Foundations of Health: Rest and Sleep

The delay in this posting came out of my personal desire to heed the message of this topic.  Without sleep we die.  Healing does not happen without rest.  As I would sit down to write this entry, I found myself empty and depleted; rather than pull a “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do,” I chose to take some time to honor my need for rest.

One of the best ways I assess my patients and their level of “reserves” or “vitality” is to ask them, “after a full night’s sleep, do you wake feeling rested?”  If they answer that they are not well rested, if they wake feeling exhausted, I know this person will need to prioritize rest and sleep.  This level of exhaustion is a mark of depletion, and for some people, they may need to scale back their lifestyle (for a time) if they want to fully heal.

Scientifically, sleep is still somewhat of a mystery.  We know that there are different phases, categorized by differences in brain-wave patterns.  But we still don’t fully understand why we need sleep and the reason for all the symptoms of sleep deprivation. Broadly, I think about sleep as a way for both the body and the brain to repair.  Generally, during the night we will cycle between the following two categories every approximately 90 minutes:

  • REM (rapid eye movement) sleep: Brain awake, body asleep. This is when most dreaming occurs, and (arguably) where the brain is processing the events of the day.
  • Non-REM: Brain asleep, body awake.  This is when most physical healing and repair occurs.  During these phases, growth hormone is released; in adults, growth hormone is vital for repairing tissues.

To list a few consequences, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with fatigue, mood disturbances (especially  depression, anxiety and irritability), short term memory lapses, increase risk of diabetes, weight gain, headaches, poor healing/recovery (due to suppressed growth hormone), and impaired cognitive function.

Also, the more generic idea of “rest” is important to address.  In today’s over busy, over stressed and overworked world, taking time out to rest is not encouraged and in some fields is even frowned upon (or seen as a weakness.)  This is a hard view to combat, but it is vital we honor our need for rest.  The negative effects of stress are well known and varied, from high blood pressure to anxiety to digestive disturbances.  Stress hormones also do not allow the body to repair and rebuild, so damage can accumulate and compound over time.

If you are a parent, caregiver, a dog/cat owner, or a generally compassionate person, when someone you care about is sick you will encourage (or even demand of) them to rest until they get better.  It is vital that you value yourself as much as these others you care for and give yourself the gift of rest and sleep whenever you need it. 

Sleep Hygiene:

If you have trouble sleeping, this is the first place to start.  Sleep hygiene is all about making the bedroom an environment specifically conducive to sleep and about adopting practices that encourage healthy sleeping patterns.

  • Make sure that the bedroom is quiet and dark.  If this means putting up blackout curtains, getting ear plugs, white noise sound machine or eye mask, do it.  Stimuli that doesn’t rouse you can still disrupt the proper sleep cycling, leading to poor sleep quality.
  • Light is especially disruptive.  The pineal gland (located in the middle of the brain) receives signals from the retina when light hits them and sends “wake up” messages to the rest of the body.  If you are sensitive, this may include needing to move electronics with small LEDs out of the bedroom.
  • Make the bed a place that is all about sleep (and yes, sex too). Particularly, do not bring electronic gadgets to bed, do not study in bed or otherwise engage in stressful activities while in bed.  If you begin to associate stress with your bed, sleep will be difficult.
  • Avoid stimulating activities for ~2 hours before bed, especially computers.  The blue light that dominates electronics screens is particularly stimulating the pineal.  Some are ok if they just use orange tinted glasses to minimize the blue wavelengths, while others may need to abstain entirely.
  • Adopt a pre-bed relaxation routine.  Perhaps this means taking a shower or bath, having some chamomile tea, reading a book, practicing deep breathing exercises, meditation and/or relaxing visualizations.
  • Avoid alcohol, while initially possibly relaxing, it sets you up for a blood sugar crash in the middle of the night, which is likely to wake you.

Rest well and regain your health and energy!

Next in our exploration of the Foundations of Health, I will be discussing Food.

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