Nutritionist Rob Hobson, author of The Art of Sleeping, reveals what really works when you're struggling with shuteye
My name is Rob Hobson and I’m an insomniac. Ironic really given I have just published a book on how to sleep well but hear me out.
Over the last 17 years I have trained and worked in the field of nutrition. I practice what I preach by eating well and exercising five times a week, but my nemesis has always been sleep. Eating and training are things that I can control, but sleep is annoyingly more difficult. It’s particularly frustrating to someone like me who prides themselves on living healthily.
For most of my adult life I’ve felt blessed if I managed to get more than five hours’ sleep. From the age of 18, I stacked up some bad habits – sleep played second fiddle to weekend partying. I completed three degrees at university and spent the years up to my mid-20s working until the small hours in bars and then dragging myself off to lectures the following day. I’d manage to grab six hours of sleep if I was lucky, but often it was only three or four. At the same time, I was also dealing with severe loss – my mother, father and brother all passed away, which undoubtedly had some impact on my sleep.
Fragmented sleep became a pattern that followed me into the start of my working life as a nutritionist. I was so used to surviving on very little sleep, it just seemed the norm. Every non-sleeper has unique problems, and my issue wasn’t getting to sleep but waking up shortly after; I’d get to sleep early in the evening only to wake up feeling refreshed shortly after and realising it was little past midnight. Rather than finding ways to help me get back to sleep my default was ‘game over’ as I got stuck into a box set, responded to emails or scrolled mindlessly through Instagram feeds.
This mindset led to initial boredom trying to fill the time but was quickly followed by anxiety, especially if I knew I had to be up early for work. In this situation, you start to set yourself sleep goals that may seem alien to those that sleep well. You convince yourself that if you can get just two or three hours sleep that is enough.
Everyone has different issues when it comes to sleep, and knowing and identifying this helped me to devise the methodology which forms the backbone of the ‘Art of Sleeping’. This little book on sleep guides the reader through a process of identifying what it is that may be keeping them awake, then helps readers to develop their own personal sleep ritual based around the key pillars of good sleep which are behaviour, environment and diet (BED). What helped me manage my insomnia.
10 strategies to help manage insomnia that worked for me
1. Take a nap
Opinion is divided on the efficacy of daytime napping; some say it hampers sleep at night and others hail it as an energising pick-me-up to help improve mood, alertness and performance. Fitting in a 30-minute nap mid-afternoon after a bad night works for me. I make sure to set an alarm because more than 30 minutes makes you feel groggy. Some people find that as little as ten minutes can help to beat fatigue.
2. Work with your circadian rhythm
Circadian rhythms are roughly 24-hour cycles that exist in every cell of the body, helping to set sleep patterns by governing the flow of hormones and other biological processes. These rhythms are controlled by your internal body clock which is influenced by environmental factors such as light. Blue light has a negative impact on the release of melatonin (the hormone that regulates the sleep cycle). This light is emitted by electrical equipment such as phones, laptops and TVs. Ditch this equipment an hour before bed if you have trouble sleeping. Blocking out all light from your room by way of black-out blinds or curtains is essential as is maintaining a cool bedroom temperature.
3. Jot down your thoughts
While I may seem cool on the outside, I am a total stress head on the inside which isn’t helped by the fact I work for myself. I always keep a pen and paper by my bed, which helps in several ways. Before I go to bed, I jot down a to-do list and any other points I need to think about the following day as well as any personal thoughts that may be playing on my mind. If I’m up during the night thinking, then I get up and write down my thoughts. Often the ideas I come up with during this time of the night are ingenious and better written down than being allowed to ruminate on a loop while lying in bed.
4. Determine the right bedding
Many people live with the same bedding for years on end. I replace my bedding every six months and to keep the cost down, I buy it all in the sales. I opt for a high thread count cotton and would always rather have just a couple of good quality sets than a cupboard full of linen.
I always opt for hypoallergenic bedding as this helps with my allergies and goes some way to help prevent my other half from snoring. I always know that I will sleep best when the bedding has been freshly laundered, so I do this twice a week. Me and my other half also sleep with our own blankets in bed (prevents the tug of war during the night!). I know it’s not very romantic but after 15 years my sleep is the priority! I also use a Gravity Blanket which helps me to sleep. These blankets are weighted and are supposed to replicate the feeling of being hugged. I’ll be honest, I don’t know the science, but it does feel lovely and definitely helps me to sleep.
5. Use essential oils to aid sleep
I use essential oils in many ways as part of my sleep ritual. While the research surrounding essential oil aromatherapies may not have been rigorously tested, they do have a calming effect. Oils such as lavender, ylang ylang, bergamot and vetivert are thought to stimulate the olfactory nerve which sends signals to the brain in charge of emotion and mood.
I find scents hugely relaxing and use a pillow spray every night before bed (my favourite is This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray ) as well as having a bath with relaxing oils (my favourite is Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Bath Oil ).
6. Listen to a sleep app or audiobook
I have found these to be a great way to distract a busy mind. Apps such as Calm or Headspace guide you through simple meditation techniques. Audiobooks (try Audible ) are also a nice way to help you to relax and steer the mind elsewhere. What works best for me is actually something non-verbal, an app called Rain-Rain , which simply plays rain sounds and seems to cut through my mind chatter. Find a comfortable set of earphones (the whole approach is useless if you wake up to take them out). I have found Bluetooth earphones to be the best option as you don’t have to compete with any wires connected to your phone. There’s even a fleecy headband with embedded Bluetooth earphones, called Sleephones .
7. Drink herbal teas to help sleep
I’ve been trying a range of teas containing herbs traditionally used to help promote sleep. Some of them, such as valerian, are seriously pongy. Others include chamomile, lemon balm, passionflower and lavender. I was recently introduced to the brand WelleCo and their Sleep Welle Calming Tea (£48 for a 50-bag caddy) is one of the most potent I have tried, as it contains a high concentration of valerian. I am not completely sure if it is the herbs themselves that are having an effect or the comfort of sipping something warm and soothing before bed, but they do seem to have a relaxing effect that can help to prepare yourself for sleep.
8. Take sleep-inducing supplements
I have tried tinctures such as those made with valerian and hops (try A Vogel Dormeasan - £10.50 for 50ml) and tablets such as 5-HTP, which is an amino acid that is converted into the sleep hormone melatonin in the brain (try Healthspan Night Time 5-HTP - £14.95 for 60 tablets). Magnesium in tablet form or as bath salts has also been shown to help with muscle relaxation and low levels are associated with anxiety and insomnia. I have found that all of them may have a relaxing effect as part of a regular sleep ritual, but they should not be expected to work in the same way as a sleeping pill. Another supplement which is not sold in the UK but available online is melatonin. Research suggests that melatonin supplements might be helpful in treating sleep disorders, such as delayed sleep phase. However, much of the research has been conducted using self-reported levels of improvement and to establish the efficacy of melatonin supplements more investigation is needed.
9. Eat a melatonin-stimulating diet
Nutrients involved in the production and regulation of melatonin include magnesium (dark green leafy vegetables, beans, pulses, lentils, oily fish and wholegrains), vitamin B6 (pulses, lentils, poultry, bananas, liver and soy foods), calcium (dairy foods, tofu, pulses, dried fruit and fortified plant drinks) and tryptophan (nuts, seeds, soy foods, cheese, poultry and oily fish). A nutrient-dense diet is beneficial for all areas of your health and by committing to the basic principles of healthy eating you are more likely to ensure a good intake of these nutrients associated with sleep.
10. Take over-the-counter sleep remedies
These generally fall into two categories. The first are herbal remedies which include brands such as Sominex , Nytol Herbal Tablets and Kira Restful Sleep Tablets. Like herbal teas, these products contain ingredients such as valerian, hops and passionflower. The second are those containing antihistamines such as Nytol . Some people also resort to other medications such as the Night Nurse or Benadryl, which contain a high concentration of antihistamine. I have found that that over-the-counter herbal remedies may work under relaxed conditions but do little if you are challenged with stress and anxiety. Antihistamines have also worked for me and do make you feel drowsy but are not recommended for long-term use. Most experts agree that while antihistamines may help you to fall asleep, the quality of sleep you get is not very good. I felt a little groggy on some occasions the following day. That aside, the body can quickly build up a tolerance to antihistamines.