When Sleep is Elusive: Getting Quality Rest

Dr. Libby Weaver DR. LIBBY WEAVER

We've all been there at some point — eyes wide open, trying not to look at the clock for confirmation that yes, despite trying every imaginable strategy it is 3:00 am and there are hours yet before the sun is due to rise. The consequences of this lack of sleep add to the already compounding worry as we think of what another day of work feeling less than refreshed is going to be like. 

Getting enough sleep affects your health in ways you cannot imagine. Sleep, like moving your body regularly and eating a nourishing diet, is one of the pillars of good health. We cannot fight our biology — sleep is essential to our very being. Lack of sleep can increase inflammation, which in turn is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and poor digestive health. Not to mention what it does to your mood, energy and appetite (hello 10:00 am pastry and coffee and 3:00 pm chocolate bar!). 

Typically sleep problems fall into two categories: trouble getting to sleep and trouble staying asleep. Here are some things you can do to ensure you get the quality rest your body needs. 

1. Work With Your Wake/Sleep Cycles

Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day can help to set a rhythm to your sleep cycle and prompt your body to recognize when rest time is approaching. A morning ritual such as meditation or yoga that reduces your stress can be extremely beneficial – and this can also be repeated before sleep. 

Move your body earlier in the day and avoid anything too vigorous at night, if possible. Movement, particularly movement that gets the heart rate up or is physically exerting, typically activates the sympathetic nervous system making you alert and awake, and subsequently decreases your melatonin (sleep hormone) production. Instead, in the evening, allow yourself time to slow down, unwind and stimulate your sleep neurotransmitters. Around 60 to 90 minutes before sleep, turn off your "devices", turn the lights down and maybe include some meditation or light reading. Finding sleep hygiene that works for you is incredibly important, but these are great starting points for everyone. 

2. Limit Sleep Disruptors

If you drink caffeine, find your threshold for the time you should stop drinking it. Typically, this is around midday as caffeine can stay in the body for around eight hours. Eating a heavy and rich meal late at night takes longer to digest, so your body is busy with the digestive process and indigestion rather than relaxing and helping you get to sleep. So eat smaller portions. 

TV screens, laptops and electronic devices not only keep your mind active but also emit light that disrupts sleep hormone production. If you watch TV, consider what you're watching. For example, if you're watching highly stimulating crime dramas it is very difficult to switch from this sympathetic nervous system stimulation to the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for rest and repair. 

Your biology has primed you to "fight or flight" and then, after you've turned the TV off, you're asking it to just forget what it has seen/experienced and drift peacefully off to sleep. For many of us that's not going to happen! If you're a crime or intense drama show addict, I encourage you to go four weeks without watching them, particularly at night, and see what happens to your sleep. 

3. If You Wake During The Night

Alcohol typically makes you feel sleepy at first, which is why people often use it to help them get off to sleep. But it often results in waking later in the night, typically around 2:00 -3:00 am disrupting sleep by stopping you going into REM sleep - the deepest stage. Limiting alcohol consumption is beneficial for overall health, not just for your sleep. 

Many people say they wake up in the middle of the night with their minds racing over their upcoming day. While part of this can be related to stress hormones, it can also be helpful to plan your day before you go to bed so you don't wake at 3:00 am thinking about something you forgot to schedule in your diary. Also try keeping a pen and paper by your bed; if you wake with a thought you can write it down and then address it in the morning. 

If you are experiencing a particularly busy or stressful period in your life and you’re noticing that your sleep is getting disturbed, remember the importance of looking after your nervous system to promote activation of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS); your body’s natural rest and digest pathways. During these periods we can often find that our sympathetic nervous system, our “fight or flight” response, is activated for long stints of time and this impacts significantly on many biochemical pathways, including our sleep cycle. Ways to do this include reducing your consumption of caffeine (which signals adrenaline production) and avoiding it altogether later in the day, amping up our vegetable intake to maximize our nutrient consumption, meditation, Qi gong, tai chi or diaphragmatic breathing. 

There are many herbs that support good sleep such as lemon balm, magnolia, zizyphus and chamomile – however I encourage you to discuss your sleep issues with a qualified medical herbalist to find a solution that works for you.