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 Sleep
Before 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.)
- 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.