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Fatigue & insomnia

Dr. Sharon Stills

4 Sleep secrets from Dr. Sharon Stills

By Dr. Sharon Stills, NMD

It’s time you gave sleep the priority it deserves and you can start tonight. As a busy naturopathic physician, I know that American women are chronically sleep-deprived and this has got to change! In order to have true health — emotionally and physically — we must become highly skilled as sleepers. Science shows that losing just two hours of nighttime sleep decreases attention span and motivation, and increases the risk of obesity. I’ve helped many women reset their ability to sleep and the first step is figuring out the source of their insomnia.

Some have nighttime pain — heartburn and digestive issues, migraine or tension headaches, joint aches and more — that interrupts their sleep, leaving them groggy and unfocused the next day. The National Sleep Foundation says that the average woman sleeps about 6 ½ hours a night during the work week — but many of my patients say they struggle to get even that amount.

“Why can’t I just take a sleeping pill?”

My exhausted patients often ask me for a “cure” to their insomnia — a magical sleeping pill. I tell them that taking prescription medicine with myriad side effects won’t provide the relief they’re looking for. That’s because they’re still burning the candle at both ends, up late paying bills, checking Facebook, sending e-mails, and sleeping just four hours a night.

You can’t get the benefits of sleep without taking the time to actually sleep — this means getting horizontal!

You can help reset your sleep with a natural combination herbal solution that gently guides your body to relax. I like melatonin because it’s part of the natural sleep process, and I often use certain herbal ingredients that won’t leave you with a “sleeping pill hangover.”

Is your body blocking sleep?

My experience shows a hidden health issue or imbalance can fuel insomnia. It may be as simple as low blood sugar — especially if you wake in the night. And because we are women, fluctuating hormones in pregnancy, PMS, during the menstrual cycle itself, and of course, in menopause — can keep us from getting our beauty rest throughout the month and over our entire lifetime.

I, along with many sleep experts, believe that the main cause of short-term sleeping difficulties is the surging cortisol (the “alert” hormone) that accompanies stress, whether it’s from your job, family or marriage problems, the neighbor’s dog barking, a disagreement, or even just a traffic jam. Often, these everyday experiences can keep you up night after night.

Not sleeping — the new normal for American women

Another source of your insomnia may be you. Most women have too many responsibilities, multitasking furiously all day and staying hooked into electronics long into the night. Many women don’t prioritize sleep and leave no time for it in their daily schedule. We’ve simply forgotten how to sleep!

Sleep is as important as food and water — it’s when the parasympathetic nervous system dominates so your body can regenerate, heal and recover. New research shows that sleep clears the brain of toxins, and is a major factor in storing memories, solving problems and paying attention during the day. Good sleep is also associated with losing weight, having better skin, and being happier. Who needs a magic pill/fountain of youth when we have sleep?

passionflower

What’s the secret to a good night’s sleep?

It’s very important to find the combination of elements that works best for your sleep. You need to know when to sleep, ensuring that the quality and duration of your sleep is good and that you cycle naturally through all the stages of sleep, including REM (rapid eye movement) — or dreaming — sleep. Here are the details:

1. It’s not just any 8 hours — the optimal Sleep Window is from about 10:00pm to 6:00am
We should sleep for eight hours — though your body may feel okay with seven or need as many as nine. You may be able to function with less but, trust me, you’ll suffer in the long run. Ideally, you should fall asleep within five to ten minutes and sleep through the night, waking up without an alarm clock. (The body likes rhythm, so keep to this schedule even on the weekends, only veering from it to stay up for a really rocking event!)

It’s thought that each hour you sleep before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight. Most of us get more restorative, non-dreaming sleep earlier in the sleep cycle. We dream, or have REM sleep, more towards the end of the cycle, and it isn’t the most restful sleep. I invite you to spend a month going to bed at 10:00-10:30pm and waking up at 6:00-6:30am. I guarantee you’ll be happy with your results.

2. Make your bedroom your personal sanctuary — size matters (and so does head placement)
Wear pajamas you love (my personal fave: Hello Kitty) and keep your bedroom clutter-free and cool — most women sleep well at about 65 degrees. Choose linens made of organic cotton or silk and ensure that your mattress is non-toxic and of high quality because you’re going to spend 2,912 hours a year sleeping on it! Think of your bed as the womb — where you go to rest, rejuvenate and escape the demands of your daily life. The bigger the better – give yourself room to stretch literally and figuratively.

Where you place your head can make a difference. Some say that, due to subtle energies and the earth’s magnetic pull, your head should point to the North Pole if you live in the northern hemisphere and vice versa if you live in the southern hemisphere. Both my time in India and what I’ve learned about Ayurvedic medicine suggest that your head should point to the east and your feet to the west — tradition says it helps prevent the body from breaking down before its time. I’ve often been surprised to find that by simply switching my head around I’m off to dream land. Experiment to find what works best for you.

Turn off the TV, computer and cell phone at least one hour — two is better — before bedtime. Use a white noise machine or wear ear plugs if you can hear street noise, or if you sleep with a snorer. Also, block out as much light as possible — darkness activates your brain’s pineal gland, which leads to production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Without proper melatonin, our sleep quickly suffers. Supplementing with melatonin can help ease this problem as well.

Forget about counting sheep...
having sex can help you sleep.

Numerous studies show that you can bring on sleepiness by having sex. Orgasms produce an oxytocin rush that also releases endorphins and helps induce sleep. Try it!

3. Build a better pre-bedtime routine — set the stage for restorative sleep
Going to sleep at 10:00pm does not mean lying down at 9:55 and expecting to be asleep in five minutes. That can cause cortisol to surge instead of decrease. I like to get in bed at 9:00pm with an hour to read, zone out and just enjoy my bed. It’s freeing to know I have nine hours in bed and only need to spend eight of them asleep.

Consider creating a little ritual to get your body in wind-down mode. Reflect on the day by writing in a journal, noting things that inspired you or made you feel grateful. Take a hot bath or drink a cup of non-caffeinated herbal tea but remember no cookies with that tea. Stop eating three hours before bedtime so you’re not digesting food while trying to fall asleep.

Reading is fine as long as the content is uplifting, relaxing, or just plain fun. I like listening to music, too — my favorite lullabies include classical music with harp and melodic Buddhist chants. To help your body chill out or “chillax,” try gazing at a burning candle for a few minutes. Harness the power of aromatherapy with a lavender sachet under your pillow.

4. If you wake in the night — your body is telling you something and it’s time to listen
It’s 3:00am and you’re staring at the clock. Sound familiar? So many women wake on a nightly basis between 1:00am and 3:00am and can’t get back to sleep. In my experience, waking up at this time is a message from your body that your liver needs some TLC. (Traditional Chinese Medicine says this is connected to being stressed or angry). To support your liver, begin each day with a warm glass of lemon water, or apply castor oil packs to your liver 3-4 times a week. Primal scream therapy or journal writing can help you release anger and stress that is holding you back in life.

One of my favorite quotes...

snoopy

Implementing a plan

First, you need to know your “cutoff time” — for me, it’s 8:00pm. By then, I’m deciding which chores I still have time to do and which ones will wait. I enter wind-down mode when the clock strikes 8:00pm, and by 9:00pm, I stop all tasks, finished or not, so I’m ready to relax and be asleep by 10.

I learned, and teach my patients, to get used to heading to bed with things undone. Don’t let a pile of papers or dirty dishes rob you of this sacred time. We often take sleep for granted and it’s the first thing to go when we get busy, feel overwhelmed, or even when we’re having the proverbial “too much fun.” This is so backwards because we need sleep to heal, so we can handle everything that’s going on in our lives. Bring your body back into balance with sweet, simple sleep. May all your desires be fulfilled beyond your wildest dreams!

For information on natural sleep supplements and herbs, see our article Nature’s sleeping aids.

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References:

National Sleep Foundation. 2013. Women and Sleep. URL: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/women-and-sleep.

National Institutes of Health. 2013. How Sleep Clears the Brain. NIH Research Matters. URL: http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/october2013/10282013clear.htm.

American Psychological Association. 2014. Why sleep is important and what happens when you don’t get enough. URL: http://www.apa.org/topics/sleep/why.aspx?item=5.

Carey, Benedict. 2013. Sleep Therapy Is Expected to Gain a Wider Role in Depression Treatment. The New York Times. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/health/sleep-therapy-is-expected-to-gain-a-wider-role-in-depression-treatment.html?ref=health&_r=0.

Last Modified Date: 01/16/2014