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Optimizing Sleep, Recovery & Stress Management

20 Mar 2023

Optimizing sleep, recovery, and stress management

I’m Helen Cross, aka ‘The Health Engineer’. I’m a functional nutrition specialist and internationally certified Health and Wellness Coach.

I run my own practice helping individuals improve their energy, increase fitness and gain optimal health through nutrition and lifestyle. My personal philosophy is that our nutrition and lifestyle choices can have the biggest impact on our health – when we transform our health, we transform our life.

nib are champions of proactive healthy lifestyles and creating optimal wellbeing and I’ve worked closely with them for several years – including developing and running its Women’s Wellness Health Management Programme which focuses on sustainable diet and lifestyle choices that embrace each person’s uniqueness.

Women’s Wellness Workshop

Ahead of the second Super Rugby Aupiki season, I had the pleasure of hosting a Women’s Wellness workshop for the nib Blues women’s rugby team. It’s clear that health and wellbeing plays a major role in their lives and has a direct impact on how they perform as athletes. Our pre-workshop questionnaire revealed that the players were interested in managing their sleep and stress better.

Let’s take a look at what we explored and my top tips for sleep, recovery and stress management.

Finding your routine

There are many distractions and stressors in today’s modern life – take note of how you’re feeling in this moment. How are your energy levels? Do you feel stressed? Did you get enough sleep last night? To optimise our health, it’s all about developing habits, rituals and routines. By honing in on the underlying lifestyle or wellbeing problems, we can help to improve our overall health and performance.

One great way of starting to develop new, positive routines is to write down your commitments for the week. As we go on, I’ll share some new tactics and strategies for better sleep and recovery. Take note of which tactics you’re already doing, and then write down one or two new tactics that you’d like to include in your daily routine. Then check in with yourself midway through the week and see how you feel. Even better make this commitment with a friend so you can check in on each other’s progress and support each other as you try to optimise your new rituals.

The power of sleep

Sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your body to build resilience and to heal. It also helps you process the day, restore energy for the day ahead, and regulates hunger levels. Conversely, sleep deprivation is dangerous to your immune system and could make you more susceptible to infections. But sleep is it something that so many women struggle with – whether they’re professional athletes or not.

Here are my top tips to improving your sleep:

  1. Prioritise sleep and BE CONSISTENT – try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, including on the weekends
  2. Close the kitchen – avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed so your body isn’t trying to digest your food at bedtime
  3. Create sleep rituals – take a shower, do some stretches, read a book, prepare for the morning
  4. Make your bedroom a sanctuary – create a quiet, dark, relaxing and comfortable space at a cool temperature (20 degrees celsius is ideal for a deeper sleep)
  5. Turn off all electronic devices to quieten your mind, including turning the lights down (darkness stimulates a sleep hormone called melatonin)
  6. Relax your mind – use breathing or meditation techniques to calm your nervous system, journal, list all of your problems to get them ‘out of your head’

Why recovery should come first

Recovery is so much more than simply recovering from an event, it’s crucial for optimal health. For our nib Blues players, I wanted them to think about the time before the match as well as afterwards. When it comes to recovering from these high stress, high intensity events, take some time to reflect on what habits or rituals you could include in your daily routine to help you perform better and fully recuperate.

Some of my top recovery rituals and stress management tips are:

  • Breathing – practice breathing exercises such as ‘box breathing’ which involves inhaling through the nose for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, exhaling out the mouth for 4 seconds and waiting for 4 seconds…like following the sides of a box!
  • Stay hydrated
  • Keep up your nutrients – try a green smoothie with celery, cucumber, spinach and more. It’s delicious, plus it’s alkalising and anti-inflammatory
  • Practice mindful eating – being present with your food choices and taking note of your hunger levels before and while eating
  • Improve your gut health and digestion – reduce processed foods, eat more fibre, boost your stomach acid by incorporating more fermented foods or vinegar in your diet
  • Self care – take time to unwind and centre yourself
  • And as we discussed, prioritise your sleep

If you’d like to learn more about optimising your sleep and recovery for better health, here are some helpful resources:

*The information contained in this article is based on Helen Cross’s research and experience as a functional nutrition and lifestyle practitioner. This information is not intended to replace any medical advice or treatment you are receiving from your health care provider. As always, if you have any specific health concerns, please seek advice from your health care provider.