Sunday, January 28, 2007

Holistic Ways to Cure Insomnia

Whether you suffer occasional or chronic insomnia, you often turn immediately to pharmaceutical sleep aids to get the rest you need, but this should not be your first line of offence against sleeplessness.

For one thing, the side effects can be devastating. They interfere with daytime brain cell activity and reduce short-term memory function; are highly addictive; affect lung tissue function; impair reaction time when awake; can impair physical motor function by making you clumsy and accident prone, and experience difficulty manipulating objects or completing tasks; do not cure or even improve insomnia. In fact, one study evaluating a survey of over 2,000,000 people found that extensive use of sleeping pills was as deadly as cigarette smoking. (source: Apollo Health)

Even though sleep aids put you to sleep, their use does not allow your body to relax through the four stages of sleep, and that effectively robs you of one of the most curative properties of sleep, the progressive relaxation of the muscles and the effect that has on your body systems; for example slower respiration and heart rate. Taking a sleep aid that robs you of experience of the four stages of sleep is like jumping down the elevator shaft instead of waiting for the elevator car – sure, you get to the bottom (to sleep), but at what cost to your health and wellbeing?

The quality of your sleep is important, too, not just the fact you are unconscious. A normal sleep pattern includes the four stages of relaxation sleep and one stage of REM sleep, Rapid Eye Movement, the dream stage of sleep. This cycle repeats approximately every ninety minutes throughout the night, so that you should experience four to five cycles with each night's sleep. Without experiencing the requisite number of these complete sleep cycles, including REM sleep, you will not experience the rejuvenating rest you need to help heal your body and restore your energy. Lack of proper sleep and rest can lead to serious illness.

Growth hormone is at its highest level during sleep, and is responsible for the increased rate of nutrient and amino acid absorption into your blood stream, aids the healing of tissue, and stimulates production of immune system cells. Additionally, irregular sleep cycles disrupt your body's manufacture of the hormone melatonin. "Melatonin also acts as a powerful antioxidant to clean our cells of toxins. When we don’t sleep well, our bodies don’t use melatonin efficiently and we can suffer from premature aging, heart risks and cancer. Low nighttime levels of melatonin may cause higher levels of estrogens and breast cancer in women as well as colon and bone cancer in men. Melatonin imbalances are also believed to be a cause of depression." (source: Apollo Health)

Uninterrupted sleep is important, too. A group of medical students at the University of Toronto Center for Sleep and Chronobiology agreed to have their sleep interrupted in a study on the natural rhythms of sleep. After a few nights of being awakened during their deep sleep levels, the volunteers developed symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

To insure you have an excellent, restorative night's sleep, here is a list of effective, holistic sleep aids that you will find beneficial.

1 Spend some early-morning time in bright light; outside in sunlight is best if possible. This stirs you fully awake and helps to regulate your inner clock so that you will be sleepy at night. Any amount of time you can spend soaking up some natural sunlight will benefit your health and wellbeing.

2. Get some exercise a few hours before bed. A walk after dinner in fresh air is perfect; you get exercise and it aids digestion. Avoid going to bed on a full stomach; it will make you uncomfortable and often leads to indigestion. Don't exercise too close to bedtime; it will keep you awake. Contrary to popular belief, exercise is a pick-me-up and a perk-me-up, it does not make you tired or sleepy!

3 Take a warm bath or shower. Relaxing in warm water for ten to twenty minutes before retiring for the night relaxes muscles which gets you ready for sleep. (My husband happened to take a shower this morning and commented that he felt like taking a nap after basking in the warm waters!)

4 Have a small snack. My earlier article on chocolate pointed out that chocolate triggers the release of endorphins, your body's natural "feel good," relaxing, pain relievers. A cup of hot cocoa could be just the thing to help you sleep. A carbohydrate snack would be good, too; carbohydrates help your brain produce serotonin, another hormone that produces relaxation. (See How to Eat Right to Reduce Stress and Friday Food Pharmacy: Pasta and Other Grain Products.) Alternatively, a cup of herbal tea containing ingredients for relaxation may be appropriate – try chamomile, lavender, or lemon balm. (These three herbs are very easy to grow in the garden, or indoors in pots. What could be better than a cup of tea made with fresh herbs?!) Always sweeten with natural ingredients if you need sweetener; avoid the use of sugar.

5 Go to bed at the same time every night. The body is a creature of habit even if the mind is not. Going to bed at the same time every night will develop a good habit and train your body to be prepared for sleep when you climb between the covers.

6 Go to sleep in silence, and in the dark. Even though you think it doesn't, playing the television or radio does disturb your sleep with unusual or unexpected noises and sounds during the night. If you must have sound to lull you to sleep, try a white noise machine, or put the tv/radio on a timer so it will shut off 30 to 45 minutes later. That should give you enough time to drift off to sleep. You do not want to leave a television on all night while you sleep. The light from a television is bright enough to interfere with the production of melatonin; the health risks of low levels of melatonin were discussed above. Sleep experts say that any light brighter than a nightlight can impede melatonin production. For the same reason, if your digital clock has exceptionally bright numerals, turn the face of the clock away from the bed.

7 If you find yourself tossing and turning, get up. Again, you can train your body to sleep in bed by getting out of bed if you can't sleep. Go into another room and read a book for a few minutes, play a game of solitaire, get a snack, write down a list of the things that are keeping you awake. Sometimes the reason you can't sleep is that things from the day are bothering you, or you don't want to forget things that must be done the next day. Making that list will allow your mind to relax, let go of the things troubling you, and you can rest assured that you won't overlook an important task or appointment the next day.

8 Follow the instructions in the Progressive Relaxation Technique posted here last July. This is one of the best relaxation techniques I have ever used both for myself and with clients.

9 Try a visualization. Imagine yourself in a beautiful, relaxing setting, a lazy evening on the beach watching the moon rise, an evening in the forest listening to the crickets chirping, or any other quiet and restful setting. You can even create a story about the wonderful day you just had, the relaxing and enjoyable things you are going to do tomorrow. Beware of creating too much excitement, though. Your body responds to your thoughts as if they were real commands sent to your muscles for action, so if you imagine yourself hiking through the jungle, you are only going to excite muscles you want to relax.

10 Make sure the room is a comfortable temperature. Most people sleep better in a cool room; if your room is even a few degrees too warm, it can make a difference. Try turning the temperature down to the 65 degree range (18 degrees C.) Likewise, make sure your bedclothes are of the right fabric weight for the season, and don't make you too warm. Keep the window open, at least a little, if it isn't too cold or hot outside; most people sleep better with some fresh air at hand.

11 Check the firmness of your mattress and pillows; make sure your sheets and blankets are soft, not scratchy. Sleep surfaces that are too firm, too soft, or otherwise not quite right can cause enough discomfort to wake you during the night, interrupting those very important and restorative sleep cycles. Also, some people are sensitive to foam pillow stuffing, so if you are sleepy but have trouble falling asleep, or if you wake during the night for no apparent reason, try a pillow with a different (perhaps more natural) stuffing material.

I'll leave you with these holistic words of wisdom from WebMD: "Overlooking the single most important thing you can do for your health is easy with all the clamor surrounding various health products in the marketplace. But good-quality sleep goes far and beyond those products when it comes to restoring your health. And best of all, sleep is free."


Geraldine said...

Another excellent post M, thanks so much. As a 'former' insomniac (for tooooo many years) I have learned a thing or two personally, what works, what doesnt. Getting an airbed mattress was a GODSEND, blissful sleep, night after night, also LOTS of fresh air and exercise.
Hardest of all, turning off the thoughts, I make a point of leaving behind the cares of the day, after 6pm these days, again a blessing.

Huggs, G

Michelle Wood said...

Hi G,

I totally agree about the air mattress; they're great. Also, I would recommend a water bed. We have had a waterbed since 1972 and it's fabulous.