Nutritionist Clare Backhouse explains how we can get better sleep
Happy New Year!
Now let’s get straight to the point: I think our relationship with health is often quite religious. That is to say, it’s rule-based. And I want to challenge this.
For example, we force ourselves to do certain ‘good’ things at the ‘right’ times and hope that they will do the magic. We hope we’ll feel good and finally measure up.
We call certain foods ‘naughty’ and feel bad if we have too many of them. Or we feel bad about ourselves for not doing more of the ‘right’ things – whether that’s exercise, eating kale or going to bed early.
We can switch back and forth between feeling smug and feeling like we’re failing. This isn’t helped by the fact that much of our media about health encourages anxiety, or a sense of failure.
Focusing on love
What if we stopped berating ourselves, or forcing ourselves, and took up a completely new standpoint?
What if our relationship with health became an experience primarily of love?
If most health culture relies on rules, what if our health experience was governed by relationship?
What if we brought love, joy and peace into our thinking about health? What would happen then?
I think we’d be healthier and happier. And I wonder if it might bring more joy to our author and perfecter too.
Over the coming few months, I’m going to share some of the ways I think about health and lifestyle, from the starting point of love.
Together, we’ll test out what difference it makes when we begin, not with the tyranny of perfectionism, but with the kindness of affection.
And this month, I’m going to begin with: the moment we go to bed.
In the northern hemisphere, January is the perfect month to cover the subject of bedtime, because it’s such a cold, dark time of year and curling up in a warm bed is at its most inviting.
The irony is that, even if we are blessed with a cosy bed, we aren’t always very good at sleeping in it! And this is the part that links to nutrition.
You may have asked yourself already: why is a nutritionist talking about bedtime, rather than vitamins? Well, there’s a host of reasons, of which I’ll choose one.
When we’re sleep deprived, we’re more likely to crave sugar.
We crave sugar because our body considers sleep deprivation a threat, and is more easily triggered into the involuntary ‘fight or flight’ mode. And craving quick hits of energy is what we look for when we’re in this mode.
The classic comparison is with our ancestors running from wild animals. If you’re running from something dangerous, a quick energy shot from something sweet like fruit is a good idea.
If frequent lack of sleep causes our bodies to feel threatened a lot, then we’re much more likely to crave sugar on a regular basis. And as we know, sugar consumption tends to feel good in the short term, but unpleasant in the long term.
So I hope you can see why a nutritionist would care about sleep!
But how might we get more and better sleep? And how can we get it, not from a position of, ‘yet another thing I should be doing’, but from a place of love?
Opportunity for nurture
For me, it starts in the imagination. If I see a timely bedtime as a rule-based thing I ‘ought’ to do, I’ll sometimes obey but often rebel.
But if I imagine bedtime as an opportunity for nurture, and imagine the gentle care I’d give to a child, it becomes much easier.
When we put children to bed, we do lots of things to make it easy. We make a set bedtime for them. We run a bath. We make time for reading and for prayer. We turn the lights down and speak gently. We give reassurance and affection.
What if we gave this sort of kindness to ourselves? What if we were gentle with ourselves, ran ourselves a bath, made time for reading and for prayer? What if we turned the lights down and let God reassure us with his love?
If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to make myself go to bed early because I should. But it’s easier to imagine myself running a pre-bedtime bath, or lighting a candle. It’s easier to imagine the wonderful book I will read, or the moment I’ll be still enough that I will know that God still loves me.
Perhaps we needn’t be surprised that everything – even health – is easier when you start with love.