We all know that absolutely everything is easier after a good night’s sleep! Sleep is fundamental to our wellbeing, but somehow we manage to take it for granted at the same time as berating our lack of it! Often mis-understood and wildly under-rated, it is a sad thing that so many people these days are surviving on much less sleep than they actually need. Before we look at why that should be and what’s causing the epidemic of poor sleep these days, let’s take a quick look at what sleep is, and what it is actually does.
Although it seems we do nothing when we are asleep, our bodies are actually quite busy. While we are sleeping , our bodies and brains are restocking our supply of hormones, processing significant toxins, repairing damaged tissue, generating vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminating the effects of stress, and (importantly) processing heavy emotions. Without sufficient time to do this important work (ie 8 hours for the average adult) our systems become increasingly de-natured – our hormones become imbalanced, our immunity is suppressed, our ability to manage stress is diminished, our natural appetite and hunger levels go awry and our emotional flexibility is compromised.
Sleep itself is one of the (many) gifts of our pineal gland – a tiny, pine-cone shaped lobe in the very centre of our brains – often referred to as the ‘third eye’. When our circadian rhythms are in sync (the natural rhythms that control our daily, weekly and monthly cycles, like tides), the pineal gland releases the hormone and neuro-transmitter, melatonin, at bed-time. Melatonin works by suppressing the activity of other neurotransmitters and helps to calm us down (primarily by countering the stress hormone cortisol which is produced by our adrenals). As we become sleepier, the brain slowly begins to turn off our voluntary skeletal muscle functions, directing energy inwards, to the important work to be done while we sleep.
For ideal sleep, our melatonin levels should be steadily rising at bed-time and our cortisol levels should be rock-bottom. And this is a system that has been devised over centuries of fairly constant night-time behaviour. Not so very many decades ago our night-time routines were very different from today. We would be aware of the sunset and benefit from the long-wave, red light from the sun at the end of the day, our evenings would be spent mostly in the dark with firelight or candle light (again, red-light) and our activities, for the most part, would be about ‘winding-down’ – reading a book, chatting before a fireside or taking a final breath of night-air before bed-time. These days our evening activities are very different often involving mental or physical stimulants like computer games, social networking, business emails, alcohol or the latest knife-edge TV drama – sometimes all of them at once!
What happens in this scenario is that stress, and therefore cortisol, levels go UP just before bedtime and the blue-light from so many screens pushes melatonin levels DOWN – the very opposite of what we need for a good night’s sleep.
When my clients present with sleep problems, the very first thing I do is work with them on what I call ‘sleep hygiene’ – the simple process of getting into the good habits that restore the natural circadian rhythms and allow peaceful, restful sleep. For a few people, there are specific physical imbalances or mental stressors that impact on the quality of sleep (and these should be dealt with in the context of a supported, ongoing and holistic approach to general wellbeing). For the most part however, just about everybody could benefit from improving their bed-time routine and making space for a little bit of self-care. So, to help you get started, here is my recipe for the perfect night’s sleep:
One long hot bath
Two large cups Epsom Salts
A few drops of essential oil (lavender, geranium, frankincense, mandarin or clove being my favourites)
A mug of herbal tea (eg lavender, valerian, chamomile or passionflower) or a delicious Turmeric Latte
A dry body-brush
A beautiful scented candle (made from soy wax if possible).
A natural body oil such as Argan Nut Oil
A good book
Someone to hug (optional!)
- Start your preparations early in the afternoon and avoid all caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, colas) from 3pm onwards.
- Eat your last meal 2 -3 hours before you go to bed and try and keep your evening meal light, just veggies and protein if possible, keeping your main meal for the middle of the day (you will be surprised how much a heavy meal, last thing at night, can negatively impact your sleep).
- No email, TV, computer games, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations in the full hour prior to bed-time
- Light the candle, run a deep, hot bath and mix in the Epsom Salts and essential oils (Epsom Salts work brilliantly to draw out toxins and the magnesium in them is a wonderful natural soother and muscle relaxant).
- Give yourself a gentle massage with a dry brush using long, gentle strokes, starting with your feet and legs, then hands and arms, moving towards your heart and finishing with circular, clockwise strokes around your tummy. This process massively increases lymph flow and improves night-time de-toxification
- Soak for as long as you can in the bath to get the full benefits of the Epsom salts and essential oils (at least 20 minutes but up to 40 minutes if possible).
- Massage a few drops of oil into your still-damp skin
- Avoid fluoride toothpastes – fluoride is known to calcify the pineal gland
- Relax into bed with a good book or a good lover (or both!)
If you are suffering from chronic fatigue, feeling tired and wired, struggling to fall asleep or waking regularly in the middle of the night, these are signs that your body wants something to change. Let me help you de-code these messages so you can make the subtle shifts your body is needing and improve the health of every cell in your body.