What if you had something that could boost your immune system and help your body fight off infections like colds and flu? We all have access to an elixir that can do that (and so much more). It can help prevent weight gain and lower stress hormones and anxiety, thereby contributing to a healthy heart. It can help maintain proper brain function, including memory retention. It can boost mood. It helps us be alert, improves concentration, and increases productivity. It helps us make wise choices and avoid mishaps. It may even improve relationships. Life may be fuller and richer thanks to this elixir.
The remarkable thing about it is that it is absolutely free! We know it well and should utilize it daily (rather, nightly). It’s sleep, or course.
Elixir of Sleep
Like most other species, we require sleep to restore and rejuvenate body and mind. In most cases, all we need to do is climb into bed and allow ourselves to relax into quality, restful sleep—consistently.
The widely accepted rules of “sleep hygiene” say we should follow the same nightly schedule—including on weekends—and sleep seven to eight hours every night. There’s no such thing as a sleep bank to compensate for lost sleep. But, sadly, it’s estimated that 60% of Americans do not get sufficient quality sleep.
Falling asleep for many people is a challenge. Waking up with the inability to go back to sleep is common as well, as is chronic insomnia. Our elixir is effective when “used” properly—by learning to honor the cycles of nature.
Physiological psychologist David Dinges, who is the chief of the Division of Sleep and Chronobiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has said, “I think sleep is one of the sweetest things you can get—like a great meal or seeing a good friend.”
Syncing with nature’s rhythms
Every plant, animal, and human exhibits biological processes through the course of the day known as circadian rhythms. Like programs running in the background, these rhythms are designed to carry out essential functions and processes. The different body systems are all synchronized with a master clock in the brain that acts like the conductor of an orchestra with all the players fine-tuning their local timing. This master clock is particularly influenced by cues from the environment, especially light, tied to day and night and our sleep-wake cycle. Like plants lifting their leaves in daylight and lowering them in the dark, almost every aspect of our daily life as well as every bodily organ, system, and cell is regulated by our internal circadian clocks. Our daytime and evening activities have a huge effect on our circadian rhythms.
While we all feel that drive to sleep, millions of us are lured by our phones, tablets, and computers when we should be preparing for bed, which then interferes with our ability to get to sleep. Stress from jobs, relationships, and the news—including the current pandemic—creates fear, worry, and anxiety that can make it difficult to relax enough to go to sleep or to sleep soundly. Shift workers and people who regularly travel across time zones may find it especially challenging to get quality sleep. The body likes regularity in everything—waking, eating, exercise—and especially sleep. Even the time changes every spring and fall may throw us off a bit.
Syncing internal clocks
According to Satchin Panda, PhD, author of The Circadian Code: Lose Weight, Supercharge Your Energy and Transform Your Health from Morning to Midnight: “…a sleep deprived brain is more dangerous than a brain under the influence of alcohol.” Yet driving after a sleepless night is not illegal. Much like the effect of jet lag from crossing time zones, many people experience social jet lag after weekends. Having a full-time weekday job, we often stay up late, party, and sleep late on weekends. On Mondays we may feel awful.
Getting a good night’s sleep regularly is the best health insurance, writes Mathew Walker, PhD, author of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Getting fewer than seven hours of sleep, he points out, can make us more susceptible to the common cold. With five hours or less there’s a 70% greater chance of developing pneumonia. And without sufficient sleep for five days before getting a flu shot, there’s a 50% reduction in normal antibody response, thus rendering it less effective. Think about this before getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Impact of light
We humans are predominantly visual creatures. The eye sends light signals to the brain telling us when it’s morning and night. Melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland, remains inactive during daylight. But, around 9 p.m., when it’s dark, it switches on and floods the brain, where it remains for the next 12 hours. Its functions include lowering alertness and reducing body temperature, telling the body it’s time to fall asleep.
Daylight shuts this hormone down, and the body then shifts into readiness to meet the day. A predominance of blue light is present in daylight. Exposure to enough sunlight daily (even on cloudy days) can help us fall asleep at night. During evening hours, too many of us expose ourselves to the blue light emitted from the screens of our electronic devices, including TV, as well as energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, which has the effect of fooling the brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, causing it to hold back the release of melatonin.
Preparation for sleep
While there are many factors contributing to sleep problems, you can sync your internal clock by monitoring your light exposure, the timing of meals, and what you take to bed with you. Using dimmer, warmer lighting in the evening, changing to nighttime light settings on electronic devices, and using blue light–filtering glasses for watching TV and using cell phones and tablets and PCs can help. Eating only within an eight-hour period and no more than a few hours before bedtime can help the digestive system complete its functions before sleep. Also, remember that caffeine makes the heart beat faster. Coffee’s stimulatory effects last up to five hours, but it can take up to 10 hours before the caffeine fully leaves your system. While a nightcap might sedate you into going to sleep, alcohol interferes with REM dream sleep, an important part of the restorative sleep cycle.
A calm and relaxed body and mind are essential to drift off into quality restorative sleep. Our internal clock relies on a steady diet of healthy habits and mindful routines. Evening is a time to wind down, and the bedroom is meant for sleeping and intimacy, not for work, checking emails, or watching TV.
Have you ever had your head hit the pillow and found yourself worrying about a problem or a long to-do list? Or perhaps you finished reading a novel or watching a movie and found yourself ruminating over the story—and your thoughts won’t stop. Rather than lie there, it may be better to just get up and put your thoughts on paper or write down a plan for the next day. Then you might sit and do some slow gentle breathing or listen to a meditation recording or calming music. As the narrator in John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday reflects: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
Mindfulness practices for sleep
The Dalai Lama said: “Sleep is the best meditation.” Indeed, the restorative deep NREM cycle of sleep is much like meditation. A research study with middle aged and older adults revealed that practicing mindfulness meditation for just two hours per week for six weeks improved sleep quality and reduced insomnia, depression, and fatigue. You can create your own mindfulness practice for sleep by calming the mind with breathing. Incorporate a short prayer, or phrases such as “breathing in calm, breathing out tension.” Humming or sounding OM or gazing at a candle flame can help you focus on the present moment. Don’t worry when the mind wanders—as it will. Just gently bring it back. Better still, start earlier with some gentle yoga or somatic movements to release tensions and relax the body.
I recently taught a sleep course at a local community college—online—from 9 to 10 p.m. once a week for six weeks. After sharing various restful sleep preparation techniques, I guided them through somatic movements and a deep iRest Yoga Nidra meditation in the comfort of their own bed. A student shared, “I fell asleep easily and when I woke up with a hot flash, the techniques helped me fall asleep again.” iRest is an ideal enhancement to our sleep elixir for easing into REM dream sleep and deep NREM sleep—both important for restoring body and mind.
So, is 2021 the year for you to create your own practices to enhance the properties of your own elixir—sleep?