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Image by Annie Spratt


Food Fabulous

Notes from midlife

The Importance of Sleep, and How To Get More Of It!

There are very few things that wreck your health and your mood more than a poor night's sleep. That goes for people of any age, of course, but the women I see in clinic site poor as one of the things that gets them down most about their health.

A good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating the right things and exercise. Your physical and emotional wellbeing depend on getting enough. Yet we’re living in sleep-deprived times. Some people are even competitive about how little sleep they’re getting, like dragging yourself through the day on four hours’ rest is a badge of honour. Scientists even say we’re now getting an hour or two less sleep each night than we were 60 years ago. And the effect on our bodies is not good.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. You know that more sleep is a good thing but is it a priority in your life? I’m guessing not. In my clinical and personal experience, few are the people who actually put getting a restful night at the top of their to-do list.

Sleep comes into the same kind of category as drinking water. Do more of it, your body and health would thank you for it. Both are free. You could sleep more or drink more water at any time. There’s no urgency and it feels an oversimplification of health because we have become accustomed to having to pay in pound notes for the privilege of feeling better. I’m hoping you’ll soon be able to look at sleep with a fresh pair of eyes and create an action plan to get more of it into your life so that you can feel fabulous. Sounds cheesy, but this is what is at stake.

However you feel about sleep and how much you’re getting, I want you to think of sleep as a game. It’s a game of hormones and getting the right ones in the right amounts at the right time. When something is off, your sleep quality is negatively affected.

Hormones are the chemical messengers in your body. Lack of sleep messages up those messages, but there are lots of ways you hack your hormones with some simple food and lifestyle tricks, so your body gets what it needs.

Think of your body as one big chemistry set. What you eat, how you move, what you watch, how you think, and so on, all affects how it feels to be you. And all rely on your hormones being in synch.

Sleep and stress hormones are antagonists – you’ve got the restful ones (sleep hormones) and the awake ones (stress hormones). Both like to follow a predictable pattern through the day. These are called circadian rhythms and they’re a bit like your body’s internal clock. The sleep-wake cycle is the most important of these circadian rhythms.

How much sleep do women over 40 need?

The purpose of sleep is to allow your body to rest, recover and repair. This is a process that takes between seven and nine hours a night, which is where that magic number of ‘eight hours sleep’ comes in. This is what science tells us you need each night, regardless of what you may have trained yourself to get by on.

The quality of your sleep is also important. It is not enough to be geographically in your bed.

In clinic, I regularly see people who are ‘doing everything right’ and yet are still not getting the results they want or that other people had. Why? Poor sleep. You cannot just pop a pill – either one of those over-the-counter jobs from the pharmacy or from your doctor. That’s because there is often no single cause of poor sleep.

A lot of what we know about the benefits of sleep comes from research into the negatives of not getting enough of it.

You’ll already have seen those dark circles under your eyes, and you know that’s caused by lack of sleep. I’ve not found a cosmetic product yet that adequately fixes it.

You probably know first-hand about the poor concentration, lack of creativity and loss of productivity that comes from not getting enough shut-eye.

Peak performance is not possible if you’ve not slept. Scientists have measured it. A study that looked at student doctors found those who slept less made more serious medical errors than those who had had more sleep .

If you need an alarm to wake up, you are not getting enough sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, you may not be able to concentrate properly, and become irritable or agitated. You may also have blurred vision, be clumsy, become disorientated or slow to respond, and have decreased motivation. And, on top of that, if you’re tired and cranky, you are significantly less likely to make the best food choices.

You might be surprised to learn that, in a computer simulated driving test, those who had had just a few hours sleep were more dangerous on the (virtual) road than the people who had had a few drinks! In fact, the majority of road accidents are caused by tiredness.

How can I get a good night’s sleep?

The most common cause of insomnia is a change in your daily routine. For example, travelling, change in work hours, disruption of other behaviours (eating, exercise, leisure, etc.), and relationship conflicts can all cause sleep problems. Establishing good sleep hygiene is the most important thing you can do to maintain good sleep. It might also be helpful to keep a sleep diary to help pinpoint any particular problems.


  • Try to go to bed at the same time every day. Your body thrives on routine.

  • Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold.

  • Use your bed only for sleep and sex. This may help you completely switch off.

  • Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful.

  • Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun.

  • Try to take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes.

  • Make an effort to relax for at least 5 minutes before going to bed - a warm bath, massage, meditation.

  • Keep your feet and hands warm. Wear warm socks and/or mittens or gloves to bed.

  • Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smartphone can stay out of the bedroom (see below). Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That’s your personal sleep requirement.


  • Engage in stimulating activities – like playing a competitive game, watching an edge-of-the seat film, or having an important conversation with a loved one. Even using smartphones and tablets can interfere with sleep, because they emit the same kind of light as the morning sun.

  • Eat a heavy meal within four hours of going to bed.

  • Drink caffeine after lunch – like coffee, ‘normal’ and green tea, and colas.

  • Use alcohol to help you sleep. Alcohol can make sleep more disturbed.

  • Go to bed too hungry. Have a snack before bed – a glass of milk or banana are ideal.

  • Try to avoid daytime naps.

  • Try not to get frustrated if you can’t sleep. Go to bed in a positive mood – “I will sleep tonight”.


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