“My slumbers, if I slumber, are not sleep, but a continuance of enduring thought.” – Byron.
Sleep. A time to rest body and mind, rejuvenate the spirit, turn away from the outer world, perhaps to dream in our inner world….the ultimate, and most natural, “turn on, tune in, drop out” (this expression, from Marshall McLuhan, was popularized by Timothy Leary). The “turn on” of sleep are neurotransmitters in the brain that induce the occurrences in brain and body that bring about the phases of sleep.
The purpose of this page is not to dive deep into the science of sleep, a relatively recent science as researchers begin to understand better the chemistry of the brain. There is much to be found on the internet about sleep, here are a few sources for understanding sleep:
I only want to share some of my own experiences living with insomnia.
Insomnia is a national, probably international health crisis. The pace and stress of living, increased anxieties people have living in a tumultuous world, exposure to artificial lights, especially digital “screens”, has made sleeplessness not just a Seattle thing! (If you are too young to remember, the popular romantic comedy titled “Sleepless in Seattle” rivaled Microsoft in making Seattle a household word!) Insomnia in my life started as a child, increased during adolescence, and worsened with each decade of life. When neurotransmitters where being doled out, I must of been elsewhere. Actually, the female hormone estrogen is part of a biochemical chain that helps one sleep, which is why many women, who sleep well all their lives, experience insomnia during and after medically induced or natural menopause, which causes estrogen levels to decrease. Having had other estrogen related health challenges, maybe my insomnia is due to estrogen imbalances. Unfortunately there is no simple, one-cause reason for most insomnia, the reasons can be multiple for any individual and vary from person to person, which is why what works for one person to bring on sleep may not work for another, or even always work for that one person. But there are some basic sleep health principles that impact everyone who has ever had sleepless nights.
Although I’d read many books and articles about sleep by the time I met Dr. Catherine Darley, (http://www.naturalsleepmedicine.net/) a Naturopathic sleep doctor who had worked as a technician at Virginia Mason Sleep Disorder Clinic, she really emphasized the importance of darkness in inducing sleep. The brain needs darkness to begin production of melatonin, one of the neurotransmitters needed for sleeping. I was already sleeping with black out curtains in my room, but the chain of triggers in the brain that leads to the production of melatonin requires darkness early enough in the evening to prepare the brain for sleep. So the first rule to a good night’s sleep – get off the computer, tablet, smart-phone, TV, and lower the lights in your living space at least 2-3 hours before your bedtime. Not easy, do the best you can and see how it affects your sleep.
And about that bed time! The body has cycles it goes through, honoring those cycles is critical to good sleep, as well as good digestion, which in turn is important to good sleep. In Ayurveda these cycles are explained by the dominance of the doshas during the 24 hour cycle of a day (I explain doshas in this article: Mother of all Healing). Modern scientific understanding of the body confirms this ancient knowledge of cycles. For instance, the liver and kidneys do a lot of processing in the middle of the night, when energy is available because other body functions are resting. Staying up very late, or consuming heavy foods or drinks before bedtime means the body has extra “stuff” to process, which can disturb, even prevent, sleep. The best time to eat a heavy meal is during the cycle of Pitta dosha, a time of fire energy, between 10 am to 2:00 pm. The Vata cycle, 2:00 pm to 6 pm, is a time of activity and creativity, and the Kapha cycle, 6-10 pm, is the grounded earth cycle, a time for winding down and the best time to fall asleep. Getting to bed around 10:00 will optimize what the body needs when it wants to rest. (A short, helpful article on Ayurvedic cycles of the day: http://www.ayurvedacollege.com/blog/ayurveda-and-cycles-time-how-doshas-rule-day.)
Following these guidelines isn’t always possible, or depending on the cause of sleeplessness may not always work. There are times when the mind is too active, the body perhaps too tired to relax and sleep. The list of herbal supplements that can help bring sleep is very long, I list a few below. Medicinal herbs, like all medicine, each work in the body differently. There are sedatives, muscle relaxers, herbs that calm the nervous system (just like there are nervous system stimulants), some herbs that affect the mind, others the body, some both. If you choose a single herb, pick one, read what it’s action is, think about whether that is the action you need. Try one for awhile and see if it helps, if not, try another. There are herbal sleep aids that combine herbs that work together synergistically on on different bodily systems to aid sleep. These are often good choices if you aren’t sure what is needed.
Common supplements that can aid sleep: magnesium, calcium, melatonin – smaller doses work best.
Beverages that aid sleep: any of the herbs as a tea, Montmorency tart cherries, or the juice (can increase melatonin), warm milk.
Important sleep habits:
Regular bed time and routine, this tells your brain and body it’s time for sleep.
Warm bath (showers can be too stimulating)
Yogic breathing exercises can slow the body and mind.
Avoid a lot of conversation in the evening, especially talking about stressful or important matters.
Have your bedroom be for sleep and meditation only, no television or computers.
Use music, or an audio book as you fall asleep to distract the mind from thinking about the day, problems, etc. I call this changing the channel in the mind!
Listen to guided relaxation.
Do some mild exercise every day, walking, gardening, etc. but nothing strenuous in the evening.
Avoid alcohol before bed time.
If possible, address the underlying cause of insomnia, physical or emotional.
Get up at the same time, regardless as to how much sleep you might have gotten. The cycle of neurotransmitters that are needed for sleep begins in the morning when early morning light ‘turns off’ melatonin production. Long naps late in the day, or exposure to light too late in the morning, can affect your brain’s sleep functioning, starting the necessary steps for sleep neurotransmitters to begin too late in day.
Do I do all these things, and do I have great sleep? No, I’ve tried them all, but adequate, consistent, good quality sleep still eludes me more often than not. Underlying medical challenges contribute to the insomnia I experience. However, having tried them all I know which ones usually help me fall asleep on a sleepless night. I have my list of what to try and I know which ones don’t work for me. I encourage you to carefully read about each one you wish to try. There is something, or a combination of things, that will work! Avoiding sleep medications is important because, developed to be used short term only, they do not address chronic insomnia. Taken long term (more than a few days) they become physically and mentally habit forming and usually larger doses are needed to be effective, increasing side affects and addiction.
Below is a list of specific products I use. I vary them so no one product becomes ineffective from overuse. I do not take something every night. By practicing the other requirements for good sleep, taking any sleep aid shouldn’t be needed as a nightly practice. But sleep is important for so many reasons (that’s another article to write!) so find something that works and take it to get a good nights sleep.
Staying up late on the computer, chatting on the phone to the wee hours of the morning, or drinking coffee in the afternoon or after dinner are not good sleep health practices and even the best remedy for sleeplessness may not work! Implement good sleep habits first, they are cheap, have no side-affects, and often are all that is needed!
What I use:
Banyan Botannical – I Sleep Soundly
Gaia Herbs – Sleep Thru
Gaia Herbs – Sound Sleep
Gaia Herbs – Sleep & Relax
Homeopathic Calms Forte
There are hundreds of over the counter herbal sleep aids, I only take ones from companies I know and trust. There are certainly other good ones, just be sure you know the quality of what you are taking. Herbs work, and are generally safe for most people. But they do not work, and may not be safe, if they are poor quality, poorly formulated, or have non-herbal additives.
Sweet dreams! May the Sand Man find you tonight!