“Get enough sleep!”
How many times have we heard this phrase in lecture from our health care practitioners, friends and loved ones, or the health expert on our news hour break? We hear it so much, it almost gets tuned out, perhaps falling into the pit of “I’ve heard it before” with all the other healthy living phrases like: “reduce stress”, “eat right”, and so on.
Or maybe it just seems too simple? When we are told to do very specific things about our health, like “take this particular supplement”, or “stay away from this particular food”, we are often more likely to listen. Why is this? Do the basics seem too simple? That much of my health can’t be hinging on a little thing like sleep, can it?
Yes, it can. Sleep is one of the most basic core parts of a human’s health and well-being. We can’t survive without it, and things go downhill frighteningly quickly when the quantity and quality of it are lacking. When you are ignoring your sleep needs, you are letting the foundation of your storehouse of health crumble. Everything you add to this storehouse – all the proper supplements, all the perfect healthy practices of exercise, meditation, etc. are extremely important; but how much good will they do you if your foundation isn’t holding up?
Why is sleep so important?
Essential biological processes occur when we sleep, and some happen exclusively during this time. Bones and muscles grow and repair, the nervous system processes and repairs, and immune systems generate. Working memory, essential for learning and completion of complex tasks, is honed and preserved (hence the irony of depriving yourself of sleep for the sake of your career!). Energy is put into such systems as your reproductive system. Certain hormones, such as growth hormone, are released in greater quantities. The two hormones that govern appetite are balanced during sleep, which is why a correlation between sleep loss and weight gain can be drawn. In terms of your adrenal health, as author Christiane Northrup MD states – “sleep restores adrenal balance better than any other modality”. These are just some of the basics; the list goes on. Science is continuously discovering what dividends we may be paid from investing in proper sleep.
What is the best sleep?
Catching a bit of shut-eye here and there may indeed help you carry out your day, but it does not replace a good night’s sleep. In order for your sleep to serve your fundamental needs, there are a few aspects of quality and quantity that are crucial:
- Hours of sleep – As all of these biological processes take time to initiate and complete, hours of sleep are extremely important. Average findings state that 8-10 hours per night are the most beneficial
- Timing of getting to sleep – Various aspects of our health improve when we better tune in to the natural world. Although timing our sleep with the sun may seem unreasonable in our Vancouver winters, the phrase “early to bed, early to rise” is a good motto to follow. At the very least, get to bed before midnight, as this has been shown to have the best effect on our adrenals.
- Sleeping in a dark room – Exposure to bright light during sleep (e.g. from a night light or street lights outside), interferes with the production of melatonin. Inadequate melatonin levels have been linked to tumour growth.
- Unbroken sleep – This reflects back again to the importance of allowing all of your sleep processes a chance to start and complete.
How to work on improving your sleep
If you have been a bad-habit sleeper, it is time to set some goals! Here are some easy tips that can help:
- Increase your hours gradually by going to bed at a slightly earlier time each night
- Keep to a regular evening schedule to allow your body to adjust and know roughly when it can start expecting sleep
- Give yourself time to wind down. Cease any activities that stimulate too much thought at least an hour before bed.
- If needed, use therapy to help you relax. Try a guided sleep meditation before bed, or seek the assistance of alternative therapies for sleep (acupuncture, massage, etc!)
Dr.TCM, R.Ac., B.Sc.
“Finish each day before you start the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two” – Ralph Waldo Emerson