Simone Gabbay, RNCP
Nothing is more effective than a good night's sleep to restore body and soul. The trouble for many is that sound, uninterrupted sleep remains an elusive dream.
Nothing is more effective than a good night’s sleep to restore body and soul. The trouble for many is that sound, uninterrupted sleep remains an elusive dream. At least one third of the population suffers from some type of sleep disorder. Even those who don’t are often short-changed when it comes to sleep: with tightly scheduled activities crowding into natural downtime, many individuals sacrifice sleep in order to maximize productivity.
Yet nothing could be more counter-productive. A flood of new research now confirms that sleep is vital to our physical, mental and emotional health. Sleep is necessary for proper immune function and to help regulate the endocrine system. Sleep-associated processes stimulate the release of important hormones and influence lymphocyte activity. Sleep is a fundamental form of self-regulation for the body.
The quality of our sleep affects our health, but the state of our health also determines how well we sleep. Illness can cause insomnia and sleep deprivation can cause illness.
Not surprisingly, conditions involving severe discomfort, such as osteoarthritis, are frequently associated with insomnia. Indigestion and other digestive problems, notably peptic ulcers, are known to cause insomnia. Hormonal imbalances also account for many hours of lost sleep and may be the main reason women are 50 percent more likely to suffer from insomnia than men. A 1998 study by the US National Sleep Foundation confirmed that the hormonal changes associated with menstruation, pregnancy and menopause produce sleep disruptions in the majority of women.
Since digestive system disturbances, particularly liver congestion, have a strong influence on the synthesis and break down of hormones, it is important to improve digestive function when addressing sleep disorders. Eating the last meal of the day no later than three hours before going to bed helps to prevent digestive discomforts during the night. Avoid fried, greasy foods and combinations of large amounts of protein and starch at the same meal. These are difficult to digest and are likely to cause bloating and gas. It also helps to reduce the consumption of caffeinated beverages–coffee, black tea, and colas; avoid these completely in the late afternoon and evening.
A short juice fast or herbal cleansing program can help eliminate toxins. Toxins interfere with smooth nervous system function, which is important for sound sleep. Frequent, profuse night sweats are a common indicator of toxicity. If you aren’t sure which is the best detoxification method for you, consult a naturopath, herbalist, nutritionist or other qualified health professional.
Also high on the list of sleep-promoting activities is physical exercise. Research has shown that those who exercise several times a week fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer than non-exercisers. A half-hour evening walk in the outdoors is ideal, especially for those who don’t get other types of exercise. Remember to breathe deeply while walking; this oxygenates the blood and promotes physical and mental relaxation.
Natural Sleep Aids
A number of herbal remedies are highly effective in promoting sleep naturally. These are safer than pharmaceutical sleeping pills, which not only create a drug dependency, but also have the counter-productive effect of depressing an important sleep phase known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, thus producing symptoms of REM deprivation, such as confusion and irritability. Herbal relaxants are not habit-forming and have no negative effects on daytime behavior.
Among the most popular herbs for relieving insomnia are valerian root, chamomile and kava kava. Others include lindenflower, catnip and skullcap. Capsules, tinctures or teas of these herbs can be taken alone or in combination. A number of effective herbal tea preparations specifically aimed at promoting better sleep are available in natural food stores.
Another favorite herbal sleep aid is lavender, whose essential oil has a relaxing effect on the nervous system through its action, via the olfactory bulb, on the brain’s limbic system and the hypothalamus gland. A 1995 study involving elderly nursing home residents, conducted by the University of Leicester, UK, concluded that the aroma of lavender worked as well as sleeping pills in helping insomniacs to fall asleep and stay asleep. Test subjects who had been taking pharmaceuticals prior to the study were able to discontinue these when they began using the lavender therapy. Lavender oil placed in an aromatic diffuser or oil burner in the bedroom allows the fragrant molecules to be released into the air. Alternatively, a few drops of the oil can be sprinkled on a pillow or handkerchief placed close to the face.
An old folk remedy for insomnia, a glass of hot milk sweetened with unpasteurized honey and taken at bedtime, can be helpful for those who have no difficulty digesting lactose. The easily digested simple sugars in honey promote the conversion of the amino acid tryptophan (found in milk) to the important sleep chemical serotonin.
A bedtime snack of calcium-rich foods, such as almonds, dates, figs or sesame seeds, also helps to produce a relaxed state in the body. A well-balanced calcium/magnesium supplement is equally effective.
Don’t Confuse Your Brain
Creating a sleep-friendly environment is also important. The room should be well ventilated and cool, but not cold. Low-frequency fields generated by electrical appliances can interfere with sleep and it is best to unplug such devices if they are located close to the bed. Darkness promotes the production of the important sleep chemical melatonin; therefore, light should be kept out of the bedroom as much as possible. During the day, however, it is important to maximize exposure to natural light. The use of fluorescent indoor lights and insufficient sunlight during waking hours suppress melatonin secretion, resulting in varying degrees of sleep disruption.
Windowless offices with fluorescent lighting fixtures are particularly damaging, but even ordinary household lighting can interfere with the brain’s internal clock. Research has shown that when people are exposed to indoor lighting after sunset, the normal time of their peak drive for sleep is shifted from around midnight to about 4 or 5 am, with the result that they are required to get up much closer to the time when their bodies are making peak demands for sleep. The old folk wisdom, "early to bed and early to rise," is now validated by science!