This article originally appeared September 30, 2011, in issue 1937.
Sleep: we all crave it. And yet It’s something that many of us have difficulty getting, or at least getting well. This article explores the mystery of sleep, including why It’s so important for health, how to recognize the warning signs of insomnia, and how to maximize our sleep experience.
Good sleep is synonymous with good health. Why? It’s the body’s prime time for rejuvenation and repair. Throughout the day, the body undergoes wear and tear on a cellular level; sleep helps combat this because when we’re at rest, our bodies can finally divert their focus and deal with issues inside. Healthy sleep habits also help maintain good cardiovascular health, reducing inflammatory markers that can predispose us to stroke and early cardiac events. Additionally, when we’re stressed, sleep can actually reduce those stress levels by reducing cortisol.
According to Harvard Medical School’s Sleep Division, lack of sleep causes a variety of negative symptoms: irritability, mood swings, and a feeling of being ?on edge,? for example. Additionally, insufficient sleep can hamper judgment and learning ability, causing a ?foggy? brain sensation and reduced mental alertness (hence the road safety sign, ?Fatigue Kills?).
Do you have insomnia?
Most of us have trouble nodding off at least some of the time, but how good is your sleep generally? The checklist below is a basic guideline to determining whether you are getting good quality sleep.
? Do I need sleeping medications to help me fall or stay asleep?
? Do I fall asleep easily, or do I lie awake, waiting for sleep to come?
? Do I sleep the night through, or do I wake multiple times?
? Do I have nightmares or dream-disturbed sleep?
? When I wake, do I feel rested?
? During the day, do I have episodes of sleepiness or fall asleep easily (in the car, at my desk)?
? Do I feel more irritable, experience more moodiness, or get more emotional than my norm?
If you’ve resonated with some of the questions above, You’re not alone. Millions of North Americans report sleep problems, and over 69 per cent of North American children don’t get enough sleep.
Why does it occur?
Insomnia can occur for a host of reasons. Stress is a major sleep killer; even if you nod off, your mind tosses and turns, resulting in disturbed sensations during would-be rest time. (The paradox is that if you can actually get to sleep while under stress, sleep can lower your stress hormone levels).
Often sleep quality can decrease at mid-life, especially for post-menopausal women. Jet lag and shift work also affect healthy sleep patterns.
What can I do?
No need to call the Sandman; there are some things you can do on your own to help improve your sleep quality. It’s important to check out your ?sleep hygiene,? or your pre-sleep habits and your going-to-sleep habits. A healthy sleep hygiene goes a long way toward encouraging a deeper, more restful (and therefore more productive) sleep. The following can maximize your sleep experience:
? Ensure that your bedtime routine is relaxing. don’t fall asleep watching TV, and never exercise before bed. Focus on something quiet, like reading, meditation, or listening to calming music.
? Drink warm, non-caffeinated herbal tea; it can help put your brain and body into rest mode after a long day. But beware of drinking too many liquids before bed, or you may be interrupted during the night.
? Take a warm bath to help you relax?it can also help prevent nighttime muscle spasms or cramps.
? When You’re ready to fall asleep, turn out all the lights and close the drapes to create a darkened environment. Light while You’re sleeping, even if It’s only from a small nightlight, can interfere with your brain’s production of melatonin (a neurohormone that keeps you asleep).
? As you lie in bed, focus on mentally and physically relaxing every muscle and every nerve in your body. don’t give up too soon; it takes two minutes of conscious body relaxation to bring the brain into an alpha-wave, or relaxed, state.
? If you do wake at night, don’t get up and start doing chores or watching TV, even if you can’t drop off right away. This will further disrupt your melatonin levels, creating a vicious circle.
Of course if your sleep doesn’t improve with the above suggestions, you should talk with your natural health care provider about more detailed sleep treatment (which may include the use of botanical medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy, or other lifestyle changes).
Katie D?Souza is an AU graduate and a licensed naturopathic doctor. She currently practices in Ontario.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for personal interest only; it is not intended for diagnosis or treatment of any condition. Readers are always encouraged to seek the professional advice of a licensed physician or qualified health care practitioner for personal health or medical conditions.