[By Cliff Harvey ND]
Why is sleep so important?
It’s probably fair to say that most of you reading this don’t get enough sleep.In fact since 1910 the average amount of sleep we get per night has fallen from an average of 9 hours to 7.5 hours.
Most of the people I see in my naturopathic practice initially have either; trouble getting to sleep, poor sleep quality or they aren't sure which...but they still wake up feeling like crap!
But the fact that sleep rates have fallen doesn't necessarily mean we aren’t getting enough sleep, and the amounts we need vary widely from person to person.
Some people function perfectly well on as little as 3-4 hours sleep per night, but it's fair to say that most of us need a lot more than this.
The recommended amounts of sleep for various ages are:
Zero to 24 months: Thirteen to seventeen hours.
Two years +: Nine to thirteen hours.
Ten years +: Ten to eleven hours.
Sixteen to 65 years: Six to nine hours.
Over 65 years: Six to eight hours.
So most of us should really be shooting for at least six hours of sleep per night.
If we exercise or are highly active in our work, or in a high stress environment our needs may be greater and elite college athletes have shown a positive correlation between performance and increased sleep hours (to 9 hours) even when those were not continuous (in other words they used napping to get to 9 hours per day.)
What happens if we don’t get enough sleep?
At it’s most extreme sleep deprivation is fatal! Lab rats when denied sleep completely, die within two to three weeks. The brain’s ability to function deteriorates markedly as a consequence of too little sleep. Speech may slur, cognition decreases and thought patterning becomes more rigid. It’s like the brain without adequate rest goes into ‘auto-pilot’ mode and has much more trouble being creative, problem solving or troubleshooting.
Emotional disturbances result from sleep deprivation too. The transient anxiety and irritability we all feel from the odd late night can develop into more serious anxiety and depressive disorders with prolonged sleep deprivation.
Physical performance also drops in response to inadequate sleep. Endurance and strength levels begin to drop, ocular function deteriorates, fine motor control and co-ordination deteriorate and glucose metabolism is less efficient (not good if you want to get and stay lean!).
In fact a study in the British Journal of Occupational and Environmental medicine showed that driving after less than six hours sleep was more dangerous than driving over the legal breath alcohol limit!
Some of the more common reasons for lack of sleep and sleep quality are shift work, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, diet and emotional stress.
Luckily these are all things that we can begin to deal with.
Shift work is something that is a fact of life for most people, but sticking with regular sleeping hours (at least 6 and optimally 8-9) and times will help to reset the bodies internal clock (even on days off when we try to ‘catch up’ on sleep. It’s a better idea to still try to keep with the same pattern.)
10 Hacks for a Better Nights Sleep:
1. Ask yourself: "Why am I having trouble sleeping?" (AKA 'How is this serving me?')
Rather than just launching into 'treatments' for insomnia, we are much better served by looking at the reasons why we don't sleep well.
Usually we have things on our minds and often these are coming from work, relationships or other 'stressors'. The important thing to note is that it is not the stressor that stresses us out! It is our relationship to it. If we simply remove the stressor we will soon find another situation arises that provides stress for the same underlying reason. Usually our stress driven relationship with these situations results from aspects of security, self worth, loss or attachment. This stress could be enough to prevent us from sleeping, or we may also be 'served' in other ways by not sleeping. Procrastinating by watching television, playing games or hanging out on social media sites could be a sign that you are working too much or too long...or that you don't want to go to bed because it'll mean the next thing will be waking up and repeating it all over again! Figuring out the reasons why we are stressed out, or identifying our 'treasured wounds' can be a great start to sleeping more soundly again!
2. Create a ritual
Sometimes we simply continue in a 'work-day' mindset even when we are at home. We haven't really disengaged from our day and provided a signal to our body-mind complex to go into relaxation mode.
Creating a ritual helps to do this. It is a somatic and psychological signal that it is now time to stop thinking and worrying about the concerns of the day and instead to put them aside and focus on recovery and relaxation.
This is one of the reasons I often counsel my clients to do a short meditation when they first get home. It provides a 'book-end' to the day and can really help us to settle into a much more relaxed state. Other great rituals include: breathing exercises, yoga, whole brain exercises, and one of my favourites - making a cup of relaxing herbal tea. (Peppermint, chamomile, valerian, passionflower and skullcap are all relaxing herbs - check with your Naturopath or Medical Herbalist to see what is best for you.)
3. Turn the damn TV off and don't stay on the computer too late!
Our daily rhythms are heavily affected by light intensity, and particularly the blue light emissions from LCD and other screens. In a natural state as light intensity drops (as the sun goes down) we begin to change our balance of hormonal biochemistry in favour of the relaxing and sleep inducing hormones rather than the diurnal stimulatory hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine.
TV and computer screens emit a high light intensity that can practically fool the brain/body into awakening! The heavily stimulatory themes on many TV shows add to this effect.
I have seen profound results with clients sleep quality when they stop watching TV before 9pm and remove the television from the bed room!
(Note: The bedroom should be a place for sleeping, reading. relaxing and having sex only!)
I also recommend using blue-light reducing apps like F.Lux (Windows, Linux, iOs) and Twilight (Android) that reduce blue light intensity as it gets later in the day.
4. Read some fiction
Reading fiction seems to do just the trick for relaxing the mind and helping sleep. While non-fiction can cause us to plan and begin to project into the future - driving a moderate stress (fight or flight) response. Fiction seems to do the opposite. Heavily violent or disturbing themes may do the opposite though so be aware of what works best for you.
5. Have a bath
A warm bath or shower is relaxing in and of itself, but the primary sleep benefit of taking a bath or shower before bed is the drop in temperature that occurs afterwards. This drop in temperature is both associated with and causative of sleep. Of course you can get fancy and add some relaxing essential oils, put on some Barry Manilow or whatever else floats your boat. (Hey whatever you do in your bath is your own business!)
The mind's constant buzzing and whirring is the biggest obstacle to sleep, so many people attempt to try in vain to 'switch the mind off'. This is an exercise in futility..and in my opinion a devaluing of the wonderful properties of the mind! But we can simply let the thoughts be, and not either: try to repress them, or get carried away with them. Either of which provides energy to the thoughts and prevents us from sleeping. Using mindful, contemplative exercises like a breathing meditation can allow the mind to become more still, more calm and we can simply let the thoughts arise and fall without attachment. (For tips on meditation see: Time Rich Cash Optional: an unconventional guide to happiness)
7. Don't take your work home
Leave your work at the office. If you bring it home there is even more of an imperative to resume unfinished tasks, and even the mere sight of it can drive subconscious processes associated with adrenal stress response. By leaving it at the office you have both 'out of sight, out of mind' and you have created a clear delineation between work time-space and home time-space.
Try some gentle herbs and supplements
The herbs already suggested can be gentle aids to a better sleep. Other nutritional supplements (especially magnesium and melatonin) may also be useful for many people. Again I always suggest that you see a Clinical Nutritionist or Naturopath for advice on what would work best for you.
8. Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed
This is a complete no-brainer! Caffeine is obviously a stimulant, and even if you don't think that late cup o' Joe is affecting your ability to sleep or quality of sleep it is probably providing a more restless slumber. Avoid caffeine at least 6 hours before bed (and many of my clients report that at least 9 hours is best.)
Alcohol also affects quality of sleep. Although we may be able to get to sleep easily as a result of a wee tipple we are less able to enter the deepest states of sleep. I know that if I have a few wines my sleep will be less effective and more restless...but sometimes there are beautiful women needing to be regaled over a fine glass of Mendoza Malbec...but you play the game and pay the price (gladly some times!)
9. Watch out for those Meds!
Remember many medications can interfere with sleep patterns including asthma relief medications (as they are stimulatory to the CNS), pseudoephedrine containing cough and cold remedies and antidepressants. If you think your medications may be affecting your sleep talk with your health provider about ways to limit the effect they may be having (but try to avoid sleeping pills, they don’t give a good quality of sleep and may develop dependency.)
10. Don't eat too much before bed
Eating too much can simply upset digestive processes. This is very individual and context dependent but I like to avoid food for about 3 hours before bed. Having a high sugar/high GI-II carbohydrate meal can also sabotage sleep due to the effect of the blood glucose spike and crash.
EXTRA: Hack your sleep with siestas!
Siestas or naps can reduce the amount of sleep you need in a single sleep 'block' (monophasic sleep). Various polyphasic sleep (multiple sleeps in one day) strategies are employed, but two that seem to work well for people are to have a nap sometime between 1 and 3pm in the classic latin 'siesta' manner. Another great way to do this is to have a short nap at around 11am (you could then also have a nap at 1-3pm as well.) The result of these naps is often a 2-3 times impact on your single sleep block. In other words a 20min nap can equate to a reduced requirement for sleep of around 1 hour. So if you commonly needed around 7.5 hours to feel optimal, you could potentially get the same benefit from a 6.5 hour sleep with a 20min nap, thereby saving you over 1/2 an hour in your day.
While there are many opinions on varying lengths of naps for optimal results, I stick to a 20-30min nap maximum.
A great tip to avoid waking up feeling like you've been hit by a truck is to get up as as soon as you wake up! If you have been napping and you wake, then go back to sleep, it is likely that you will go into another, deeper sleep phase and when you eventually wake up you will be even more fatigued.
I use this 'siesta' strategy commonly to combat a heavy workload!
If you are having trouble sleeping and feel that stress and other life issues may be playing a role check out some of the life strategies in Choosing You! and Time Rich Cash Optional: an unconventional guide to happiness ~ http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B004JBBX66
Research and popular science articles by the members and faculty of the Holistic Performance Institute.