To Sleep, Perchance to Heal
‘tis sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care.
Cold winter nights are perfect for sleep. A cozy comforter and a warm bed can trigger that hibernation urge. But for millions of Americans, sleep does not always come easily or linger pleasantly. Inadequate sleep or outright insomnia can torment modern man as terribly as it did Macbeth.
Sleep disorders take many forms. They may include difficulty falling asleep, waking several times in the middle of the night, being unable to return to sleep after waking, light or troubled sleep or waking too early in the morning.
Poor sleep is more than simple inconvenience. It can lead to poor health. In September of 2006, The Archives of Internal Medicine dedicated an entire issue to the relationship between sleep and health. It seems silly that we need a research study to convince us of these relationships but sometimes common sense is all to uncommon.
A large body of work connects inadequate sleep with hypertension, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancers and stroke to name but a few health risks. It seems every organ depends on sleep to balance and heal.
The heart especially benefits from a good night’s sleep. During sleeping hours, the heart can actually get some rest, at least comparatively. Blood pressure lowers, heart rate decreases and that most vital blood pump has it much easier for those few resting hours.
Daily performance can be impaired by sleepless nights. Productivity at work, common decision-making and even safe driving are now linked to how much or how little sleep we get.
The current dictum from the sleep docs is that the best number is seven hours of sleep. Less than that, or more than that, and they see a bulge in the numbers of health difficulties. 4.5 hours or less is considered a real no-no and 10 hours or more is also significantly less healthful.
When sleep difficulties creep in, the common medical approach might be to get to the doctor and ask for any one of the several prescription drugs touted in media ads. None of those are intended as a long-term solution, however, and usually come with a warning about dependence.
Before we buy into the television ads with the mystical “butterfly of sleep,” there are many, more natural options one may consider.
How’s your day been?
If you are having trouble sleeping at night, take a look at what you are doing during the day. Are you eating right and at the right times? Dining too late and on a heavy meal can certainly affect the nighttime sleep. What about stimulating foods or beverages or those that may not agree with you? It seems obvious, but stimulant drinks like colas, coffee and tea deserve consideration as a hindrance to quality sleep.
Are you getting adequate exercise during the day? It’s not about simply tiring the body out. Exercise helps to regulate hormone levels and that has tremendous effect on sleep patterns.
Are you taking time out to meditate or do a relaxation technique to help release stress during the day? After all, how many times can the complaint be traced to an overactive mind in the middle of the night? It’s usually our thoughts that keep us awake and training the mind is an important, if not the important first step. An enlightened health care professional is often more likely to suggest a routine of stress reduction like tai chi or massage therapy than a chemical intervention.
There are certain proactive mechanical steps one can take to help usher in the Sandman. Those suggestions usually include keeping the bedroom as a place of sleep only, keeping a cool but not cold room temperature, avoiding staying up past that perfect sleeping time of 9:30 or 10 p.m. Avoid mind-stressing things like television or quarrels.
Alcohol can have a devastating effect on the ability to sleep. Excess can bypass the natural process the body undergoes in falling to sleep and soon we have to retrain the mind. Many Alcoholics Anonymous attendees point to terrible sleep problems. If I were having sleep problems, one of the first things I would look at is alcohol consumption.
Setting up the proper environment for sleep includes the way we take care of our body. When sleep is still a problem, some people find that certain herbal teas work well. I have found that whole teas made directly from the herb work far better than capsules of powdered herbs. For one, there is a little better knowledge of what you are using when you can actually see the small pieces of valerian root or the actual chamomile flowers, for example. Both of those herbs have been used as sleep aids.
One of Elizabeth Taylor’s personal assistants, the late Roger Wall, once asked me about a tea blend I was using as a calmative sleep aid. He had mentioned it to Ms. Taylor and she wanted to try it. At the time, I was blending dried valerian root, along with small amounts of lady’s slipper and scullcap into a tea. I found it to be a wonderful sleep potion that relaxed but did not knock you out or leave one with a hungover feeling. Roger reported back to me that Ms. Taylor found it very useful. As I noted to him, one should always personally seek the advice of a health care professional when self-prescribing herbs. Some can be very powerful.
A good source for quality herbs is Herb Products Co. in North Hollywood, Calif. They have a website at HerbProducts.com. They offer a broad line of herbs online and if you don’t see it there, it is worth a call. They are very knowledgeable and have been serving the needs of herbalists since 1972.
Onion soup for the soul
Don’t overlook old wives’ tales. Many former insomniacs claim onions can induce sleep. Methods include sniffing diced onions before going to bed. Friends of mine have simply had a nice bowl of French onion soup in the evening and it works for them.
Leading a well-balanced life and keeping things in proper perspective goes even further in preserving our natural ability to slumber.
Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice, and it is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at heartlandhealing.com.