If you’ve spent endless nights memorizing the details of each dark silhouette in your room, or occasionally drifted off instantly, only to abruptly awaken between 2-5 am wired and unable to turn your mind off, or maybe it doesn’t matter when or how long you sleep because the quality is just so poor that you wake each morning feeling incredibly un-refreshed and groggy? If this rings a bell, then this article is for you!
Sleep – Why it Matters
Most of us need roughly 7-8 hours of sleep nightly for optimal daytime function, however, roughly 50% of Canadians struggle with sleep issues. This is nearly half of us walking around exhausted, deflated and zombie-like.
As a busy working mom, I am no stranger to sleep issues. I gave birth to my daughter in the final years of medical school. This (although it was incredibly wonderful) it exacerbated a life of chronic caffeine stimulation, endless to-do lists, long hours treating patients, and every remaining hour cuddling a newborn. Many times, when given the opportunity to have some shut-eye, I wouldn’t allow myself to fall into a deep slumber. It’s as if my body was so accustomed to the “on” button, that it removed the “off” for ease purposes. I felt as if I was functioning “fine” but really, perhaps, I just kept re-adjusting my perspective and accepting my “new normal”. I was pushing myself harder and harder in order to cope. At the end of the day, I felt, what other choice do I have?
Well the choice I had was to start listening to my own advice and smarten up. It took me a few months of concerted effort to regain better sleep patterns, but it happened, and it can work for you!
When Sleep is “Off”, Everything is “Off”
A lack of sleep or poor quality sleep is no joke. Not only do we suffer while lying awake at night, we really suffer the next day, as we try to function and pretend we’re normal human beings. Sleep deprivation affects all of our body systems and as a result causes imbalances that affect the following: mood, hormones, concentration, memory, digestion, and it can even dampen your weight loss efforts. And if we’re going to be serious… it doesn’t just affect us as individuals. I have yet to see a pleasant, well-rounded, calm and sweet woman who giggles when speaking of her months of sleep deprivation. Come on, it’s as if the pre-requisite for becoming a bitch is shortening your tolerance and skipping sleep.
Then comes the dreaded double whammy: lying awake, while worrying about lying awake. It perpetuates this viscous cycle, as if the fuel source for keeping you awake is simply just thinking about being awake.
I know this article is dreadful so far, but I want to emphasize the importance of what I am discussing here. The really troublesome news is that poor sleep increases your risk for certain health conditions including: diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and heart attack!
BUT ..there is good news. I would never just put a dark cloud over your troubles and leave you hanging, would I? Of course not! You have options and there are solutions out there.
Rekindle your Relationship with Sleep
If you want sleep back in your bed, invite it. Woo it back in. Reprioritize your sleep to be on the top of your list, and dote on your sleep habits every day. This doesn’t just mean bedtime either.
Good sleep requires a lifestyle adjustment, and the formation of healthy habits. It may take a month or so before you notice a consistent shift, but trust me, it will be well worth it once you wake up one morning in the same position on a drool filled pillow. Better sleep allows us to feel alive, happier and more relaxed each and every day. Anything that produces those results is worth putting time into! The following steps, practiced daily, will assist you in sleeping like a dream.
Essential Steps for a Great Night Sleep
Turn your lights down low:
Anyone else hear Bob Marley singing that in their head? Anyway, I digress.
Now, we all know those women who can sleep through children crawling around, new construction and midnight fire alarms. That is truly wonderful for them. However, if you’re still reading this, unfortunately that’s just not you. The rest of us typically need a quieter ambiance, which can be difficult in the beginning because if you struggle with insomnia, the sheer act of walking into your bedroom at night can conjure up some unsettled, anxious emotions. So, here are some tips to create a serene surrounding:
Make your bedroom your sanctuary – your place for peace and respite, this includes cleaning it up!
Use your bed for sleep (and sex) only.
Keep your bedroom temperature on the chillier side of normal. 16-17C works well for most.
Listen up on this one! Make your bedroom an electronic free zone: no TV, no computers, no phones in there – ever. If your desk is in your room, use a divider or shut off all electronics well before bedtime.
Reduce ambient noise and light; an eye pillow or ear plugs can really make the difference for you in the beginning.
This may be an obvious one, but make sure your mattress; pillows and bedding are comfortable and suitable to your taste. If they are not, it may be time to think about investing.
If you’re having trouble falling to sleep, do not toss and turn. This will reinforce resentment for your bedroom and everything associated. Perhaps grab a good book, cup of tea and read on your sofa with subtle lighting until you’re sleepy enough to try again.
A good night sleep starts long before you hit the pillow. In fact, your daytime and evening routines can have a major impact in the quality of your sleep. Start planning for bedtime hours in advance:
Avoid caffeinated beverages after lunch (if you’re super sensitive, this includes green tea – and chocolate, too).
Avoid alcohol (especially near bedtime).
Avoid smoking or nicotine, especially in the evening.
Resist daytime naps, if you can.
Exercises daily (20 minutes will do), however, ensure that it is not within 4 hours of bedtime.
Avoid eating within 3 hours of going to bed and avoid triggering food that cause acid reflux (mint, chocolate, citrus, alcohol etc), if that is an issue for you.
Many of us live in a “tired but wired” state. We are dragging ourselves around all day, yet can’t seem to shut off at night. Being continuously “plugged in” can create this phenomenon. When our phones and computers become a natural extension of our arms, there is an issue. Not only do the electromagnetic waves interfere with hormones responsible for controlling sleep, but these habits also increase our cortical levels, which essentially prevent us from ever entirely powering down.
This cycle needs to be broken. We need to re-train our bodies and allow them to relax. We need to begin sending the signals that it is okay to disarm and unwind. Meditation, guided meditation and deep breathing exercises are excellent at breaking this pattern of behaviors. There are many options out there, finding the right fit for you will arm you with an invaluable tool for the rest of your life! If your mind is too active to try mediation right out of the gate, begin with some guided yoga sequences, for instance, Doyogawithme.com and YogaGlo are great websites that offer a selection of free online classes that can help you unwind.
Find your Rhythm
Humans have naturally evolved to have a day and night cycle – called the circadian rhythm. This rhythm controls many of the hormones responsible for sleep, including melatonin, which controls our sleep-wake cycle. Getting up routinely at the same time, exposure to sunlight as soon as possible and staying active in the morning (even if it is in momentary spurts) can assist in optimizing this rhythm. If you suffer from severe insomnia, I would suggest 30-40 minutes of a light box every morning and a completely dark environment nightly for sleep. Results usually appear within 2-3 weeks of working on this pattern.
Get all your Worrying out BEFORE Bed:
If your stress levels or anxiety flares up nightly, I suggest having a sleep journal that you use nightly to write out your worries, to-do lists and concerns, clearing them from your head before you lie down. If this act conjures up some unsettled feelings then once you are done, pick up a soothing or inspirational book until this experience passes.
Soak it all in:
A hot aromatherapy bath can sometimes be just enough to tip the scales in favor of a great night’s sleep. My recipe is typically 1-2 cups of Epsom salts and
5-7 drops of pure lavender essential oil added to your bath. The magnesium in the Epsom salts help relax your body, the warmth of the bath acts to pull blood from your core and to your extremities (helpful for sleep promotion) and the lavender is excellent for providing a sense of relaxation and calming the mind. This can be done nightly just prior to going to bed. I dare you to feel wired after this ritual!
Herbal or Supplement Support:
Herbs are my first “go to” support for sleep. They are gentle and non-addictive alternatives to sleep medications, which can typically be very strong and dependency forming. I use them, along with several nutritional supplements to help my patients sleep and they LOVE the results.
As a rule (and you’ve heard this from me before) I do NOT condone self-prescribing or self-diagnosing. I always recommend sitting down with your naturopath and working out an individualized plan tailored for you and your life.
Peter Rabbit’s mama knew just what to give Peter to help him sleep! Chamomile tea can be sipped throughout the evening in the hours before sleep – up to 2 cups of a strong brewed tea (use 2 teabags per cup or 2 TBS of loose herb) and steep for 10 minutes with a lid on the cup. Just remember to pee before bed or you’ll be waking up from a sound sleep!
This herb has been used traditionally to promote sleep, and some evidence shows that it can actually improve sleep quality – thus it can help you stay asleep and feel more rested when you wake.
An herb with roots in Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is specific for the “tired and wired,” and as such not only helps sleep in the short run, but helps relieve “adrenal fatigue” and burnout when taken for at least 3-6 months or longer. It improves cognitive function, immunity, and stress resilience as well.
While not effective for everyone, individuals with sleep latency syndrome and those with melatonin deficiency may get moderate improvement from taking 1-3 mg in the hour before bed. Menopausal hot flashers may also get some relief and sleep from this remedy.
5-Hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), a product of the amino acid tryptophan, is converted into serotonin in the brain. Serotonin helps to initiate calm and sleep and reduces nighttime awakenings.
Magnesium is excellent for promoting sleep and relaxation. It can also help if restless leg syndrome or muscle cramps interfere with your sleep, and can be helpful during pregnancy (until the 38th week).
When to See Your Doctor
I strongly suggest sitting down with your naturopath and discussing your sleep issues if they are persistent and troublesome. There could be underlying hormonal imbalances, cortisol issues or poor sleep hygiene, all which can be addressed in a visit. If you sleep trouble persists beyond 3 months and after a visit to a NDs office, I typically suggest that the patient get a thorough sleep assessment performed to determine if a sleep disorder, sleep apnea or other medical issues are interfering with one’s slumber.
We just need you to make one step towards better health, then make another. Because essentially, at the end of the day, the choices we make today, affect every tomorrow.