Getting a good night’s sleep is a gift for your future physical, mental and emotional health. If you have insomnia you tend to have a hyperactive response to stress, which is considered a risk for illness. Thus calming the nervous system and restoring sleep is considered by many to be the number one thing to support in terms of maintaining your health and recovering from illness.
What can sleep do for me?
- The activity of the day needs to be balanced by regeneration and rest of body tissues. You could call this maintenance or repair time. The elimination of toxins occurs primarily during this time. This means, if you have not been sleeping enough, your body has a backlog of detoxifying to do and your immune system is overburdened. Thus, glowing skin and vitality really is part of getting enough ‘beauty sleep’.
- Have you ever heard people say they like to ‘sleep on' an issue or problem? Well as it turns out, this suggestion has some actual value when it comes to solving problems. Problem solving is improved in some instances due to the processing power of a rested brain but also because the mind completes some thought processes at rest. Bonus! Your mind is nutting out problems while you are getting your beauty sleep. When there doesn't seem to ever be enough time in the day to work things out, it is helpful to remember that some of the load can be completed overnight.
- Similarly, some types of emotional development and handling past events happen during sleep. Getting enough ‘down time’ is maintenance for your emotional health as well as your physical health.
- In ancient spiritual texts, sleep is considered the place where our spirits are perfectly happy and perfectly at peace. You are spiritually recharged during sleep. This is thought to be important for the development of wisdom and knowledge, the cornerstone of spiritual development.
Getting a good night's sleep takes training
There are theories of development that tell us sleep skills need to be learned. This is great news for those with insomnia as learning to follow these steps can greatly improve sleep.
- Get as much of your sleep as possible before midnight. The rhythm of solar light and dark means sleep quality along with your melatonin production (this is the hormone that kicks off and maintains sleep) is at its highest at this time. Sleeping earlier can be a real bonus.
- Plan your bedtime. Aim to be in bed 9 hours before your wake up time. Thus, if your alarm goes off at 7 am, plan your bedtime for 10 pm and make your preparations for sleep in the hour from 9-10pm. This gives you a wind-down period and should be viewed as an essential part of your sleep program.
- Avoid all caffeinated beverages, chocolate, and refined sugar in the 8 hours before bedtime. Also, aim to exercise in the earlier part of the day and eat your last meal around 12 hours before you are due to wake. Eg 6 – 7 pm dinner for a 7 am wake up.
- Reduce mental activity in the evening. Avoid calling, texting or emailing after 8-8.30pm. Do light reading only and avoid violent or dramatic tv shows. Use relaxing music, sedating essential oils like lavender or marjoram and dim the lighting.
- Make your sleeping area as relaxing as possible, avoid work, screens, and study in your bedroom. The décor should be pleasing and make sure it is very dark, not too hot and quiet.
- Enlist a simple relaxation technique to quiet the mind, mentally filing away the activity of the day, preparing for blissful, restful sleep.
A word on stimulants and getting quality sleep
Anything that activates the nervous system can be considered a stimulant. This may include coffee, tea, chocolate and strong emotions. Refueling flagging energy with stimulants depletes your body of the energy it requires to rest, setting up a cycle of false energy and continued inability to rest. Stimulants put great pressure on your adrenal system (where you make your get up and go hormones, like adrenaline) and can eventually lead to illness and dysfunction. Real rest is the only cure for fatigue.
Simple breathing exercises to try before bed
Meditation doesn’t need to be hard. Deep, slow breathing calms anxiety and is the simplest form of meditation around. If you are feeling keyed-up, restless, worried, fearful or nervous before bed, or experiencing the common physical symptoms of anxiety, like shallow breathing and a racing heart, these can be relieved with this simplest meditation. Try lying quietly, with your eyes closed and one hand over your stomach. Count slowly to three as you breathe in 1,2,3…and as you breathe out extend the length of your out breath, 1,2,3,4,5,6… feeling your stomach gently rise and fall. The extended out breath ensures your breathing is not too fast and unlikely to lead to hyperventilation (the type of breathing that leads to the physical sensations of a panic attack – the opposite to the desired effect here!) Experiment with this technique for 2-10 minutes and check in with how you feel before and after. You will be surprised how quickly this technique works!
If you prefer guided exercises, these two apps are free and wonderful to help retrain your mind:
- Download the meditation app, Headspace – this has a free 10-day intro course, which is only 3-5 minutes a day, and is a nice easy intro to mindfulness meditation, with some cute animations. https://www.headspace.com.
- Also, download Smiling Mind – this is a free Australian version to go on with after the Headspace course https://smilingmind.com.au. The research is that 5 minutes a day makes a big difference in how you feel. Aim for doing one quick meditation each day, perhaps before bed is a good time for you. Or maybe take a 5-minute break during the day?
If anxiety is an issue for you it can be more difficult to get to sleep. Grounding yourself with good nutrition and exploring herbal anxiety remedies can help you here. Talk to your naturopath or book an appointment today to workshop strategies to reduce both your anxiety and your insomnia. Having a regular massage is also a great short-cut to relaxing a busy mind and has cumulative benefits for stress management and your wellbeing.
Exercise to improve your sleep
While over exercise has an impact on fatigue, under-exercise is a much more common cause of energy depletion. Exercise, like having enough water and fibre is needed to ensure the body gets rid of wastes properly. Sedentary lifestyles are linked to lethargy, sluggishness and generally feeling ‘blah’. Exercise assists detoxification and improves health and energy. Like meditation, exercise is viewed in traditional texts as a ‘chi’ builder. Chi is another word for energy. Your sleep will also improve after about 4 months of starting an exercise program.