Beauty sleep? You’re having a laugh! GTG’s Victoria Woodhall and Ingeborg van Lotringen share how they deal with long-term sleep issues
When I bumped into my fellow GTG editor Inge Van Lotringen at a dinner over the weekend, she looked her usual stunning self, but sighed that she was on yet another debilitating insomnia ‘roll’, ironically she had just written all about the benefits of cherry juice for insomnia. She wasn’t sure how long she’d last that evening; another wakeful night, another tricky day. As a fellow long-term poor sleeper, I sympathised. I’d already planned my day to maximise the chance of some precious hours of sleep (by that I mean more than six) that I hoped to get that night, my one lie-in of the week. I’d stopped all caffeine by noon, I had my self-prescribed maximum of two glasses of champagne at the reception to give myself the best chance of metabolising the alcohol rather than allowing it to keep me awake. For the rest of the night I drank water. I had booked my a cab for 10.30pm, even though ‘carriages’ for the glamorous black tie event were at 1am. That was as rock ‘n’ roll as my Saturday night would get.
Inge and spent a decent chunk of the evening sharing our insomnia toolkits (wild, I told you) and worked out that many or our tried-and-tested remedies were the same, therefore there was probably something in them and that it could be helpful to share them.
We both agreed about the benefits of red LED, B vitamins (we both share a gene that means we need a particular form of vitamin B to manage stress) science-backed sleep supplements, yoga, weighted blankets and seeing your GP for medication if needed.
Here are our beauty sleep-deprived stories and toolkits
Victoria Woodhall: “I've been sleep-challenged for most of my life”
I've been sleep-challenged for most of my life. My mum used to give me a nip of brandy (70s' parenting, I survived) when I was a teenager if I was pacing the halls late at night – if I was excited or nervous about something the next day (I was, and still am, a classic over-thinker without an off switch).
In my twenties, I would get into insomnia ruts that could manifest as anything from not being able to drop off to waking very early and not being able to get back to sleep because my whirring mind had already decided there was thinking work to be done. Often it was both. My friends were used to me cancelling on them (nights out, weekends away) because I simply didn’t have the energy and was fixated on getting to bed early to see if that night would be different.
When I had children in my 30s, I was not at all fazed by broken nights and minimal kip. Now at least there was a reason. It wasn’t my fault, so I had no reason to be anxious. Needless to say I was never able to ‘nap when the baby naps’. I thought I just didn’t have the napping gene (more below on how I eventually found it).
I did have sleeping tablets from the GP as an emergency fall back (Zopiclone) by that point, but never used them in the baby years, unless I’d agreed with my husband that he needed to be on wakeup duty. Quite apart from that I only took half tablets as I didn’t want to become dependent and found that the sleep that I did have on them wasn’t overly restful.
In my 40s, my perimenopausal hormone shifts began to happen and sleep was first for the chop. Not that I knew that was the reason then as the conversation about menopause was non-existent. My ‘overload’ wasn’t helped by the fact that I was teaching yoga and writing a book on it (irony not lost) outside of my full-time job and child rearing. I had, as ever, taken on too much. Going on HRT at 50 helped my sleep a lot, particularly fixing my low progesterone with Utrogestan (oral progesterone) which when taken orally at night have a known calming effect, as my doctor Miss Tania Adib explained.
Here’s what else I rely on:
A weighted blanket: The Mela Weighted Blanket by Aeyla, currently 50% off, was £139 now £69.50
When I couldn’t sleep as a child my mum used to stand by my bed and put her hands on my chest and stomach. It made me feel held and safe, and much of anxiety is to do with not feeling safe and being on alert to (perceived) danger. The Mela blanket takes me back to that feeling and stops me from tossing and turning. It has a soft cotton side like a bed sheet and a fleecy side, it’s filled with glass beads and is machine washable. My husband hates it – even though it’s only on my side of the bed - he says it drags the duvet down so I now put it under the duvet and sleep inside my little fortress.
If you don’t want to go the whole hog, try the new Spritz Wellness Aromatherapy Wheat bag, £35 which is jumbo sized, decently heavy to lie across your shoulders or on your stomach and can be heated in the microwave and sends you off to sleep in a haze of lavender
Journalling: Intelligent Change: The Five-Minute Journal, £30
There’s plenty of evidence about the benefits of journaling, particularly gratitude journaling for mental health, but most dedicated journals that you have to fill out have so many 'fields' that they feel like homework. This one, which was sent to me by our columnist (and journaling fan) Elle Macpherson takes two minutes to fill out when you wake up – setting up how you want your day to be and what you’re grateful for and three when you go to sleep. It helps me put the day behind me as I go over what I’ve done - a real cognitive download.
Slow breathing: Moonbird handheld breath coach, £159
I’m a qualified breath coach and know all about the science of slow breathing and how it helps put the brakes on your fight or flight response. But even I need a coach to force myself to do it at night - and this pretty ergonomic device is it. It expands and contracts in your palm as you match your breath to its gentle movements. It slows your breathing to six breaths per minute, to achieve the optimum nervous system balance. I know from wearing a heart rate variability monitor and taking saliva cortisol tests that my default setting is ‘stress’.
Taking five-minute ‘breath breaks’ with this has really helped. I can also programme it via its app to change the length of the inhale, exhale and the pauses between them to make it more of a yogic pranayama exercise. It stores my preference so I can use it offline at bedtime – just a few minutes and my eyelids are like lead. It’s been developed with clinicians and is a very clever thing indeed.
Nice pyjamas: Peachaus striped woven cotton pyjama trousers, £55 and shirt, £55
Making the bed a welcoming environment with a tidy bedroom, fresh sheets, a nice pillow spray or room mist or electric diffuser is all part of the signalling to your nervous system that it’s time to sleep. I sleep noticeably better in freshly washed sheets and cotton pyjamas that have a bit of a texture. I like seersucker and have recently discovered the ethical new sleepwear brand Peachaus, set up by ex-Topshop fashion director Gillian Ridley Whittle. She sent me the PJs I’m wearing in the picture which may now be out of stock but there’s a lovely peach version I have my eye on too.
A face-hugging sleep mask: Drowsy Sleep Mask, £69
Sorry if I’m boring you, but I mention this head-hugging mask a lot as it successfully blocks out light while also putting what feels like a calming hand on my forehead while remaining gently light on the eyes and leaving no crease marks in the morning. You can even wear it to cover your ears (the hardcore among you might like Inge’s earplug recommendations, below). I like that it’s adjustable with Velcro so it feels just right for your head and is machine washable. I can’t sleep without it.
Knockout herbs - valerian, hops, lemon balm, passionflower: Welleco Sleep Welle Fortified Calming Tea, £32.40
These are all tried and tested sedative herbs and as a fan of tea, I brew up with one of these reassuringly strong-smelling tea bags which contain all of the above. My other go-tos are A Vogel Dormesan, £9.77 an affordable valerian and hops tincture that I’ll take with a tiny bit of water if I wake up in the middle of the night. I’ve also just discovered Artah Sleep Tonic, £32 (as recently raved about by actress Lily James) with a mega dose of valerian plus passionflower, California poppy and blue skullcap, which can be used at bedtime or in smaller doses for mood throughout the day. Be warned none of these tastes particularly nice, but if you struggle with sleep, that’s the least of your worries.
Warm feet: White Company Cashmere Bedsocks, £36
I am always the person who wants socks for Christmas, preferably bed socks as warming my feet makes me feel more grounded at night by taking the energy away from my head. An article in the journal Nature suggests there’s science behind it, stating ‘the degree of dilation of blood vessels in the skin of the hands and feet, which increases heat loss at these extremities, is the best physiological predictor for the rapid onset of sleep.’ It seems that actually they are drawing heat out of the body. Similarly, the reason why hot baths before bed are beneficial because it’s actually the drop in body temperature afterwards that signals to your body it’s time for sleep. Whatever - socks work for me and I’ve usually kicked them off a couple of hours into sleep.
Red LED for afternoon naps: Dermalux Flex MD Light Therapy Device, £1,895.00 or £82.39 per month over 24 months
A health and lifestyle 'reading' (a Bazi) with Chinese medicine expert, Katie Brindle last year revealed many things, not least that I really should be afternoon napping to avoid burnout. At the same time, I was sent this clinical-grade LED device to test and found that it sent me to sleep almost without fail. I was thinking of buying one anyway as it’s not only FDA-approved for skin benefits (read about the benefits of LED here) but also for healing and I’d recently done my back in. So most weekends I lie under this for the required 30 minutes with goggles and a podcast on and get my downtime. It’s a revelation and has made an afternoon napper out of me. Pricey, yes, but you can pay in monthly instalments.
Night-time splint for teeth grinding: with Dr Uchenna Okoye at London Smiling, £385
This is pretty much top of my sleep essentials. I guard this with my life and always carry it in my hand luggage when I travel. I have been wearing this guard (a bit like a bleaching tray but a little more sturdy) on my bottom teeth to combat tooth grinding for about 15 years after my dentist explained the link between teeth grinding and poor sleep - it stops you getting into the deeper more restorative phases of sleep because you are constantly active. I was transformed from the first moment I wore one, it was as though someone had turned up the brightness and sharpness of my dreams and I feel really much more rested afterwards. I go to Dr Uchenna Okoye for mine (it can break if you tread on it, as I have done twice now after removing mine bleary-eyed in the morning). She can turn it around within a few days after making a digital scan of your bite - no more gag-inducing impressions that have to be sent off to the lab.
Ingeborg Van Lotringen: “5 hours of uninterrupted sleep counts as good, in my book”
After 40 years of sleeping like a baby, I succumbed to work and stress-related insomnia back in 2009. I spent three years wrestling my racing mind in pursuit of rest, trying (I once counted) more than 70 meds, supplements, therapies and gadgets that promised to be my saviour. It got so bad I had to be signed off work for two months, and I almost quit my job altogether.
Eventually, with the help of my wonderful Taiwanese-Australian GP, who took a holistic view from the start and never sent me packing with platitudes, I came out the other end and started sleeping again. My GP had the grace and intelligence to work with me on my insomnia as a project and, aside from insisting I do meditation and yoga and suggesting all kinds of alternative therapies, was happy to give me short courses of drugs to see what would ‘stick’. More on this below.
But I never went back to the blithe rest of the non-sleep disturbed, as the spectre of sleep deprivation was forever looming. And, ten years on, I seem to be on a downward slope again (too much to do, too much to worry about), with five hours’ interrupted sleep counting as ‘good’ in my book.
I attempt not to dwell on it, as that is the road to hell. So much of insomnia is a vicious cycle of worry and sleep deprivation. In fact, I know I can’t sleep because my mind is associating nodding off with danger after so many years of stressing about it. As a result, I literally have panic attacks in my sleep. It’s my brain trying to keep me awake.
It means my cortisol (stress hormone) levels are permanently elevated. I will not get into how bad that is for anyone’s overall health, as that’s the last thing an insomniac needs to hear. I will just list the things that do help me, and that I trust will eventually get me back to a place of equilibrium and proper slumber. These comprise a few tips that you can’t shop for, as well as supplements and doctor-prescribed meds, which should only be taken on the advice of a doctor, and may not suit you always talk to your GP first! I only include them hear as they may be worth a conversation with a pro.
Inge's insomnia hacks:
Mirtazapine from my GP
My GP first gave me Zopiclone (the NHS’s fallback sleep drug), which I hated. But I loved Zolpidem, which my GP said was related (but more expensive) and is known in the States as Ambien. Half a tablet knocks me out for (exactly) five hours and you don’t want to depend on it, but it is great to have in my toolkit for when things get desperate.
More sustainable, though, felt my GP, were small doses of antidepressants with mild sedative and anti-anxiety properties, which could be taken over a prolonged period of time to deal with the panic attacks. We tried Amitriptyline, apparently a favourite of over-worked junior doctors, but which didn’t do much for me. Two years later, the doctor put me on Mirtazapine. Within a week, I was sleeping again, and it meant the end of my chronic insomnia.
I stopped taking a half tablet every night after six months but continued to sleep. In the decade that followed, I cut my 15mg pills into six miniscule 2.5mg chunks which, on odd nights that I couldn’t get (back) to sleep, would invariably sort me out.
However, very recently this method has become less reliable for no apparent reason, a fact that worries me is therefore contributing to my current sleep issues.
B vitamins and methylated folate: Biocare B Complex from £10, and Cytoplan Methylfolate, £13.40
I know from a test I had two years ago that I’m low on B vitamins. As these play an important role in controlling mental health, stress and anxiety, it’s important that I supplement them (I eat a varied and healthy diet so I obviously need extra help). But after half-heartedly taken any-brand Bs off and on and not feeling any better, I gave up.
A gene test, however, showed that I also don’t methylate (process) these nutrients well. The ‘Diary of a CEO’ podcast featuring biohacker Gary Brecka I heard recently served as a lightbulb moment: I need bio-available B vitamins, and in in particular I need the form of B9 called methylfolate (not the more common ‘folic acid’ form). Without which, Brecka explains, the body can’t break down the neurohormones that cause anxiety.
After some very rushed research, I stocked up on Biocare B Complex from £10, and Cytoplan Methylfolate, £13.40. This is obviously un-scientific and may be entirely psychosomatic, but after four days, I already feel I’m doing better.
If you don’t fancy yoga, people droning on about it must drive you to distraction. But it really is the single most effective way I have found to bring down your heart rate, lower your cortisol levels and drain your mind of panic and distress. I see it as assisted meditation, the latter being really hard to do by itself when your mind is already exploding. Yoga won’t allow me to think of anything but the moment, and that is what the stressed and sleep-deprived need. It can be any yoga that suits you, from a bit of stretching to hardcore power yoga – and preferably, for me, with a teacher to talk you through it, so you don’t get caught up with the voices in your head.
The right sleep mist: Drowsy Sleep S.O.S Pillow Spray, £25 or This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, £10.50
True insomniacs, trust me, aren’t going to be put to sleep by a pillow mist. But a scent that somehow makes you feel calm can help you switch off a bit, so I don’t entirely discount their power. It’s just important that you find a scent that calms YOU, and that can be much more personal than most of the marketing indicates. There are plenty of aromas with a proven ability to enhance calm, but I know that for me, things like lavender and chamomile are pointless. Heavier and woodsier notes with a sort of liquor-y, ‘camphoraceous’ edge are much more likely to calm me down, so I look for things like ylang ylang, vetiver and patchouli. ThisWorks Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, from £10.50, is good, but my favourite is Drowsy Sleep S.O.S Pillow Spray, £25
Silicone ear plugs: Boots Soft Silicone earplugs, £4.70
Any sleep expert will talk about sleep hygiene – the rather obvious need for a dark, cool, digital-screen free and quiet environment to sleep in. In terms of the latter, I think soft silicone earplugs such as BioEars, £5.50, or Boots Soft Silicone earplugs, £4.70, are unbeatable: they are truly noise-cancelling and frankly, they’ve become indispensable for me – I won’t travel without them.
A ‘beauty’ pillow to help you wake less ‘crumpled’: Sleep & Glow Omnia Pillow (with pillowcase), £135
Waking up looking increasingly knackered and crumpled doesn’t help alleviate stress levels. So I was intrigued to hear about the Sleep & Glow Omnia Pillow (with pillowcase), £135, which is shaped to prevent the wrinkles and bloated morning eyes that stem from your face being planted into your pillow.
I expected an uncomfortable contraption that would make it (even) harder to fall asleep. But this small-ish, square-ish memory foam pillow, with indents at the base of the neck to support it properly when you lie on your back, and left and right to stop your cheek and eye getting squashed when you roll onto either side, is surprisingly comfy and has so far allowed me to sleep decently four whole nights in a row.
I still look bleary as anything when I wake up but my eyes are less puffy so it may be working. There is also a Sleep & Glow Aula Pillow, £135, that cradles your head and neck completely so you’re stopped from sleeping on your side – this is the best way forward if you want to prevent those 'sleep wrinkles' but I think I’m slightly past ever being able to be forced into just one sleeping position.
A science-backed sleep supplement: Earth Secret Sleep Rest & Rejuvenation, £35
A whole industry of ‘miracle’ sleep aids has boomed into existence and from experience, I can tell you most have very little merit. When it comes to herbal and nutritional supplements, when someone is bleating they had the “best night’s sleep ever” after trying one just once, they’re obviously lying. Either that, or they just happen to have had a decent night’s sleep.
No supplement can work as a sleeping pill. Some, however, might build up in your system to stress-mitigating and nerve-calming levels, so I do have some in my arsenal. I favour nutrients and extracts with encouraging clinical research behind them, such as melatonin, ashwagandha, magnesium glycinate and Affron saffron extract. I cannot vouch for a single one actually making a major difference to me, but I believe they can act as a support; I’m currently taking Earth Secret Sleep Rest & Rejuvenation, £35, with Affron and a level of melatonin.
A book and a salt lamp to read by: Himalayan Salt Lamp, £16.99
It’s no fun when your mind throws you dramas in the middle of the night. Rather than rolling around panicking over what always turns out to be nothing at daybreak, I rather seek distraction in a good book. It does regularly help me sink back into sleep. But I make sure the light I read by is dimmed and warm (I love my Himalayan Salt Lamp, £16.99) and I read an actual book, not pages off a glaring, sleep-disturbing, blue-light digital screen.