Written by Dr. Kim Nearpass
Early on in school, we learn about the basic survival needs: food, shelter, oxygen water and sleep. Until recently however, little was understood about the functions of sleep and how it affects our physiology. We all know how miserable it feels when we don't sleep well, decreasing our mood, energy and ability to focus. Recent scientific research has proven the vital importance of sleep on nearly every human function.
It's helpful to understand some basic sleep physiology. A healthy, balanced night's sleep contains a mix of REM (rapid eye movement) and deep, NREM (non-REM) sleep. The percentage of each type of sleep varies during different stages of life, but both are required to maintain optimal physical, mental and emotional health. REM sleep, the time when we experience dreaming and immobilization and relaxation of our voluntary muscles, allows us to integrate and “file away” our daytime experiences. During periods of NREM sleep, our brain activity switches to a meditative-like state that enables us to reflect upon, distill, strengthen and solidify our memories. A pattern of alternating REM and NREM sleep throughout the night allows us the opportunity to make repairs and heal what has been upset during the wake state.
Sleep researchers have shed light on how disruptions in the various stages of sleep can affect our health and well-being. Routinely sleeping less than the recommended 7-8 hours per night weakens your immune system, leading to more frequent illness and increased risk of cancer. Inadequate sleep also increases the risk of Alzheimer's, fertility challenges, heart disease, obesity and diabetes, as well as decreasing longevity. Inversely, sufficient quality and amounts of sleep balance emotions and improve learning, memory, creativity and decision making.
Poor sleep is a serious problem in our culture that provides endless stimulation and values productive, long work hours. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), 50 – 70 million Americans report sleep difficulties, and over 9 million Americans take some form of prescription sleep medication, Zolpidem, (aka Ambien) being the most popular. Unfortunately, studies show that not only do these medications fail to support normal, healthy restorative sleep patterns, but they also weaken brain cell connections during sleep and lead to shorter life spans. Even occasional use of prescription sleeping pills (1-18 times per year) results in a 3.6 times increased risk of death.
All of this information can feel overwhelming and may increase anxiety that could worsen our sleep. The good news is that many solutions for poor sleep exist. Naturopathic medicine offers a wide range of safe and helpful herbs, nutrients, homeopathics and physical medicine treatments. In addition, your Naturopathic or medical doctor can help you identify any underlying weaknesses or imbalances that may be obstacles to quality sleep, such as hypoxia (low oxygen) or hormonal imbalances. In addition, the research that helps neuroscientists understand sleep mechanisms and physiology can also be used to help us adapt our behaviors to promote better quality and longer sleep.
In his brilliant new book, Why We Sleep, researcher and professor Dr. Matthew Walker offers these “Twelve Tips for Healthy Sleep”:
- Stick to a regular, consistent sleep schedule.
- Exercise improves sleep, but avoid rigorous exercise within 2-3 hours of your bed time. I would suggest a gentle walk or yoga routine before bed.
- Avoid caffeine and nicotine. Even early in the day, consumption of these substances may disrupt sleep.
- Avoid heavy use of alcohol and avoid alcohol before bed.
- Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. However, I would suggest that a small protein snack before bed, or upon waking in the night, may actually improve sleep.
- If possible, avoid medications that delay or disrupt your sleep. Research common side effects for medications that you take, and talk with your medical doctor if sleep disturbance is among them.
- Avoid napping after 3 p.m.
- Relax before bed. This includes turning off all screens: phones, television, computers, iPads, etc.
- Take a warm bath before bed.
- Maintain a dark, cool, gadget-free bedroom. Removal of light and all electronics, as well as keeping your bedroom below 65 degrees, will increase melatonin production and improve sleep quality.
- Have the right sunlight exposure. 30 - 60 minutes of natural sunlight in the daytime, preferably in the morning, supports a healthy circadian rhythm, which can lead to improved sleep.
- Don't lie in bed awake. If you are awake for more than 20 minutes in the night, get up and eat a small amount of protein or engage in a relaxing activity (NOT checking Facebook or your emails!), until you feel sleepy.