The National Sleep Foundation claims that 76% of Americans have sleep difficulties. This ranges from trouble falling asleep to staying asleep to difficulty waking. To combat, or possibly compound, these problems, one in five American are taking sleep medications or sleeping pills. Over 42 million prescriptions were written last year alone! Some of these sleeping pills have been shown to cause cancer in animals. They may also shorten your lifespan, as recent studies have shown a 25% increase in mortality among those taking sleeping pills nightly.
New discoveries in the science of sleep provide alternatives to these drugs. Dr. Rubin Naiman of the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine suggests that a major cause of sleeplessness is too much exposure to light from electricity and to the hectic nature of our modern lives. There is so much light that is now generated from our cities that our planet glows when viewed from outer space. It is this light that disrupts our sleep cycles because light upsets our natural circadian rhythms, which govern our sleep/wake cycle. Our natural body rhythms are accustomed to a dimming twilight, then a dark night. Since the invention of electricity, we can delay our nights but the brightness disturbs the melatonin levels and the circadian rhythms responsible for sleep. He recommends creating a twilight state for at least an hour before sleep. This means dimming all lights, turning off the television, and letting your body wind down, the way it would in a natural twilight.
Fear of our subconscious, or “shadow” selves, may also create sleep disturbances as we try to avoid both darkness and our dreams. “In our culture, daylight is dominant, overvalued, and even deified, while darkness is dismissed, devalued, and often demonized,” Naiman says.
There is a difference between being tired and fatigue. To fall asleep when your head hits the pillow is what most people consider normal, when it is really the effect of being overtired. The natural sleep pattern is to take 10 to 30 minutes to drift into slumber.
“Recent research suggests that merely being quietly awake in a darkened space produces beneficial effects on our bodies and minds. Just as light stimulates the release of serotonin, which energizes us, darkness encourages the production of melatonin, the key neurohormone in our nocturnal biology,” says Naiman.
Another recent study, “Sleep-Disordered-Breathing and Mortality: Eighteen-Year Follow-Up of the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort,” showed that sleep apnea, where breathing pauses during sleep, can increase the risk of death by three times. Sleep deprivation has also been tied to obesity and to fibromyalgia. Teens who sleep less tend to overweight, especially if they are deprived of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that is associated with dreaming.
What can you do to help improve your natural ability to sleep?
- Establishing a “twilight: by turning off or dimming all lights at least an hour before bedtime. Dr. Naiman suggests creating a “sleep sanctuary” by ensuring that the bedroom is both dark and quiet. Use candles or dim lights at night. For instance, a new type of light bulb that produces less of the harmful blue light is now available. https://www.lowbluelights.com/ These are purported to naturally maximize melatonin.
- The use of light boxes during the morning hours can stimulate natural daylight and help reset a person’s melatonin levels.
- Meditate or prayer and other quieting activities before bed can relax the body into sleep.
- Nutritional supplements that may help increase sleep are calcium (as in warm milk), theanine, and GABA. The herbs chamomile and valerian are soothing and sleep inducing and are available in tea form.
- Grandma’s generation used a type of hydrotherapy to treat sleeplessness. Soak your feet in the coldest water you can for 15-30 minutes before bedtime. This will draw the blood to your feet, and help quiet your mind.
Have a good night!