Sleep and Rhythm: How To Live In Accordance With Your Natural Cycles
In addition to a healthy diet and regular exercise, getting enough restful sleep is the most important thing you can do for your health. Proper sleep is one of the keys to looking and feeling your best, yet it’s estimated that up to 70 percent of Americans are chronically sleep deprived.
Chronic sleep problems interfere with your body’s natural rhythms and rob it of the time it needs to restore itself. The incidence of many diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and depression increases with a lack of sleep. We simply weren’t built to just go, go, go; we also need to rest, rest, rest. We evolved according to the natural rhythms of darkness and light; our bodily functions reflect this and undergo similar fluctuations. They perform best when we live in accordance with these cycles.
It is during sleep that your body’s innate healing capacities kick into full gear. Your immune system gets revitalized, hormones and metabolism are balanced, and general maintenance and repair of all bodily systems occurs. Getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is absolutely critical for good health.
Insomnia is not a disease, but is usually a symptom of a deeper underlying bodily imbalance. To correct it, the causes of the imbalance must be removed. The most common underlying causes of chronic sleep issues are:
· Chronic stress or an over-stimulated nervous system.
· Hormonal imbalances
· Poor diet (too much sugar, gluten, dairy, processed and refined foods)
· Stimulants or substances that can affect sleep (alcohol, caffeine, medications, etc.)
· Gastro-intestinal dysfunction
· Chronic pain
· Sleep Apnea
Although each of us is unique and treatment should be individualized, the most effective long-term strategy for overcoming insomnia in our fast-paced world is to better attune our bodies to the natural rhythm of darkness and light. This can be done, for the most part, by changing our habits and behaviors.
Night and Day
As a result of living in tandem with the patterns of day and night for thousands of years, these 24 hour cycles and rhythms became imprinted in our genes and, over time, we have developed internal body clocks that run in sync with nature.
But our biology has not yet caught up with our ability to live without rest. One of the most fundamental stresses on our systems is that we live so out of sync with the natural fluctuations of light and dark. During the day, we receive artificial light from fluorescent bulbs rather than the vitamin D-rich sunlight that our bodies need. Then, at night, when we need the dark to trigger essential melatonin production, excessive light throws our body rhythms out of balance even more.
Since the invention of the light bulb, obvious as its benefits have been, our lifestyles have really changed. Staying up all night can really sabotage our health. With light as with food, we must be careful of being overfed and undernourished.
It’s essential to understand that it’s not just what you do at night that affects your sleep. How you go about your day and shift into the evening also plays a big role in how well you sleep.
Wake Up Right
Sleep researchers at the Mayo Clinic believe that if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you’re not sleeping right. Alarm clocks interrupt the sleep cycle and prevent sleep from completing naturally. Dawn simulation devices are much more effective at establishing a healthy sleep cycle and gently rousing you from sleep.
Get Some Natural Sunlight
As sunlight enters our eyes it regulates and resets our biological clocks, which involves triggering our brains and bodies to release specific chemicals and hormones that are vital to healthy sleep, mood, and aging. Try to get at least half an hour of regular exposure to natural sunlight a day.
Exercise is one of the best defenses against insomnia. It signals the body to promote deeper sleep cycles. The best time to exercise is 4-6 hours before bedtime, but studies also show that people are more likely to stick to a routine if they exercise first thing in the morning. Try to avoid exercising after 8pm as it may be too stimulating and make it more difficult to get to sleep.
No More Caffeine
Caffeine, even in small doses, blocks sleep neurotransmitters, the calming chemicals your body makes to make you sleepy. If you have a problem with sleep, you must cut out all caffeinated beverages, even your morning cup of coffee. Regular caffeine consumption can create a chronic bodily imbalance.
Try an Elimination Diet
For two weeks, try eliminating sugar, corn syrup, sodas, refined grains and processed foods. These are metabolic disruptors which overstress the organs involved in hormone regulation and can seriously affect your sleep cycles.
Eat In Accordance With Your Bodily Rhythms
Your digestive system function peaks at lunchtime, so most of your food should be eaten by then. Your metabolism slows down in the late afternoon, leaving you poorly prepared to digest a large dinner. Eat a small dinner, at least three hours before going to sleep. Give your body a chance to recover and rebuild, instead of having to work on digestion while you sleep.
Create an Electronic Sundown
By 10 pm, turn off the computer, TV, and all other electronic devices. They are too stimulating to the brain and inhibit the release of these sleep neurotransmitters.
Create a Regular Routine
Going to bed around the same time, even on weekends, is the most important thing you can do to establish good sleep habits. Many of us use the weekends to either stay up or make up for lost sleep during the week. Both practices disrupt bodily rhythms and can cause insomnia during the work week.
Keep the Room as Dark as Possible
Our bodies need complete darkness for production of the important sleep hormone, melatonin. If your bedroom is not pitch dark when you go to sleep, it interferes with this key process. Cover all the lights of any electronic devices and use dark shades or drapes on the windows if they are exposed to light. If this is not possible, wear an eye mask.
Keep the Room Cool
Lowering ambient temperature sends a feedback signal to the brain that it’s nighttime, and it needs to release more sleep hormones. A sleeping temperature of 60 to 65 degrees is best for most people, even in the winter. In hot weather, use a floor or ceiling fan to create a breeze, or an air-conditioner set at about 70 degrees.
Do Not Rely on Sleeping Pills
Sleeping pills mask sleep problems and do not resolve the underlying causes of insomnia. Sleep studies have concluded that long-term use of sleeping pills do more harm than good.
Don’t Use Alcohol to Fall Asleep
Because of alcohol’s sedating effect, many people drink to promote sleep. Alcohol does have an initial sleep inducing effect, but as it gets broken down by the body it sends the wrong metabolic signals, potentially causing you to wake up
Take Nutrients That Calm Down the Nervous System
Instead of sleeping pills or alcohol, try supplements or herbs that have a calming effect 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime. Magnesium, calcium, or herbs like lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile, magnolia and valerian root can be helpful.
I know from personal experience, and from the many patients I have seen, that incorporating these sleep tips can make a huge difference. British poet Thomas Dekker observed that sleep is “the golden chain that ties health and the body together.” I couldn’t agree more. Here’s to a good night’s sleep on a regular basis.