Sleep Hygiene Basics
We all know it: high-quality sleep is vital for both healing and sustained wellness. While the body appears from the outside to be still and inactive, sleep is a time when the body is quite busy. During the night, we synthesize hormones, process toxins for elimination, recycle and repair damaged tissue, do maintenance of out immune system. During deep sleep, we also manage the effects of stress by processing emotions via dreams. Sleeping soundly increases our motivation to make further lifestyle changes. When well-rested, it is always easier to be more focused and creative or eat more healthily.
We fall asleep due to the gifts of the pineal gland, a small ant-sized lobe near the middle of our skull in the interbrain. Following our circadian rhythm, the pineal gland secretes a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin suppresses the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm the brain (in part by countering the stress hormone cortisol from our adrenal gland). As we become drowsier, the brain slowly begins to turn off our voluntary skeletal muscle functions, so we don’t move around too much and try to act out our dreams or disrupt the body’s internal revitalization work. (Note this is also why it’s so hard to move your limbs or shout out in response to a nightmare.) For ideal sleep, melatonin should be rising steadily, and cortisol should be rock-bottom low at bedtime. But there’s a catch: the pineal gland secretes melatonin mainly in response to darkness. And our evening cortisol levels are lowest in environments with low noise. With our addictions to TV, video games, and browsing through work email in the evening, however, our evening activity choices can get in the way of these natural pre-sleep chemical shifts. These devices mostly display full-spectrum light, which can confuse the brain about whether it’s night-time or day-time. Eating a heavy meal eaten later in the evening can also prevent or interrupt sleep.
Unfortunately, we have an epidemic of sleep disorders – from trouble falling asleep to often-interrupted sleep to actual insomnia. There are, however, several straightforward remedies which can help.
- Choose more calming, quieter evening activities that resonate with you and help you to relax, both mentally and physically (e.g., reading a book, taking a bath, going for a light stroll outdoors, communicating with family, playing with a pet, folding laundry).
- Turn off all full-spectrum light for a full 1-2 hours before bedtime. This means no email, TV, or smartphone use.
- Avoid amping up your brain. Avoid activities such as budgeting, balancing your checkbook, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations in the full hour before bedtime.
- After 2 pm, no drinks like coffee, tea, soda, etc. Yes, it can affect some people’s night sleep.
- Monitor room temperature. Rooms that are too hot or too cold tend to wake us up. Extremes temperatures increase our stress hormones, which promote wakefulness.
- Have a relaxing ritual at night. Herbal tea’s like lavender, chamomile, valerian, or passionflower, help one to relax and set the tone for sleep. A hot bath with Epsom salts may work well. Or perhaps 10 minutes of gratitude journaling or reading an inspirational or spiritual book is an excellent way to end the day.
- Give rest to your digestion system. This is particularly important.
- For people with insomnia or light, restless sleep, I recommend no food at all for a full three hours before bed.
- Avoid strenuous exercises and physical training at least 2 hours before sleep time. The hypothalamus regulates body temperature between 96.8 and 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (36 – 38 degrees Celsius) over each 24-hour cycle. During the normal human circadian rhythm, sleep occurs when the core temperature is dropping. A cooler core body temperature is associated with sleep. Conversely, warmer core temperature is energizing.
- Nutraceuticals comprising of herbal extracts and amino acids for balancing of the stimulatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters are often a safe support for enjoying a deep restorative sleep.