The curtains are closed and I’m sitting with my eyes shut, humming like a bumble bee. I haven’t gone mad. I’m having a one-on-one sleep review with Anandi, aka The Sleep Guru.
If I close my mouth, inhale through my nose and exhale by humming, over and over for 15 minutes, she promises I will sleep like a baby.
Anandi (born Alison Francis) has spent the past 25 years as a sleep coach, working all over the world with everyone from stressed-out executives to busy working mums.
Anandi, the Sleep Guru, said humming like a bumblebee can help to released sleep hormone melatonin (file photo)
‘Humming stimulates the sleep hormone, melatonin, leading to a great, and hopefully blissful, night’s sleep,’ she says.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland of the brain when you find yourself in a dark environment. Hormone imbalance, which can be caused by stress, overwork and lifestyle factors, are largely responsible for sleep disturbances.
I don’t suffer brutal insomnia, but I do have broken sleep. Work deadlines and my social life mean I’m rarely asleep before 12.30am. And, despite seven hours in bed, I wake up feeling like I’ve been hit over the head.
Although physically robust, my immune system is rubbish. It takes me ages to get over flu, my skin reacts to most beauty products and I’ve had mild food poisoning twice this month. I’ve cut back on alcohol and switched to decaf, yet I still feel unhealthy.
Anandi isn’t surprised. I’m not getting enough quality sleep. And I’m not alone — none other than the domestic goddess herself, Nigella Lawson, recently revealed that, while she climbs into bed at a saintly 7.30pm, she sleeps only in ‘two-hour bursts’, regularly getting up to make cups of tea. By 7.30pm, I haven’t even got through pre-dinner drinks.
Anandi is not impressed by my turning in time: ‘Past midnight is quite late. We go into the bigger cycles of deep sleep when the body is physically refreshed, during the first three hours of sleep, and then as the night goes on you move into the lighter cycles of sleep, including REM sleep, which refreshes the brain.’
By going to bed later than 11pm (and ideally it should be 10pm), I’m seriously compromising my sleep.
‘If the brain doesn’t get enough REM sleep, it makes you feel awful the next day, but there are also implications for diseases such as Alzheimer’s later on,’ she warns.
Anandi was a chronic insomniac herself for 15 years.
‘At 27, I was going through a divorce and getting between zero and four hours’ sleep a night. My energy was on the floor, my digestion at an all-time low and my mouth full of ulcers.’
Determined not to reach for sleeping pills, she went to an ashram in India in 2007. Here, she was given the name Anandi by her guru, learned to breathe properly and cured her insomnia.
The breathing is key, she says. ‘We can’t control our heart or our hormones or our mind, but when you change your breathing patterns, you change your heart rate and you calm your mind.
‘A stressed-out insomniac will have a short, shallow breathing pattern. This is the sympathetic nervous system, and its fight or flight response, being dominant.
Hormone imbalance,often caused by stress, overwork and lifestyle factors, are largely responsible for sleep disturbances (file photo)
‘If you deepen your breathing, by contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for the body’s systems while at rest, takes charge, so you go to bed in a calm state and can sleep.’
In India, she was also introduced to Ayurveda, a powerful natural healing system dating back 5,000 years.
‘[It] tries to bring you back into rhythm with nature,’ she says. ‘Getting up at 6am and going to bed at 10pm is a better rhythm. When the sun rises, serotonin, the happy hormone, goes up. When it sets, melatonin, the sleep hormone, goes up.’
She identifies me as a classic shallow-mouth breather, when I should breathe through my nose. She times my deep breath — just nine seconds, far too short. A healthy, relaxed deep breath would be about 20 seconds.
She stands behind me, her hands on my rib cage, and asks me to push it out using my breath. ‘It should feel like a 3D movement, rather than just a lifting up. When there’s no space for the breath in the rib cage, the shoulders end up round the ears.’ My shoulders are tight and there’s no expansion in my rib cage, I can barely push her hands away — pathetic.
Anandi recommends I practise her surrendered breath technique (see right) each evening, where I give up trying to control my breath and just wait for it to come.
‘You think you’re doing the breathing, but gravity pushes breath into your body,’ she says. ‘Your breath is very jittery, which says a lot about the quality of your sleep and digestion. Lengthening your out breath will calm you.’
For insomniacs, it can take three to nine months to bring the mind and body back into equilibrium, using simple practices we can integrate into daily life. But it’s worth the effort, insists Anandi. We can survive longer without food than we can without sleep.
‘In our 50s, we’re not old but we’re vulnerable. You look great when you’ve slept well, but you really don’t when you’ve tossed and turned. And melatonin is a very powerful antioxidant for anti-ageing. It’s like a magic hormone.’
My lifestyle clearly isn’t sustainable. I leave, swearing that I will eat lighter suppers and start switching off at 10pm, to be in bed by 11pm, even if it means ripping up the social calendar.
‘You really will feel the benefits,’ The Sleep Guru promises.
EIGHT WAYS TO SLEEP BETTER
Hum like a bumble bee
Humming — or Brahmaree Pranayama, as it is called in yoga and Ayurveda — creates a deep, healing vibration. It relaxes the mind and the nervous system, gets rid of negative emotions and helps the body make sleep-inducing melatonin. Close your mouth, inhale through your nose and exhale by humming.
Check your hormones
Have a melatonin test with a private sleep practitioner or clinic. Low melatonin levels are associated with depression and the acceleration of the body’s ageing process. A test will tell you if your sleep hormones are working properly.
How well you absorb and secrete melatonin can be strongly influenced by how late you go to bed, by artificial light and by seasonal changes.
If you find you’re deficient, try deep breathing, meditation, switching off electrical devices and going to bed and getting up earlier — these can all help.
Eat cherries and dates
You can’t buy melatonin in the UK, but natural forms include dates, Montmorency cherries (a type of sour cherry) and grapes, while bananas, oatmeal and milk will boost its production in the body.
To further help the body produce melatonin, Anandi recommends taking a natural sleep and anxiety relief supplement, such as Neuro Rest (£24, utmostme.com), which contains magnesium to help quiet and calm the nervous system, as well as cherry and watermelon.
Massage your jaw
People who have trouble sleeping often grind their teeth. This makes the jaw muscles extremely tight, creating stress in the body.
To counteract this, find the corner of your jaw bone with your middle finger and move the finger in small circular motions as deeply as possible. Try to do this for 30 seconds five times a day.
‘Surrender’ your breath
Many people are shallow breathers, which means the sympathetic nervous system is permanently activated, raising heart-rate and blood pressure and making deep sleep hard.
Anandi suggests lying on your back and practising ‘surrendered breath’, where you actually wait for the breaths to come and ‘get your mind out of the way’.
When you ‘try’ to breathe there is a certain amount of tension in the body, so your rib cage is tense and you can’t expand it.
When your body is completely relaxed, you create far more space in your body to breathe.
The 10-minute yoga pose
Viparita karani, or the legs-up-the-wall pose, is a restorative yoga position that anyone can do, and an excellent natural sleep remedy.
It can even be beneficial if you wake up in the middle of the night.
The move stretches and relieves tiredness in the back of the legs and feet and revives the spine and nervous system.
We need a process of unwinding before we sleep. Turn off technology, have a bath, put on pyjamas and light some candles, then lie on your back, flat on the floor with your legs straight up against the wall. Open your arms out to the sides and exhale.
Hold this pose for ten minutes to completely relax your system.
Have a laugh
Make time to watch your favourite comedy early in the evening. Laughter promotes oxytocin, another happy hormone, which helps you relax and strengthens your immune system.
Go outside every day
We need natural light to boost production of serotonin and melatonin, and the quickest way to get this is to go outside. Plus, if you walk a lot, your brain goes into a relaxed state, leaving you more creative and grounded.