by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health
A good nightâs sleep… thereâs nothing more restorative — or elusive… for the 64% of Americans who report regularly having trouble sleeping. A disconcertingly high percentage of the sleepless (nearly 20%) solve the problem by taking sleeping pills, but you can guess how I feel about that! Not only do we know that sleeping pills are dangerous and potentially addictive, physically and/or emotionally — but swallowing a pill when you want to go to sleep doesnât address the root cause of the problem. What, exactly, is keeping you up at night?
I have always felt strongly about this — and now even more so, since I had a conversation with Rubin Naiman, PhD, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizonaâs Center for Integrative Medicine, who called it “somewhat violent” that we expect to be able to climb into bed and fall immediately asleep… slumber soundly all night… and then rise and shine, on demand, at the buzz of the morning alarm! We discussed how to set more “natural” expectations, which can help bring about the “gentle experience” that he believes sleep is meant to be.
According to Dr. Naiman, most of our sleep problems have to do not with our bodies, per se, but with our habits. The modern American lifestyle — replete with highly refined foods and caffeine-laden beverages, excessive exposure to artificial light in the evening, and “adrenaline-producing” nighttime activities, such as working until bedtime, watching TV or surfing the Web — leaves us overstimulated in the evening just when our bodies are designed to slow down… and, importantly, to literally cool down as well.
Studies show that a cooler core body temperature — and warmer hands and feet — make you sleepy. “Cooling the body allows the mind and the heart to get quiet,” said Dr. Naiman. He believes that this cooling process contributes to the release of melatonin, the hormone that helps to regulate the bodyâs circadian rhythm of sleeping and waking.
Deep Green Sleep
Dr. Naiman has developed an integrative approach to sleep that defines healthy sleep as an interaction between a person and his/her sleep environment. He calls this approach Deep Green Sleep. “My goal was to explore all of the subtleties in a personâs life that may be disrupting sleep,” he told me. “This takes into account your physiology, emotions, personal experiences, sleeping and waking patterns and your attitudes about sleep and the sleeping environment.” This approach is unique because it values “the subjective and personal experience of sleep,” he said — in contrast with conventional sleep treatment, which tends to rely on “computer printouts of sleep studies — otherwise known as ‘treating the chart.'”
Itâs important to realize that lifestyle habits and attitudes are hard to change, so Dr. Naiman cautioned that it often can take weeks, even months, to achieve his Deep Green Sleep. The good news is that the results are lasting and may even enhance your waking life.
Here are his suggestions on how you can ease into the night…
Live a Healthful Waking Life
“The secret of a good night’s sleep is a good day’s waking,” said Dr. Naiman. This includes getting regular exercise (but not within three hours of bedtime) and eating a balanced, nutritious diet.
Cool Down in the Evening
Itâs important to help your mind and body cool down, starting several hours before bedtime, by doing the following…
- Avoid foods and drinks that sharply spike energy, such as highly refined carbohydrates and anything with caffeine, at least eight hours before bedtime.
- Limit alcohol in the evening — it interferes with sleep by suppressing melatonin. It also interferes with dreaming and disrupts circadian rhythms.
- Avoid nighttime screen-based activities within an hour of bedtime. You may think that watching TV or surfing the Web are relaxing things to do, but in reality these activities are highly stimulating. They engage your brain and expose you to relatively bright light with a strong blue wavelength that “mimics daylight and suppresses melatonin,” said Dr. Naiman.
Create a Sound Sleeping Environment
It is also important that where you sleep be stimulation-free and conducive to rest.
In your bedroom:
- Be sure that you have a comfortable mattress, pillow and bedding. Itâs amazing how many people fail to address this basic need — often because their mattress has become worn out slowly, over time, and they havenât noticed.
- Remove anything unessential from your bedside table that may tempt you to stay awake, such as the TV remove control or stimulating books.
- When you are ready to call it a night, turn everything off — radio, TV and, of course, the light.
- Keep the room cool (68Â°F or lower).
Let Go of Waking
Each day, allow your mind and body to surrender to sleep by engaging in quieting and relaxing activities starting about an hour before bedtime, such as:
- Gentle yoga
- Rhythmic breathing
- Reading poetry or other nonstimulating material
- Taking a hot bath
Sex seems to help most people relax and can facilitate sleep, in part because climaxing triggers a powerful relaxation response, Dr. Naiman said.
Consider Supplementing with Melatonin
If sleep is still elusive after trying these Deep Green Sleep tips, Dr. Naiman often suggests a melatonin supplement. Dr. Naiman believes that this is better than sleeping pills since melatonin is “the bodyâs own natural chemical messenger of night.” “Melatonin does not directly cause sleep, but triggers a cascade of events that result in natural sleep and dreams,” he said, adding that it is nonaddictive, inexpensive and generally safe. Not all doctors agree however, so it is important to check with your doctor first.
If youâre interested in learning more about Dr. Naimanâs Deep Green Sleep program, you can visit his Web site (www.TheSleepAdvisor.com) and take a free quiz that helps identify your particular sleep challenges. But, since it is computer-based, make sure you do it several hours before bedtime!
Rubin Naiman, PhD, is a psychologist specializing in sleep and dream medicine and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizonaâs Center for Integrative Medicine. He is founder and director of Circadian Health Associates, an organization that offers a broad range of sleep-related services, training and consultation. Dr. Naiman is author of the book Healing Night (Syren) and is coauthor with Dr. Andrew Weil, of the audiobook Healthy Sleep (Sounds True).