Sleep More Soundly – Naturally!

By Belle McCaleb originally published in InnerSelf Magazine

  The consequences of poor sleep patterns include fatigue, exhaustion, depression, irritability, cognitive disturbances and an increased rate of accidents. Sleep disorders increase the risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.[i] Disturbed sleep is also associated with increased cancer risk.[ii] There are more than 90 distinct sleep disorders including sleep loss, sleep-disordered breathing, insomnia, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome and “back to front” sleep cycles (circadian rhythm disorders)[iii]. The use of substances such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine and many prescription and over the counter medications can cause or exacerbate the problem. Women are more likely than men to experience poor sleep patterns particularly during the premenstrual period, pregnancy and menopause.[iv]   Although a specific type of sleep disorder may require specific interventions in general sleep disorders respond well to a diet, lifestyle and natural medicine approach. Dietary considerations obviously include limiting or eliminating nervous system actives such as caffeine, chemical additives, preservatives & high sugar intake. Avoidance of heavy meals too close to bedtime often helps although it is not wise to go to bed hungry. Alcohol is best avoided full stop but one should at least abstain for 6 hours before bed.   If one is waking at around 3 am with sweating &/or flushing a gut and liver detoxification program may help. We know genes in these areas “switch on” at about this time and if there is imbalance in the micro-flora of the gut & /or liver stress it may contribute to the pattern of sweating, flushing and waking. Following a “low stress” diet and rebalancing the system with special probiotics/prebiotics and liver support formulas often helps restore restful, uninterrupted sleep.   Sleep hygiene is the term given to a set of practices that promote restful sleep. Regular routine is a key feature: regular bedtime, getting up at the same time daily, regular daily exercise (no vigorous exercise within 6 hours of bedtime), regular daily meditation or relaxation practice and a regular daily schedule of meals, chores and other activities. Of course shift work makes this approach very difficult. A regular bedtime ritual is very helpful as it helps us “shift gears” in preparation for sleep. Some gentle stretches, a warm bath, diffusing a little lavender oil (a slight sedative) are some pre-bed activities that help calm the body/mind. Sometimes people find reading before bed is helpful and it can be, but this should be part of the pre-bed ritual and be of a set duration for example 20 minutes (or less if you get sleepy).   A yogic practice which is very useful as part of a bedtime ritual is candle-gazing. Place a candle about 18 inches from you at eye level and using a soft gaze simply look at the base of the flame for as long as you can without blinking (a few seconds) then close your eyes and see if you can see the image of the candle behind your closed eyes. When the image fades repeat the process. Aim for about 3-5 minutes of candle gazing nightly. This practice calms the mind, lowers stress and induces a state of relaxation. Another yogic practice that calms the body/mind is slow deep breathing – counting back from 21 to 0 taking one breath in and out per count. If you reach zero begin again at 21.   Another key feature to consider is the sleep environment. The bedroom should be quiet & pitch black dark – no lights, no glowing clocks, screens, phones etc. De-cluttering the room of as many electronics as possible is important for several reasons – one being the amount of electromagnetic radiation being released but also so as to not be tempted to “just check my emails” or similar. The WORST thing you can do before bed, if you are struggling to get to sleep or if you wake up in the middle of the night is to turn on ANYTHING ELECTRONIC including lights. This immediately sets your brain into wake mode and upsets the levels of melatonin (sleep hormone).   There are numerous herbal medicines that can help ease the transition to sleep and promote restful & restorative sleep. My favourite combination is California poppy, Jamaica dogwood, Skullcap and Corydalis – but other commonly used herbals include Lavender, Passion flower, Lemon balm and Hops.   I am not a fan of Valerian, which is commonly found in over the counter sleep remedies as it can have a sleep disrupting effect – many people report having disturbing dreams with Valerian. It also has a tendency to give one a “hangover” in the morning whereas the other herbs listed are less likely to.   And finally it is very important to assess and address stress levels. Chronic and/or acute stress can lead to adrenal depletion. This contributes to sleep disorders via several mechanisms including disruption in the sleep/wake hormone cycle. Adrenal support herbs used during the day can certainly help with sleep patterns at night.   There are many to choose from – my favourites are Siberian ginseng, Rhodiola, Withania and Conodopsis. Many of the approaches mentioned above will also help lower baseline stress and relieve adrenal depletion states. [i] Scott Davis Æ Dana K. Mirick Circadian disruption, shift work and the risk of cancer: a summary of the evidence and studies in Seattle, Cancer Causes Control (2006) 17:539–545 DOI 10.1007/s10552-005-9010-9 [ii] Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 3, Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders. Available from: [iii] Ibid [iv] Romm, A, Botanical Medicine for Women’s Health, 2010, Churchill Livingstone, St Louis Missouri, USA