How To Sleep In The 21st Century - Expert Dr.Nerina Ramlakhan Gives Her Top Tips

20 July 2017

Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan is both a physiologist and a sleep and energy expert, and she has dedicated her career to helping people sleep, have more energy and find a better balance in their lives for well over two and half decades. Read on to find out  why sleep is so crucial  for our daily performance, and how to catch some shut-eye in this supercharged world!

Hi Nerina! Tell us what inspired you to get into the field of sleep?

Perhaps it was because I used to have huge sleep problems myself!

When I was six months old, my mother found herself taking me from one doctor to the next because I couldn’t sleep (which mean she couldn’t get any sleep…), and, of course, as I grew up, it became more of a problem. By the time I reached university, it worsened to the point where it made me very ill.

It was at this point that I picked myself back again and started to explore - it sounds a bit clichéd but I began a ‘healing journey’. My doctorate was all to do with sleep and the brain, but, rather than just looking at the theory, I began to think, “How can I help myself to get better sleep? How can I heal?”.

From here on, I started to be given more opportunities to work with people who had sleep problems and ended up working in a psychiatric unit for ten years – where I had once been a patient myself about two decades before that! (How mystical…) I read more and more books on the subject and gained a reputation of someone who understood sleep and how to help people sleep.

Is insomnia a 21st Century phenomenon?

Well, human beings have had issues with insomnia since the beginning of time, and we are remarkedly well-adapted to cope with bad sleep. If you think about hunter-gatherers, if they’d had an inflexible need to retire to the cave and sleep for hours and hours, we wouldn’t have survived as a species! So, we are well-equipped to cope with a lack of sleep.

However, there is something about today’s world that is making this more of a problem – and that’s that everything is going so fast! The demand has ramped up, and we have lost the ability to build rest into our day. If you think about it, we don’t take our tea or lunch breaks or our commutes like we used to – instead, we’re looking at our devices! We might even wake up in the middle of the night to check our emails. Think of a child who has been running around all day with no rest – by the time it gets into bed at night, it’s wired! That’s what’s happened to us. We’re wired by the time we get into bed, and that’s when those sleep problems become worse.

"We're constantly bombarding our brains"

We're never offline. This has worsened the situation because we’re putting more energy out, but we've lost the habits or rituals to put energy back in. We‘ve actually become over-reliant on sleep!  It’s the way we’re living today – we’ve lost the ability to get downtime.

Do you think the way that we’re working so flexibly these days affects our sleep patterns?

Well, it’s wonderful that we can work so flexibly these days – we can work on the go; we can even work on the beach when we’re on holiday! (Although I’m not saying that’s right!) While flexible working can solve some problems, it can also create issues around boundaries. I, myself, work quite a lot at home and communicate across time zones on webinar platforms with thousands of people around the world – and that’s wonderful – but then again, when do we switch off? Where do we put the boundaries?

In the way that we live today, work has spilled into home, and home has spilled into work – but we do need, to some degree, boundaries in order to create different departments in our lives: this is when I’m working; this is when I’m playing; this is when I’m resting; this is when I’m sleeping; this is when I’m with my family; this is when I’m in the bathroom! (It's no wonder that the number of phone-in-toilet incidences has become an issue for insurance companies...)

Why is sleep important in terms of our performance both personally and professionally?

What does sleep really do for us? Well, this is a question that has fascinated me for decades now!

My work is a real blend of Western and Eastern science: although I may be trained as a Western scientist (my doctorate is in neurophysiology), to find an answer to this question, I have found myself digging deeper and looking at Indian science and medicine, as well as some of the older sciences like Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine.

There’s a reason why we have been intelligently designed to spend a third of our lives sleeping. It’s ingrained in our DNA - but why?

When we sleep at night, it appears that every organ and every emotional system in our body is healed. And, remember, this is about getting PURE sleep. You can get 4 or 5 hours of sleep that can be far more restful than 7 or 8 hours. Pure sleep restores the body physically, emotionally, mentally, and, I believe, spiritually. We wake up feeling connected to our family and wanting to give them hugs. We wake up feeling laser-focused and intellectually and creatively engaged with what we’re doing. And it gives us a fighting chance of living a life with meaning and purpose – that’s what I mean by spiritual energy. Feeling passionate and inspired about what we do, because there is nothing worse than repeatedly not sleeping well. I used to see this in the psychiatric unit – night after night, it erodes that passion; our inspiration and joy for life. But when we sleep well and deeply, it recharges and it rebalances.

What can workplaces do to help encourage their employees to rest?

There’s a competitive advantage for workplaces that can help employees go home, sleep properly and wake up with amazing energy and wanting to come back to work. For a start, they could make it culturally acceptable to come to work and rest – which means allowing employees to work with their physiology. It's built into our physiology to oscillate – and that means from every hour to hour and a half, we ideally (and naturally) need to seek some form of rest, even if it’s only for 2 or 3 minutes. We need to get away from screens and away from demand; we should walk around, eat a banana, drink a glass of water, take a break thinking, look at a picture of someone we love, look at a picture of a mountain that we climbed... just something unrelated to the previous task.

We might even take a nap! Enlightened organisations of the future will have nap pods because they will accept that people need to take breaks and get rid of all that information from the brain and switch of mentally so that when they come back to the task they’ll have energy.

"There's a competitive advantage to having well-rested, inspired and connected employees"

And what about anyone in their day-to-day life? What can people do immediately to get better sleep?

Over the years, I’ve developed '5 non-negotiables', which I talk about in my book ‘Fast Sleep, Wide Awake’. If you carry these out every day for the next 7 to 10 days, your body will start to respond.

1)    Eat breakfast within half an hour of getting up. Even if it’s something as small as a handful of almonds and dates!

2)    Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine is an artificial form of stress. I see lots of people not eating breakfast, but they’re living on caffeine. Instead, wait until after you’ve had your breakfast to have your cup of tea or coffee, and also remember to refrain from having any caffeine at all after 3pm.

3)    Consume two litres of water a day to hydrate the body and keep the right part of your physiology working.

4)    Withdraw from technology about half an hour before you get into bed - your bedroom should be a technology-free zone! Aim to generally have healthier boundaries with technology: if you’re watching TV, watch TV rather than looking at multiple screens!

5)    Get to bed early three or four nights a week, during that 90-minute phase before midnight. You don't have to be fast asleep, but at least be in bed and resting, as opposed to stressing about your day in your mind. It’s anti-aging too!

Fascinating! So going into detail about just one of these non-negotiables, what’s the science behind eating breakfast before work and sleeping better?

A lot of people wait until they get to work, after they've commuted for an hour or so, but, by that point, the body is already adrenalised from fighting its way through the ticket barriers and onto the train for a seat. The body is in survival mode: it’s running on adrenalin and on cortisol, all of which stops the body from producing melatonin.

"There's a reason why sleep is ingrained in our DNA"

Eating breakfast, however, stabilises the blood sugar levels of the body and sends a message to the brain that it’s safe to produce melatonin so that you can sleep at night. It tells the body that you’re not living in a famine, but in a world of abundant food. It puts the body in a different state.

Thanks, Nerina! Any final tips?

My ultimate sleep tool is to acknowledge that there is a link between sleeping well and feeling safe. Let's take my cat, for example - if I put her bed in a place where she feels safe,  she's happy to sleep, but if I move her bed, she's not! The world around us is chaotic and turbulent, but actually, while we’re built to cope with lack of safety and have this whole part of our physiology known as ‘fight or flight’, we also have a part of our physiology which is built for safety. It's this part of our nervous system that enables us to sleep. So before we go to bed, we need to take ourselves into a state of safety.

So - the most powerful antidote to the stress out there is to take yourself into your heart and to feel gratitude before you go to bed. Think about something or someone who you’re really grateful for. It’s impossible to feel stressed while we’re feeling grateful. When we feel grateful, we produce oxytocin, which is the hormone of trust. And, at the end of the day, sleep is an act of trust. It helps us produce melatonin - and this helps us to sleep better.

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