Let’s be honest. If I have to read, write or smile through another terse sentiment on how the last year has been, I might just throw my laptop out of the window. So let’s just jump straight into it. How are you sleeping?
Yes… me too. But we aren’t alone. Of everyone I have spoken to over the last few months, bad sleep, in whatever shape or form, is the most common complaint. Less sleep, broken sleep, trouble falling asleep or, for some, the most wildly vivid, incoherent dreams imaginable, playing through confused psyches each night. It seems like it might be a simple thing to fix, maybe with a bit of exercise during the day to burn off some energy, or a screentime ban before bed to better wind down? But there’s nothing more stressful to solve than the enigma of a good night’s sleep, after a night of barely any.
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With years of a complete lack of routine due to the nature of my work on set, I’ve long been a fan of valerian tea to help rebalance. But I found myself needing something more. That’s when I came across HUM Nutrition, specifically Mighty Night. The combination of valerian root, passionflower and hops eases tension and assists with more forthcoming sleep – and even better, it helps you to stay asleep as well. Boy does it deliver! With a literal sigh of relief, I noticed a huge difference in sleep quality right from the first night. But with no muzziness the next morning. As a bonus, this blend, using a combination of ferulic acid and ceramides, look out for your skin as you sleep. Right before bedtime these two, small, soft-gel capsules, with their pleasant cocoa taste, were a huge turning point at the start of this journey to better sleep. So much so, it’s got a regular spot on my bedside table.
I revisited HUM during my journey to the land of nod on a few occasions and enjoyed the experience, as well as the products themselves. Their wide range of supplements uses a mix of vitamins, minerals and bio-actives from botanical sources. More than just pills and online reading, each customer is connected to their own registered dietician for personalised help and guidance. My match, Gaby, recommended Über Energy too. This balancing daily pick-me-up contains L-tyrosine (clinically proven to enhance physical and mental performance) and a mix of adaptogens, such as schizandra berry and ashwagandha, which all aid adrenal function and hormone balance.
After finally getting that first night of better sleep, I started to think about what might be the malady if elusive sleep were a symptom. Sure, these last few months have been rather stressful, but how might that affect me day to day, apart from playing with my nerves?
I came across ‘I Am Lovd’ by Nicole O’Brien. Since the public met Nicole through Netflix’s hit show ‘Too Hot To Handle’ (airing just as the UK went into lockdown) she has gone on to create Lovd as a welcoming online space, thoughtfully cultivated to improve our mental wellbeing. Perfect for the current climate of social distance and the difficulty of accessing face-to-face services, you will find support and coaching across a wide variety of topics through courses, programmes and interactive activities.
I spoke to Tim Box, remedial hypnotist and mind coach, and one of the experts on the Lovd platform, about what we might be dealing with. Tim explained, “Stress is the body’s response to potentially harmful situations – both real and perceived – it allows us to take action in an emergency situation, like slamming the brakes on when you nearly hit another car. But when stress continues for protracted periods of time it can harm our health.”
I was interested in what physical manifestations this may bring us and, as if opening Pandora’s box, Tim continued, “Symptoms we might experience include: headaches, upset stomach, muscle tension and resulting aches and pains, chest pain and rapid heartbeat, insomnia… If symptoms persist over a longer period of time this can lead to issues, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, skin problems and even hair loss.”
I realised that so many new quandaries in my day to day could be down to increased stress, over which, unfortunately (as a freelancer amid a pandemic) I had very little control. Without wanting to metaphorically put a band-aid on a broken leg, I continued my search to remedy the symptoms, whilst mentally banking Tim’s warning: “The human body was not designed to be in a constant fight or flight response for extended periods.”
I looked at my skin: it was dull and with slight redness, overall, very unbecoming for a beauty writer. I turned to Advanced Nutrition Programme for a little help. Whilst already taking vitamin supplements elsewhere, I wanted something a little different. With four strains of body-loving bacteria and yeast, Skin Clear Biome more than delivered. Whilst being warned it may take six weeks to see results, I was really surprised that I noticed a difference in the first week. My skin was already seeming smoother and calmer, and after six weeks, clearer overall. Working on the idea that stress and other factors, such as the imbalance of your microbiome may be seen outwardly, their patent-pending biome technology works to right any disquiet between the gut and the skin. After all, your skin is your biggest organ.
On taking a look at my hair, for example, I noticed that a particularly delicate area at my temple was looking rather bare, an unwelcome badge of honour quite literally displaying my distress. However, research by hair health advocates Kera Health suggests this isn’t uncommon. Over 50% of men in the UK and at least one in five women before the age of 65 suffer from hair loss. Post-65, a terrifying leap occurs, with 50% of all women affected.
I’ve tried a vast number of hair growth shampoos over the years, but honestly, nothing has compared to my experience with Kera Health’s 360 Hair Health Plan for women (and the counterpart for men). You start your hair health journey from within, sounds introspective. However, on this occasion, I mean with a tailored nutraceutical supplement. Kera Health worked to create a solution based on bio-disposable naturally occurring ingredients. After years of research, ‘KerCysteine’ was the result, encompassing 18 amino acids that make up our hair, eight of which are not synthesised by the body, and therefore solely gained through our diets. Two formulas were developed following their research, based on the underlying causes of hair loss. The women’s supplement contains superoxide dismutase, a powerful antioxidant, and the men’s uses beta-sitosterols to reduce the formation of DHT, a hormone associated with hair loss in men.
In the rest of the system, we have the luxurious keratin and biotin infused Follicle Hero shampoo and conditioner, containing salicylic acid for a deep cleanse of the scalp and coconut and jojoba oils to nourish. As part of the process, we are encouraged to spend two rather heavenly minutes a day using the Scalp Energiser. This gentle massage tool provides a deeper cleanse to keep the scalp healthy and free of product build-up, whilst increasing microcirculation of oxygen and the active ingredients; the key to healthy hair.
The clinical trial results here are impressive. After one month of use, tests showed a 19% increase in hair protein content, meaning stronger hair. After three months, tests showed an impressive 73% reduction in hair loss. At just over three months myself, I won’t be moving on anytime soon. I now gladly sport a fuzzy crown of baby hair, not just at my temple, but all over. I have never been more proud of how affectionately unkempt my hair is looking. These flyaways may be young and carefree but, one day, they will fall in line – for this is a rate of growth unheard of for my hair.
If you’re simply seeking something nourishing for your hair with a rewarding moment of calm, look no further than Fable & Mane. Taking inspiration from traditional Indian Ayurvedic practice and naturally occurring botanicals, their range uses the sacred Dashmool herbal blend and ashwagandha extract to relieve stress and soothe inflammation. Try HoliRoots Hair Oil as a weekly treatment before shampooing, relaxing in scent yet fortifying in its ingredients, with castor and olive oils. Or try digging into HoliRoots Hair Mask, a pure delight for the senses. A buttery texture of coconut cream, with the dessert-worthy aroma of mango butter and banana, leaves your hair silky smooth and uplifting in scent, carrying you through the day.
Thinking back to that ‘little bit of exercise’ mentioned earlier, it’s not all that easy. After another restless night, I forced myself into an online class. Whilst initially just savouring the Theragun Elite for its therapeutic support after exercise (however minimal), this afternoon a new routine caught my eye on the accompanying Therabody App. In the wellness section of its guided massage programmes, I saw ‘Sleep’.
Later that evening, half an hour before bed, I followed the guide moving from neck to forearms, lower back to quads, even gently sweeping over the shins and the soles of the feet. Just the rhythmic motion is soothing to even the most fast-paced of minds, but over the next few evenings, I was fascinated to discover how deeply relaxing the kneading action of the Elite could be. It’s six dreamy minutes to better sleep. But it wasn’t a fluke: in studies conducted by Therabody in conjunction with Biostrap Labs and their biometric health tracker, 70% of participants experienced less disturbance to their sleep and 87% fell asleep quicker. Plus, with the new addition to the Therabody family, the Wireless Charging Stand, it’s even easier to have it on hand and always charged.
Another evening, another dilemma. This time, the impasse of reading about limiting blue light for better sleep, whilst on my phone, in bed. Swiftly setting parameters for my screen time (because my iPhone has more control than I do), I made sure to grant myself unlimited access to one more necessary app for effortless control of the OOLER sleep system from Chilisleep.
Tossing and turning when trying to find the fresh cool spots at lights-out had been a nightly ritual for a while. Currently sleeping hotter than a furnace, I found myself inclined to keep my window open at night, even whilst it was snowing outside. So where does the OOLER come in? Simply put, we have a small control unit, attached to a mattress topper, circulating temperature-controlled water. The water system uses tubing narrower than a pea and, distributed across ample padding, even the most attentive princess wouldn’t feel the system below the top sheet.
The overall effect is astounding. Lowering the temperature to as little as 13 degrees, it works to constantly wick away body heat, keeping that fleeting perfect cold spot a permanent fixture beneath you and allowing you to better relax into an easy sleep. The effects of the bespoke chilled sleep have been studied throughout the night too. 25% of users woke up less often due to night sweats, and 40% reported they were able to get back to sleep more easily if they did wake up during the night.
The unit itself is about the size of a shoebox, small enough to slip discreetly under most beds. And it’s quiet too. Silent mode maintains the temperature and keeps a low hum at around 51 to 56 decibels, similar to the murmur of a refrigerator. But it’s the scheduled auto-control within the app that’s the true key to making the most of the system. Set the timer for your perfect temperature ready for you to tumble into bed, with the option to switch off after you drift off, run away into the night, or use the Warm Awake function (up to 46 degrees) to naturally rouse you from your slumber.
I will admit, I dived deeper into creating the perfect sleep space and I have no regrets. I had read about weighted blankets and I was intrigued about the science and research behind them. As theory has it, they offer ‘deep touch pressure’, gentle compression to the entire body similar to the swaddling of a baby or a long hug from a friend (remember them?). This kind of physical touch has a remarkable effect, encouraging the release of ‘happy hormones’ serotonin and oxytocin, both of which are associated with stress relief. Serotonin further helps with sleep by triggering melatonin production, the hormone that makes us drowsy.
My search for this particular kind of comfort led me to try the Mela Weighted Blanket. At first use, I was amazed at its instant grounding and sedative effect. It was the middle of a busy day when I excitedly pulled it out of the box, seconds after it was delivered, yet its cocooning embrace offered a moment of instant calm before I reluctantly returned to my desk.
Each night since its arrival has been dreamy. Its pressure is like a sigh of relief and I am now falling asleep faster, as well as feeling so much better rested each morning. In fact, across a variety of studies, blankets weighing more than 10% of the user’s body weight have been well documented to reduce the instances of waking after you initially fall asleep, increasing total sleep time and the overall quality of sleep.
For its weight, it’s surprisingly slimline. Mela’s blankets use glass quartz pellets which move without any sound, encased within a soft filling for supreme comfort as it moulds to your shape, although its quilted design prevents any uneven dispersal of weight over time. Its standard cover is soft and snuggly but, for the warmer sleeper, swap to the Mela Chill Eucalyptus Cover made with beautifully cool, soft vegan silk. A king blanket might be smaller than you expect, but rest assured it is intended to fit the mattress, not the duvet, so as not to overhang the bed frame.
Combining their weighted blanket with their Vegan Silk Sheet Set is more than just a treat, it is a necessity, and you owe it to yourself. If you’re aiming for the sweet spot of seven hours a night, that’s 49 hours a week in bed, so go make it the best place to be. Yes, it’s super stylish, and yes, it feels divine against your skin. Maintaining a cool feel and light touch, you move smoothly under the weight of the blanket until you settle into carefree repose.
A little nightcap might be tempting from time to time and I’m the first to admit that lockdown has led to a new household motto of ‘It’s something-o’clock somewhere!’. I looped back in with Tim to see how alcohol might interact with us in times of stress, to help me make a more informed decision with my choice of ‘little helper’.
Tim explained, “Alcohol is a depressant and therefore has a sedating effect on our stress response. However, as with all comfort strategies, over-indulgence can cultivate dependency and leave us feeling unable to cope with the world without alcohol as our crutch. This ultimately has a long term damaging effect on our self-esteem and leaves us feeling more vulnerable than when we started.”
I remember the first days of alcohol-free beer and spirits for those opting for a different pace, and we have come a long way since the flat, metallic taste of today’s predecessors. For the spirit drinker, Atopia offers the depth of flavours expected without the alcohol top-up. Their Spiced Citrus low alcohol spirit gives the intricacy in character expected of something much stronger. A botanical blend of juniper, coriander, angelica root that wouldn’t be out of place in a gin, but at an ultra-low 0.5%, it’s a welcome distraction from its stronger counterparts that holds its own in the flavour profile.
A more hop-driven alternative, Big Drop gives the beautiful depth of flavour of an IPA with the same alcohol-free benefits we have been looking for. When trying their Paradiso Citra IPA from their core range you might be tricked into forgetting its AF status. Their founder Rob Fink proudly shares, ”When blind-tasted against full-strength beers, it placed UK Winner in the Specialty IPA category at last year’s World Beer Awards, beating 6% ABV rivals into second and third place.”
The key to the flavour is the brewing process, Rob explains, “We brew our beer naturally to 0.5%, without the need to artificially extract alcohol like most alcohol-free offerings, but that means we’ve had to turn the rules of brewing upside down. We use a lazy yeast, which isn’t very good at converting sugar to alcohol, as well as brewing at slightly higher temperatures at various points to further inhibit alcohol production.”
The technical changes to the process don’t end there: “we also use less grain (which means less sugar), but we use far more types of grain than normal beer which helps amplify the flavour and brings complexity to our beers… barley, rye, wheat and oats and a number of different varieties of each.”
I’ve not yet found the perfect alcohol-free wine. I have now officially reached the age where, if I am not careful, I might achieve a niggling hangover after just one glass. If you’re still hankering for a glass but not after the after-effects, Clean Wine eliminates the muzzy-headed effects of a glass of wine with a simple spray. I’ll admit, it felt strange spraying my glass before pouring, but tried and tested on a variety of different wines (for journalistic purposes, of course), I was relieved each morning that followed: it really was making a difference.
But what is this magic? Simply put, Clean Wine removes the sulphites present using a chemical reaction that introduces extra oxygen atoms into the wine. These oxygen atoms bond with the sulphites and turn them into harmless sulphates, at levels similar to those found in tap water. The only byproduct of this alchemy is pure water but at a level undetectable in the flavour.
For a completely alcohol-free drink, Quarterpast Fruit Tea Infusions are a versatile alternative that can be imbibed with hot water or tonic for a more refreshing twist. A favourite of mine, their hibiscus, ginger and manuka honey infusion is packed with antioxidants. Warming, refreshing and soothing, it’s a welcome change to a simple tea. And so much easier than the faff of home infusion for a quick fix, with the added benefits of turmeric too.