“…the wind hums low with sweet exultation, sings its lullaby, while you sleep …” – John Geddes
Sleep is vital for our longevity, our physical and emotional well-being, and is one of the most important and inexpensive treatments for health restoration. Best seller sleep-help books are right up there with relationship woes or financial worries. Strategies, drugs, tools, applications, and websites are marketed to help the many sleep deprived souls get a good night’s sleep.
So, why aren’t we sleeping? Why are so many of us stumbling about, starved for deep sleep? We drag ourselves through the day, often caffeinated to the brim, dreading the 3:00pm crash when a bucket of ice wouldn’t revive us – and all we can think of is sleep. We are frazzled, overwrought and unable to cope.
The Center for Disease Control has called lack of sleep a “public health epidemic,” affecting 50 – 70 million people in the United States. Knowing you are not alone really doesn’t help. You are alone in those wee hours of the morning and perhaps feeling desperately alone. And then the stress is piled on when we learn that research has shown that lack of sleep: accelerates aging, increases high blood pressure, depression, and increases our risk of cancer and mortality. If we sleep well, our bodies work hard at repairing and healing, but if we do not get adequate sleep our immune systems are compromised and we are less able to combat illness of any kind.
Most of us have struggled with insomnia at one time or another. Raising babies, worrying about our driving teens, finances, or life in general has kept us awake for many a night. But when it goes on for days or even months, when your plate is clear and you have few real worries and you still lie there wide awake – you are in trouble.
The Miracle of Melatonin – “The Hormone of Darkness”
Studies have shown that the presence of light or darkness actually controls your body’s internal clock, including your sleep patterns. Light travels through your eye’s optic nerve to a part of your brain giving your body the message that it’s either time to sleep or to wake.
When it is dark outside this message triggers the production of melatonin, which is the sleep hormone as well as an anti-oxidant, reaching it’s highest levels between 1:00 and 3:00a.m.
Cells in our bodies – even cancer cells – have receptors for melatonin. When this nectar of sleep is allowed to dance it’s way through our systems, (with an optimal night’s sleep) cell division slows. Professor Steven Bell at Tulane University suggests that when melatonin attaches to a breast cancer cell it counteracts estrogen’s ability to spur cell growth. In fact, melatonin has a lulling effect on several reproductive hormones which could possibly explain why it has a protective effect against hormonally driven cancers. While melatonin is slowing cell growth the other bonus is that it has the opposite effect on our immune systems. It boosts the production of immune cells that help recognize and attack mutated cells that can lead to cancer. So melatonin provides a double-whammy by slowing cancer growth and promoting immunity. Go Melatonin!
However, if melatonin is produced by your pineal gland when it is dark, what happens when you get up at 2:00a.m. to go to the bathroom and turn on a light? You guessed it! Your body, in it’s perfect wisdom, dutifully snaps into action to help you prepare for the day. Melatonin production screeches to a halt, sending a “wake” signal to your brain, telling your body it’s time to get up. Raising your body temperature and producing the hormone cortisol, your perfect system is in gear for the rousing start of the day. When you return to your warm, cozy bed you lie agonizingly awake for the rest of the night fretfully chasing down your evasive sleep. By turning on that light, you have betrayed your internal clock, disrupted your natural sleep cycle and the harmony of Nature.
When you honour the Night and the sublime rhythm of Nature in its perfection of balance – creating a time for rest, rejuvenation, healing and purification – you will awaken protective powers that will work for you as you sleep, guiding you to dream, heal and restore you to vibrant health.
Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep:
- Put away work at least an hour or two before bed and unwind from the day. Strive to manage your workload during the day so you don’t take work home with you.
- Honour your need for a 20 minute break every 2 1/2 hours during your day, taking the time for self-reflection, meditation or breathwork at least twice daily for 11 minutes each time.
- No TV right before bed – keep it out of the bedroom.
- Listen to relaxation CD’s, mantra music or nature sounds if you find them mellowing.
- Read something spiritual or uplifting before bed. Say prayers or affirmations if this brings you comfort.
- Journal before bed. Put your worries in an imaginary box on a shelf rather than taking them to bed with you.
- Avoid caffeine – limit your intake to green tea in the morning – herbal in the afternoon. Drink lemon balm or chamomile tea before bed.
- Avoid alcohol – it only promotes sleep in the short-term, spiking your sugar to awaken you in the middle of the night.
- Exercise regularly but not close to bed time. Morning is best if you can manage it and shoot for an hour a day in addition to your regular active lifestyle. According to 5000-year-old Ayurvedic principles, the time between 6 and 10a.m is controlled by the Kapha dosha and the best time for rigorous exercise.
- Lose excess weight with consistent caring discipline while loving your body as it is.
- Make sure you are moving your body frequently during the day. Avoid sitting longer than 30 minutes. Get up and stretch, walk or rebound for a few minutes every half hour. Set a timer.
- Avoid foods you may be sensitive to like sugar, grains and dairy.
- Don’t eat 2 hours before going to bed.
- Try a sleep-promoting snack 2 hours before sleep such as: a small bowl of oatmeal (calcium, magnesium, silicon, phosphorus, potassium), sprinkle of a few pumpkin seeds (tryptophan) with a spoon of almond butter (protein and magnesium) with ½ a banana cut up to sweeten (potassium, magnesium, tryptophan.) Or try a few tart cherries or tart cherry juice – one of the only natural source of melatonin. (Knudson makes an organic just tart cherry juice – a small 1 ounce shot would have about 3 grams of sugar – dilute it with a bit water if it is too sweet.)
- Have your adrenals checked by a good natural medicine clinician. Insomnia may be caused by adrenal stress. Follow adrenal support guidelines as discussed in the Healthy Breast Program.
- Increase your melatonin levels naturally with exposure to bright sunlight in the morning, subdued light in the evening with absolute, complete darkness while you sleep. If that doesn’t solve the problem, you may want to consider a melatonin supplement – check with your health care provider.
- Take 400 mg magnesium glycinate before bed to help you relax.
- Resolve emotional issues by seeing a therapist or counselor for help if racing thoughts keep you awake at night. A good night’s sleep will help you deal with life’s difficult moments if you are rested
- Sleep in complete darkness or as close as possible. Wear a light blocking mask, get rid of your clock radio and the blue night-light in the bathroom, cover the windows, except on the nights before, during and after the full moon.
- Studies have shown that a small orange or red night-light in the bathroom has the least power to shift the circadian rhythm (your body’s predictable response to light and dark) and suppress melatonin. Salt lamps are good for this purpose in the bathroom.
- Keep the room temperature cool. Optimal room temperature is between 62 – 68 degrees.
- Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Keep clutter, piles and junk at bay. When the last thing you see at the end of the day is tomorrow’s laundry – sleep becomes elusive. Make sure your bed is made and the room is organized first thing in the morning so when you turn in for the night you enter a beautiful space of order and tranquility.
- Check your bedroom for electro-magnetic-fields. EMF’s can disrupt the pineal gland and the production of melatonin. The pineal gland may sense the EMF’s as light and disrupt sleep. Move alarm clocks and cell phones away from your bedside.
- Avoid using loud alarm clocks. Many of us lay awake waiting for the dreaded, jarring, wake-up call. Try a bird song or Zen alarm. If you are getting plenty of sleep you may be able to retire the alarm clock!
- Reserve your bed for sleeping or making love. Watch TV or do computer work elsewhere.
- Go to sleep before 10:00pm if possible. Your body does a majority of it’s recharging between 11p.m. and 1a.m. Also, the gallbladder dumps toxins during this time. If you are awake, toxins may back up into the liver which can further disrupt your health.
- Try to go to bed and rise at the same time every day. A Finnish study has suggested that long duration sleep of up to 9 hours (not more) may be protective, decreasing the risk of breast cancer.
- Establish a bed-time routine. This could include deep breathing, meditation, foot massage, journaling or anything that helps you release the tensions of the day.
- While you send a rest and restore message inward, take this time to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing and the Alternate Nostril Series Exercise as suggested in the Healthy Breast Program about an hour before sleep for 12 minutes.
- To obliterate stress and help maintain the body’s balance ultimately leading to more peaceful sleep, learn some breathing exercises (or ‘pranayams’ in yoga as suggested in the Healthy Breast Program) to practice throughout the day. Set a timer on your computer or cell phone to ring every half hour reminding you to get out of your seat and breathe deeply.
- Don’t drink any fluids within 2 hours of going to bed to reduce the likelihood of a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Make sure you are well hydrated throughout the day.
- Go to the bathroom right before bed.
- Take a hot bath, shower or sauna before bed.
- Use an essential oil sachet with lavender close to or beneath your pillow.Wear socks to bed or use a hot water bottle to warm feet and reduce night waking.
Have a look at these research articles to become more informed about sleep.
Circadian Rhythm Fact Sheet National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Sleep Drive and Your Body Clock National Sleep Foundation
Blue Light has a Dark Side Harvard Health Publications
Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Epidemic Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Sleep Duration and Breast Cancer: A Prospective Cohort Study Journal of Cancer Research