Words By Maude Farrugia
One of the most important things to keep us healthy in both body and mind is sleep. But as we strive to juggle families, work and living clean and sustainable lives, the amount of sleep we get is easy to neglect and its quality is often the first thing to suffer.
Sleep plays a far more important role in our lives than simply giving us the energy to live more self-reliant lives. Getting an adequate amount of good-quality sleep goes a long way in protecting us from illness and disease, too, as well as warding off the negative impacts associated with sleep deprivation which can affect our memory, decision-making and even our vision. If we want to be productive in the world and be able to use our time and energy improving ourselves, our communities and our planet, we need to treat sleep as sacred, and make conscious decisions around prioritising a good night’s sleep.
Over the last century, humans have artificially extended waking hours through the invention of electric lighting, climate-controlled houses and a 24/7 online world of entertainment. It’s no wonder almost 60 percent of Australians say they experience symptoms of insomnia at least three times a week. Add to that a global pandemic which has thrown daily routines into disarray, and it’s easy to see how our sleep patterns can be disturbed. But by allowing our natural rhythms – and those of the world around us – to guide our sleep patterns, we can restore a restful rhythm back to both our days and our nights.
Most sleep experts agree having a rest routine helps develop healthy sleep habits. If your circumstances allow, try to introduce a regular time you begin winding down from the day and a regular time you get up. Creating rules like ‘no working after dinner’ or ‘technology switches off at 7 pm’ can help this become habitual. Just like it occurs in nature, allow the sun setting and rising to be your cue to start unwinding for rest or gearing up for action.
Humans are diurnal, which means we are active during the day and we rest at night. You might identify as a so-called night owl or early bird, and people have varying amounts of sleep on which they can function, but every one of us needs sleep.
We are hardwired to use the sun’s light spectrum as our cue; the red end of the spectrum occurs in the mornings and evenings, while the blue spectrum is brightest in the middle of the day. Ensuring our sleep spaces use low-level warm light can be helpful and, as digital devices increasingly saturate our worlds, avoiding screens as bedtime approaches will also help, as they use a high level of blue light to ensure you remain engaged. Exposing yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning is a great way to tell your body the day has begun and to help regulate sleep patterns.
Despite our bodies slowing down in the evenings, our heads can be still racing, so learning what calms your mind is a powerful tool to have in your sleep-hygiene toolbox. It might be herbal tea (see sidebar), reading, knitting or a walk, but it’s about making some quiet time for mindfulness in order to slow the brain down and letting it know it’s time to rest.
Incorporating a daily meditation practice into your routine can have dramatic effects on your ability to sleep and quieten your mind. At times it may seem hard to fit it in with everything else you need to do, but just like a car needs regular maintenance, so too do our minds. You can use your relaxation tools daily as you unwind and ready yourself for rest. Experts also advise using these techniques if you’re struggling to get back to sleep after waking during the night.
As important as routines are, going to bed when you are not tired, or lying awake for hours after you have woken in the night are discouraged in the world of clinical sleep hygiene. It may seem counterintuitive, but getting up and doing something to trigger a relaxation response is a better course of action to get you back to sleep. Most experts advise if you’re just not nodding off after 20 minutes, it’s advisable to do something relaxing in low light, such as reading, until you feel ready for rest again. However, being conscious of lying quietly and mindfully in the darkness without the responsibilities of daily life demanding responses from you is a great tool to turn the anxiety of not sleeping into restful appreciation.
Chamomile and lavender are two herbs commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia, and both are easy to cultivate at home. Peppermint, lemon balm, St John’s wort, catnip and valerian are other herb-garden staples that have been traditionally used to aid relaxation.
CALMING CHAMOMILE TEA
Create A Sanctuary
One of the cardinal rules of sleep therapy is creating a space solely for sleep. This means your bed is not a workspace and your bedroom is not a place to shop online or exercise. Keeping your bedroom solely for sleep promotes powerful associations in your brain.
Too much heat (from electric blankets, too many layers or heaters) can wreak havoc on your sleep rhythms, so keeping your bedroom comfortably cool is ideal for promoting restful sleep. Lightweight bedding, sleepwear and fresh air can all help to create a sleep sanctuary. Keeping your bedroom free of clutter and only displaying things you love and find relaxing can also also be helpful.
Food And Drink
Despite the belief that a big meal will send you to sleep, eating close to bedtime is a bad idea as you’re body wants to ramp up into digestion mode while you’re supposed to be helping it relax. It’s equally inadvisable to go to bed hungry, too, as your body needs energy to function, even during periods of rest.
Food and drinks such as coffee and chocolate might seem like the perfect evening reward, but steer clear of stimulants like caffeine and sugar. And while you might think drinking alcohol before bed is a great way to help you fall asleep quickly, the work required for your liver to break down the alcohol while you’re sleeping will often disrupt your sleep patterns and reduce the quality of rest you’re getting.