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24 August 2009

Healthy Sleep???

I can tell you a few things I've learned from my own experiences, both successes and failures in the land of sleep and dreams.

Light at Night: One of the worst things you can do is expose yourself to bright light at night. Several hours before actually sleeping, it is great to turn down the lights; just as the light wanes outside, let it wane inside, too. Candles would be great though probably not too practical for most, but the idea of gradually slipping into sleep works much better than jumping into bed and expecting your brain to shut down like a PC. It doesn't work like that. The diminishing light tells your brain to start moving into the night mode and leave the day's work behind. Get used to the darkness, even a leisurely walk outside, if you don't live in a city, isn't a bad idea. I'm all for sleep rituals, too. Whatever works for you, do it, but make it a nightly routine, something familiar and comforting - whether that's a hot tub or bath or just hanging out with loved ones be they people or animals. Whatever brings comfort and peace to you. Praying and meditating may also work for you as well. I'm not sure the old prayer "if I die before I wake" (who came up with that one?) is the way to go, but knowing your soul is in a safe place and at peace as you slip away from your conscious activity (a small death or death metaphor for sure) isn't a bad deal!

I find personally if I haven't eaten enough protein and fat during the day, my sleep is adversely affected. Carbs seem to be the worst thing for healthy sleep. I'd eat my carbs as early in the day as possible, save the protein and fat for a little later. I'm not talking about a T-Bone steak a half hour before bed, but if your blood sugar swings too far in ether direction, you won't get to sleep or stay asleep. Nothing better than protein and fat for stabilizing blood sugar. Yeah, avoiding the cookies and ice cream so many of us love at night is probably a good idea as well!

Stay away from technology. Want to completely screw up your sleep? Check your e-mail before going to bed. TV is bad enough but PC's, cell phones, etc. are not what you want around your head. Stimulation is not the goal. If you do watch TV, don't do it in the bedroom; leave the TV and go to your bedroom. If there are electric appliances around your bed where you sleep, unplug them. You don't want any electric fields messing with your brain.

Speaking of bedrooms, the key here again is to have as little light as possible. No TV's, of course, no alarm clocks with bright letters, no light of any kind is best. Get dark shades that block out the outside light too if possible. If you can't do that, they sell blindfolds for travelers which can be used -- I'll say I've never found one that's really comfortable or one that stays on all night, but they can really help, at least the beginning of the sleep cycle to block out the light. Only in darkness does your brain release the proper amount of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Any light in the room, however minuscule, messes with that process. I'm not a big fan of doing much other than sleeping in bed either - I wouldn't watch TV or do my taxes in bed. The bed should be a private, safe, quiet place for resting, not a business office. Supposedly Hemingway did most of his writing in bed! He also drank like crazy and committed suicide around 60 years of age; I'm sure he must have suffered from sleep disorders of one kind or another. Keep the covers warm or cooler depending on your preference. I also like a pillow under the knees, as it helps to relieve lower back tension. Massages are great too, but a real professional massage is better a few hours before going to bed; sometimes massages can actually have a reverse effect of stimulating you - same thing goes for acupuncture treatments. Get them early in the day if you go that route. Of course, a gentle massage by a significant other can never hurt. I mentioned Hemingway's drinking; well in fact drinking will also screw up your sleep patterns. If you must, a moderate amount with dinner, preferably red wine, but know that excess alcohol will ruin your sleep cycle - you might sleep 18 hours, like an old alcoholic friend of mine used to, but it won't be restful or nourishing!

More on light: The time when light really helps you sleep is in the AM after you wake up. Getting that morning light in your face helps to set your biological clock so you'll be on a day/night schedule. In fact as much sunlight as you can get during the day is probably going to help. Those indoor lights trick your brain. The sun never does. Even fifteen minutes a day of sun in your face will really help. Close your eyelids and bask in the warmth and comforting feelings the sun brings. Regarding exercise, I think it's great during the day, but as the night gets closer, I think it's a bad idea. Getting your heart rate up at night can't possibly be sending your brain the message that it's time to start relaxing.

I haven't even talked about herbs yet, but I'll say for now, there are healthy uses of herbs for sleeping and not so healthy uses. Sedating is not the desired goal here. We want to promote the body's natural rhythms, not drug ourselves. I'll save herbs for another blog in fact. This is a big subject. To be continued. . .

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