they will remember the kind actions you showed them rather than what you were wearing!

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More thoughts on Anxiety.

I recently wrote some posts about anxiety. Because anxiety seems to be so commonplace in people’s lives at the moment, or at least I seem to have come across a lot of people suffering from it, I wanted to write down some more thoughts about the subject. I am well aware that different approaches work for different people and I am not qualified to dispense medical advice, I can only write from personal experience and give some insights I have gained from others. I hope there may be something here that may help a little if you are finding yourself going through anxious times.

Anxiety takes many forms and can shape your thought processes and decisions. It is thought to be related to the biological fight or flight response to feeling threatened. It can become a problem if it is accompanied by panic attacks or anxiety about things which are part of everyday life.

Anxiety isn’t rational. It’s not just an amplified version of what is worrying you. It’s more than that. Sometimes you don’t know what sets it off. Some days you can cope with life and others you just don’t want to know. A lot of people think anxiety is nothing more than a similar feeling you get before giving a presentation at work or an actor having first night nerves; it may be a bit like that at times, but often its more long lasting and doesn’t decrease as it would when events like the above are over. Some of the symptoms are palpitations, wanting to escape form your surroundings, fear you may lose control of thoughts or actions, racing heart, nausea, insomnia and nervousness.

Anxiety can strike anyone and people from all walks of life. It doesn’t really matter what your circumstances are, what background you come from, whether you are in a happy relationship or alone, hold down a high powered job or are unemployed, well-off or hard up. It can creep up on anyone and sometimes it is just unexplained.

There are many ways of coping with anxiety and different ones work for different people. One thing I have noticed is that friends and family often want to find a solution for you and a reason for why this is happening to you. That’s fine but there are times you don’t want to listen to solutions and you don’t particularly want to have the reasons described. You just want to get through the day. And all you really want is for someone to say ‘It’s okay’ or ‘you will get through this’ and ‘I am here for you. I love you’. With empathy and support you can cope so much better. Remember – just because a condition is given a label it doesn’t necessarily mean it solves the problem in your head.

Here are some tips about what not to do when you are battling with anxiety:

Do not watch the news.

Do not under any circumstances look up the condition you are worried you have on the internet. I promise you the information you find will scare you and often the stuff you read is not accurate. Trust me on this. I have been there!

Don’t overdose on caffeine and be careful with alcohol consumption – hangovers are debilitating at the best of times but if you are feeling vulnerable they can make anxiety levels worse.

Do not become a couch potato – you will feel much better if you go outside and walk/ take exercise.

Don’t have very late nights. Lack of sleep makes anxiety worse. Even if you suffer from insomnia- get to bed early and get as much sleep as you can. At the same time, rather than lay tossing and turning, get up for a while and make a milky drink (cows milk or an alternative like almond milk if you don’t like dairy) Then try and get back to sleep again.

Don’t eat junk and sugary foods. Avoid any foods that trigger your anxiety and cause headaches like cheese and yeast extract. Acid producing food and drinks can make you jittery ie. processed meats and sodas,  whilst alkaline foods can be more calming, ie. vegetables and most fruits, beans and lentils.

If you are trying to help someone with anxiety , here are a few things to remember:

Often someone in an anxious state comes across as distant or uncaring but this is not how they are inside – they are feeling bad and preoccupied and may not realise how they appear to others. It doesn’t mean they don’t love or care about you.

Don’t say their worries are silly or unfounded. They are very real to them!

They may appreciate your help but not you trying to change them. You cannot know how they are feeling inside.

Never say ‘pull yourself together!’ (I’m sure you wouldn’t !)

For those suffering from anxiety, getting through the day is the important thing.

When you are in a situation that is causing you to feel anxious  – for example, worrying you might be late for an appointment, or losing your keys, ask yourself what would be the worst thing that could happen? Most things can be overcome even if they upset us at the time and cause an inconvenience. You will find most people are helpful if you are stuck in a minor predicament. Try and reach out and have a lighthearted approach- it is amazing how this will help an awkward situation and make you feel more optimistic.

Even in more serious situations that would make most people anxious, you will be surprised how you will often find help and sympathy from unexpected people or places.

Remember, anxiety doesn’t define you.

Have a small item that you find comforting and keep it with you. I have a few words on a scrap of paper in my handbag written by my late mother – it reads : ‘To my lovely girl -be happy. You will never know how much I love you. Love Mum.x ‘  To know you are loved or have been loved is more than uplifting. It is at the core of everything.

YOU are loved. Yes you are – even if you doubt it.

Blessings to you.

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Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength ‘

                                                                                                 Charles Spurgeon