The alarm buzzes. A hand emerges from a heap of blankets to slap blindly at the sound–again and again. Finally, you rouse yourself to squint at the dial. With a groan, you realize you’ve slept in for the second time this week. What’s worse, you’re still tired. Sound familiar? If so, chances are you’re not getting enough shut-eye.

Sleep is a fundamental need shared by more than six billion people. We spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. It takes a healthy sleeper about 10 minutes to fall into the first of four stages of sleep. Stages one and two are lighter periods during which we’re more likely to wake up. Stages three and four are deep sleep, or delta sleep, during which our breathing and heartbeat continue to slow and our muscles relax. Rapid eye movement (REM) is another form of sleep that can randomly occur during the night. During this phase our brains are active, our heartbeat and breathing are quicker and we’re likely to have vivid dreams. Many studies suggest that good REM sleep enhances memory, although it isn’t conclusively proven yet. Nevertheless, we already have enough reasons to add “get enough sleep” to our “To Do” list.

In Support of Shut-Eye

When we sleep, our cells regenerate. The skin eliminates waste and the body circulates nutrients and hormones. There’s a reason Grandma recommended bed rest for a cold: that’s when the body’s immunity strengthens, infection-fighters form and strength is conserved to battle unwanted invaders.

A good night’s rest promotes faster recovery from injury and illness, increases brain function and reduces stress. A study last January in the Archives of Internal Medicine confirmed that too little sleep might raise the risk of heart disease. Of about 72,000 nurses, those with five or less hours a night were 39 per cent more likely to develop heart disease than eight-hour sleepers. Similarly, nurses getting six hours nightly were 18 per cent more likely to develop blocked arteries.

Lack of sleep causes irritability and inability to concentrate. Sleeplessness is also a major contributor to absenteeism, work inefficiency and car accidents. This is because many of us have disturbed sleep patterns or don’t get enough. Yet our bodies were biologically built to rest.

Our Circadian Clock

Our bodies are programmed to know when to hit the sheets. Fading daylight hits the retinas in the eyes, which triggers a message to a bundle of nerve cells in the brain called suprachiasmatic nucleus, or circadian clock. From there, more messages are sent to the rest of the body, telling it to prepare for rest. Our circadian clock is located in the hypothalamus part of the brain, which is also responsible for melatonin production. Melatonin is a hormone that lowers body temperature, causing increased drowsiness.

As a species, we’re designed to sleep less in brighter months and more in winter. “It’s a hibernation response,” explains Dr. Peter Bennett, director of the Helios Clinic in Victoria, BC. “Kind of like bears.” Longer hours of darkness cause more melatonin production, which makes us tired. So if you’re otherwise healthy but notice you sleep more at this time of the year, that’s normal. On the other hand, many people are susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression typified by irritation, fatigue, weight gain and moodiness–definitely not desirable. In this case, various light therapy treatments–getting outside an extra half-hour each day or using special light therapy boxes–have been shown in numerous studies to be effective at reducing symptoms.

How Much Sleep Should We Get?

Everybody’s needs are different. Babies sleep for up to 18 hours a day. Some people get by on six. Most people need from eight to 10. As we age, we tend to require less, although it’s a very individual thing. It also depends on sleep quality. Getting up five times a night isn’t great; sleeping all the way through is.

As a society, we generally don’t get enough “zzz”s. Sleep doesn’t rank highly up there with career, money and TV, but it should. Today’s baby boomers get less sleep than the previous generation. According to several surveys, teenagers get an average of seven hours a night, although most may need eight or nine.

Are you getting enough? Do you feel refreshed in the morning, or do you guzzle back coffee until noon? You should feel awake when you get up and more than ready to greet the day. If not, you could be among the one-third of Canadians who suffer with bouts of insomnia or other sleep problems. (Go to the cnn.com “health” section to use the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, a test used by professionals to determine whether someone is getting enough sleep.)

Nelda O., a busy executive assistant in Vancouver, is one of the lucky ones with ideal sleep patterns. She practises what experts call good “sleep hygiene” by going to bed and waking at roughly the same times–although, she admits, she treats herself a bit by sleeping in on weekends.

As a result, her body knows when to get up. An early morning meeting? No problem. She programs her body to wake up on time. “I can’t remember the last time I used an alarm clock,” she says. She’s fresh when she wakes, and she has never had any sleeping problems. “It’s restorative. I love to sleep.”

Sleep doesn’t rank highly up there with career, money and TV, but it should.

Better Sleeping Tips

  • Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. This helps train your body.
  • Establish a bedtime routine, say, taking a bath, reading a book or drinking herbal tea such as valerian or chamomile. Eventually, your body uses these triggers to get into sleep mode.
  • Use your bed only for sleeping; don’t talk on the phone, read or eat in bed.
  • Increase exercise, which promotes deep sleep and relaxes muscles, but not within a few hours of going to bed.
  • Reduce or eliminate alcohol, which can cause you to wake in the night.
  • Avoid wide-awake stimulants such as coffee, tea and colas.
  • Don’t smoke several hours before bed. Smoking is also a stimulant.
  • Avoid bright light around the house before bed; use a dimmer bulb if you read.
  • Black out your room; get rid of artificial light sources.
  • If you do wake up, avoid watching the clock, which can create anxiety

From the Herbal Cabinet

Here are but a few herbal remedies for a restful sleep. When in doubt, use as listed on product labels or as directed by a qualified health professional.

Valerian: a mild sedative for the central nervous system; works by interacting with brain receptors. Standard recommended dose: 300 to 500 milligram tablets or five millilitres of extract one hour before bed. Non-addictive; no known side-effects; don’t combine with alcohol.

Lemon balm: a mild sedative; its aromatic chemical constituents influence brain activity and help regulate thyroid functions. Dose: as capsules, 500 milligrams two to three times daily; as an extract, two to three ml two or three times daily; or as a tea when desired. Non-addictive; no known side-effects.

Hops: contain volatile oils with sedative properties. Dose: as a tincture, one to two ml, two or three times daily; as capsules, 500 to 1,000 mg two or three times daily, or as a tea. Non-addictive; no known side-effects.

Passionflower: flavonoid content induces relaxing and anti-anxiety effect. Dose: as capsules, four to seven grams two or three times daily; as a tincture, two to four ml daily, or as a tea. Non-addictive; no known side-effects.

Skullcap: scutellarian chemical constituent has sedative properties. Dose: as capsules, one to two grams three times daily; as a tincture, two to four ml two or three times daily, or as a tea. Non-addictive; no known side-effects.

Natural Sleep Aids

Daily multivitamin/mineral
Calcium: 1,000 mg at bedtime
Magnesium: 500 mg
Vitamin B-complex: 100 mg
Vitamin B3: 100 mg at bedtime
Inositol: 100 mg
L-theanine: 50 to 200 mg
5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan): 100 to 300 mg at bedtime
Herbal teas: chamomile, passionflower, hops, kava kava, St. John’s wort, valerian
Homeopathic remedies: Coffea, Nux vomica, Arnica, Cocculus, Ignatia (as directed).

Source: alive’s Encyclopedia of Natural Healing