I have lived under the haze of chronic sleep deprivation for the last six or seven years. Having four young children very close in age is the primary cause. For four of those seven years I’ve been breastfeeding; all my boys have been keen night-time feeders ( one – three feeds a night until sometime around their first birthday). I’ve chosen to do this (I don’t live under a rock, and am well aware that there are other approaches to parenting that might be more likely to give me uninterrupted sleep – but this post isn’t about right / wrong parenting choices … it’s about coping with sleep deprivation when that becomes your reality, for whatever reason).
For the first five(ish) years of this new life, this life in which a full night’s sleep had become a mythical thing of the past then, there were two words that described me perfectly – ‘run down’. I was the picture of exhaustion; anxious, erratic moods, chunks of each day where I could barely keep my eyes open. Every bug that was cruising the playgroup circuit would settle upon me and wipe me out. Every sniffle would lead to acute sinusitis / tonsillitis etc. This came as quite a surprise because I’d always been pretty robust, rarely ever ill and generally quite energetic and healthy. The kids were thriving, shaking off any snuffles way more quickly than I could, and so I decided my poor health was due to a combination of all the ‘kiwi’ bugs invading my foreign English immune system, and the repeat pregnancies zapping my reserves.
I self-medicated with a mix of coffee and chocolate (in various forms but more often than not just straight creamy milk slab,by the kilo – literally I would probably eat a kilo over the course of a week). Aside from the excessive chocolate and coffee my diet was (I thought) pretty good. It was certainly in line with what I had grown up to believe was a healthy diet (plenty of carbs / whole grains / salad / fruit etc). I would make big homemade pasta dishes for our evening meal, hoping to fuel myself up for the night ahead. If anything, despite all that chocolate, I struggled to keep weight on (I do have pretty lucky genes .. thanks grandma!). and as I have a big appetite I would just eat more and more (even sometimes sending the man of the house out to the kitchen at two am to make me a couple of pieces of toast!).
Then around two years ago we started to change the family diet quite significantly. This was in part due to the man of the house being diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory condition which (through trial and error) we found was helped by eliminating gluten from his diet). Around this time I also started working with a fantastic naturopath / nutritionist (Helen from Nourish-ed) who opened my eyes to a completely different way of looking at healthy eating (based around the principles outlined in Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions).
Now, after gradually making some changes I can step back and see I am way healthier and better able to function, despite the birth of baby number four, and the continuation of the chronic sleep deprivation. I am not bullet proof, getting up several times a night to breastfeed (calm nightmares / fetch water / take wandering toddlers back to their beds etc), is tiring. I still get a bit grumpy from time to time. But, I am way better. I have hardly been ill (no doubt I am totally jinxing myself by writing this) aside from the odd cold. I haven’t needed antibiotics in over a year and a half (the year prior to that I had to take 4 courses), and I’ve even started popping out for the odd jog. I can think beyond the basics of work and family, and am on occasion able to hold a reasonably sane conversation. I write this blog, for fun, and I have even played a couple of games of scrabble without falling asleep.
So what’s the secret? Here are my top tips for a diet to minimise the impact of sleep deprivation on your body and soul.
- Lots of fluids that are not coffee or tea. I still treat myself to the odd coffee (a couple of times a week) and have one or two cups of earl grey tea a day but the bulk of my fluid is not caffeinated and I never start the day with caffeine. Previously I would rely mainly on tea, with the odd glass of water, which I would never finish. Now, I drink mint and cardamom tea made with fresh mint leaves and cardamom pods by the bucketful. It’s just my thing. I love it and I always have a pot on the go. I like it hot / cold and every temperature in between.
- Less carbs and more protein. I haven’t gone totally gluten free and do still have the odd slice of bread / toast but I try and ensure my meals are based around protein.
- Lots and lots of bone broth. I always choose meat with bones in if I’m making a casserole / curry, and I roast a whole chicken a couple of times a week so that stock is always plentiful around here.
- Introduce lacto- fermented vegetables. Gingered carrots are the favourite.
- Found a breakfast that suited me. Which is this. Previous I’d dabbled with various / cereal / yogurt / toast / porridge combos that never seemed to keep me going very long. Everyone is different – this works for me.
- Lots of homemade soup. Especially for lunch.
- Less chocolate / more baking. I was addicted to chocolate until recently. Really seriously, I had a massive chocolate addiction, and had to ‘come off’ cold turkey – headaches / withdrawal etc.. It was harsh. Now I eat it in moderation. Mainly in baking. I bake a lot (as you’ll know if you read this blog) but I make good, nutrient dense cakes that satisfy my sweet tooth without excessive sugar or empty calories.
Those are the main things I’m doing differently. I was already eating lots of live yogurt , fruit , vegetables, oily fish etc ; so I didn’t have to change any of that. Aside from chocolate,I have always kept away from processed food.. it wasn’t enough!
So that’s where I’m up to. I’m still very much learning about a more nourishing diet – I am yet to experiment with a bigger range of fermented foods (but I’m kind of intrigued to), and I’m still holding on to a few old habits and treats… but I’ve done enough to feel a whole heap better. If I keep eating like this who knows what I’ll be like when my kids are all finally sleeping through the night – I’ll probably be running ultra-marathons or something.