“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” - Thomas Dekker
Why is sleep so important, anyway?
Sleep is one of the foundations of health. What does that mean? It means that if you’re not sleeping well, or enough, or too much, you cannot reach optimal health. I often hear from people, “I don’t need much sleep,” or “sleep is overrated.” I would beg to differ. Most adults need around 7-9 hours of sleep, with children needing more, and people over 65 years old needing slightly less. Our health depends on the rest and repair that occurs during deep sleep. During sleep, we release growth hormone which has important effects on the endocrine system. In children it plays a role in maturation, and in adults growth hormone helps to maintain healthy bodies, by stimulating tissue repair, balancing blood sugar, supporting liver function, breaking down fat and building muscles. Sleep is also a time when we get to shut off our minds, and lay down our memories.
According to the CDC, Americans who report sleeping less than 7 hours a night are more likely to report having a chronic health condition, including arthritis, diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, asthma or depression. Sleep problems also are linked to lowered pain tolerance. Additionally, not sleeping enough is also linked to hypertension, being overweight, burnout, GERD, urinary problems, fibromyalgia, cognitive decline, poor emotional intelligence, anxiety, and chronic pain. And to complicate the matter, many of these conditions also interfere with sleep (a bi-directional relationship), creating a vicious cycle.
On the flip side, you can sleep too much, and that comes with its own problems. Most people have the opposite problem of not sleeping enough though, and that is what I will focus on in this post.
Signs of poor sleep
When we’re not sleeping enough, our bodies don’t get the chance to rest and regenerate. Symptoms of poor sleep include frequent infections, irritability, poor memory, fatigue, mood swings, muscle tension, reduced stress tolerance and difficulty concentrating.
Healthy sleep habits (Sleep hygiene)
If you’re not sleeping well, it’s always a good idea to start with the basics: good sleep hygiene (which really means habits that support good quality sleep). Some beneficial sleep-supporting habits are listed below:
Use your bed only for sleeping and sex. That means no TV, surfing the net, scrolling on social media or doing work in bed!
Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep
Dark: Reduce levels of ambient light in your bedroom. Cover up electrical appliances that put out light (ex. alarm clocks). Use an eye mask and/or blackout curtains to reduce light to your eyes. In fact, try to avoid bright artificial lights and screens for an hour before bed.
Quiet: Does your partner snore? Are you a light sleeper? Consider wearing ear plugs or getting a white noise machine. Some people like to listen to nature sounds (ex. ocean waves or rainfall) to help them fall asleep.
Comfortable: Optimal temperature for sleeping is around 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit, so keep your bedroom in that range. Also, you spend a third of your life in bed, so make sure it’s a comfortable bed for you.
Relaxing: Remove clutter and distractions, which can stimulate/agitate the mind. Make your bedroom as tidy and zen as possible. Bonus: keep some air-filtering plants in your bedroom to improve the quality of the air you breathe all night.
Maintain a regular sleep/wake schedule to support your circadian rhythm. Your body likes routine and you will sleep better if your bedtime/wake time does not widely differ every night.
Avoid caffeine after 4PM, or even earlier if you are more caffeine sensitive. Same goes for nicotine if you are a smoker.
Don’t go to bed on a full stomach.
Exercise during the day supports a good night’s sleep. However, for some people, exercising right before bedtime can be stimulating and interfere with sleep. If that’s the case for you, get your exercise in earlier in the day.
Limit fluids before bed. If you find that you are often waking in the night to urinate, consider avoiding fluids 1-2 hours before bed.
Mind racing before bed? Try making a list of “to-do’s”, or a “worry list” before you get into bed.
Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. If you find that you’ve been laying in bed for more than 15-20 minutes and unable to sleep, get out of bed and do something mundane until you feel sleepy again.
Get out in the sunshine, when you can, during the day. Exposure to sunlight during the day supports your circadian rhythm.
For some people, the electromagnetic fields generated by electronic devices (ex. stereos, computers, TVs) can interfere with sleep. You may want to experiment with moving them into another room, to determine if this is an issue for you.
Support for falling and staying asleep
Sometimes, even with excellent sleep hygiene, you can still have a hard time sleeping. Oftentimes the solution for this is being given a prescription for a sleeping pill. While there are certain circumstances in which this may be a warranted and useful course of action, many people take sleeping medications for longer than recommended. Additionally, these pills do not address the root cause of someone’s insomnia, and come with numerous side effects, including next-day sedation, somnambulism, and rebound insomnia once the medication is discontinued.
The good news is that there are numerous natural options for supporting good quality sleep. I’ll share a few of my favorites, below:
If you find yourself frequently waking in the early hours of the morning, you could be waking due to a drop in blood sugar. Try eating a snack 30-45 minutes before bed to see if it helps. Include protein and a complex carbohydrate. Good options include half an apple with almond butter, nuts and berries, or a small hard-boiled egg with a veggie.
Are you a night owl? Waking unrefreshed and dragging, then finding that you get an upswing of energy right before bed? You may benefit from taking adaptogens; herbs that help to bring your endocrine system, especially your adrenals, back into balance. One of my favorites is ashwagandha.
If you have mild insomnia, chamomile tea is a super gentle and safe way to support sleep. It won’t really help for moderate to severe insomnia though. Bonus: it’s also safe for children and pregnant women.
Aromatherapy: A lavender sachet under your pillow can provide some gentle sleep support. Diffusing some lavender essential oil is also a good option.
Other herbal therapies, especially adaptogens and nervines, can be helpful for insomnia. These include valerian, passionflower, oat straw, skull cap, hops, and nutmeg. Consult with your holistic health care provider regarding which herbs could be most beneficial for you, as well as for dosing.
L-theanine, a relaxing, non-sedative, amino acid, can be helpful for insomnia, especially when it is accompanied by anxiety or stress. I usually recommend 100-200mg before bed.
Although it is rarely my go-to for my insomnia patients, melatonin can be helpful for helping people fall asleep. I tend to recommend lower doses (0.5-2mg) 30 min-1 hour before bed. Melatonin does not, however, help with waking at night. It is great for jet-lag though, especially when crossing several time zones (in which case, I recommend taking it 30min-1 hour before bed, for 3 days, in the new time zone to help re-set circadian rhythm). Pro-tip: cherries are the richest known food source of melatonin, so consider tart cherries as a more delicious way to get your melatonin for jet-lag sleep support (one serving = 1/2 cup dried cherries or 2 tablespoons of cherry juice concentrate).
Homeopathy can be really helpful for chronic insomnia. The ideal homeopathic remedy will your constitutional remedy, as determined by a trained practitioner. For occasional insomnia, a combination homeopathic remedy that some people find helpful is Calms Forte.
This is not an exhaustive list, by any means. As always, please consult with your doctor before taking a new herb or supplement.
Getting your best sleep
So how is your sleep? Are you sleeping enough? Are you sleeping well? Do you have a hard time falling or staying asleep? Do you wake refreshed? If not, maybe this month you try to improve your zzz’s with some of the tips mentioned above. And if that’s not enough, you may benefit from seeing a health care practitioner to figure out what’s standing in the way of you and good night’s sleep. If you already have good sleep hygiene practices in place and are still suffering with insomnia, I would be happy to work with you to get to the root cause of your sleeping issues and develop an individualized plan to get you sleeping well.
Sleep is one of the foundations of health, and although we sometimes think we can do without it, that’s simply not true. So in this cold, dark month of December, let’s all make sure we’re getting plenty of high quality sleep.
Dr. Khaira, ND