Become your own sleep Doctor
“How is your sleep quality”? I always ask this question to all my clients when they first come in for a consult. Eight out of ten will say they sleep well. I like to probe further and ask:
- Do you fall asleep easily?
- Do you frequently get up at night?
- Do you have difficulty going back to sleep once awakened at night?
- How do you feel in the morning: refreshed or you drag yourself out of bed?
- Do you take any pills before sleeping?
50% of those who said they sleep well initially will have second thoughts about sleep quality once these questions have been answered. The reality is most of us are not sleeping well. What is worse we don’t really know what good/sound sleep looks like. Not getting up even if there is incessant noise is NOT good sleep.
Let me try a layman definition of good sleep:
“To sleep well is to be able to fall asleep easily; to sleep uninterrupted for 4-8 hrs (the hrs vary for everyone); to be able to go right back to sleep in case one had to get up in the middle; to not remember having too many dreams (important point is to not remember the dreams, even though one might be having them) to get up in the morning recharged, rested and ready to spring out of bed, like small children do.”yoururbannaturopath.com
A dear friend would argue with me endlessly and say but this can never be true for everyone. There are always the larks and the owls, she would point out. I would always argue back and say, I don’t agree. If this was to be true we would be given two different times for nature’s rhythms( sun rise and sunset) which govern our body’s circadian rhythms (can read more about circadian rythmn here). So, larks and owl in the human body do not have a different nervous system. It is their habits and sometimes their diseases that is impacting their sleep quality.
Why should we worry about sleep quality?
Sleep is so important to restore the natural equilibrium of the body that some naturopaths have used it as the only form of treatment; making their patients sleep for long in open air and under the night sky.
At the least, it is what we need for a healthy nervous system. For our brains to function well: plan, prioritise, execute, play, coordinate, mingle with others, it needs its share of activities that engage and periods of rest that recharge. Good quality sleep is that everyday recharge.
At it’s worst, disturbed sleep over a long period of time can lead to mental health issues. All good therapists today know that bad sleep affects the nervous system that in turn affects mental health.
Sleep apnoea, an extreme form of sleep disturbance, is a very unpleasant and functionally detrimental disease to live with. It does not just affect the patient’s quality of life but also of their partners’. Imagine sleeping next to someone who snores crazily or who sleeps with a machine; both uncomfortable scenarios to deal with.
What can one do?
Everything starts with an honest assessment of what is happening currently. You can use the five questions at the beginning of this post to self-assess. If then you realise that your sleep quality is not that great or it is ok but want it to be better, then it is worth getting an understanding of reasons and try some potential solutions.
- Unclean Gut
Everything starts in the GUT. It is something to understand and keep at, for once you get this right, a lot of issues get automatically resolved. Please read through my previous post on this here. An unclean gut will start the process of reabsorption in 24hrs. So waste material which should have by then exited the body will start getting reabsorbed into the blood stream. When unclean blood circulates in the body, sleep is one of the things that can get disturbed. A polluted blood stream is like a polluted river, it can cause blockages (aches and pains), impediments (feeling of heaviness, gas) and make the body overall more acidic than alkaline. Gas and acid reflux can be particularly problematic at night. My naturopathy teacher is so particular about this that he insists on giving people enemas at night, especially those with a heart condition.
If you experience heaviness, gas, acidity or are prone to acne, pimples or boils, your gut need cleaning. If you go to sleep easily but regularly get up in the middle of the night and then find it difficult to go back to sleep, focus on your gut. Read the article mentioned above to see how.
2. Full stomach
Sleep is a process of resting; resting of not just the nervous system but all the organs. When the digestive system is at rest, the process of repair and rebuilding can happen. But if the digestive system was to stay active because you have eaten a late dinner (not 3 hrs before sleep time) or eaten a heavy meal, chances are you are going to not only toss and turn at night but also experience heaviness, heat and acidity. The stomach which should have gone into an inactive mode by then, is being forced into activity.
Finish your meals 3 hours before going to bed especially if dinner is your main meal or you eat rich/heavy food. Those who want to do more, finish your eating with the sunset. The idea of supper rather than dinner is worth aping from the west here. Especially for those with asthma and heart conditions, don’t make dinner your main meal.
3. Concentrated mental activity
If you are a high concentration mental worker (you do a lot of planning, calculating, designing, pay attention to minute details) and work late into the night, your brain can go into an overdrive. Think of it as a car rolling down a road. It keeps going on and on even after the brakes have been applied because it has gained so much speed/momentum as it was rolling. That is how cognitive functions of the brain work. The brain can keep running, as way of thinking, even after you have stopped engaging in that activity physically. Excessive worry, anxiety, over thinking during evening hours are other reasons why the brain goes in an overdrive and gets heated.
Whichever part of the body is highly activated, blood flow there is automatically increased. So, with continuous thinking, there is increased blood flow in the neck and head areas.
Just like you want to finish your dinner 3 hours before bedtime, you also want to stop doing concentrated mental work a couple of hours before sleep time. To ‘Cut-off’ and engage in activities that ‘wind you down’ are not just cliches but much needed for good sleep.
To bring down the blood flow from the head region, take a hot foot bath, 20 minutes before sleeptime. Take hot water in a bucket, as hot as you can tolerate and soak your feet, upto calves, in it. Keep a jug of boiling water close by and keep adding as to the bucket. Let your feet soak for 15-20 minutes. Remove feet and walk straight to the bathroom and keep your feet under regular tap cold water for 1- 2 minutes. Dry them and get into bed.
Do not watch any screens or read after this. Can listen to a pleasing audio.
4. Overstrained eyes and screen time
Thanks to modern day living, no matter what we do for work, or whether we even work or not, we all have too much exposure to screens (tv, computers, phones). Eyes have a direct pathway to the frontal/thinking brain, that is to say that what we see will directly impacts the thinking and visual centres of the brain.
But here is what I have learned about screens, distance matters most! So, those of us, who still watch the television before going to bed will have less sleep disturbance as compared to those who watch their phones with heavy scrolling (scrolling is a double whammy because it not only affects the eyes but also stimulates the brain).
Ideally get away from screens at least 1 hour before bedtime. If that is not possible then increase the distance between your eyes and screen (TV is the best here).
Tratak: Do this 30 minutes before bedtime. Sit on the ground in any comfortable position in a place that is pitch dark and without any wind (you will need to shut off fans for the duration of candle staring here). At arm’s length and eye level keep a candle. Light the flame, make sure there is no draft, and stare at it without blinking for as many seconds as possible. Let your eyes feel the strain and water. When it gets too much to bear, blink a couple of times, and close your eyes. Try and see the candle flame inside with closed eyes. This is 1 round. Repeat this 3-5 times. This should take you about 15 -20 minutes. Then with eyes closed lie down on the floor (same spot where you were sitting) and just notice your breath. Do this for another 10 minutes.
Wash your eyes with tap water and move to bed. NO SCREENS. If you can’t sleep, put on a gentle audio and keep eyes closed.
Note: If you have a serious eye condition (other than bad eyesight) or epilepsy, then don’t use a candle flame. Use a black dot to stare at instead.
5. Nervous Energy
Ever come back after a great night of dancing and no matter how tired you felt physically, found it difficult to crash? This is nervous energy. It is when the emotional brain (limbic) gets super activated and can’t immediately calm down. This can also sometimes happen if you do a lot of late-night exercise with emotionally charged music or have had an unpleasant argument with a loved one. Emotional charge which can feel like excitement, restlessness, anger or even depressive mood, brooding, are the companions here. One can feel this in one’s spinal cord, especially back of the head and neck, as a slight strain ,stiffness or numbing or as a ‘gut-wrenching’ feeling. A charged mood whether positive or negative can lead to sleep disturbances and also sometimes upset the stomach.
Have a cup of Chamomile or peppermint green tea 1-2 hours before bedtime (add some honey if you want). For some people a glass of warm milk will give the same effect. All these increase tryptophan that relaxes the nervous system and induces sleep. Follow the 5 pm rule for regular tea and coffee i.e don’t have these after 5 pm, they stimulate the nervous system. For some the cut off time might have to be noon, judge for yourself.
Take a cold shower/bath, as cold as body can tolerate (you should feel the coldness for a few seconds but not be shivering after rubbing yourself dry). If you live in India, then for the summer months, add some ice to a bucket of water and take this. Wash head if possible. Keep the water running mainly on the head, neck and spine. Front of the body is not important here. Do this for atleast 5-7 minutes.
Note: If you have any condition that is caused by inflammation of nerves, such as sciatica, then don’t take cold baths without first consulting with a naturopath.
Once in bed, don’t use screens. Instead put on a gentle audio and keep eyes closed. Sounds really matter here, so make sure what you are listening to is gentle and calming.
It might be difficult to judge the reason for bad sleep quality initially, so you may have to try a few of the above listed things to see which works best for you. A combination usually works for everyone.
I either do cold shower+ tratak if my energy feels more nervous (mood is emotional, restless) or tratak + hot foot bath if energy is more in the head (concentrated work/heavy, deep thoughts, heaviness in head or eyes