Sleep Problems?

Sleep quantity and quality is important. Good quality sleep is essential to all-round good health.  It "gets the batteries charged" as the old saying goes. Sleep problems impact on many health/disease conditions, including energy levels (eg fatigue, and also conversely hyperactivity[1]), learning and attention difficulties, behavioural problems, anxiety and depression and other mood disorders, and affects workplace productivity.

Insomnia

Insomnia is difficulty in sleeping. There are two main categories[2] of insomnia, sleep onset insomnia  (difficulty getting to sleep), and maintenance insomnia (staying asleep). Insomnia can be one problem of sleep quantity (and there are others such as EDS - excessive daytime sleep, narcolepsy etc), but the question of getting good quality sleep goes far beyond quantity.  A lot of people have no difficulty getting off to sleep, but they wake unrefreshed and fatigued afterwards.  Causes must be investigated and addressed.  Long term use of sleeping tablets does not address the real problem, and as far as addressing symptoms are concerned anyway herbal medicine has plenty to offer here.

Sleep Quality

The following suggestions and checks are important for everyone to improve sleep value.
  • Background noise levels (eg chatter, traffic noise, dogs barking etc).  Calming music can block these out and induce sleep
  • Take a nice warm bath (tepid – not too hot - add some Epsom salts), or do some warming exercise before bed, for a nice relaxing sleep; as your body cools down, sleep will come much more easily
  • Turn lights off at night (light disrupts function of the pineal gland which produces melatonin, a sleep-inducing and promoting hormone).  The darker the sleep environment, the better
  • Reading a book can induce drowsiness (suggest a spiritual, not suspense, type of reading)
  • Lack of circulating fresh air (fresh air is an essential nutrient; we do not want to be breathing stale, de-oxygenated air at night).  Of course, empty any cigarette ash trays in the house, and especially any which might (for some reason) be in your bedroom
  • Going to sleep too soon after a big meal, especially if the meal has a lot of protein content (eg meat, chicken, fish).  The digestive activity (energy) of digesting such a meal is not conducive to quality sleep. Eat dinner earlier rather than later.  Walk after a meal, play, allow time to pass before bed
  • Not getting enough (quality and quantity) sleep before midnight (reference the body's circadian clock).  Go to bed earlier rather than later
  • Having to wake more than once to pee.  Avoid too much fluid within 2 hours of bedtime, and empty your bladder before bed
  • Sleeping on a poor quality mattress and/or pillow (mattress should be very firm, not saggy, and your pillow should support your head when lying on your side.
  • Practice “sinking down” into your pillow. Consciously allow your neck muscles to “let go”, you will drop several centimetres further, and the “lights will go out”.
  • Becoming dehydrated at night (usually due to excessive alcohol intake at night). When taking alcohol at night, limit intake to one or two glasses, wine is better than spirits, and intersperse a glass of wine with a glass of water.  Alcohol induces sleep but it reduces NREM (deep) sleep, and causes fitfulness in early morning sleep hours
  • Taking nervine stimulants too close to sleep time, such as coffee, chocolate, rich desserts and soft drinks (high in sugar, a stimulant), tea, vitamin B, Co-Q10 etc.  Instead, allow time for digesting before sleeping, or avoid except on special occasions.  Some herbal teas such as chamomile and SleepyTime tea are nervine sedative and relaxing
  • Try to keep regular sleep times. Catch the “wave of sleepiness” commonly felt around 9.30 – 10.30. Also shift work reverses the "natural order" (see below re circadian rhythm)
  • Snoring generally means a poorer quality sleep.  Causes of snoring can be many, but must be addressed. Sleep apnoea (temporary cessation of breathing) must also be taken seriously, as it also mitigates sleep quality, and can be fatal
  • Anxiety (whether specific or non-specific) also affects sleep quality.  Causes/symptoms of anxiety must be addressed and treated. If anxious, get out of bed, write down your anxieties, then release them and go back to bed
  • Lack of exercise.  One who works physically hard, who exercises skeletal muscles generally enjoys a better sleep than the sedentary worker.  Becoming physically tired is a great antidote to mental fatigue, so a proper exercise program with improving cardiovascular outcome is important
  • Pain.  The cause as well as the pain itself must be addressed
  • High blood pressure and/or increased pulse rate.  Play some calming “white” music (eg sounds of nature etc) as you get into bed for sleep
  • Getting cold at night.  The higher the body's natural  temperature, the longer one sleeps.  Thin socks are sometimes useful to keep the feet warm when there is poor circulation. But remember, overheating also will ruin the quality of sleep
  • Keep your bed for intimacy and sleep only. No TV; no pre-sleep discussions of problems or worries; do that before getting into bed
  • Another consideration includes nocturnal hypoglycaemia (running out of brain glucose at night).
  • A really important point and one that is perhaps most commonly overlooked is that one ought to sleep without interference from electrical fields, such as those created by electric blankets or waterbed heaters, or those surrounding wiring and power boxes in or on walls near your bed, or overhead high voltage power lines.  This can dramatically interfere with the body's bio-electrical conductivity (such as that intrinsic to the central nervous system including the brain which after all governs sleep!). Some people report much better sleep quality with the BioMagnetic® mattress and pillow underlays.  These products create a low energy electro-magnetic field (c. 375 gauss per magnet) which stimulates the body's circulatory systems (both lymph and blood are electrochemically influenced).  These products are altogether different in effect to bed heaters/electric blankets etc which interfere with the body's systems. 

Sleep Quantity

For how long should one sleep?  There are no hard and fast rules, but experts say adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night; the average adult gets less than 7 hours. Generally children need more than healthy adults. We all need more in winter.  If we are ill, we need more rest/sleep than when we are well.  If we are depressed, we tend to want to sleep more!

The body has a specific circadian rhythm (day/night cycle); at certain times particular organs "shut down for maintenance" and become less energetic, others become more active, some in response to sunshine on the skin, others in response to the lunar (moon) phases.  It is important to know that the night is for sleeping, the day time is for wakefulness. 

The modern electric light has changed the natural order somewhat, so be judicious with its use...in other words, honour natures phases; in winter the nights are longer and cooler for a reason, to encourage longer sleep times.  Animals in the wild generally do not get sick, because they eat natural foods and honour the seasons, going to sleep with the dusk and waking at "sparrows fart".  They haven't lost contact with their environment, but humans have, we have tried to "master" the natural environment, with all our artificial earth (concrete pavements), artificial heating/cooling, artificial light, artificial foods.  In divorcing ourselves from the natural environment we pay a big price with our health.

The "Power Nap"

Having a sleep during the day can beneficially supplement night-time sleep.  Studies into what is now known as the "power nap" suggest that early afternoon (siesta) is an appropriate time within the circadian rhythm for a short nap.  If you "catch the wave" and have a nap, your body will bring you back to (semi-) consciousness after about 15 minutes of deep sleep...you will stir.  Don't roll over, don't just lie there...get up..and you will find that that 15 minutes is much more refreshing than if you had 2 hours sleep, from which you can awake feeling worse than before.

The greatest inventor of the modern era, Nicola Tesla, didn't sleep much in the quantitative sense at all, he was too busy and interested in his experiments[3] for that, but he had several power naps during a twenty-four hour period which kept him refreshed, physically and mentally able to do his work.

Biochemical Considerations

It may be that the brain centres which govern relaxation and sleep/wake functions may not be getting adequate nutrient to perform as they should.  Such nutrients known to be involved in the activity of these centres include the amino acid tryptophan (precursor molecule to serotonin and melatonin) and cofactors vitamins B6, B3, and magnesium (help convert tryptophan to serotonin), adenosine, and others such as folate[4], melatonin and vitamin E.

Low copper and iron intake increase sleep time and decrease its quality.  High levels of aluminium (present in most antacids) decrease sleep quality. Herbal medicine offers better short-term help than benzodiazepine sleeping tablets, with less side effects.


[1]Current studies in the USA are demonstrating that poor quality sleep (snoring was one factor noted) are characteristic of children suffering ADD/ADHD.

[2]There are clinically many sub-sets of insomnia, such as delayed sleep phase syndrome (shift workers), psycho physiological (anxiety) insomnia, childhood insomnia (limit-setting sleep disorder), food allergy insomnia, transient insomnia, environmental insomnia, toxin-induced sleep disorder, altitude insomnia to name some. 

[3]If you have in your possession the book Nicola Tesla : The Prodigal Genius, I would love to buy or borrow it to read again.  It has been one of the most interesting books I have ever read.

[4]Restless Legs syndrome and nocturnal myoclonus (leg cramps) are significant causes of insomnia

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