Sleep More, Stress Less
We’ve all heard the advice that a getting a good night’s sleep is critical for good health.
Easier said than done, right? Whether it’s a deadline at work causing us to toss and turn or a young child waking up from a nightmare, or a 3:00 am call of nature, there are countless obstacles to falling, and staying, asleep. Given how much time and effort many of us devote to being healthy during our waking hours (getting to the gym, eating a balanced diet, taking supplements, etc.), our nighttime routine is often last on our list. But evidence suggests that perhaps it should be first.
Stress and Sleep
Time and time again, studies have shown that stress can cause everything from weight gain to acne, in addition to myriad diseases, including depression, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. We know that stress is directly linked to thyroid disease, adrenal dysfunction, and hormone imbalance due to the harmful, inflammatory effects that stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, primarily) can have in the body when they are produced in excess.
How does stress relate to sleep? Fatigue can be caused by stress, can cause stress, and can exacerbate symptoms of stress. So if you’re in a period of chronic stress, or otherwise suspect that your adrenals are overworked, and if you have hypothyroidism or hormonal imbalance, chances are your adrenal function is compromised and proper sleep should be a top priority.
How to get quality sleep
No doubt you’ve heard much of the standard advice about promoting good sleep. Get room darkening shades. Don’t watch TV in bed. Make your bed for sleep and sex only. Don’t drink too much water before bedtime. This is all great advice, but there’s much more that can be done to help you get good zzzz’s.
1. Create a restful environment
Keep lighting in your room low, always.
Keep a small dish with a few drops of lavender essential oil by your bed (or other oil known to promote rest and relaxation).
Keep your bedroom slightly cooler than the rest of your house, or even use a fan if the noise won’t bother you.
Don’t underestimate the power of good bedding. Invest in the highest quality mattress and sheets you can afford. Consider adding “weight” to your bedding (via a breathable cotton blanket or quilt). For many people, the sensory effects of adding weight to their chest and bodies can promote relaxation.
2. Plan for a good night sleep throughout the day
Avoid caffeine after mid-morning (and perhaps all day). Depending on your level of sensitivity, this could mean avoiding even that ounce of dark chocolate you like to savor at the end of the day.
Make sure you get your exercise. A simple 20-minute walk after dinner can do wonders.
Create a rhythm to your day. Our bodies thrive on consistency and routine, which help keep our cortisol cycle (the boss of our circadian rhythms) waxing and waning as it should. Research shows that variation from routine can create true stress for our body as it struggles to adapt to a sudden change. Whether that change is skipping a meal, joining a friend for an intense class at the gym on a day you don’t normally exercise, or indulging in a mid-afternoon espresso at a client meeting, our bodies may not respond favorably when we call upon them to keep up with an out-of-the-ordinary event. So, as much as reasonably possible, keep life steady. Wake up at the same time each morning (even weekends). Exercise the same time of day. Eat about the same amount of food at roughly the same intervals. And ease into sleep at a consistent time.
A good night’s sleep starts at breakfast. Balancing your body’s natural cortisol cycle is a critical component of quality sleep. Help cortisol peak in the morning (and thus ebb in the evening to promote sleep) by eating a substantial, nutrient-dense breakfast.
3. Create a relaxing ritual in the evening
Avoid eating three hours prior to bedtime. After you’ve eaten, your body is busy digesting and metabolizing food. It’s not in the mood to shut down and go to sleep. You want to work with your body, and not against it, so avoid giving it “things to do” when you want it to rest.
Avoid alcohol before bed. I’m often tempted to turn to a glass of wine in the evening to relax, and in my younger days, that worked just fine. But the older I get (and I’m only in my mid-thirties), the more counterproductive that is. Even if alcohol can help you fall asleep, it can disrupt your sleep cycles for hours afterward, causing you to wake throughout the night. It’s best to avoid it altogether, or be sure you know how much you can safely tolerate. A TBS of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water is a yummy, satisfying alternative to a glass of wine. Not only does it help keep blood sugar stable, it’s also good for promoting proper digestion. If you can, splurge on a quality, artisan vinegar.
Do your best to turn off your “monkey mind” a couple of hours before bed. This may mean doing your meditation in the evening (or adding another session), taking an evening walk, or adding a 15-minute yoga series to your pre-bed routine. Online yoga studios offer a variety of classes, searchable by level, time, and goal (sleep or relaxation). Also consider guided meditations geared toward sleep.
Write it out. Take some time well before you want to sleep to vent, scream, cry, worry, or obsess – on paper. Or try another approach – catalog the day’s blessing, victories, and accomplishments in a journal to foster some positive vibes.
Don’t try to go to sleep until you’re actually tired. Lying in bed, tossing and turning, won’t do you any good. Over time, it will disrupt your body’s positive associations between your bed and sleep.
4. Consider supplements
Dr. Aviva Romm recommends the following:
- Lavela (lavender oil): Lavela is a proprietary lavender oil product so look for this brand. It’s super easy to take – one pill about an hour before bedtime. It’s also helpful if you suffer with anxiety that keeps you awake, including performance or test anxiety.
- Chamomile: Chamomile tea can be sipped throughout the evening in the hours before sleep – up to 2 cups of a strong brewed tea (use 2 teabags per cup or 2 TBS of loose herb) and steep for 10 minutes with a lid on the cup. Just remember to pee before bed or you’ll be waking up from a sound sleep! Alternatively, you can use the tincture, 40 drops 1 hour and again 30 minutes prior to sleep.
- Passionflower: This herb has been used traditionally to promote sleep and some evidence shows that it can actually improve sleep quality – thus it can help you stay asleep and feel more rested when you wake. It is also useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. A typical dose is 40-60 drops of the tincture (or 320 mg in a capsule) up to 3 times daily. It can be taken an hour before sleep and again right before sleep at this dose.
- California poppy: California poppy is widely used by herbalists for its sedative effects. It is quite strong and should not be taken during the day or before driving. It is also a gentle analgesic and muscle relaxant. A typical dose is 20-30 drops before bed.
- Ashwagandha: An herb with roots in Ayurvedic medicine, this herb is specific for the “tired and wired,” and as such, not only helps sleep in the short run, but helps relieve “adrenal fatigue” and burnout when taken for at least 3-6 months or longer. It improves cognitive function, immunity, and stress resilience as well. The dose is 1 to 6 grams daily of the whole herb in capsule or tea form. The tea is prepared by boiling ashwagandha root in water for 15 minutes and then cooling, or adding 1 tsp of the powder to hot water or warm whole milk and steeping for 10 minutes before drinking. The usual dose is 3 cups daily, preferably taken the first half of the day. Tincture dose is 40-60 drops taken only in the morning. Note: We made a few small adjustments to Dr. Romm’s dosing recommendations, given ashwagandha’s effect on the cortisol cycle.
- Melatonin: While not effective for everyone, individuals with sleep latency syndrome and those with melatonin deficiency may get moderate improvement from taking 1-3 mg in the hour before bed. Menopausal hot flashers may also get some relief and sleep from this remedy. This dose is considered safe for a duration of up to several months at a time.
- Calcium and Magnesium: A combination calcium (800 mg) and magnesium (400 mg) supplement, or magnesium alone if you’re avoiding calcium supplementation due to cardiac disease, can promote relaxation and sleep. They can also help if restless leg syndrome or muscle cramps interfere with your sleep.
- Relaxing Sleep Tonic by Herb Pharm, and Sleep and Relax Tea by Gaia Herbs are two reliable over-the-counter products you can find in most health food stores.
- Muscle Cramp/Tension Formula by Pure Encapsulations is another excellent formula that combines the recommended herbs along with calcium and magnesium.
5. Make your sleep as “healthy” and productive as it can be
Sleep on your left side. According to Dr. John Douillard, doing so will facilitate lymphatic drainage, make it easier for the heart to pump “downhill,” improve elimination, support healthy spleen function, encourage proper digestion, help circulation back to the heart, and help bile flow more freely.
When planning for 8-9 hours of sleep, 9 pm to 6 am is much better than midnight to 9 am. Many experts claim that every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight (catching the “angel train”) and research suggests that the earlier you get to sleep, the deeper your sleep will be. Again, the aim is flow with your body’s desired cortisol cycles, which should be peaking as the sun rises. Trying to sleep through this peak may prove counterproductive.
The bottom line?
Your body wants to be resting and sleeping when it’s dark and active and engaged when the sun is up. Flowing with this natural rhythm will create less stress than fighting it. Follow the suggestions above to promote restful, rejuvenating sleep, which will, in turn, work to limit the harmful effects of stress in your body.