Sleepless in TorontoSusannah Kent March 1, 2007
The worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
A young college student is overwhelmed near final exams. He tries to get to sleep but can’t seem to manage more than two or three hours a night. So concerned with one particular exam, he decides to stay up and study the entire night before. He meets up with his girlfriend after the exam and they have a big fight and break up. Tired and still angry he goes home and a pushing match ensues with his younger brother. This is from a normally easy-going, gentle individual. A long-haul truck driver is desperate for the bonus he will receive if he can make a next day delivery. It means driving straight through the day and night. He doesn’t make his bonus. In fact, he ends up in the hospital, badly injured, taking two innocent people from the vehicle he smashed into with him. Assuredly sleeplessness is a formidable enemy to our emotional and physical health.
More and more scientific studies are finding connections between sleep problems and a host of diseases. For example, studies have demonstrated that poor sleep impairs the body’s ability to use insulin — thus setting the stage for the onset of diabetes. If not diagnosed and treated, people with the sleep disorder known as sleep apnea (a condition in which breathing temporarily stops during sleep) are at risk for high blood pressure, heart attacks and stroke, and car accidents (due to fatigue). Even occasional sleeping difficulties appear to affect the ability to concentrate and perform tasks, and can cause moodiness. Research has also shown a link between chronic insomnia and depression.
Besides its link to health problems, sleep deficiency is also a factor in thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries and disabilities annually due to car accidents (The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). And the overall cost to the economy for these and other sleepiness related accidents and problems is estimated to be $100 billion annually. Sleep problems are not only costly but they are widespread as well.
According to Statistics Canada (2002) an estimated 3.3 million Canadians aged 15 or older have problems going to sleep or staying asleep, and thus are considered to have insomnia. Recent polls by the National Sleep Foundation in the United States found that almost 60% of adults experience insomnia at least a few nights per week. And unfortunately, the preferred method of treatment (billions are spent annually) is prescription and over-the-counter sleep aids. This is despite the fact that most sleeping pills are potentially addictive, have known adverse side effects and do not allow for deep, restorative sleep. So before you reach for the Lunesta, explore some of the safer, effective, drug-free remedies available, as well as some personal resolutions you can make to help yourself sleep when you can’t.
IMPROVE YOUR SLEEP BEHAVIOUR
The first step toward getting a good night’s sleep is to practise behaviour that promotes continuous, restorative sleep, or what the experts refer to as good sleep hygiene. Areas that most affect good sleep hygiene are our circadian rhythm or internal biological clock, environmental factors, psychological stressors, and medicinal or recreational stimulants.
We all have a day-night cycle of about 24 hours called the circadian rhythm. It greatly influences when we sleep and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm is, the better our sleep. Therefore, going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, and avoiding daytime napping are fundamental to good sleep hygiene.
Light, noise, and temperature are all environmental conditions that affect our sleep. It is important to have the temperature in the bedroom cooler rather than warmer and the room should be as dark and quiet as possible.
Stress of any kind makes getting a good night’s sleep challenging. Allowing at least an hour before bedtime to unwind, perhaps with a warm bath, soft music, journal writing, yoga or meditation, could help to turn off the stress of the day and allow you to quiet your mind in preparation for sleep.
Stimulants like coffee, alcohol and nicotine are anathema to good sleep hygiene and may have a larger impact on your sleep than you realize. Caffeine, which can stay in your system as long as 14 hours, increases the number of times you awaken at night, in turn decreasing the total amount of sleep time. Alcohol may make it easier to fall asleep; however, it causes arousals that can last as long as two to three hours after it has been eliminated. These arousals disturb sleep, often causing intense dreaming, sweating, and headache.
Some other sleep hygiene tips include keeping the bedroom for sleep and sexual activity only; avoiding large meals close to bedtime; exercising regularly preferably in the morning, and getting sufficient exposure to natural light everyday.
If you are practising good sleep hygiene and are still having sleep issues there are a number of alternatives you can try. One or a combination may be your personal sleep solution.
MOTHER NATURE’S SLEEP AIDS
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep due to emotional or physical ailments, homeopathic remedies, or a variety of herbals may be able to help restore a restful, natural sleep. It is important to have an expert in the field assess you and your condition in order to prescribe the correct combination of remedies. I consulted with Tamara Der-Ohanian, Homeopath, and Diane Tait, Registered Herbalist, to see what sleep aids they would suggest.
For insomnia due to fear or anxiety, or a disturbed, anxious and restless sleep, Der-Ohanian recommends Arsenicum Album 30C. Calcarea Carbonicum 30C is helpful for insomnia due to worry, and may help with night terrors. If your sleep is easily disturbed by noise or you can’t sleep due to too much consumption of coffee, Coffea Cruda 30C may help. Finally, Mercurius 30C is recommended for restless leg syndrome, excessive sweating during sleep, or if you lie awake for hours before you can fall asleep. The recommended dosage of these sleep remedies is one pellet under the tongue at bedtime.
For better absorption and quality of herb, Diane Tait advises people use the alcohol tinctures rather than capsules. If your sleep problems are due to anxiety and tension, Tait recommends St John’s wort, a nervous system tonic. Blue Vervain is especially good when the insomnia is due to nervous exhaustion. If restlessness, nervousness or feelings of panic are keeping you awake, Lemon Balm, a relaxant, can help alleviate those feelings and quiet a racing heart. For sleeplessness due to pain and irritability, Tait recommends Chamomile which acts as an anti-inflammatory and relaxant. Hops are “great at turning off that active mind and calming the restless spirit.” Lastly there is Valerian Root. This is a sedative, relaxant, and anti-spasmodic herb. It relieves muscle spasms, anxiety, and lowers blood pressure. The dose for Valerian is 1/4 – 1/2 tsp, or approximately 20-35 or 40 drops.
Tait explains that the above-mentioned herbs are supportive to an exhausted nervous system and help relieve muscle tension, symptoms present in most insomniacs. Any of these herbs can be used alone, but best results usually come from a combination of two to four herbs. The recommended dosage is 1/2-1 tsp in a mouthful of water a half hour before bed.
Besides the herbs and homeopathic remedies mentioned above, Mother Nature has other things in her cupboard that may help induce a better, sounder sleep. The expert supplements staff at Noah’s Natural Foods (on Bloor Street) provided the following valuable advice in regards to natural sleep aids:
1) Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced by your body which helps to regulate sleep patterns. It is available in a synthetic form as lozenges and capsules. The staff at Noah’s likes Now brand and suggest lozenges as the faster acting agent. It is recommended that this supplement only be taken to readjust sleep disruptions such as jet lag and the dose is 1-3 mg. to start.
2) Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that acts as a calming agent which can induce sleep. While not sold in Canada as a supplement, it is available in a precursive form as 5HTP. When taken, it encourages the production of tryptophan in your body. The dosage is 50 mg. Another method of increasing blood levels of tryptophan is the age old remedy of drinking a glass of warm milk before bedtime. Almost everyone of the experts I spoke to about sleep remedies vouched for its efficacy.
3) Finally, there is magnesium which supports nerve functioning and can act as a natural relaxant. Again the staffer at Noah’s recommends Natural Calm to her customers. It is available in powder form (pure magnesium) and can be made into a tea.
MOVING TOWARD SLEEP
One sure way to guarantee a better sleep is to stay physically active. A Stanford University School of Medicine study revealed that exercise reduced the time required to fall asleep by half, and increased sleep time by almost one hour. Exercise increases the body’s production of endorphins, which creates a sense of well-being and increases the body’s resistance to pain, thereby alleviating some of the stressors affecting sleep. And because exercise increases the amount of time you spend in deepest, Stage four sleep, your sleep is more restful and restorative. For some people the solution to a better, sounder sleep is simple — regular physical exercise.
The situation was more complicated for author, speaker and Feldenkrais Method™ teacher, Michael Krugman. Despite his healthy lifestyle, when he suffered a bout of insomnia he could not “summon a single technique that would help him sleep.” That is until he discovered that certain physical movements can shift one “from an alert, waking state to one of profound physical and mental repose, at will.” Tiny, slow, physical movements activate the parasympathetic nervous system, triggering the body’s inborn mechanisms for rest, recuperation, and healing. In this state everything slows down, the body relaxes and the mind is clear and calm. These physical and mental responses to voluntary movement are similar to the ones that occur spontaneously at the onset of natural sleep. Through this discovery, Krugman created his Sounder Sleep System™, a series of simple, gentle physical movements (Mini Moves) synchronized with natural breathing to help to direct at will the shift from waking to sleep.
I recently attended a Sounder Sleep workshop with Marion Harris, (the only certified Sounder Sleep System™ teacher in Ontario), of the Feldenkrais Centre (Toronto). The session was wonderfully informative and relaxing. There were a variety of stress reducing and breathing techniques that Marion taught during the three hour session, but my favourites were the Breath Surfacing, meant to help you get to sleep, and the Secret Handshake to help relieve daytime tension. These are very simple to learn and are incredibly effective.
THE CALMING EFFECT OF THE SECRET HANDSHAKE:
If you are feeling tense and anxious during the day, learning and adopting the Secret Handshake could help calm your mind, improve the quality of your day, thereby improving the quality of your sleep at night:
1) With your palms facing downward, move your hands towards each other and hold one of your thumbs.
2) Extend the index finger of the grasping hand and hold the extended index finger with the fingers of the opposite hand.
3) Slowly inhale and begin to squeeze your thumb. Exhale and gradually relax your grip. Then slowly inhale and squeeze your index finger. Exhale and relax your grip. Repeat several times, then rest for several complete breath cycles or more.
THE LULLING EFFECT OF BREATH SURFING:
If you are having trouble falling asleep, or you awaken during the night, try the following technique. Imagine that each breath you take is like a gentle ocean wave. In the Sounder Sleep System™ Breath Surfing is the “art of catching those waves and riding them to the shores of sleep.”
1) Rest the tips of your fingers of both hands on either side of your chest. Rest your thumbs wherever feels comfortable.
2) Slowly inhale and as your chest rises let your thumbs rise a tiny bit away from your chest. As you exhale, relax your thumbs. Repeat several times, then rest for several complete breath cycles.
SLEEP ON IT
If you have sleep issues it is crucial to address them sooner rather than later. If you do not, it will ultimately have a negative impact on your health. And while it might be tempting to go the simple, fast and seemingly harmless sleeping pill route, your health is worth the time and effort to discover safer, better, more effective long term solutions. Your mind and body will rejoice as you rediscover real, restful sleep, one that “knits up the ravelled sleave of care, is the balm of hurt minds, and the chief nourisher in life’s feast.” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth)
• Marion Harris, The Feldenkrais® Centre. See March 24 calendar event listing. (416) 928-3505. www.feldenkraiscentre.com
• Diane Tait, Registered Herbalist of Greenwood Botanicals.(905) 426-7846.
• Tamara Der-Ohanian, HD (416) 385-1001. www.fishtree.com
• Michael Krugman, The Insomnia Solution, Warner Books, 2005
• Gerard T. Lombardo, MD, Sleep to Save Your Life, Harper Collins, 2005
• Herbert Ross, DC, Sleep Disorders, AlternativeMedicine.com Inc., 2000