How to Improve Your Sleep

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This might seem like a strange topic for a dance blog, but it’s surprisingly important. Dancers have to train like athletes, and a huge part of training is allowing your body adequate recovery time. Getting enough good-quality sleep is essential in order to dance at your best, to improve and to get stronger. When you are not sleeping well enough, you are likely to feel weak and tired during class. It is also extremely difficult to concentrate, and you may feel emotional, and therefore cannot take corrections and criticism well.

As you will know if you’ve read this post, I am suffering with the consequences of overtraining, and I am in the process of recovering. A big part of this recovery focuses on sleep, so I’m currently on a mission to improve quality and quantity of sleep. I thought I’d share some of the things I’m doing to achieve this. These are things that everyone can do to improve the quality of their sleep.

Sleeping Schedule

How much sleep you need varies from person to person- experts mostly agree that 7 to 8 hours is ideal for most adults. Teenagers will need a little more than this, especially those who play sports or otherwise do a lot of exercise (teenage dance students take note!). To figure out exactly how much sleep your body needs, you can try going to bed when you feel tired, and getting up when you first wake up, every day for a week, and noting the results. If this isn’t possible, just try to notice how you feel after different amounts of sleep. I find that I need at least seven hours of sleep to feel my best. I often only get five or six hours, and I suffer for it the next day! Any more than eight and a half, however, and I wake up with a back ache and a headache and feel sluggish.

I sometimes find it very difficult to wake up and get out of bed. I can be so tired in the morning that I can’t think straight and can only think about going back to sleep. I find that it really helps to go to bed and wake up at about the same time every day- and I put my alarm on the other side of the room so I really do have to get up! I usually try to be in bed by 11 or 11.30pm, and I usually get up at 6.45am, but I’m aiming to start going to bed nearer 10.30pm. Having a set sleeping schedule doesn’t just help you to get up in the morning, it helps you to fall asleep quicker, too.

Experts also believe that the quality of sleep you get depends on the time that you go to bed. The kind of sleep that you get earlier at night is said to be more restorative than sleep you get in morning hours: so if you’re trying to finish off a project or need to make your lunch for tomorrow, instead of staying up late to get it done, go to bed and set your alarm for earlier in the morning and finish what you need to do then. This way you’re not missing out on the best hours of sleep.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral which is important for our bodies, and especially aids sleep, relaxation, and muscle repair. Many people are deficient in magnesium; magnesium supplements are available, however they can upset the stomach, and absorption is limited. The best way to absorb magnesium is through the skin. Magnesium flakes added to a warm bath before bed each night will keep your magnesium levels up, thus aiding sleep. The act of actually bathing before bed is also a very good thing to add to your pre-bedtime routine. It relaxes the body and mind, preparing you for sleep. It is especially good practice for dancers and sportspeople, as magnesium absorbed this way helps to fight muscle soreness.

If you take a bath in magnesium flakes every evening, your brain will eventually recognise it as part of your pre-bedtime routine and start preparing more readily for sleep. You can even light candles and turn the lights off for maximum relaxation- if you can find lavender-scented candles, this is even better, as lavender is shown to aid sleep.

Alternatively, magnesium can be used as a spray– this is especially good for sore muscles, and a good idea if magnesium flakes irritate your skin (I have sensitive skin and it doesn’t irritate mine, but it can happen).

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Aromatherapy

As well as scented candles to use in the bath, you can get specially scented pillow spray and things like balm or roll-on scent to use on pulse points (your wrists, temples and neck). Breathing these scents can help you to relax, prepare for sleep, and ultimately fall asleep faster. Again, once you establish this as part of your routine, you will start to recognise these things as “time for sleep”. I do not recommend candles in the bedroom as pat of a pre-sleep routine, however, as if you fall asleep before blowing out the candle (which is quite likely), it poses a serious fire risk. Honestly guys, just promise me no candles before bed, ok?

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Light and Dark

Light and dark have a huge role in regulating our circadian rhythm; this is your body’s “internal clock”, and it determines when you go to sleep and wake up. However, all the sources of light that we are exposed to during the day, as well as daylight changes throughout the year, confuse our bodies and disrupt our circadian rhythm.

These days, most people will spend a good deal of their day looking at a screen, be it a phone, laptop, computer, tablet or television. This constant connectivity is affecting our sleep more than ever. I’m not one of those people who complains about how people spend too much time “glued to their phones”, because I think that’s a bit ignorant: the internet gives us a wealth of information, and access to so much that we might not otherwise experience- but I know how easy it is to get out your phone and start scrolling as soon as you get a minute of downtime; and that means taking it to bed, too. As much as scrolling through your phone feels relaxing, the problem is that the type of blue light emitted by screens such as phones, computers, tablets and televisions causes your brain to wake up. Ever noticed when you’re binge-watching a series on Netflix how easy it is to stay up way past when you’d usually get tired? Ever finish your last quick check of Twitter before bed, only to lay down and feel super wired?

Experts recommend turning off your phone, computer, tablet and TV at least an hour before bed. Use this time to start your pre-bed routine; have a bath, maybe do some relaxation exercises, read a book, and then go to bed. You can now get apps which filter the blue light from your phone, or turn it red, which does not have the same waking-up effect on your brain: however I still don’t recommend using your phone or watching TV as an activity to do before bed.  Sometimes even reading books can get so absorbing that we end up staying up later than we should (I have literally stayed awake all night to finish books several times before). Something I love to do before bed is read magazines, or read non-fiction books. Just avoid anything that you are reading for school/ university/ work. Or you might like to spend a few minutes jotting down your thoughts before sleep- this can help people who tend to stay awake worrying at night.

It might still be worth downloading one of these light-filtering apps so that you can do things like check the time and set your alarm on your phone before bed without stimulating your brain.

When sleeping, make sure the room is totally dark. I started doing this when I moved out of home and I found it hard as I’m scared of the dark, but I did get used to it. I turn the main light off about half an hour before bed, and just have a lamp on near the bed for a relaxing atmosphere, which I turn off right before going to sleep. If you can’t make your room completely dark, try using an eye mask.

Light also plays a role in waking us up in the morning: in the summer months, this can be easily achieved by leaving a gap in the curtains. If you find it hard to wake up early in the winter when it’s dark outside, perhaps invest in a dawn-simulating alarm clock, which has a light that gets gradually lighter as you reach your alarm time. I don’t have one of these but it’s on my wish list! They’re a more expensive item, but reviews suggest that they really work.

Lastly, to keep your circadian rhythm regulated, it helps to make sure that you’re exposing yourself to daylight during the day. Exercising outside is a great idea, or even just going for a walk or otherwise spending time outdoors.

Exercise

Speaking of exercise, this is a great thing to do to improve your sleep. Personally, I find it very difficult to get tired at night if I haven’t exercised during the day. From a dance class, to a gym session, a swim or even just a brisk walk, doing some kind of exercise will aid your sleep. However, avoid exercising late at night. It raises your body’s core temperature, which is the opposite of what you want when you’re winding down for bed, and it stimulates your body and brain.

Food 

It is also recommended that you do not eat too late at night, as variations in your blood sugar levels can wake you up. The same thing is true of alcohol: drinking late in the evening is likely to cause you to wake up in the night.

Avoid spicy foods, including any added spices like cayenne pepper or ginger, and caffeine after about 6pm (if you’re sensitive to caffeine you might want to cut it off as early as lunchtime). Have something quite light for dinner if you can.

If you’re really hungry, this might also keep you awake, so snack on something that won’t keep you up. Foods such as turkey, chicken, milk/ dairy products, nuts and seeds contain a chemical called tryptophan, believed to aid restful sleep. Snack on these before bed if you;re hungry, and try to get more of them in your diet overall. Chamomile tea is also beneficial, and a good part of anyone’s pre-sleep routine, although I would caution against drinking too much right before bed: you don’t want to wake up in the night to use the toilet!

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Sleep Environment

Ideally, your room should be completely dark, quiet, and cool but not cold. If you can invest in a good mattress, then do so. A proper mattress is very expensive, but lasts a long time and will benefit your sleep and your posture. At least try to invest in a  good pillow; the correct size, number of pillows and firmness depends on your body and how you sleep, so go to a specialist bed shop, where they can recommend you something suitable.

It is also important to associate your bed with sleep: whilst it might be unrealistic for most people to make the bedroom a sleep-only zone, the actual bed itself should only really be used for sleeping and sexual activity. If you eat in bed, watch TV in bed, and do work in bed, you won’t associate that area with rest and sleep. I can attest to this, as I used to live in a flat share that had no living room, and no heating in the kitchen so I wouldn’t spend time in there. My room had no space for a desk, table or chair, so everything happened on my bed. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, studying, watching TV and films, reading, writing, typing, going on the internet, drinking, socialising- and it was not helpful when it came to differentiating between using the bed to sleep and using it for everything else.

 

This is by no means an exhaustive list- I have chosen the things that I am going to be working into my nightly routine, but there are more options still. If you have real sleeping problems, you should definitely start by try these tips out for yourself as they may well help, however be prepared to seek medical help if these things do not fix that problem. There could be many causes for your sleeping problems, and a doctor is the best person to help you to explore those and put things right. However, maintaining a consistent sleeping schedule and a good pre-bedtime routine will help you to get the most out of whichever treatment they recommend.

I hope this post has given you a few things to think about and that you might start making some changes to your bedtime routine, and I hope that you feel better in your dancing because of it!

Jessica x

 

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