‘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.’ John Steinbeck
Today insufficient sleep is increasingly seen as important to public health, with too little shut-eye linked to medical and occupational errors as well as disasters on the road and in factories. So our sleep quality needs to be prioritised with measures put in place to ensure a good night’s rest.
WE NEED QUALITY SLEEP
Sleep detoxifies the body, particularly the brain, from the many toxins absorbed during the waking hours as a result of physical and mental activities. The entire body has to literally spring-clean itself nightly.
A lack of good quality sleep eventually takes its toll on us, at every level. We are more likely to become irritable and forgetful, experience strained relationships, perform poorly at work, and are more likely to have a car accident or injury due to loss of concentration. If the problem persists, we may put on weight, become diabetic, develop heart problems, and perhaps sow the seeds for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
THE CURSE OF INSOMNIA
Most of us have trouble sleeping every now and then. But if the problem persists night after night, if we lie awake for hours before nodding off, or wake up too often or too early, then insomnia is likely to be the culprit. This ‘thief of the night’ is clearly more than a nuisance: it can wreck our quality of life, and pose a serious threat to our continuing good health. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder.
Possible causes of insomnia
There is no shortage of triggers for insomnia. Mental disharmony, whether from stress, anxiety or depression, is a common cause. Physical ailments such as indigestion, constipation, urinary problems, chronic pain and an overactive thyroid often present in tandem with insomnia.
Snoring is a common cause of insomnia. We all snore at times, but when it is regular and long lasting it can cause health problems such as daytime fatigue. And seeming character changes such as tetchiness may occur.
Another common cause of insomnia is sleep apnoea. Our breathing stops and starts when we are asleep, usually for a few seconds, and for no good reason. Unfortunately, this disturbs our normal sleep pattern, leading to daytime sleepiness. Our spouse or partner will find the snores and gasps quite alarming, and they will be driven to insomnia.
Insomnia seems more of a threat for women than for men, especially in pregnancy. Good quality sleep is essential for women, young and old, especially those at risk of heart disease, anxiety and depression.
Is there a role for sleeping pills?
Sufferers from the above sleep disorders often seek solace in prescription drugs. However, these sedative or hypnotic drugs are usually no more effective than herbal products or non-drug methods. They may have longer lasting effects, resulting in drowsiness the next day. Others, in particular the benzodiazepines and ‘Z’ drugs, can lead to dependence, especially if we use them for longer periods than advised (as we often do). We should also be aware of withdrawal symptoms (one of which is insomnia!) when the drug is discontinued.
Prevention is much better than cure, so we should try improving sleep hygiene first.
Sleep hygiene – the best hope
Most cases of insomnia are probably due to poor sleep hygiene: Mental over-stimulation before bedtime, poor quality bed and bedding, a noisy or too-light bedroom, unwise eating or drinking too close to bedtime (heavy meals and caffeine-rich drinks), exercising too close to bedtime, excessive cat-napping, watching TV and following social media late at night all often bring on insomnia. Finally, there may be a medical condition responsible, or a side effect of the drugs used to treat it – especially stimulants, certain antidepressants and cough-cold remedies – in which case we should check with our healthcare practitioner.
Luckily, there are a number of lifestyle changes that are worth trying:
- Shedding excess weight improves airflow in the throat and breathing passages.
- Increased physical activity tones up the muscles lining the throat and breathing passages.
- Smoking constricts the breathing passages.
- Stop or cut down using sleeping pills – they relax the muscles in the throat and interfere with our breathing.
The natural approach to sleep disorders
Natural medicine takes a different, holistic approach to sleep disorders. There are far better solutions to combatting insomnia than simply popping a pill.
A Tibb practitioner views sleep disorders in most cases as a prime example of internal imbalances in the basic qualities of life – heat, coldness, dryness, and in this case, moistness. These come about mainly through a faulty way of life, especially regarding a number of what Tibb terms the Lifestyle Factors – nutrition, physical activity and emotional stress, compounded by bad habits like smoking and drinking unwisely.
Tibb also takes into account the sufferer’s temperament, or personality. For example, a person who is melancholic in temperament is apt to be cold and dry quality-wise, and will suffer from poor, fitful sleep. He or she also needs more sleep time. On the other hand, someone who is phlegmatic usually sleeps soundly, is inclined to snore and need, more than normal sleep time.
A Tibb practitioner therefore adjusts treatment to suit the person’s temperament by appropriate changes to lifestyle, and by the use of herbal and other therapies.
For more information on Temperament and Tibb’s Philosophy of health and disease, visit the Tibb website.
Herbal baths and teas help you relax and calm your mind in preparation for a good night’s sleep. Chamomile and valerian are the queens of bedtime teas and with a touch of honey will bring you sweet dreams. You can also try a cup of warm milk with ginger and honey to de-stress before you put your head on the pillow.
Warm baths with a few drops of chamomile or lavender essential oils should also contribute to a good night’s sleep.
While you are sipping your herbal tea or relaxing in your lavender-infused bath, listen to soft and gentle classical music – clinical research has proven that the soothing notes relax taut muscles and block out stressful thoughts.
Top tips for sleeping well
- Go to bed only when sleepy.
- If sleep is elusive, read until drowsy.
- Keep a regular sleep cycle.
- Arise at the same time each morning.
- Arrange a quiet, dark, not-too-hot bedroom.
- Empty your bladder before retiring for the night.
- Have a hot bath one to two hours before bedtime.
Good, regular sleep is essential for our best health and quality of life. Poor, disturbed sleep is a threat to our health, both now and in the future. So any of us suffering from insomnia, and from common causes, such as snoring and sleep apnoea, need to put sleep-friendly measures in place. Disturbance to a sensible lifestyle is often the root cause of sleep disorders. Subjecting the brain to regular doses of ‘new-to-nature’ drugs for days, weeks, or even years on end is not the way to go as it inevitably creates problems for us.
Editor’s note: Another excellent article on sleep is Dreaming of Sleep by Alison Kamffer. Her article covers sleep disorders and natural remedies to aid sleep.