– Sonya Nobbe, ND
Our ability to enjoy good quality sleep is one of the ultimate indicators of balance in our lives. Sleep is a reflection of our relationship with our external environment, and it enables us to connect internally to our subconscious mind in the form of dreams. Many ancient medicines use dreams and a person’s “sleep health” to help identify imbalances so that a prescription for whole mind-body wellness can be determined. Conventional medicine considers restorative sleep to play a critical role in the proper functioning of our mood, hormones, and immune system. Disordered sleep is a risk factor for a multitude of health conditions, including breast cancer and heart disease.
Successfully adapting to our environment may reward us with quality sleep. Stress for example, is experienced by many people as an external situation that exceeds their capacity to cope. The body moves into a “fight or flight” mode in which constant streams of stress hormones makes it difficult to relax the mind and body for sleeping. Over a long period of time the body loses its ability to produce appropriate amounts of stress hormone and difficulty falling asleep progresses to difficulty maintaining sleep and feeling very un-refreshed in the morning. A person in this state may also experience bouts of low blood sugar, anxiety, and lightheadedness when rising too quickly from a lying position. The irony is that people in this situation commonly gain a second-wind near 11:00pm so they tend not to go to bed until 1 or 2am, thereby sleeping far fewer than the recommended minimum of 7 or 8 hours. Changing sleep patterns to include going to bed at 10:00pm and staying there until 8:00am may be a difficult but worthwhile challenge for these individuals. Ultimately, learning to perceive stressful situations as an enjoyable challenge within your capacity to cope can have a huge impact on your sleep and overall wellbeing. Try choosing a relaxation technique that matches the way your body reacts to stress. For example, meditation may help people who are over-run by thoughts at night, versus a muscle relaxation exercise for people who react primarily physically to stress.
Our environment also affects our sleep by cuing our “internal clock” known as circadian rhythm. This rhythm sets the pace for many essential body processes, including sleep-wake cycles and stress hormone release. It is significantly modified by the earth’s cycles of light and dark so that people who regularly travel across time zones or engage in shift work are at increased risk for disrupting this rhythm and the multitude of processes it controls. In fact, the World Health Organization recently stated that shift work is a probable cause of cancer in humans. The sleep hormone melatonin is intimately associated with circadian rhythm and sleeping in an entirely dark room at night will help to ensure its proper functioning. You can also support healthy melatonin regulation with regular exposure to full-spectrum light during the day.
There are many Naturopathic remedies to help a person achieve a good night’s sleep. Many health food stores carry supplements that support the melatonin biochemical pathway, which includes support for serotonin production, a chemical commonly imbalanced in people with depression, anxiety, and irritable bowel syndrome. There are also many time-proven sleep herbs, such as passion flower (Passiflora incarnata), valeria (Valerian officinalis), and hops, which help a person move out of the “fight or flight” mode and into a more relaxed state. These herbs don’t cause the day-time drowsiness and rebound insomnia commonly experienced with pharmaceutical interventions, such as benzodiazepines. Various dietary changes include avoiding coffee, which can affect your body for up to 14 hours, and eating magnesium-rich foods like leafy green vegetables. Traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture may also be quite effective.
Though treating sleeplessness with sleep herbs and dietary changes may help you achieve a good night’s rest, they rarely provide long-term benefits because the problem usually isn’t the sleep. If the sleeplessness is reflective of an unbalanced relationship with one’s environment for example, then various lifestyle changes are usually required to repair this relationship. Disordered sleep is also commonly a symptom of hormonal imbalance, blood sugar imbalances, depression, and various nutrient deficiencies. If you suffer from long-standing sleep problems, consider finding a healthcare practitioner who will help you connect all your symptoms so that underlying imbalances are determined and treated. This is the true key to enjoying lifelong restful sleep.
You may find this, and more of my articles published in Within Kingston Magazine. This article is also published in the fall issue of Sangster’s Health Centres Natural Living magazine.