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“I can never fall asleep until the early hours of the morning: help!”

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 31-year-old journalist who suspects she has insomnia finds out what changes she can make to have a better night’s sleep.

A little about me:

Age: 31

Occupation: journalist

Number of hours sleep you get each night: it varies between 2-4 hours on a bad night, to 6 hours on a good one.

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8 hours 

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems (insomnia/sleep apnea): I’m not officially diagnosed with insomnia (I don’t want doctors to feel like I’m wasting their time) but I’m pretty certain I have it. My dad has it and was diagnosed years ago, and I’ve struggled to sleep my entire life.

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: occasionally

How much water you drink on average per day: 2 litres

How much caffeine do you drink on average per day:I don’t like tea or coffee but I have an alarming obsession with Pepsi Max and drink at least 660ml a day.

How much exercise do you do on average per week: 1-2 classes per week, though zero in recent weeks due to being so tired.

Day 1

Once I’m in bed I can’t get to sleep so I decided to finish the second coat of paint on my banister, as you do. I crawl back into bed at 4am and set multiple alarms to make sure I drag myself out of bed in the morning. When I wake up I have pretty dark under-eye shadows, but my banister looks pretty darn spectacular.

I’m working from home today, so cosy up on the sofa with my laptop under mountains of blankets. At around 10am I start to feel peckish, so I have a bowl of Bran Flakes with oat milk and a chopped-up banana on top.

My dog starts whining to go for a walk around 2pm, so I take a late lunch break to walk him with a vegan ham and cheese sandwich in tow. I drink lots of water throughout the day but relent and drink an emergency can of Pepsi Max at 4pm. I have a quick and easy Quorn chicken fillet with vegetables and rice for tea.

Despite feeling completely exhausted I struggle to get to sleep once I’m in bed, and end up staring at the crack in my ceiling at 3am. I forbid myself to check the time and fall into a light sleep, but my boyfriend gets up for work at 4.30am and I can vaguely hear him downstairs pottering about. Soon, he’s putting his boots on to set off for work so I know it’s around 5.30am. Fuck. 

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Day 2

It’s an office day today, so I have to get up an hour and a half earlier to commute in. After a terrible night’s ‘sleep’, getting out of bed is a hellish ordeal. I take a to-go breakfast made up of a protein smoothie (whizzed up in my swanky new blender) and a banana. The central heating in the office is delicious, but it makes me feel especially sleepy. I refill my water bottle twice in less than two hours because every time I feel drowsy, I take a big gulp to try and revive myself.

I pop out for lunch with a colleague at around 1pm and hit Sainsbury’s en-route to Pret so I can buy a bottle of my beloved Pepsi Max, which isn’t sold at Pret. I opt for tomato soup and a plain bread roll, no butter, and it’s just the comforting winter dish I needed. I try not to think about the hefty price tag. We’re really short-staffed this week and it feels impossible to keep on top of things.

I do a little bit of Christmas shopping after work and get home at around 7pm. My boyfriend has made a vat of vegetable pasta for tea and I could cry with joy – the tiredness is getting to me. I tidy up and have a hot bath to try and make myself as relaxed as possible. I pop an ASMR massage video on my phone and feel my eyes going.

“I tidy up and have a hot bath to try and make myself as relaxed as possible.”

I get out of the bath and massage Lush’s Sleepy body lotion onto my arms and chest and crawl into bed at 11pm – pretty darn good for me – and naively think I’m in for a night of much-needed rest.

I start to feel anxious about all I need to do: my ceiling has a disgusting brown patch on it from a leak and I need to chase the roofer up who’s ghosted both me and my boyfriend; there’s mountains of unread emails in my personal and work inboxes, and the rest of this week is about to get relentlessly busy. 

Day 3

I’m working from home today. I have Bitesize Shredded Wheat for breakfast and hunker down trying to wade through the seemingly never-ending pile of work. 

I’m going to an awards ceremony tonight so I absolutely need to finish on time as the welcome drinks and speeches kick off at 5.45pm, which I personally think is a daft time to start an event but there we go.

I barely eat anything because I’m so busy, but I drink lots of water. Thankfully, there’s a fancy three-course dinner at the ceremony.

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I miss the welcome drinks but catch the speeches. The tables are mixed (forced mingling, what fresh hell) but it ends up being a lovely night. I pre-wrote an article about the ceremony, so message my colleagues to confirm the award winner so they can add it into the story and publish it. There’s an after party but I don’t stay, feeling full on posh food and desperate to get into bed. 

I get home at around 11pm and have a hot shower, washing the day away. The last time I let myself check the time it’s around 2.30am, and I fall asleep shortly after. 

Day 4

Another day, another work event to attend. There’s still an obscene amount of work to do before I finish, and the other two colleagues in my department are equally feeling the pressure and anxiety to get through everything.

I have a protein shake and a banana for breakfast and down a pint of water too. Before 12pm, I cave and have a can of Pepsi Max. I have a headache and put my blue light glasses on to try and keep it somewhat at bay.

For lunch, I have onion hummus with chopped up carrots and pitta bread to dip, alternating between the carby goodness of the bread and the crunchy bite of the carrots. 

“The last time I let myself check the time it’s around 2.30am, and I fall asleep shortly after.”

After finishing work an hour later than I wanted to, I amaze myself by getting ready for the event in just half an hour – who am I? The event – a bar and restaurant launch – is fun, with a constant stream of delicious canapés and cocktails. I get home at around 1.30am, tipsy and full, with my throat a good kind of sore from laughing.

I do my best to get ready for bed quickly but it’s inexplicably 2.30am by the time I finally slide beneath the duvet. My boyfriend and our dog are both snoring, their bodies rising and falling gently in that peaceful pattern so commonly associated with deep sleep. I feel a pang of jealousy as my mind starts racing and I struggle to switch off. I check my phone, it’s 4am. For the love of god. 

Day 5

My uncle surprises me by knocking on my door at 7am. He’s come to wallpaper our spare room and chimney breast – he lives an hour and a half’s drive away and it’s super sweet of him to come all this way to do us a massive favour, but I could cry at losing an hour in bed. It’s freezing, so I have porridge for breakfast to warm me up and give me enough of an energy boost to fake being more awake than I am.

It’s our work Christmas party and everyone is eager to finish on time. I rush to get through my staggering to-do list and, even though I clocked on an hour early, I still don’t finish until an hour later than my usual finish time. My uncle left at around 2pm, and I vacuum and dust the decor remains at 6.30pm instead of starting to get ready for the party. I scoff a lurking frozen pizza as I don’t have time for anything else, then jump in the shower to get ready for the evening ahead.

It’s a great night and I drink a lot – rare for me these days – but it’s purely to keep my eyes open and my mouth able to form words. I get home at 5am and take my make-up off with a flushable Andrex loo wipe like a heathen – my expensive skincare judging me silently – and finally crawl into bed, deleting every single alarm on my phone.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “Nature has designed us to spend around a third of our lives sleeping and not just any old sleep, but deep, restorative sleep. Gwyneth Paltrow called it clean sleep. I call it sattvic sleep. Sattvic is Sanskrit for ‘pure’. When we get enough sattvic sleep we wake up feeling refreshed, inspired, looking forward to life.

“But the reality is that most of us have to do some ‘work’ to get this type of sleep. We have to make the right choices. And in your case that would mean ditching the Pepsi Max (sorry!), starting to eat healthier throughout the day (including protein and fat in each meal), doing more exercise and having a consistent sleep routine, at least during the week. Check out my five non-negotiables for more on this.”

Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: “Do I sound tough? Maybe I am, but I want you to have the amazing energy that I sense you could have if you were getting that amazing sleep that your physiology is designed to give you. Your underlying anxiety and stress is being exacerbated by the poor lifestyle and sleep – it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.

“Can you break the cycle with my 5 NNs? You need to apply them for 10-14 days and then see how much better you’ll be feeling. On a positive note, you’re at the age where your physiology should respond fairly quickly. If I were you, your new year’s resolution should be to set an intention for how you want to feel in 2023 (not how you don’t want to feel) and then make the changes with this firmly in mind. Go for it!”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email [email protected] with your age, using ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Other images: Getty

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