Health

Mastering the art of sleep, naturally

10 steps to improve the quality of your sleep

Dr Rosy Daniel, Weleda UK's Integrative Health Consultant, shares the keys to good sleep and how we can achieve deep and restful slumber.

We all know how great we feel when fully rested, and how ghastly we feel when sleep deprived. For some of us, sleeping deeply is easy. But for others, sleep is elusive and day after day we build up a sleep deficit, becoming irritable, less productive,ill, even overwhelmed. So, learning how sleep works and ensuring that we work with our natural rhythms to ensure good sleep and the rapid eye movement phases of sleep is essential to make our lives work well, and to stay healthy physically and mentally.

Adults need 7-9 hours of sleep every night and normally, towards the end of the day we have a build up of two sleep-inducing agents in our bodies – the first is adenosine which is produced by the process of energy metabolism, and the second is the sleep hormone, melatonin, which is produced by our pineal gland when the light fades and it gets dark.

Straight away here are two big clues – the more that we burn energy through exercise, the more adenosine we will have in our systems. And more we allow our environments to become dark, the more melatonin we will have. So here is another good reason to get moving each day, and a cue to cut down the light in the evenings, moving to lamps or candles and to turn off all other sources of light from our electrical appliances.

Quality sleep is essential to stay healthy physically and mentally.

Another clue comes from traditional Ayurvedic medicine which tells us that we go through four hourly cycles where different elements dominate. Between 6-10pm we are in a Kapha or earth cycle, where we start to feel naturally tired and can fall asleep quite easily. However, the cycle that comes after that is Pitta which is the fire cycle. When we push through our sleepy phase and on into the later hours, we then fire up again and may not feel sleepy until very much later around 2am when this cycle ends.

So, what are the usual reasons that we can’t sleep? The main offender is anxiety. Second is overstimulation. Third is overwork and self-stressing. And fourth is failing to listen to our natural rhythms.

Regular yoga practice can help reduce anxiety.

If you are anxious, then it is vital to start learning techniques to relax and unwind. The best way to make a sustained change in your baseline anxiety level is through a regular practice of yoga, tai chi or chi gong. The master practice is yogic breathing and the best exercise of all to reduce anxiety is alternate nostril breathing. In just five minutes you can restore balance, coming out of ‘fight or flight’ mode into ‘restore and regenerate’ mode.

Aerobic exercise outside also helps as it generates feel good endorphins, gets us breathing deeply and fills our lungs with oxygen. Time spent in nature, or doing right brain ‘flow’ activities really helps too. By this I mean creative activities that relax us and take us out of driven mode. Do also be aware that persistent early morning waking can be a sign of clinical depression, and this may require help from a doctor or therapist.

We overstimulate ourselves in multiple ways: coffee, alcohol, drugs such as amphetamine or cocaine, violent and scary films, alarming news bulletins, loud club music. These things send cascades of adrenaline and cortisol through our systems leaving us wide awake, and coffee even competes for receptors with adenosine, blocking out one of our natural sleep aids. Overwork and self-stressing is another huge problem and many of us are still making lists late at night, desperately trying to get control of our over-filled lives. It is then hardly surprising that we fail to listen to our natural rhythms as they are drowned out by a wholly unnatural level of noise - inner and outer. It is great to put a stop to all of this and allow your body and mind to calm down gently into a natural state of rest and repose, so that you drift off naturally into a beautiful deep sleep, to wake up refreshed and regenerated.

A relaxing night-time ritual will prepare you for sleep.

Ten steps to improve your sleep

  • Step 1 - Take outdoor exercise every single day so you are physically tired and full of adenosine.
  • Step 2 - Dim your lights during the evenings and turn off all devices that emit light in your home so that your pineal gland kicks in and makes melatonin.
  • Step 3 - Finish all computer work by latest 8pm at night, and aim to get yourself and your household into sleep mode by 10pm.
  • Step 4 - Watch the news in the morning rather than at night, or swap to getting a few headlines by app during the day.
  • Step 5 - Swap violent and scary films for gentler, creative, beautiful or funny TV viewing.
  • Step 6 - Start a daily practice of relaxation, yoga, tai chi or qigong, and learn the alternate nostril pranayama technique for when anxiety is high. End the day with the Buddhist ‘Five Blessings’ exercise: either in your own notebook, or with a loved one, share what have been the five blessings of your day. Done regularly, this has been shown to be as powerful as antidepressant medication in treating depression!
  • Step 7 - Start a wind-down process from around 9pm at night, taking a hot candle-lit bath with soft music and lavender bath milk to soothe and calm you, with a big ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door!
  • Step 8 - Build on this with lavender oil to gently massage in, or put a few drops on a tissue to put near to your pillow, or diffuse lavender oil in your bedroom. You could also listen to a relaxation tape or soft music to help you to drift off.
  • Step 9 - Drink a cup of chamomile tea to further soothe your nervous system, and avoid coffee and heavy meals during the evening.
  • Step 10 - Take a herbal sleep remedy if need be, such as valerian, avena sativa, passiflora and green tea extract L-Theanine.

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