By JiJi Russell
Contributor, Sports & Fitness Network
The number of adults in the U.S. who suffer from chronic sleep disorders has reached upwards of 70 million, according to data from the Center for Disease Control. That number comprises a lot of folks who are missing out on one of nature’s most restorative remedies.
Numerous studies cite a good night’s sleep as a necessary event for memory, emotional health, nervous system and immune system health, and more. Indeed, as John Steinbeck said: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
The reasons for poor sleep probably run the gamut, but some of the likely culprits include:
- Mental or emotional stress
- Overstimulation throughout the day from exposure to television, computers, fast-paced work environments, etc.
- Nutrition: Sub-optimal (or poor) food/drink choices, and often at the wrong time
- Medications that compromise sleep
- Lack of pattern: A regular sleeping schedule might be better than an early one, for example.
- And…[insert your issue here]
Sleep Well for a Long Life
A good night’s sleep offers a much-needed respite for your brain; your digestive system; your muscles and bones; and so much more of you. The restorative quality of regular good sleep has been extolled to me personally on numerous occasions when I informally poll octogenarians regarding their secrets to longevity (a practice I am known to do regularly). Most elders whom I interview mention the value of good sleep among the top five things they have done to stay well throughout their long lives.
So, what’s keeping you awake? It’s a good question to ask yourself, and an even better cause to take up TODAY. If you can identify your root causes of poor sleep, you might become better at modifying your days in order to improve your nights.
Below are some tips and practices aimed at getting you on your way to a good night’s sleep.
The CDC labels the promotion of good sleep habits and regular sleep as sleep hygiene, and lists the following sleep hygiene tips for improving sleep:
- Go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning.
- Avoid large meals before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime.
- Avoid nicotine.
Exercise has been shown to help people improve their sleep patterns. Early in the morning and mid-day tend to be the best times for a “typical” person to exercise, as these times help to stimulate energy when you need it most.
Yoga and focused breathing can work well to improve your body’s ability to calm down, both mentally and physically. A long-held “restorative yoga pose”, coupled with slow, deep breathing, can help you to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to regulate hormone levels. As we know, hormone levels have a strong bearing on your ability to tolerate stressors; to metabolize your food; and to help your body “know” when the time has arrived to be asleep or awake.
Below are two yoga poses I recommend adding to your evening routine, just before you get into bed with hopes for a good night’s sleep. Also included are instructions on how to “belly breathe.”
Legs up the wall pose
A wonderfully calming and centering pose, I always do this one when I am feeling mentally “busy” before bed. Please refer to the Yoga Journal for instructions.
Belly breathing technique*
- Come into your restorative yoga pose.
- Begin taking longs, slow, deep breaths through the nostrils.
- Focus first on filling the lowest chamber of the lungs so that as you inhale, your belly gently puffs out, and as you exhale, your belly deflates and drops back toward your spine. Work on this portion of the technique for as long as it takes to feel comfortable breathing “into the belly” this way. It may seem contradictory to your usual breathing pattern and might take some practice to master.
- Once Step 3 becomes easy for you, expand your awareness of the inhalation into all three chambers of the lungs, first the abdominal region, then the thoracic region, then the clavicular region. Feel each chamber expanding as much as possible as the breath flows through the lower, middle, and upper regions of the lungs in a wave-like motion.
- As you exhale, allow the breath to flow out of the lungs like a balloon deflating, in the most relaxed and natural way possible. Just before the end of the exhalation, contract the abdominal muscles, squeezing the residual air out of the lungs so they empty completely.
- Continue taking several deep breaths in this way, keeping your body totally relaxed without inducing strain. Let the breaths be smooth, even, and uninterrupted.
*This explanation of yogic breathing was adapted from training text written by the Kripalu Yoga Fellowship. www.kripalu.org
Proper nutrition can play a huge role in one’s sleep/wake patterns as well. Here are a few noteworthy bullet points regarding food, drink and sleep.
1) Do not eat large and/or difficult-to-digest meals at night. Experiment with eating your largest meal in the middle of the day, and have a lighter, earlier dinner. (For best results, visit any European country to learn how they “lunch” and eat a light supper later on.)
2) Avoid caffeinated products after mid-day, or gradually shift to drinks like green or white tea, which are less caffeinated than, say, coffee or Red Bull.
3) Alcohol can also be a sleep zapper for many. Even if it calms you down after a day of challenges, so too can it make your nighttime sleep fitful.
4) Eat as “real” as possible within your mealtimes. The digestive process requires a lot of energy. Giving your body real food, especially emphasizing whole fruits and vegetables, is, as Hipprocates said “thy medicine” that your body requires in order to function at its best, including following a normal sleep and wake cycle.
Praise the Plants
Finally, there is much valid information available on herbs that one might explore with regard to both sleeping well and having energy during the daytime. Depending on a person’s age, temperament, health concerns, and other factors, one might choose a particular “sleep herb” over another. I do not claim any expertise in recommending herbs for anyone but myself (since I both know myself well and can afford to make a few minor mistakes.) If you wish to explore more depth on your own, I suggest borrowing a book on herbs from your local library and/or visiting a clinical herbalist to refine your choices.
For sleep, some of the common herb recommendations include valerian (Valeriana), passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), and skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora). Again, a specific recommendation of one versus another herb would need to take into account many personal factors and should be offered by a clinical herbalist.
For energy during the daytime (especially if one attempts to kick a caffeine or nicotine habit), the “adaptogens” among herbs help the body to adjust to stress and maintain a calm, sustained energy level. Among this group of herbs are ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), eleuthero (Eleutherococcus), holy basil (Ocimum Sanctum); rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea); gotu kola (Centella asiatica),and bacopa (Bacopa monnieri).
If you suffer from sleep problems on a regular basis, do yourself a favor and start asking questions about where the root of the problem lies and how you might attempt to address it in a friendly, curious way.
And may you live well into your 80s to tell the next generation about what you did to stay well.