Sleep: Health Essential #1

If I had to pick one thing that would improve quality of life for most people, it would be to increase both the quality and quantity of sleep they get.  A good night’s sleep means:

  • Falling asleep easily, within 15 minutes of putting your head down on the pillow;
  • staying sleeping soundly, through the night, for 8 hours (10-12 for children and teens), without waking up;
  • and waking up feeling rested, refreshed and ready to start your day.

Unfortunately, very few of us meet those criteria, and we do suffer for it.  Poor and/or inadequate sleep has now been linked to so many problems and ailments, including:

*       weight gain and obesity
*       cravings for carbohydrates and sugars
*       short term and long term problems with memory, focus and thinking
*       metabolism problems, including insulin resistance leading to diabetes
*       hormonal imbalances
*       over-production of cortisol
*       increase in inflammation
*       increase in irritability, mood swings, and general inability to cope

Not to mention that it just feels plain awful to be tired all the time.  We certainly can’t live full, happy, creative lives when we are sleep-deprived, and an enormous number of us are, for much of our lives.  Not only that, but more and more, the problem is starting earlier in life, even in childhood.  After a while, people start thinking it’s “normal” to feel that way, but if you start getting more and better quality sleep, you will quickly feel the difference.

So here are some tips for getting a better night’s sleep.

1. Sleep in the dark.
How many light sources are there in your bedroom?  TV?  Alarm clock?  Phones? Computer? Smoke alarm?  Night light?  Lights from other rooms, the street, or other buildings?  Light at night turns off melatonin production, and melatonin is the hormone that creates deep sleep.  If you turn on the light even for a minute to get up to go to the bathroom, melatonin production will cease for the night.  If you sleep in a room with many sources of light, your body may not be producing much melatonin at all.  We naturally produce less as we age, but we are designed to produce melatonin at night, when it’s naturally dark.  Remove, block, or turn off all the light sources you can or, if that’s not possible, consider using a sleep mask.  Look for one that is light and comfortable enough to use throughout the night.  I think it is much better to enhance your body’s own melatonin production than to supplement with melatonin.  However, if you do use a melatonin supplement, stick to low doses, from .3 to 1 mg.  Research shows this to be most effective.

2. Go to sleep earlier.
It’s said that sleep before midnight is more restorative than sleep after midnight.  It makes sense, as the option of expanding our days with electricity is a relatively recent change in human history.  Light and dark are meant to regulate the normal circadian rhythms and the cycles of waking and sleeping.

3. Minimize stimulants, especially later in the day.
This would include caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, sugar and refined carbs, as well as intense exercise, and electronics at night, including tv, computer, video games, etc.  Using caffeine in the morning and alcohol in the evening only further disrupts sleep patterns.  Instead, leave yourself time to wind down before you go to bed, and leave yourself enough time to sleep.  Try a bath (especially soothing with lavender and Epsom, baking soda, or sea salt), meditate, do some deep breathing or easy stretching, or read.

4. Create a bedtime ritual.

Adults can benefit from routine as much as children do.  Plan your evening to allow time to wind down before bedtime.  Remove yourself from all electronics at least an hour before.  Transition to reading, meditation or deep breathing.  Have a cup of soothing herbal tea.  And take a hot bath.  I like to alternate baking soda one night and epsom salts the next.  Add 2 cups of plain white vinegar to each.  This will not only work as gentle detoxification, but it will help alkalinize your body, which will enable you to do more repair and rebuilding while you sleep.  And don’t forget to add a little lavender oil, just for the sheer pleasure of it!

5.  Minimize exposure to Electromagnetic Fields in your bedroom
Turn off cell phones, do not keep cordless phones by the bed, unplug tvs, computers, etc.  Consider putting your wifi on a timer: turning it off for the night while you are asleep, and having it come on again in the morning.
There are a number of products that help reduce the effects of emf.  Ask me if you are interested.
At the very least, keep all electronics at least 6 feet from your head while you are sleeping.

6. Use appropriate supplements for support
There are many natural supplements that can be supportive of a good night’s sleep.  As always, these need to be individualized, so please seek professional guidance to customize them for your own needs. Here are some of the important supplements to consider:

* Phosphatidyl Serine nourishes and supports your adrenals while you rest. PS also is very helpful in lowering cortisol levels during the day.
* GABA or Theanine, its precursor, is the main calming neurotransmitter.   GABA can be helpful if you have a lot of “chatter” in your head while trying to sleep.
* If you never remember your dreams, it may be an indication that you are deficient in B vitamins, which help the body handle stress, and are essential to proper neurotransmitter and adrenal function.
* Taurine inhibits release of adrenaline, and limits stress-induced blood sugar elevations.
* 5HTP can be important in improving REM sleep, but if you don’t need it, it can produce strange vivid dreams.  For a long time, it was thought to be incompatible with SSRI’s but more recent research has shown it to be safe.
* Magnesium Glycinate reduces cortisol at night and induces REM.
* Inositol helps maintain calm and a healthy serotonin metabolism, and improves REM sleep.

Obviously, no one should be taking all of these, and only some of them will be helpful or appropriate for any individual, depending on their unique circumstances.  Often there are other issues that impact sleep that need to be addressed, such as allergies, menopausal issues, emotional stress, etc.  So again, please seek the guidance of a professional for this or any chronic issue.

If you have not slept well, or sufficiently, for a long time, when you start to catch up it is normal to feel more tired initially, as your adrenals stop working so hard and begin to repair themselves.  This is a good thing, and it is important not to self-medicate more than absolutely necessary with caffeine or other stimulants.  Instead, allow yourself to feel tired, and to catch up on sleep, even if you need 9 or 10 hours for a while. Getting good quality and quantity sleep helps us function better in every way, physically, emotionally and mentally. It is a very worthwhile investment.

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