What is Sleep?
For humans and most animals, sleep is a period of rest and recharging from the activities and stresses of our daily lives. Sleep is a time for the brain and nervous system to replenish its reserves and to rest our digestive tract, our spine and our muscles. We each have our own sleep patterns and needs. Sleep is a time when we restore our vital functioning and allow our conscious mind to rest and release our subconscious mind to be active. Sleep also changes as we grow and age.
Chronic sleep deprivation has many health consequences including increased risk for infections, heart disease, depression, impaired cognitive functions and more accidents.1 Fatigue and low motivation also occur frequently when we don’t properly recharge our ‘batteries.’
How Much Sleep Do We Need?
Our individual requirement for sleep depends on both the quantity (hours) as well as the quality of our sleep. This involves how deeply we sleep and whether we feel replenished or exhausted when we wake up. We need to go into the slower theta waves where we dream in order to become completely recharged. Many of us are partly or fully “sleep deprived.” Insomnia is one of the most common complaints seen by physicians, as is fatigue, which is partly due to poor sleep. Some reports have suggested that 50 –70 million adults, more than 35 percent of Americans are sleep deprived.2 Are you?
Why Don’t We Sleep Well?
Many of us don’t sleep well because we stay up late with TV and computers on, receiving too much light and electricity to support nighttime quiet. Then, often we must awaken earlier than our own rhythm might want us to, using alarms from a clock or cell phone. This is common with jobs and school, and especially challenging for teenagers, who seem to gravitate too late to bed and ever later to arise. If we ingest too many stimulants in our diets (coffee, sugars, chocolate) throughout the day, our sleep often suffers. Having too many stresses and worries diminishes quality sleep. Too much electromagnetic activity (TVs, digital clocks, microwaves, and Wi-Fi) in our homes and bedrooms could alter sleep quality. Do you get quality sleep with a partner, or do you sleep better alone? Often, long time couples end up sleeping in different rooms because one snores or they like different covers and room temperatures, or generally have different sleep patterns.
Quality sleep is essential for maintaining good health and includes being able to fall asleep easily and stay asleep; awaken naturally at the right time; and feeling rested and ready for the day. This is important for a healthy, energetic body that can live to its potential.Assess The Quality Of Your Own Sleep
- How often are you satisfied with your current sleep? Daily, weekly, never?
- Do you know your natural sleep needs and sleep cycles?
- How much sleep do you need before you feel rested?
- Do you fall asleep easily and stay asleep through the night?
- Do you wake up during the night?
- How often?
- Is it to urinate?
- Is it anxiety?
- Can you go back to sleep easily if you awaken during the night?
- Do you have nightmares or anxiety-generating dreams? How often?
- Is there a specific cause of poor sleep, like allergies, medications or anxiety?
- Is there a change in your sleep patterns?
- Is this change related to life cycles, like menopause or aging?
- What is your state of mind when you wake up?
- Do you feel rested when you wake up?
- Do you need an alarm clock and reset it two or three times before getting up?
- Do you have energy throughout the day, or do you need many jolts of caffeine and sugar, and then alcohol later to relax?
- If you have a sleep partner, how does he, or she, affect your sleep?
There are many consequences of poor sleep—including immune deficiency and subsequent illness, mood and cognitive issues and a general lack of energy and motivation? Sleep experts talk about ‘sleep hygiene’ as a primary approach to help improve the quality of sleep. In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine3 and National Sleep Foundation4 recommend behavior change and ‘sleep hygiene’ as the primary way to deal with sleep problems, not resorting to pharmaceuticals at first.
Ways To Improve Your SleepBefore Bed—Sleep Prep
In The Bedroom
- Be quiet about an hour before bedtime, dim the lights, and turn off computers and TV. Listen to calming music or meditate. Many read something to relax and get sleepy.
- Avoid alcohol, coffee or chocolate, vigorous exercise, or eating too much in the hours before bed.
- Get some fresh air and light exercise if you find that helps you relax. A walk outdoors to see some stars and experience the quiet of night can be helpful.
If these suggestions don’t work, try natural remedies before going on to stronger pharmaceutical medicines, but if you do use medications, do so only as a temporary measure. Explore These Natural Approaches First:
- Make your bedroom a comforting environment that gives you a sense of peace and relaxation.
- Keep your room dark and find the right temperature (and right amount of covers) that helps you sleep—cooler is usually better.
- Make sure your bed and bedroom are used primarily for sleep (or physical intimacy) and not for working on computers or watching television. In general, keep your electromagnetic exposure as low as possible in the bedroom.
- Melatonin (1–3 mg) taken 30 minutes before sleep (helps align diurnal sleep rhythm but not for people with autoimmune conditions).
- Serotonin supporters like L-tryptophan (500–1500 mg) and 5-HTP (50–200 mg) help with deeper sleep.
- GABA (250 –1,000 mg) is a brain and nervous system calmer, and L-theanine (200 –400 mg) may support better relaxation of mind and body and help with sleep; these two items are often contained together in products like Liposomal Zen Liquid (by Allergy Research Group).
- Calcium Magnesium combinations in equal amounts of 250–500 mg each often helps with relaxation and sleep.
- Herbs like valerian, chamomile (caution for people with allergies to ragweed) and catnip, or formulas like Sleepytime or Nighty Night teas.
Your doctor may prescribe sleeping pills like Ambien or Sonata or more tranquilizer medicines like Ativan or Xanax. These can help break poor sleep cycles with a good sleep, yet all of these are addictive and some can contribute to amnesia or sleepwalking. Overall, it’s best to align with natural sleep as much as possible by lowering your stimulants, improving your exercise, eating well, and lowering electronic exposures later in the day.
Clearly, many health and life situations can affect sleep, such as menopause, getting up frequently to urinate, and/or stress/anxiety conditions, especially as we age. Usually, children sleep quite well and longer than adults, so if they have trouble sleeping, it can be more of a concern. Though teens have a slightly altered sleep cycle compared to adults, their reluctance to wake too early for school is usually biologically based.5 They also need more sleep than adults. Ideally, school should start later for all our young people. For poor sleep, you want to identify the underlying causes. Allergies can be one, as can emotional upset and mental worries.
Overall, sleep is an important part of Staying Healthy and one of my 5 Keys, which also include Nutrition, Exercise, Stress Management, and Healthy Attitudes. It all works when we apply our healthy lifestyle. Sleep well!
(Author’s note: This is excerpted from my soon-to-be-released book, Staying Healthy with NEW Medicine: Integrating Natural, Eastern, and Western Approaches for Optimal Health. This is from the chapter “5 Keys to Staying Healthy.” See website: www.ElsonHaasMD.com and sign on to get the free 5 Keys message.)References:
- BREUS, Michael Sleep Habits: More Important Than You Think Chronic Sleep Deprivation May Harm Health http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/importantsleep-habits.
- Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic. http://www.cdc.gove/features/dssleep.
- The Diagnosis and Management of InsomniaJ. Christian Gillin, M.D., and William F. Byerley, M.D. N Engl J Med 1990; 322:239–248January 25, 1990DOI: 10.1056/NEJM199001253220406.
Elson M. Haas, MD
Elson M. Haas, MD is a medical practitioner with nearly 40 years experience in patient care, always with in an interest in natural medicine. For the past 30 years, he has been instrumental in the development and practice of Integrated Medicine at the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (PMCM), which he founded in 1984 and where he is the Medical Director. Dr Haas has been perfecting a model of healthcare that integrates sophisticated Western diagnostics and Family Medicine with time-honored natural therapies from around the world.
This educating, writing doctor is also the author of many books including Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine, 21st Century Edition, The NEW Detox Diet: The Complete Guide for Lifelong Vitality with Recipes, Menus, & Detox Plans and more. Visit his website for more information on his work, books and to sign up for his newsletter.