Cultivating a great sleep pattern takes exactly that . . . “cultivation”. Your body knows how to sleep and what’s to do so. The bigger question is what are you doing to interfere? We will discuss supplements and medications that can offer help but if you continue to disturb the natural flow of sleep with poor lifestyle choices then the results will be suboptimal. Your excellent night of sleep is not far away but to acquire it you will need to exert a little focus and be willing to honor your body’s needs.
#1 Quiet your mind.
The SINGLE most common issue that I see consistently interfere with sleep is your idea of “stress”. I say “idea” because you don’t have any real stress. You artificially manufacture it. Allow me to explain. If you were alive 500 years ago then true stress came in the form of lack of food, lack of protective shelter from harsh environments, and lack of clothing to keep you warm. You don’t have ANY a of those stresses. It has never been easier to be a human being than it is today. Humans have never had it easier and yet we increasingly say “I’m stressed”. A stressed brain doesn't sleep well. Studies bare this out as depression has risen more than 30% over the past 10 years, largely due to life stress. Read any health site on the topic of stress and polls show that the overwhelming majority of people claim stress is higher than ever and adversely affecting their lives and their sleep. Anxiety grew by 39 percent in a recent one-year period. Attention spans fell by 33 percent from 2000 to 2015. Depression diagnoses are up 33 percent since 2013. Dr. Judson Brewer, M.D. PhD researcher, states her feels 90% of our growing mental health issues can be tied to our abnormal obsession with digital technology.
The average American touches their phone 2,617 times per day and spend at least 2.5 hours per day staring at the tiny screen. Some of us are over 7 hours daily. We are increasingly distracted, impatient, and irritable. The effects of our overstimulated, stressed society are mounting. It is also interesting to recall that Steve Jobs famously denied his kids access to his own creation, the iPad as he felt it was unhealthy.
Events happen to us. Fender benders, rain, traffic, demotions, loss, financial challenges, etc but these are merely events. But it is out THINKING about those events that generates stress. We make whole stories in our head with “what if” scenarios of doom and gloom. Those things haven’t even occurred, yet we generate stress over it to fill our day.
Addiction to digital devices: the simple definition of addiction is ‘continued use despite adverse consequences’. On average Americans spend more than 11 hours a day connected to a digital device such as iPhone, laptop, TV, video games as an endless distraction to our actual lives. The brain doesn’t have any down time. No space in which there is calm and silence. Studies continually show that those that immerse themselves in nature a mere 20 minutes three times per week are calmer and less stressed. They sleep better.
So, the first rule for good sleep is to create portions of your day AWAY from digital stuff. Go for a walk in nature WITHOUT your phone and earbuds. Every second of your day does NOT need to be filled with a podcast or YouTube video. Seek out SILENCE and pay attention to it. Revel in it. Seek nature, trees, parks, water, mountains, or merely your backyard. Americans spend 93% of their lives INDOORS and it’s the reason we are so sick. We have lost touch with actual life. Fresh air, sunshine, quiet, and plants. Even indoor environments with fake plants are better than being without. Our caveman roots want and needs to connect to what’s real. This is calming.
How to create a calmer mind
- Learn to meditate or engage a “Stillness” exercise. See the Art of Stillness article and begin this simple habit as a great tool for creating space in your life.
- There are several articles and videos to gently introduce you to this valuable skill. Don’t be intimidated, simply be curious and explore.
- Walk in nature. Drink it in WITHOUT your phone. Studies show tremendous benefit to being outdoors as it reduces blood pressure, heaet rate, and dissolves stress and cortisol but this benefit is lost if you engaged with your phone at the same time. Leave the phone at home. Disconnect. Exercise outdoors as much as possible. Set a goal to be outdoors for an hour everyday.
- Average American spends 93% of their life indoors.
- Remove digital devices from your day as much as possible. Pay attention to your addiction to social media and iPhone handling. There are APPs that will help you track your use both in time and number of touches.
- Avoiding blue light that is emitted from your digital devices the last 2 hours of the day as this blue light excites the mind. We desire to be calm. More on this later.
Ok, here comes your favorite . . . EXERCISE. There I said it. I am always shocked at how often people who don’t sleep also tell me they don’t exercise. Too tired to exercise. The lack of one causes the other. I won’t bore you with the dozen mechanisms whereby exercise primes your body for good sleep so just take my word that brain chemistry, cortisol levels, glucose control and a myriad of other things are combining to secure great sleep when we consistently exercise. Go camping, hike and carry firewood and then take note how awesome your sleep was. How often should I exercise? Ideally DAILY but if your looking for the least you can do (I know who you are) then a bare minimum is 30 minutes 3 times per week as a good start.
Timing is everything so be very careful NOT to engage aggressive exercise after 6pm as this would spike cortisol and potential interfere with sleep. Gentle exercise like yoga may be OK later in the day but intense activity needs to happen before 5pm ideally.
#3 Stop working
What are you actively doing the 90 minutes before bedtime? Ideally you are being a lazy bum. If you are trying to finish a final load of laundry, clean the kitchen, organize your to do list or clean the house then for your own sake please STOP. Your goal the last 90 minutes before bed should be to unwind, relax, pet the dog, chat with kids or spouse, play with a jigsaw puzzle, watch TV (NOT the news), read a paper magazine (no digital) or entertaining paper book. You were spectacular today but if you want to be amazing tomorrow then you need let you mind unwind and relax. This is a process. Your brain can’t be focused and engaged right up to bedtime, this isn’t how you are wired to work. If we were camping in the forest, what would be doing at 9pm? NOTHING!! Sitting by the fire in low light simply telling stories. That’s you're your mind wants and this is how we are wired. If you don’t honor the needs of the body, then good sleep will never be within your grasp.
I can hear the groans already. A small amount of alcohol such as 1 modest sized drink doesn’t typically interfere with sleep. But that second drink or that big first one (2 shots of spirits or an 8 ounce pour of wine) will defiantly interfere. Your brain will not make the natural sleep chemicals and you will also get up to urinate as alcohol affects kidney function (aldosterone production). If you take time to note the quality of your sleep with and without alcohol, then you know this is true. If you happen to be looking for weight loss then alcohol holds a double whammy.
#5 Bedroom Environment
Make it black and keep it cold. Our body loves to sleep when it is cool and dark. Really dark. Can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. But modern living is full of light and sound. The red lights coming from your smoke alarm, VCR, TV, clock radio, etc. All of these little source of light add up. Kill them. The sound coming from the street, dishwasher, dog, rustling spouse, air purifier, etc all combine to sabotage your brain.
Consider getting “black out blinds” as a cheap investment in your health. Play detective and seek out light and sound sources and remove them. Put little pieces of electrical tape over the tiny lights that exist in your bedroom. Get rid of that silly clock radio and instead use a small battery operated (no electric cord) clock that only lights up when you touch it. It’s game time so get in there and take this serious.
#6 Endocrine (hormones)
Make sure your body is working properly. It’s common to see sleep deteriorate over time as we age. Sometimes the reason is that we have adopted bad habits like those listed above but there is the possibility that it is a change in your hormones or thyroid performance. A conversation with your integrative physician and a simple lab test should uncover this. Be sure to check that box.
These are the top 6 issues that you can easily correct THIS WEEK. Easy peasy. Ok, so maybe it will take a tad longer but you are no longer defenseless. You have a path to engage that you can control. Next steps . . . Let’s offer a few tools to help get you there faster.
Very cool little tool that has been around for decades and has only gotten better with time. If I put a tone of one frequency in your left ear and difference frequency in your right ear at the same time then the brain has to reconcile this difference. Studies exploring different frequencies have resulted in an understanding of how to excite or calm the brain into specific brain waves. You can engage this binaural technology through a host of APPs, but my favorite is “Binaural Beats”. At the low cost of $1.50 you can select from dozens of tracks that will coax your brain into a calming brain wave such as theta or delta. Theta is the first stage leading to sleep and delta is the brain wave we are in during really deep sleep. This is not magic, it’s science and has been used for decades to help people with anxiety and PTSD. Simply listening to one of these tracks for 20 minutes prior to bedtime can help induce a calmer brain wave more conducive to sleep.
Yes, these beats are on your phone and I said to avoid your phone but you aren’t looking at the screen and absorbing blue light you are simply using ear buds and listening. You can also Meditate or engage Belly Breathing techniques to have an additive effect.
Breathing techniques - Belly breathing
By moving your diaphragm when you breath you can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the cool and groovy calm side of your central nervous system which is the side you ignore all day when you are running around like a crazy person and engaging digital technology. Most people really have no idea HOW to properly breath. Yes, there is a better way to breath that you can learn and engage throughout the day. See the article, Belly Breathing to Calm or the Belly Breathing Video
Moving your diaphragm means pushing your belly button OUT as you take a deep breath in. If you are puffing out your chest and sucking in your abdomen then this is “stress” breathing and the opposite of belly breathing. By moving the diaphragm, you are messaging the vagus nerve which sends a signal to your brain to chill out. Relax. Slow down. Take life in. Once you learn how to do this simple maneuver you will wonder how you got along without it. See the article, Belly Breathing to Calm or the Belly Breathing Video
This is another very cool and simple tool that engages biofeedback to teach you how to monitor your state of being and your breathing. Great tool for driving awareness and leading you closer to a state of true meditation and stillness. The idea of “coherence” is measuring how the brain, heart and breath are working together. The heart sends signals to the brain and vice versa. In chaos there is no coherence, these organs are acting independently and not coordinating. But as you use this simple device you will soon learn how to center yourself and focus inward to bring harmony into your moment by moment existence. You plug a specialized ear clip that holds a computer chip, into your iPhone (yes, back to the phone) and control your rate of breathing as you center your mind on positive thoughts. The device will show you how you drift in and out of coherence. The goal is to recognize a state of being that is consistently in coherence as this is more peaceful existence and one that erodes stressful hormones like cortisol.
Fasting Prior to Bed
True fact: your body temperature ideally drops a full degree while we sleep and promotes a deeper undisturbed sleep pattern. Unless . . . you are digesting food. Putting food in your belly right before sleep starts a 3 hour digestive process that actually increases body temperature and therefore interferes with the ideal condition for sleep. Avoid any calorie intake 2-3 hours before bed and pay attention to its impact. If you are horrible at fasting (I was terrible when I first started – big baby) simply give it time and slowly increase the time interval. It's a mindset more than anything. Relax into it. I promise you won’t die of starvation.
Yes, you read that correctly. If you snore then it is very common that the reason for that lovely noise is from your tongue falling back into your airway, the back of your throat. You are supposed to be breathing through your nose and when you do you don’t snore. But if your mouth gaps open and you suck air in through your mouth this rush of air will often pull the tongue back into the airway and cause an obstruction. Trying to breath around it creates snoring and a serious drop in oxygen saturation in your blood. The body hates that. Hates it so much that this is a common driver if high blood pressure and heart disease. YIKES!!
Mouth taping might be an easy fix. For many adults a simple piece of tape to keep the lips together makes a world of difference. See the article Mouth Taping- How and Why discussing how to engage this. If this doesn’t help then you likely need a sleep study to explore how seriousness of this snoring issue.
Blue light blocking
The final player in our toolbox are those fabulous orange eyeglasses that you have seen advertised. Specialized lenses can reduce some of the blue light coming into your eyeballs from the screens we are exposed to. There are also specialized screen protectors that you can attach to your laptop or iPhone that lock the blue light as it leaves the device. One quality version (well tested) screen protector is Reticare .
You are now thoroughly informed on the topic of sleep and how to protect and improve it. You can no longer plead ignorance so get to work and make some simple changes over the next few weeks. You will fall in love with the beauty and quality of your sleep and never again give it away to outside influence.
In the next article we will review supplements, hormones and medications that can work to enhance sleep but know with certainty that if you haven’t addressed the issues listed above then the beneficial influence of any exogenous chemical, natural or otherwise, will be reduced. If you choose to engage, supplements and medications that improve sleep then we recommend engaging an integrative physician in selecting the best options for your specific needs.