Do you suffer from Insomnia? Journalist Louise Atkinson visited Vale de Moses, a sleep retreat in Portugal that focuses on getting you that good night sleep you deserve. Here she learnt 8 sleep secrets guaranteed to help you drift off into peaceful slumber
Tucked away in the hilly forests of rural Portugal is a cluster of farm buildings a British-born couple have transformed into a wild and slightly wacky holiday destination which has just been rated by Forbes magazine as one of the top five yoga retreats in the world.
When I booked my week at Vale de Moses I wasn’t just chasing the idea of Portuguese sunshine, healthy vegetarian food and a yoga session twice a day.
I wanted to see if being immersed in nature, with plenty of time to relax, and a bit of guidance from British sleep specialist, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan (who makes a guest appearance there each year) I could finally sort out my increasingly erratic sleep habits.
Well, after a week at Vale de Moses I can honestly say I’ve never felt so utterly chilled – and I’ve been sleeping like a baby ever since.
Here I reveal the key moves that have transformed me from hyped-up and buzzing to a ‘Martini sleeper’ who, like the old 1970’s ad, can now drop off into dream land ‘any time, anyplace, anywhere’.
Sleep Secret #1 Switch off
Forget sleeping pills and potions, sleep-trackers and gadgets because Dr Nerina believes deeply entrenched sleep problems can’t be fixed with quick fix sticking plaster solutions.
She says the key to good sleep at night lies in making sure everything about your day is sleep-friendly. And that means regular pockets of ‘nothingness’ where you switch off your fizzing brain and give it a chance to download.
OK, I accept it’s easier to zone out on holiday especially when there’s a plethora of delightfully secluded resting areas to chose from (at Vale de Moses there are hammocks slung between pine trees, sunbeds by icy-cool river pools and benches by the side of bubbling streams).
But it’s good to just stop what you’re doing and stare at the wall for a few minutes, if you don’t want to end up skidding into bed on two wheels at the end of the day, unable to get tomorrow’s ‘to do’ list out of your brain.
Try: Take regular ‘brain stops’ in your day
Sleep Secret #2 Tire your body out
There are plenty of studies to show that exercise helps improve sleep: it increases the time you spend in deep sleep (the bit which helps you control stress and anxiety), extends the time you are able to sleep, and reduces the chance of sleep disturbances like sleep apnea and snoring.
On retreat, the twice a day yoga sessions did a good job of tiring me out but at Vale de Moses the forested hills and valleys are riddled with trails so exercise is almost impossible to avoid.
Trekking from your room to the yoga shala, back down the hill to the plunge pool, then up again for meals means you get pretty close to a hilly 10,000 steps a day without even trying.
Now I know if I’ve been chained to my desk all day without the chance to sweat a bit, my sleep is going to suffer, so I’ll schedule a class or at the very least a brisk walk just to make sure I keep on a good snooze track.
Try: Aim to go to bed physically tired each day
Sleep Secret #3 Spend time in nature
We all need a blast of natural light in the morning to trigger our body’s production of the hormone melatonin which controls our body clock and ensures a good night’s sleep, so getting outside is important.
Besides, being close to nature has been shown to give significant and wide-ranging health benefits too (a 2018 study by the University of East Anglia found exposure to green spaces could reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stress and high blood pressure).
If you really want to maximise the benefits of nature immersion you could go one step further and do it in silence.
On the retreat there’s a quirky rule: each day starts in silence. Although smiles and nods are positively encouraged, there’s no ‘good morning!’ ‘how are you doing?’ or even ‘did you sleep well?’ when everyone gathers for a 45-minute guided walk through the forest.
It feels odd at first, but try it – you really do feel in tune with your surroundings, and it’s a very calm way to start the day.
Try: Get walking out in the fresh air
Sleep Secret #4 Fall back in love with your bed
Insomniacs learn to hate bed time, bedrooms and beds because after a lifetime of sleeplessness they associate that space with discomfort and stress. But in the quest for a good night’s sleep it is important to ensure that your bed is a haven of rest and relaxation.
At Vale de Moses you get to choose between a bed in a ‘soulpad belle tent’ (kitted out glamping-style with proper beds, fluffy pillows and duvets, bedside lamps, electric radiator and carpets), a bed in one of two open-plan stone cottages built into the hillside, or a slightly more salubrious room in the main house.
It is all extremely clean and comfortable (fluffy towels and bath robes, your bed made and pillows plumped every day) and VERY close to nature.
Investing a little money and time in making bed your favourite place will reduce your stress levels and so aid sleep.
Try: Invest in the best pillows, duvets and soft sheets
Sleep Secret #5 Pack your plate with nutrients
One of Dr Nerina’s ‘non negotiable’ bits of advice for stressy insomniacs is to make sure you have something to eat within 30 minutes of getting up in the morning even if you’re not hungry.
A small snack, she says, is just what you need to calm an over-active nervous system and stop the stress hormones of hunger from pumping your adrenaline levels further.
For the rest of the day it’s good to think about fueling your body and brain optimally to ensure you’re not kept awake at night by hunger, cravings and deficiencies or over stimulated by chemical flavourings and additives.
It’s great to clear your system of toxins with a week of vegan or vegetarian meals and I’ve certainly upped my vegetable intake and meat-free days since I’ve been back.
An early supper also allows your body two to three hours to properly digest your evening meal before you go to bed and makes it easier for you to properly wind down and sleep.
Try: Aim for ten portions of fruit and veg per day (and an early evening meal)
Sleep Secret #6 Cut back on caffeine
My biggest fear about any retreat is that I might be denied caffeine in the name of detox and have to endure the thumping headache and flu-like symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.
A hopeless coffee or tea habit is never going to be conducive with happy sleeping habits (and many insomniacs rely heavily on caffeine to keep them functioning through the day) but Dr Nerina advises caution rather than abstinence, and mercifully there was coffee on offer at breakfast on this retreat for those who want it.
But only in the mornings. The half life of caffeine (the time it takes for your body to eliminate HALF of the stimulant in your beverage) is around five or six hours, so any coffee or tea in the afternoon could be ruining your sleep.
Try: Have just one coffee a day (before noon)
Sleep Secret #7 Screen ban
We’ve all become hopelessly attached to our phones – I’m guilty as charged! But we learned that this perpetual tether with technology creates a low-bubbling level of stress which can build during the day and make it impossible to wind down for sleep in the evening.
Dr Nerina urged us to step back from phones, tablets, laptops and computers and to insist on o a few minutes of no-tech ‘downtime’ every day so our brains can process all the information it is constantly receiving.
I’ll admit it was easy enough in the Portuguese mountains where WiFi is patchy and reception erratic, but it’s been tougher back home in the real world. I’m a work in progress on this one, but I am sleeping better without my phone by my bed.
Try: Get an alarm clock and charge your phone OUTSIDE the bedroom
Sleep Secret #8 Early to bed
Netflix box sets have a lot to answer for – when you’ve been left on a thrilling cliff hanger and the next episode is just seconds away….it’s easy to see how sleep slips down the list of priorities.
So Dr Nerina recommends setting an early TV-free bedtime three or four nights a week. Like many retreats, Vale de Moses doesn’t major on nightlife.
There’s no alcohol available until the last night (booze is SO bad for your sleep) and there’s a gently nudged ‘lights out’ at 9pm rule.
Try it! When you’ve got nothing else to do but chat or read (or have sex if you’re so inclined!), snuggling up in a soft comfy bed can seem like the best idea in the world – and a good night’s sleep will surely follow.
Try: Turn the lights out at 9pm, two to three times a week
Interested in attending Vale de Moses?
A six-night yoga retreat at Vale de Moses costs from 900€ per person.
- 90-minute massage,
- all yoga sessions,
- three vegetarian meals daily,
- guided silent morning forest walks,
- a trip to the Rio Zêzere for mud bath and swim.
Price excludes flights but Vale de Moses can be reached easily from both Lisbon and Porto airports. For details on upcoming retreats visit valedemoses.com