This article was originally posted on sexfoodandkettlebells.com, May 9 2013.
Sleep. Most of us love it, all of us need it, and some of us just can't get enough.
Today we're going to be discussing disordered sleep + associated guidelines. This is a topic that has come up quite often lately among my clients and family - it seems the universe was nudging me to write this post. So here it is!
I think we can all agree that sleep is key in nearly all aspects of physical, mental, and even spiritual health. A few side effects of disordered sleep include depression, chronic fatigue, advanced signs of aging, poor digestion, poor cognitive health, poor immune function, inflammation... We could go on like this forever.
Let me emphasize that sleep quality is just as critical as sleep length itself, if not more so. For the purposes of our discussion today, let's use the term disordered sleep as an umbrella to describe the following symptoms:
- waking fatigued
- difficulty falling asleep or inability to sleep
- difficulty staying asleep
- waking numerous times at night
- waking with inflammation/other symptoms
- waking without an appetite
- night sweats or excessive coldness
- overly vivid dreams or nightmares
- decreased libido
Do any of those sound familiar?
CAUSES OF DISORDERED SLEEP
Before moving on, here's a quick look at why you may be experiencing this:
- stress (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual)
- inefficient energy production
- exposure to substances that negatively affect your health (ie chemicals, PUFA etc)
- shift work
- a new (and vocal) addition to the family
- poor time management
While some items on this list are very specific, most of us are likely exposed on a regular basis to at least a few of them.
THE TALE OF SLEEP-LESS BEAUTY AND THE ULTRA MARATHON BEAR
Why can't you be a sleep-less beauty? If you're anything like me, you've often thought of how much you would get done if only you didn't have to sleep. You may have even tried it too, and realized that you actually get less done long term. Darn. Something about sleep being necessary for recovery, digestion, and overall physiological, and emotional health. Well, the way I look at it, let's all embrace it. I love sleeping in a comfy bed with fresh covers, plenty of pillows, and my loved one by my side.
So if you are one of those that has tried the sleep-lessness/disordered sleep approach (either intentionally or unintentionally), you are well familiar with the side effects. At first there's a little honeymoon period, and then suddenly... you notice weight gain around your middle, mood changes, strange skin irritations, even neuropathy or travelling aches/pains.
To your body, disordered sleep is akin to you being chased by a long-distance running bear. Like an ultramarathoner bear. It's set on you for dinner and has plenty of patience and endurance. Your body pulls out all the stops on fight/or/flight mode, uses up all your savings (resources) to keep you going, anything to keep you alive. Survival is king, after all. After a while, you're still running and alive (yay!) but all the non-essential functions suffer. Your skin becomes pasty, you're irritated (fair enough, you're being chased by a freakin' bear), various stuff starts to hurt... You get the picture. By the time you outrun the bear (or it loses focus and chooses something else to chase) - note that this can mean a week or several years, depending on the individual and the circumstance, you and your body are no longer the same as when you started. You've used up all your backup resources, you're drained, you had no time to rebuild and recover. You've got inflammation, stress hormones running rampant. Your endocrine glands are sulking at you for exerting them this way, especially your thyroid, it's really upset. Suddely you're subclinically hypothyroid. In other words, it's not such a pretty scene.
Your stress may be over, and you may even be sleeping through the night, but it's a restless, shallow sleep, and you either wake up several times at night or wake up drained. Clearly it's time to turn this around.
Please note that the frequency with which various symptoms manifest, and which symptons they are, depends on the individual. Personally, my body is very vocal about its displeasure nearly immediately, but some people may not notice severe symptoms for weeks, or even months. That is why we defined disordered sleep as not just lack of sleep but as lack of quality of sleep.
TIPS TO BECOMING A SLEEPING BEAUTY
Let's say you find yourself in the sleep-less beauty category. Here are a few effective strategies for you to try. You will find yourself drawn to several off the bat, so I would start with one of those, track your sleep prior to and during for a few days, assess the effect, and if necessary pair it with another approach. Remember that not everything will work for everyone - your body, your mindset, your circumstance, and your stress level are all very individual, so take the time to find what is right for you. Once you do, you will have a few new tools in your healthy lifestyle toolkit to use in case of a recurrence.
I'm not going to go into crazy depth with each one of these for the sake of the length of the article and everyone's sanity, so if there is one or several that you want me to write more about specifically, comment below the post or on our Facebook page.
Obviously, if you have recurrent issues or are concerned, always err on the side of caution and go see your doctor.
Breath work: Deep breathing is a great strategy for you to employ during the day (particularly when you begin to feel yourself "wound up" in a situation), and then prior to bed as well. Generally speaking, you want to be focusing on approaches that work on abdominal and intercostal breathing, with some options of breath holds/etc. A common one you could try is called box breathing (look it up). Rebreathing or hyper ventilating (using a paper bag) is also a very useful approach as it helps to restore the ratio of CO2 to O2 in the blood.
Having some salt, sugar, or chocolate before bed: Don't get upset. I said it. Bottom line is all of those are very calming for the nervous system and will improve your sleep. One of my favourite things is making a home made hot chocolate (using whole organic cream, raw cocoa powder, dash of sea salt, honey, and water) right before bed. You'll sleep like a baby. If you're dairy intolerant, just use gum-free coconut milk.
Light therapy + grounding: Light is critical for healthy metabolic function. Get outdoors, into the sunshine. Walk barefoot on the ground (not if it's freezing though), and soak up those negative ions. If natural light is not an option for you due to the weather or season, you can try getting a natural light lamp, or an infrared light lamp. The infrared light in particular is very calming, not to mention warming in the winter months. By the same token, you will want to strive to avoid exposure to blue light shortly before bed - if you cannot limit your computer/other use, consider getting some fashionable orange or red tinted lenses.
Remove food allergens and additives: This is a tricky one as you don't want to be creating undue stress on your body if you are not sleeping well, however if there is a food or a food additive that you suspect is causing a reaction, remove it. Remember to assess/reassess/track symptoms prior and post, and just tackle one thing at a time.
Detox your enviroment: I keep hearing about dietary detoxes, but honestly the most important detox you can do is one that focuses on removing toxic chemicals from your hygiene, cleaning, and other products. The good news about this is that it is also cheaper. Pull out the vinegar, baking soda, essential oils for cleaning. And invest in some toxin free mineral based makeup for yourself. You're worth it and your body will thank you.
Get your healthy saturated fats, and limit dietary consumption of PUFA: Particularly in times of high stress, this point is critical. You may need to drastically limit your intake of PUFA in the form of nuts/seeds if you are primal as PUFA negatively affect energy production, and can degrade sleep quality, while healthy saturated fat, particularly in the form of coconut oil (in this circumstance) is very healing for your metabolism. If you're not primal, those oxidized vegetable and grain cooking oils need to go. A few considerations here regarding dosage would be impaired gall bladder function and health, and overall quality of diet. Again, remember that all of this is individual.
Express your creativity: Release your stress through creative expression. Dance, sing, paint, write (journal!), bake, sew, whatever tickles your fancy. Often we go through stages where we forget how creative we truly are and stop honouring that side of ourselves. It's time to get back to it.
Essential oils: Some essential oils have very calming properties - in addition, smell is a great way to neurally hack into the limbic system, which processes emotion. Do your research or speak to an aromatherapist or herbalist. A few oils to consider may be lavender, citrus (such as orange or bergamot - note citrus oils should only be taken during the day), and jasmine.
Flower essences: These are the bringing gap between herbalism and homeopathy and are often a very powerful approach. If you're skeptical of the energetic approach, fine, but give it a shot anyway, and if it works, use it. You could go see a practitioner for a specific constitutional remedy, or just use a pre formulated one such as those from Bach Flowers. These can be used during the day, or prior to bed.
Magnesium: Get yourself some quality chocolate, or the commonly used product, Magnesium Calm. These are best prior to bed, and as you may have guessed already, have a calming effect on your nervous system.
Bathsor Footbaths: If you enjoy baths of any kind, add some epsom salt, your favourite essential oils, and even some flower essences. Absorb it all through your skin, listen to some music or read a book, and relax. Best done prior to bed.
Meditation, Mantra or Prayer: Much like breath work, these are very powerful, centering, and allow us to separate ourselves from immediate issues and concerns. Find a meditation or mantra (or prayer) that resonates with you, or just try some positive affirmations.
Try alternative healing therapies: Homeopathy, herbalism, bowen, reiki, body talk, ionic foot baths.. The list goes on. Sometimes we need guidance and nurturing from someone other than ourselves. Embrace it, and enjoy the treatments. These can also help to address the underlying spiritual and energetic causes behind the stress and anxiety you may be experiencing.
For more information and research behind several of these recommendations, check out this great post on tips to better sleep from Functional Performance Systems .
THE BOTTOM LINE = DEAL WITH YOUR SLEEP FIRST
If you find yourself as a sleep-less beauty for whatever reason, in addition to trying out the tips listed below, you also need to avoid the following until you get your sleep sorted out. Simply put, focus on decreasing your physiological stress response rather than further stimulating the sympathetic nervous system.
- avoid restrictive diets or big dietary changes: rather, focus on one or two things if you need to remove allergens, or better yet, just focus on chewing properly. You can also consider looking into some digestive enzymes as your digestion will likely be stunted.
- decrease your training/activity level: people hate it when I mention this one, but seriously folks, this is so important. If you're not sleeping, you are just further damaging your body by training even at the level you usually do. Cut down, fix your sleep pattern. Then revisit your training goals.
A QUICK NOD TO POLYPHASIC SLEEP
There have been a lot of interesting articles written on this approach, since it is an accurate representation of our ancestral sleep patterns. In all honestly, I would say that it is likely the ideal sleep pattern for most people, however one that is impossible for those of us with a modern work schedule and lifestyle. So do the best with what you've got. Monophasic sleep (which is the only option for most of us) can still be incredibly healing and necessary for your body; just tweak it as necessary to ensure that just like everything else you do, it represents quality.
SOMETIMES, LIFE HAPPENS
Of course, there are some life circumstances where a disrupted sleep pattern is the last of our concerns. In these situations, just do your best given the circumstances, and do your best to support your system using the strategies I list above, while also abiding by the guidelines.
Always remember: changing circumstances require changing strategies.
Wishing you all a restful sleep tonight!