How To Survive Sleep Deprivation: Five Nutrition And Lifestyle Tricks To Boost Your Resilience
Funnily (?) enough, I am tired beyond reason as I am writing this. I have a 10 week old baby, who's sleep patterns at night are anything but regular. I also have a 2 year old toddler who is still adjusting to being out of nappies at night. So I get on average about 5-6 hours of sleep per night. Not in one chunk though, that would be a luxury.
“You look tired, babe.” Thanks, I am. But I also don't want to "survive on catnaps" during the day. It feels depressing to spend all day waiting for the next opportunity to close my eyes for 5 minutes. And it makes me feel even more exhausted than if I just get out of the house and get on with my day.
If you're reading this, chances are you're currently going through something similar. Maybe you’re working shifts, have a little one or a new pet who doesn’t sleep through the night yet or you lie awake with worries about the world. There is simply no way you can get the recommended 7-8 hours of uninterrupted, good quality sleep each night.
I probably don’t have to tell you that if you don’t get enough sleep, your concentration goes, you 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, you're cravings will be all over the place since your hunger hormones are very much affected by your sleep length and quality. But, who makes good food choices when they’re tired and cranky anyways, right?
I get it. I see you and I'm right in it with you. It’s tough. Let's just take a minute to acknowledge that. Trying to be yourself, be patient or kind, feels almost impossible in this state of existence...
Obviously the purpose of sleep is to rest and recover. So, while uninterrupted sleep is not available to you, let’s look at other (realistic) ways to build up your physical and mental resilience through food, movement and rest.
1. Choose foods that support your mood and internal clock
The majority of research into what you should eat to balance your energy and improve your mood is to follow a Mediterranean-style diet featuring plenty of whole, natural foods. That also means learning to balance your blood sugar levels to reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
An incredible 50% of low mood and tiredness is down to blood sugar imbalances.
Yes, all you want is chocolate and coffee. But they are only short term solutions. If you're breastfeeding, they might actually interrupt your baby's sleep too. So let's instead look at a few manageable tips to stabilise your blood sugar in order to support your internal clock:
Eat regularly, ideally 3 main meals around the same time every day, and if needed healthy snacks (such as nuts, olives or hummus) in between.
Make sure those main meals contain a palm sized portion of protein, such as beans, lentils, pulses, tofu, fish, or meat.
Eat low glycaemic load (GL) carbohydrates that minimise mood-altering blood sugar dips such as: porridge, bulgur, whole wheat pasta and bread as well as whole-grain rice.
Include foods high in mood-boosting nutrients (vitamins B and D, zinc, magnesium and essential omega-3 fats) in your meals and snacks every day: oily fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, or herring), free-range eggs, chicken, or turkey (ideally regeneratively or organically farmed), flax and pumpkin seeds, almonds, all kinds of beans, all kinds of berries (frozen ones are great), apples and pears as well as green vegetables (broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage, watercress, Bok choy, asparagus, peas, artichoke, rocket).
2. Stay Hydrated
Water makes up about 60% of your body, and every single cell needs water to function properly. Water is needed for all kinds of functions in the body, including circulation and digestion and maintenance of your body temperature. An it’s crucial for your brain function.
Drinking water also keeps you energised and your skin hydrated. Studies have shown that drinking water raises your metabolism and improves your blood sugar balance and thus reduces your urge to snack constantly. And, most importantly, it keeps you energised while your nights are all over the place: 50% of tiredness is actually down to dehydration!
Ideally you want to work your way up to 8 glasses (about 2 litres) of water per day. Little and often is better than all in one go.
You just don’t feel thirsty and keep forgetting to drink? Get yourself a pretty transparent bottle so you can see the water level. The bottle is a visual reminder of how well you are doing. You can also stick a friendly reminder post-it on your mirror/ fridge/ baby (joke!) or try the various apps to encourage you to drink more and record what you drink.
3. Get Your Move On
I know, I know. You don't have time for a nap, so how on earth are you supposed to find time to work out?! But bear with me, it doesn't have to be the gym or a half-marathon!
Exercise helps with detoxification, boosting energy levels, stabilising weight, mood and stress reduction, to name just a handful. With the release of endorphins, your body receives a natural mood boost, resulting in reduced stress levels, which in turn puts less pressure on your tired body. Double win!
Physical activity also dramatically reduces stress by ‘working off steam’ when you are upset or angry (which is so normal after a bad night!). But rather than jumping on the next online HIIT class or running until your face is bright red, let’s be gentle to your body - you’re already going through a lot. I would recommend you explore some calmer options to support your mental and physical wellbeing during periods of broken sleep.
How about yoga, Pilates, a nice long walk or a dance party in your kitchen? All of those can be done with your baby, either in a buggy when outdoors or in a carrier. Or just have them on the floor watching you - they'll probably love the entertainment! If you use resistance bands or weights (aka water bottles) you can also prevent muscle loss, which is common when we're too tired to move.
I get it, sometimes it seems like a chore. Especially if you’re tired. If you're not a natural exerciser, it comes down to how you mentally programme yourself.
Is there a form of movement you used to enjoy?
What did you like about it?
And what is the impact of not exercising or not being as fit as you want to be? Issues falling asleep when you finally get the chance? No motivation to play with your kids? Aches and pains?
Now think about three ways you could get yourself moving. Take a selfie and send it to your friends to connect, inspire them, and to create accountability.
4. Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
It’s finally here, your chance to get some sleep. But suddenly your mind is wide awake. So frustrating, right?
According to research, stress is what keeps more than 40% of us awake at night.
If you’re struggling to unwind, here are few ideas to improve your sleep quality:
Reduce stimulants such as coffee, non-herbal teas and chocolate, especially after lunch.
Have your last meal, if you can, at least 3 hours before you go to bed.
Remove electronics from your bedroom, their light can negatively affect melatonin (sleep hormone) levels.
Keep your room dark and cool by removing or covering any LED lights, using blackout blinds and opening a window. This is also helpful for daytime naps.
Create a mini bedtime routine just for yourself, for example with a warm (foot) bath with Epsom Salts (they contain the muscle relaxant magnesium) followed by a few minutes of gentle stretching, meditating, journaling or reading relaxing book. Yes, just like you do for your little ones.
5. Check In With Your Support Network
Building strong social connections has proven psychological and physiological benefits. Especially during difficult times, like when you’re not getting enough sleep. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, having a support group – no matter how big or small – boosts mental wellbeing by creating stress buffers.
Being able to share stresses or concerns with close family or friends, even if it is via phone or video call, provides you with an opportunity to get outside support and advice, which alleviates this sense of helplessness you might be feeling when you’re tired.
“Do what you have to, until you can do what you want to.” – Oprah Winfrey