For some of us, a good night’s sleep is elusive. Sleep provides some pretty important benefits to our health and well being. If you’re anything like me, your days are busy and you feel tired at bedtime. Falling asleep is not usually a problem. Even though I’m a bit of a night owl, I can eventually calm my mind. Staying asleep is another story. For others, falling asleep is where the trouble begins.
It’s important to understand why we need to sleep. Otherwise, it’s easy to underestimate the strong correlation between sleep and health.
- According to research by the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the amount and quality of sleep we get plays a significant part in our memory and learning. While we sleep, cerebrospinal fluid pumps through the brain, clearing toxins that are produced during waking hours. It’s a highly restorative process and lack of sleep can decrease your brain’s ability to organize information. It can also impair judgment and our capacity to assess situations, make decisions, and interpret behaviors.
- Insomnia leads to fatigue. This influences neurons in the brain and can cause decreased focus and performance. Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep negatively impacts our mood, too.
- In addition to a healthy diet and regular exercise, sleep plays a critical role in maintaining weight and building muscle. Sleep allows the body an opportunity to utilize food and exercise for energy and growth. Growth hormones are produced while we sleep, which strengthens muscles and joints.
- As we grow older, it becomes more difficult for our bodies to produce growth hormones that are essential for maintaining muscle and eliminating fat. Getting enough sleep helps our bodies use growth hormones. When we’re sleep deprived, the stress hormone cortisol increases. Cortisol allows the body to use all of its energies to deal with a stressful or traumatic event at hand. Normally, levels rise in the morning and gradually dissipate in the evening. Not getting enough sleep upsets the delicate balance, thus decreasing our ability to function during times of extreme stress.
- Sleep affects how our bodies digest food and it also helps controls our appetite. Insufficient sleep triggers a hormone that increases appetite. This can lead to overeating. Poor sleep also lowers levels of another hormone – one that regulates hunger.
- Regardless of age, weight, and bad habits, people who don’t get enough sleep are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Without adequate rest, the body is not able to release chemicals that lower heart rate and blood pressure.
- When we don’t get ample sleep, we are at a much higher risk for getting sick. Our immune function requires sleep to fight off infections and other illnesses.
For the sleep-challenged, like me, Ayurveda (a system of preventive medicine and health care that developed in India more than 5,000 years ago) offers natural approaches to sleeping.
1. Start winding down a couple of hours before bedtime. TV, loud music, and looking at your smartphone can be too stimulating before bedtime.
2. Eat dinner three hours before bedtime so that digestion doesn’t interfere with sleep.
3. Follow a bedtime routine: Take a hot bath, meditate, or have some quiet time. This puts your body in a sleeping mindset.
4. Add a few drops of lavender oil to your bath in the evening.
5. Before bed, drink a warm glass of milk (any type) with a pinch of nutmeg. Or, try a warm glass of milk with infused with 10 strands of saffron.
6. Massage your temples with warm almond or sesame oil just before going to sleep.
7. Simple breathing exercise before bed: With each inhale, mentally repeat “I breathe in peace.” With each exhale, mentally repeat “I breathe out stress.”
8. To be in harmony with the natural rhythms of the day, get into bed about 10:00pm.
9. Avoid sleeping on your stomach, which can obstruct deep and healthy breathing. Instead, sleep on your right side to encourage left nostril breathing. This activates the body’s cooling, relaxing moon energy.
10. Sleep with your head facing facing east and your feet facing west, which encourages restful sleep. The second best direction is to sleep with your head facing south, which improves health. Do not sleep with your head facing north, which disturbs both sleep and health.
11. Remove clutter from your bedroom. Physical clutter causes mental clutter, and a clean, peaceful space encourages the same for the mind.
12. Establish a regular sleep cycle. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.
13. Some people are very sensitive to caffeine, and should avoid coffee, caffeinated tea and ginseng after morning time or all together.
14. Avoid exercising too late at night, which can be invigorating rather than relaxing. If you do practice yoga in the evenings, use calming sequences and omit stimulating ones.
15. Unless you’re making up for lost sleep, resist napping. Sleep is meant for nighttime. There are a few exceptions: naps are ok for the elderly, pregnant, and ill; and power naps are fine in the hot summer months.
Other suggestions: paint your bedroom Blue (a calming color for sleep) and keep your bedroom space for sleeping: don’t use it as a place to do business or have arguments.
Calcium and magnesium are calming and found in green leafy vegetables, almonds and figs. Be active during the day. Naps are healing when needed, but longer than 20 minutes interferes with nocturnal rest. Take a walk after dinner.
Medications can interfere with sleep, including antibiotics, steroids, decongestants, cold remedies, appetite suppressants, contraceptives and thyroid medications. Sugar doesn’t help either. Stop drinking anything several hours before bed. Waking to pee can disturb sleep.
Herbs have long been used to promote sleeping and are available as tea. Chamomile calms anxiety and stress. Hops contain a safe, reliable sedative. Passionflower relaxes the mind and slows the breakdown of serotonin and norepinephrine. Stronger herbs include valerian, which calms anxiety and relaxes muscles. Kava kava is a tropical tribal remedy for insomnia and nervousness.
I’m not suggesting that you try all of these! But there are some ideas that hit home for me – easy changes I can make in an effort to sleep more and to sleep better. If to try any of these, let me know your results! Until then, sweet dreams!