Modern life bombards us with stimulation. Television sets, cell phones, radios, and pagers are constantly reminding us to stay alert. Even the electric lightbulb, a relatively recent invention, can be an obstacle to good sleep.
Researchers at both Stanford Medical Center and the University of Oregon have concluded that bright light can trick our brains into thinking that we should be awake and alert. The importance of this fact cannot be underestimated. The simple acts of watching television late at night, keeping your house well lit prior to going to bed, and checking your e--mail in the evening can all have the effect of jump-starting your metabolism. Our early ancestors did not have these impediments to sleep. Homo sapiens living 50,000 to 100,000 years ago did not have houses with dark shades to avert morning sunlight, nor did they have lightbulbs and e-mail to stimulate them in the evening. Consequently, their biological clocks were constantly being tuned to the systematic dark and light cycle of the earth's changing seasons, which was beyond their control. Although it is impossible to gauge the sleeplessness of our ancestors, we do know that sleep problems are becoming much more frequent as we enter the 21st century.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pennsylvania found that the amount and quality of sleep actually affects how sick people get. The immune system is the body's primary defense against viruses and bacteria that invade the body, causing disease. This mounting evidence that sleep may help strengthen the immune system is quite important. A good night's sleep must be considered an integral part of any rejuvenation strategy. But how do you know if you are getting enough sleep?
William Dement, M.D., one of the world's foremost authorities on sleep, has a term for the physical condition of lacking enough sleep--sleep debt. Dement feels that the simplest way to measure sleep debt is to assess your daytime sleepiness. If you feel sleepy more than a couple of times during the day, you may be suffering some type of sleep debt.
There are a number of things you can do to sleep better. Most of them involve simple changes to your lifestyle, rather than herbs or medication. First, try the following suggestions:
1. Sleeping Tools:
Choose the right bed and pillows. If you awaken in the morning with back pain, you are probably sleeping in the wrong bed. If you awaken with neck pain, you probably need to change your pillow. Being too warm, too cold, or hindered by the wrong type of quilt or comforter can also disturb your sleep. It is very important that you pay attention to all these details. Your bed should be your most comfortable place on earth. After all, you will spend approximately one-third of your life there.
2. Sleeping Environment:
Be certain that your room is an ideal environment for sleep. Notice how you feel with the windows open or closed. Some people prefer a cooler or a warmer environment. It is very important that your room block noise and light from disturbing your sleep. Primitive man never had to worry about the honking horns from taxicabs or the roar of an overhead jet plane, but you may need to close your window, turn on a fan, or buy a white-noise maker to quiet your environment.
3. Bedtime Ritual:
Establish a bedtime ritual. Some people find gentle yoga stretching to be calming. Other people find that reading a book (as long as it is not a chilling murder mystery) is also an effective sleep-inducer. Taking a warm bath, dimming the lights an hour before bedtime, and avoiding stimulation will all help bring on a good night's sleep.
4. Regular Bedtime:
Establish a regular bedtime. Research indicates that going to sleep at the same time every night is a tremendous aid to a good night's sleep. All of your body's chemicals and hormones gradually learn an established pattern and will trigger to prepare you for sleep if you follow a daily ritual.
5. Food and Drink:
Be certain to avoid coffee, tea, soda, chocolate, or medications that include caffeine in the evening. Many people report that drinking alcohol also disturbs their sleep. Although having one or two drinks with dinner may be very relaxing, it can also make it more difficult to sleep. Be sure that you finish your evening meal a few hours before retiring and try to eat a light dinner. Overeating late in the day can make you feel uncomfortable and deprive you of a good night's sleep, because your body will go into overdrive to digest all that food.
Avoid stimulation at least one hour before bedtime. Watching television, checking your e-mail, having a fight with your spouse, or anything that does not involve some type of unwinding can be a hindrance to a good night's sleep. Remember that Homo sapiens evolved with the ability to adapt to a night/day or light/dark cycle. Be certain that you avoid any heavy stimulation, especially bright lights, in the evening.
It is best to exercise vigorously during the day. A brisk walk that only requires a few minutes can actually prove to be an antidote to sleeplessness. Exercising during the day while exposing yourself to sunlight and then slowing down in the evening while dimming the lights in your home will help reset your internal clock and put you more in tune with natural rhythms.
Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that tells the brain that it is dark outside. Long, cold winter nights tell the body to secrete more melatonin, and short summer nights lead to lower levels. Even very low doses--up to 0.5 milligrams--can modify your biological clock, telling your brain that it is time to go to sleep. Melatonin can be purchased in pill form as a sleep aid. However, because it is a new supplement, check with your doctor before taking melatonin. There is some concern that it could be harmful to people with heart problems.
There are many herbs that help induce sleep. Valerian, chamomile, passionflower, and oats are very common herbal remedies to improve sleep. Generally, a few capsules or droppers full, 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime, will make it easier to fall asleep and help you sleep a bit longer. However, always check the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.
If you are still having trouble sleeping after having tried these behavioral suggestions and herbs, check with your doctor to see if medication is appropriate for you.
Studies have shown that heightened states of anxiety during the day can produce an increase in insomnia. Researchers at San Jose State University studied college students and concluded that concern about time was highly correlated with sleep problems.
Sleeping, Pillows, and Beds
If you have headaches and/or neck pain in the morning, it is probably caused by a problem with your pillow or bed. If you get pain later in the day, it is probably due to daily life activity.
The world is divided into four kinds of sleepers: side sleepers, back sleepers, stomach sleepers, and rock-and-rollers. If you almost always sleep on either your side, back, or stomach, it is very easy to design a bed and pillow combination that will work well for you. If you are a rock-and-roller, and you toss and turn all through the night, you will require a more complex arrangement.
60-Second Side-Sleeper Strategy
The vast majority of people find sleeping on their side the most comfortable position. Yet most people use a pillow that is far too low. When the pillow does not support the head sufficiently to maintain a straight spine, the head will sink toward the bed, scrunching up the head, neck and shoulders that can create pinched nerves and compressed neck disks. The most important solution is to raise the pillow you sleep on.
Try lying on your side with your head on the pillow. Does your head sink down or is it in alignment with the rest of your spine? If you are uncertain, stand up and note the relationship of your head to your neck and shoulders. Then lie down on your side again, maintaining this posture. If your head tilts toward the bed, your pillow is too low. Try adding another pillow or raising your pillow by placing folded towels or blankets underneath it until you feel comfortable. By raising and lowering your pillow, you will be able to experience the most comfortable angle for your head and neck.
If you enjoy the feeling of a feather pillow, but prefer sleeping on your side, you may need to place a piece of foam underneath your feather pillow in order to elevate it to the proper height. Or you can purchase a more supportive pillow from your local department store, a back shop, or other store that specializes in orthopedic products.
People who sleep on their backs usually require a lower pillow than those who sleep on their sides. The space between the head and bed is quite a bit larger when you are on your side than on your back. If you prefer to sleep on your back, you may be content with a feather pillow but may need a more supportive or higher pillow, especially if your head juts forward. Lie on your back and try the same exercise that we did in the side-sleeping position. Raise and lower your pillow, using foam, towels, or blankets, until you find the most comfortable position for your head. This is your ideal back-sleeping posture.
60-Second Stomach-Sleeper Strategy
Ideally, you should not sleep on your stomach. Sleeping on your stomach forces you to twist your neck into a very contorted position. However, some people cannot sleep any other way. Some people feel very emotionally vulnerable with their stomach and chest exposed to the world. If you must sleep on your stomach, you should not use any pillow. If possible, try using a position halfway between side sleeping and stomach sleeping. You can achieve this position by lying on your side and then half rolling onto your stomach with your top leg bent towards your chest. If you like the half-lying position, it is an ideal substitute for the stomach position because it provides less stress on your head and neck.
Stomach sleepers often prefer a pillow that is lower than a side sleeper. If you find the half-lying position to be uncomfortable, try raising and lowering your pillow, using foam, towels, or a blanket, until you find your ideal head position.
60-Second Rock-and-Roller Strategy
If you move from side to back to stomach throughout the night, you will require a more complex sleeping arrangement. Ideally, you need an orthopedic pillow. These pillows are often higher around the edges and lower in the center. This allows you to roll onto your side to lie on the higher portion of the pillow and then roll onto your back to lower your head into the depression of the pillow.
Finding a Comfortable Bed
Many of my patients are surprised or sometimes depressed when I tell them that they spend one-third of their lives in bed. However, that is the truth. Therefore, your bed is a very important part of your life and a key component in creating a happy and healthy life.
The bed you find most comfortable will depend upon your shape. If you are pear-shaped or shaped like a triangle, you will find a very firm bed with a soft top to be most effective. The soft top will allow your shoulders or hips to sink slightly into the bed, allowing your spine to maintain its neutral posture. If your bed is too hard, put one or two inches of soft foam on top of your mattress and see if that improves your sleeping position. If your body is straight and lacks curves, you will probably feel most comfortable on a firm, supportive mattress.
Buying a new bed is a complicated process because there are so many choices available. No matter what type of bed you decide to purchase, always buy one that seems too hard for you. If you buy a bed that is too soft, it is impossible to make it more supportive. However, if the bed is too hard, you only need to add one to two inches of soft foam to the top.
Most people find that a standard box spring and mattress is ideal. When you are shopping for a mattress, you should spend at least five minutes lying on the bed. This can feel like an eternity. Most people who choose the wrong mattress lie on it for five or ten seconds, never truly assessing whether it fits their needs. If you feel embarrassed spending this much time on the mattress in a store, make sure your bed has a guarantee allowing you to return it after a minimum of one week. It is often impossible to know the appropriateness of a mattress without spending at least a few days testing it.
An alternative to buying a mattress and box spring is to purchase only the mattress and place it on top of a platform. Because a platform is firmer than a box spring, it will provide more support and reduce the money you spend on your bed--you will never need to buy a box spring again.
Another option is a waterbed. Waterbeds come in many styles and sizes. While some individuals swear by their warmth and comfort, others dislike them because they find them too soft and difficult to get in and out of. If you are thinking about buying a waterbed, be sure to test them out to see if you feel comfortable laying down on and getting up from one. If you decide to buy a waterbed, be certain to choose the waveless variety. Waveless waterbeds are composed of baffles that make the bed much firmer and more comfortable.
If you like a firm bed, you might try a futon. This is often sold as a folding bed made of cotton or foam and is usually placed on a platform rather than a bed frame. Usually, these can be conveniently folded during the day and used as a chair or sofa, then pulled out in the evening to be used as a bed. The ideal futon is a four- or five-inch foam mattress called a shikibuton,
with a separate one-inch cotton pad on top called "the futon."
Once you have mastered the proper pillow and head position, and purchased the appropriate mattress, you are ready for a good night's sleep. Remember to keep the room at a comfortable temperature and do not spend long hours in bed if you are having trouble sleeping. Try to avoid heavy eating before bed, do not drink caffeinated beverages, and shun rigorous exercises. Some gentle stretching, a warm bath, or some herbal tea will prepare you for a good night's sleep. Your bed needs to be your quiet refuge from the storms of daily life. If you are having trouble sleeping, get up and read a boring book--the dictionary, or a technical manual. Surely this will drive you promptly back to bed and to a good night's sleep!