“O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee. That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”
― William Shakespeare Henry IV Part 2
If you are up all night tossing and turning, or counting the cracks on your ceiling, you’re not alone! It is estimated that between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. Research has also shown that Americans spent $41 billion on sleep aids and remedies in 2015 – a number that is expected to top $50 billion in two more years.
A good night’s sleep is vital for both healing and sustained wellness.
While we are snug in our beds, it may feel like we are entering into a short term hibernation, but sleep is a time when the body is actually quite busy. Getting a good night’s sleep is the foundation of good health. During the night, we restock our supply of hormones, process significant toxins, work on digestion, repair damaged tissue, generate vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminate the effects of stress, and even process heavy emotions. Unfortunately, we have an epidemic of sleep disorders – from trouble falling asleep to often-interrupted sleep, to actual insomnia.
Additionally, sleeping soundly will often increases our motivation to make further lifestyle changes. We make better, healthier choices after a good night sleep. Lack of sleep can cause that vicious carb-craving cycle, higher blood pressure, low or poor work performance, a lower sex drive, decreased reaction time and attention span, and increased stress. With extended sleeplessness, (we’re talking days) a sufferer will experience slurred speech, delusions, and even hallucinations – oh my!
Hopefully, we don’t actually get to that point.
When we do fall asleep, we can thank our pineal gland, a small ant-sized lobe near the middle of our skull.
Following our circadian rhythm, the pineal gland secretes a neurotransmitter and hormone called melatonin. Melatonin suppresses the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm the brain (in part by countering the stress hormone cortisol from our adrenal gland). And as we become drowsier, the brain slowly begins to turn off our voluntary skeletal muscle functions, so we don’t move around too much and try to act out our dreams. This is why it’s so hard to move your limbs or shout out in response to a nightmare (or why our legs don’t move when we chase rabbits in our dreams!)
For ideal sleep, melatonin should be rising steadily and cortisol should be rock-bottom low at bedtime. But there’s a catch: the pineal gland secretes melatonin largely in response to darkness. And our evening cortisol levels are lowest in environments with low noise. With our addictions to TV, video games, and email in the evening, however, our evening activity choices can get in the way of these natural pro-sleep chemical shifts. These devices mostly display full-spectrum light which can confuse the brain about whether it’s night-time or not. We also, unfortunately, tend to watch shows and surround ourselves in media that can be loud and/or stressful (the news, a crime shows, social media comments, or ever-longer to-do lists). Even digesting a heavy meal eaten later in the evening can prevent or interrupt sleep. (Think acid reflux or stomach churning all night long).
To reboot a healthy sleep hygiene, there are simple changes we can make that will be quite powerful.
1. Have a relaxing ritual at night. Choose more calming, quieter evening activities that resonate with you and help you to relax, both mentally and physically (reading a book, taking a bath, going for a light stroll outdoors, cuddling with a pet). Right now, I have baby chicks in the house and they all need special cuddle time. For me, it is an enjoyable and relaxing experience to hold a precious baby bird until she falls asleep in my hand.
2. This one will be a challenge: Turn off all full-spectrum light for a full one to two hours before bedtime. This means no email, TV, or smart phone apps. This is an especially good idea for the little ones and should be encouraged in the already sleep-deprived teens as well. Various e readers have night time settings, which can be helpful.
3. Avoid controversy like the plague! Right before bed is never a good time to start working on a budget, paying bills, or filling out an application for a home equity line of credit. Avoid stressful conversations with exes, insurance agents, or annoying telemarketers in the full hour prior to bedtime. Some people like to journal to help wind down for the day – it can help bring focus and can even be a act of meditation for some people.
4. Truly a no-brainer here, but avoid caffeinated food or drinks after 2pm (teas, coffee, soda, chocolate) If you are highly sensitive to caffeine knock off by noon. If you truly need an afternoon pick-me-up, eat kale. (I’m kidding. But still eat kale!) A brisk walk will do wonders to get you out of a slump.
5. Make it quiet but not too quiet. If noise is an issue in your bedroom (too little OR too much), soft foam ear plugs and/or the white noise of a fan can help level things out. If you sleep with a snorer, tooth grinder, or live under a bowling alley, a little white noise will help buffer out some of the other noises.
6. Keep the window open when possible. Okay, during the polar vortex I wasn’t too keen in letting a 40 below breeze drift into my bedroom, but most other days, and yes, even in winter, I like to keep the window open a crack to get a little fresh air. If it’s gorgeous out, I’ll keep it wide open so the cat can sit on the windowsill. Falling asleep while listening to crickets, spring frogs, or the distant rumble of a thunder storm rivals any sound machine. There is also the added benefit of waking up to birdsong in the morning.
7.Have a relaxing ritual at night. Herbal tea (e.g. lavender, chamomile, valerian, passionflower) can help one to relax and set the tone for sleep. A bubble bath or calming essential oil can be wonderful. I love to drink tea and will often settle in with a soothing blend.
8. Quiet the digestion and ease stomach issues. For those who live with acid reflux or any kind of intestinal discomfort, it is usually a good idea to have a lighter dinner and to avoid any food at all for a full three hours before bed. Right before bed is not a good time for that pastrami on rye and a pint of ice cream.
Sleep is something we may need to work at and set as a priority – same as the other important events in our day.
How do you like to wind down at the end of the day?