Series on Sleep - Part Two
Welcome to part two of my series on sleep. For the rationale behind devoting an entire series to sleep and what it means to authentic living, I encourage you to read part one and then return here. For those of you ready for more, please read on...
Setting the Stage for Sleep
As we move through our day, the choices we make can either move us closer or further away from a restful night sleep. Therefore, it can be helpful to consider specific aspects of our waking life… food, movement, relaxation… to prepare for our resting one. Sleep and Dream Specialist, Psychologist Rubin Naiman, PhD says, “If there’s a secret to a good night’s sleep, it’s a good day’s waking.” So, with this in mind, let's walk through what a good day’s waking might mean for you.
Rhythm: Our bodies crave routine. Just like all living beings (plants, animals, even fungi), we humans follow a circadian rhythm that runs over a 24 hour period. Our bodies want us to be awake and alert with the sun, and resting and restoring when it finally sets. Finding a regular time to sleep and time to wake every day (and this includes weekends) can help our bodies settle into this rhythm. Ayurvedic medicine suggests that the best time to fall asleep is by 10:00pm, and to wake before 6:00 am. This schedule works great for me. On the days that I sleep in or snooze the alarm, though in the moment that feels luxurious, I end up feeling groggy and out of sorts for the majority of my day. When I am in a good sleep schedule my body wakes up naturally, before the alarm, feeling well rested and my head clear. However, my husband the “night owl" (which is a clinical distinction, by the way) would be the first to protest the 10:00pm bedtime, and he would not be alone. That's ok. Consistency is the most important aspect here. Its important to find what works best for you and your lifestyle.
Movement: When we snack throughout the day, we never become hungry for a meal. The same goes for movement and sleep. If we are not active and engaged in life throughout our day, instead we are sitting, lounging or napping, we will not really get tired. Our body is not getting the message that “this is waking time” and therefore will not know when it is “sleeping time.” A cat nap once and a while can be beneficial for memory and concentration when it is limited to 30 minutes or less, and if it occurs 8 hours before the time when you want to be asleep for the night, again so that you are not sending mixed messages to your body and mind. Huge caveat here for unique situations such as residing with a newborn or recovering from a major surgery, trauma, or illness. In these situations, sleeping and nourishing yourself becomes the priority. Sleep time shifts to “when you can get it, get it.”
Consumption: Food, alcohol, and other substances are all important to consider as well as what you digest with your eyes and ears, and at what time of day. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants... and therefore work to keep us awake and alert… and therefore are best to avoid near sleep. Our mind might tell us that alcohol helps us to get us to sleep, but in fact too much alcohol can mess with our sleep cycle and lead to early or intermittent waking throughout the night. A light snack before bed can help us settle in, yet a full meal can disrupt sleep while our stomach is busy digesting. A sleep aid prescribed by a doctor can be beneficial, but is intended for only short term use (typically months not years). Consider too what you are consuming with your eyes and ears. Is your newsfeed filled with salacious or traumatic headlines and images? Are the TV shows you watch, especially right before or in bed, violent and overly sexualized? Are the people and environment you are surrounding yourself with nourishing or triggering? Where can you, and are you, willing to make small adjustments to better your waking life?
Bedtime Routine: Our biology is not designed to 1) respond like our smart phones or 2) move at the pace of our smart phones. We do not have a “sleep mode” setting that we can turn on when we want to go to sleep. If we burn through our day moving frantically from one task to another on automatic pilot, we are at risk for becoming what Tara Brach refers to as “twired.” Wired and tired. You know the feeling? So, in addition to practicing natural pauses throughout your day, it can be helpful to consider incorporating relaxing practices (or at least minimally stimulating) in the hour or two prior to bedtime. Again, this is consistent with sending a message to your body “we are getting ready to sleep now.” Here is a snapshot of my bedtime routine, which is largely based on recommendations by both western sleep specialists and eastern wellness practices:
I have an intention that all “doing” is done by 9:00pm. This includes anything work related (even if I enjoy it), online browsing/shopping/reading, personal or family decision making, and stimulating discussions. Not always realistic, but that is why its an intention. My hygiene is the same every night, and within that last hour of bedtime. Sometimes, if I am particularly twired and can find the time and space, a relaxing bath with epsom salts and lavender can be really helpful to transition my mind and body. Skin brushing toward the heart is also a soothing ritual. On the nights that I jump into bed and find that my mind is still racing, I get my legs up on the wall above my bed. Usually ten minutes of some version of Viparina Karani (legs up the wall pose) is all I need to settle in. Check with your trusted yogi for the version that best suits you, and be sure to consider any potential contraindications of the pose prior to your practice. If, as it happens on occasion, I have made it all the way under the covers with the lights off and my mind is still racing, I choose any of the numerous meditation/relaxation audio recordings available through Insight Timer (it's no surprise that their most popular recordings are on sleep). I have also posted several of my own audio recordings for sleep and relaxation here.
And, finally, be kind. If you try any or all of these ideas and they don’t seem to help, I can pretty much guarantee you that beating yourself up about your sleep will not help you get to sleep. These ideas may seem simple, but they can be tricky to implement. We will get more into the topic of the trickiness of thoughts next time in Part Three: Thoughts on Sleep.