Friday, May 01, 2009
Sleep, glorious sleep!
As the mother of a one-year-old who is still working on sleeping through the night, I have come to be acutely aware of the importance of sleep. Sleep disturbance is more common than many of us would think. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 58% of adults experience insomnia a few times a week. In addition, the NSF reports that our children are sleeping less than the recommended number of hours and that up to 75% of them are experiencing sleep problems. In this month’s newsletter, we discuss the importance of sleep, some causes of insomnia, and some practical steps to improve your sleep.
Sleep is incredibly important to one’s health. Sleep, quite literally, is necessary for survival. In animal studies, it has been demonstrated that sleep depravation actually decreases life span. Sleep depravation causes impairment in immune function (increasing your risk of illnesses); decreased body temperature; and increased variability in heart rate.
During sleep, growth hormone is released and cells in our bodies increase the production of proteins which is essential for development and tissue repair and regeneration.
The release of melatonin (the sleep hormone) during sleep is important in that it is a potent antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals so that they do not cause damage to our cells.
Sleep is necessary for our concentration and attention span, memory, and physical performance. Sleep allows the portions of our brains which control emotions and social interactions to rest, thereby allowing us to maintain optimal emotional health and social functioning. Sleep deprivation can cause mood swings and even hallucinations. It has been associated with anxiety and depression.
In short, sleep deprivation can have a tremendous impact on one’s quality of life, and one’s health.
Insomnia is defined as either the inability to fall asleep (initiation insomnia) or abnormal wakefulness (maintenance insomnia). It can be caused by a variety of underlying conditions. Some common examples include the following: changes in our environment; pain or discomfort (due to a variety of causes); sleep apnea (cessation of breathing during sleep); hypoglycemia (drop in blood sugar); anxiety/ tension/ emotional arousal; depression; nocturnal myoclonus (shock-like contractions of muscle/s); restless leg syndrome; hormonal changes; use of alcohol, drugs (both pharmaceutical and illicit), or caffeine; parasomnias (including nightmare disorder, sleep terror disorder, and sleepwalking disorder).
Several natural treatment alternatives are available to help enhance your sleep. The most important steps you can take at home to improving your sleep involve a concept known as “Sleep Hygiene”. Here are some practical examples:
1) As much as possible, try to establish a routine for going to bed and waking at the same time on a daily basis.
2) Do not eat or drink for a few hours before your bedtime. This will decrease night-waking due to need to urinate, heartburn, discomfort due to gas, and stimulating effects of some foods and beverages. If you suffer from hypoglycaemia, you may want to eat high protein foods at your evening meal.
3) Make your environment as conducive as possible to sleep: wear ear plugs or use a white noise machine; wear an eye mask or mount room-darkening shades.
4) Your bedroom should be used exclusively for sleeping: avoid watching TV or reading in bed. When you’re ready to sleep, you should go to bed. If you can’t fall asleep after spending some time in bed, get out of bed and do something else for a short while before trying again.
5) After 4pm, you should avoid caffeine (chocolate, coffee, tea). You should also avoid nicotine and alcohol, especially late in the day.
6) Aerobic exercise (but not within three hours of your bedtime) often helps to enhance sleep.
7) Avoid napping in the late afternoon or evening as this can disturb night-time sleep.
8) Develop sleep rituals: take a warm bath; listen to calming music; do deep breathing or muscle relaxation exercises; try to clear your mind through meditation techniques before you go to bed. If done on a consistent basis, these rituals become cues to your body that it’s time to prepare for sleep.
9) Sleep in darkness. This is important for the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone) which relies on changes in light to regulate it’s rhythm of secretion.
10) You may want to drink some herbal tea made with herbs known to promote sleep (such as Chamomile or Lemon balm). Placing a cotton ball with a few drops of Lavender essential oil may also be helpful.
If these simple steps do not seem to help, consult your health care practitioner. At times, short-term pharmaceuticals can be helpful. However, one should be wary of dependency and side effects created by many of these agents. The primary objective should be to discover and treat the underlying cause of your sleep difficulties through the use of non-toxic treatments which will not leave you reliant on them to fall asleep in the long run. A naturopath is trained to help you to achieve improvement in your quality of sleep so that your quality of life is enhanced.
For now, sleep tight!