Knock on wood, I'm very healthy today. However, my journey to optimal wellness has been a slow and steady uphill climb. In what now feels like a former life, I was slightly overweight, struggling with thyroid issues, and just plain unhappy and unfulfilled.
Thanks to yoga, meditation, and a whole foods plant-based diet, all that has changed. Flash forward several years and a lot of lifestyle change later, I am in the best shape of my life. I am fortunate to have found a true passion for holistic health and a blessing in the opportunity to turn that passion into my profession. It sure does sound like I have reached the top of the health summit. What more could there be?
It was brought to my attention recently that there is one area of my life where I am still lacking; an area that is essential to optimal health but one that has almost been vilified by our modern culture: SLEEP! In today's society, we tend to glorify being busy. We see the ability to multi-task as a virtue, and spend our days playing 100 mile/hour mental acrobatics. We see sleepiness as a need for fuel, not rest; we are overly dependent on stimulants and caffeine; and we confuse rest with recreation.
Even in the spiritual community, where we talk about the benefits of "mental stillness", sleep is still not necessarily properly prioritized. Yogis often aspire to wake up at sunrise to meditate and often hold the notion that a dedicated meditation practice will result in less of a need for sleep; a sign of our spiritual advancement. Even if that's true, our egos could potentially get in the way as we strive for a spiritual goal. As a result of all of the above, there is an increasing epidemic of insomnia! We are literally rest-less!
With that said, I actually LOVE sleep. I consider my bed one of my "happy places" and I love lingering there on the weekends. But even a sleep-lover who enjoys down-time, like myself, was not getting enough quality sleep. I didn't even know it until a sudden, unexpected, yet extremely obvious improvement became evident after better sleep was experienced as a pleasant side effect of a new supplement.
Sleep is a hormone dependent process, and with all the variables in our lives that can affect proper hormone balance (foods, toxins, artificial light, etc..) it makes sense that many people struggle with sleep. While our cultural mainstream thinking might recommend a pharmaceutical option to help deal with sleep issues, artificially augmenting the hormone system to induce sleep isn’t without its problems (just check out the side-effects and warnings list!) and can have an impact on other hormone functions as well.
Often, lack of quality sleep stems from one or more lifestyle causes, and it is important to address these underlying issues as they can impact more than just sleep.
Sleep is regulated through complex interactions among multiple brain regions, hormones, and neurotransmitters like Norepinephrine, Serotonin, Melatonin, and Dopamine. Hormone problems that cause sleep disturbances don’t just begin at bedtime, and they can’t be fixed by just addressing them at this time, either. Ever noticed that animals don’t have trouble sleeping and waking when they are supposed to? They don’t toss and turn to fall asleep and they don’t need pills to help them do so.
Proper sleep hormone production (melatonin) depends on proper hormone function during waking hours (serotonin and others). As the endocrine system is a complete system, hormone imbalances can often lead to poor sleep and vice versa.
Stress hormones can have a tremendous impact on the sleep cycle as well, and it is a two-way street. Lack of sleep elevates stress hormones, and stress hormones can cause sleep problems.
What Happens When You Don’t Sleep?
Sleep is important for optimal health in so many ways. In fact, sleep is the one similarity across the animal kingdom. The amount of sleep needed varies greatly by species, but all animals (humans included) need sleep. Lab rats started dying after only a few days of being kept awake.
Sleep is important for almost every aspect of health:
Physical Health: The body repairs tissue, including heart and blood vessels during sleep. Long term poor sleep is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
Obesity: Lack of sleep alone can also make you overweight. One study found with each hour of sleep lost, the odds of becoming obese went up.
Hormone Health: Sleep helps maintain the balance of the hormones that make you feel hungry (ghrelin) or full (leptin). When you don’t get enough sleep, your level of ghrelin goes up and your level of leptin goes down. This makes you feel hungrier than when you’re well-rested.
Insulin: Sleep impacts how your body handles insulin, the hormone that controls your blood glucose (sugar) level. Sleep deficiency results in a higher than normal blood sugar level, which can lead to many serious problems.
Growth & Fertility: Deep sleep triggers the hormone cascade responsible for growth in children and teens. Do you kids tend to get growing pains at night? This could be why! This hormone also boosts muscle mass and helps repair cells and tissues in children, teens, and adults.
Learning & Memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later
Understanding Sleep Cycles
Of course, not all sleep is created equal. There are several stages of sleep that the body cycles through during the night:
N1-This is the stage when you feel half asleep and still have some awareness of your surroundings. This is also the stage where you involuntarily jerk or kick.
N2-Slightly deeper stage of sleep. You actually spend about half of your sleeping hours in this stage.
N3– Deep slow sleep where your core temperature has dropped and your melatonin production is going strong. N3 cycles you into the most “productive” of the sleep cycles…
REM– Rapid Eye Movement sleep is when most dreaming occurs. In REM, muscles completely relax and the mind and body regenerate at an amazing rate. Only about a quarter of your daily sleep is in REM but it is vitally important.
This last stage is where I was lacking!! How do I know? I could not EVER recall dreaming! I might have been getting 7 hours of sleep per night but it wasn't "quality" sleep! I wasn't even aware of the problem until after I started taking a new supplement. My dreams suddenly went techno-color and I woke up each day feeling more refreshed than I had in years!!! After this sudden change, I learned how REM sleep is critical for information processing, assimilation, memory, learning, and emotional healing. Being REM deprived can result in fatigue and depression. For me, I just was unknowingly not functioning at my peak. My newly found pep-in-my-step inspired me to learn more.
I discovered that some experts believe that it’s actually a lack of REM sleep and a lack of dreaming — rather than just poor sleep in general — that’s responsible for many of the health problems Americans suffer from today.
What happens during REM sleep?
Sleep involves distinct phases, which the brain and body cycle through several times during the night. The first three phases, mentioned above, involve a transition from shallow to deep sleep, while the last phase, REM sleep, involves heightened brain activity and vivid dreams.
REM sleep stages tend to be relatively short during the first two-thirds of the night as the body prioritizes deeper, slow-wave sleep. And because longer periods of REM sleep only happen during the final hours of sleep (in the early morning, for most people), it can get cut off when you don’t spend a full seven or eight hours in bed.
During REM sleep, there is more activity in the visual, motor, emotional and autobiographical memory regions of the brain. But there is also decreased activity in other regions, like the one involved in rational thought — hence the reason for extremely lucid, but often nonsensical, dreams.
What happens when you dream?
Scientists are divided as to whether dreams are simply a product of random neurons firing during sleep, or if they’re something more — like a data dump that helps the brain separate important memories from non-important ones, or a way for people to prepare for challenges and play through different scenarios in their heads.
Many sleep experts describe the brain during REM sleep as a sort of “second gut” that digests all of the information gathered that day. Everything we see, every conversation we have, is chewed on and swallowed and filtered through while we dream, and either excreted or assimilated.
How To Get More REM Sleep
Start when you are awake! To optimize sleep during the night, one must also optimize factors during waking hours including food, supplements and exposure to light/outdoors. Getting a quality night of sleep actually begins when you wake at the beginning of the day and there are many factors that can have a dramatic impact on sleep length and quality.
Foods to Improve Sleep Naturally
Just as foods can impact health in other areas, foods can contribute to good or bad sleep. To help improve your chances of quality sleep, these are the best foods to consume:
Healthy Fats– such as avocado, nuts, and seeds all help provide your body with the necessary building blocks to manufacture sleep hormones.
High Antioxidant Foods– Also important for hormone production and removal of toxins that can impede sleep. Focus on vegetables, high nutrient fruits, and herbal or green teas (green tea early in the day only).
Tart Cherries are a natural occurring source of melatonin. Known as the queen of nighttime physiology, higher levels are associated with more REM sleep.
Eating too close to bedtime can raise core body temperature and metabolic rate, making it difficult to fall asleep.
Sugars and starchy carbohydrates, especially at night, can cause a blood sugar spike and crash that will lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep.
Sleepy teas are actually pee-pee teas. Avoid drinking too close to bed-time so that you're not running to the bathroom all night!
Supplements to Improve Sleep Naturally
.....AND, the supplement that made such a huge different for me:
CBD OIL! - CBD is a compound found in cannabis plants that is known for its non-intoxicating, medicinal effects. It may help with sleep through:
Reducing anxiety. CBD may improve sleep for individuals with anxiety problems.
Acting as a sedative. Higher CBD doses seem to work as calming, sleep-inducing agent.
Increasing Endogenous Melatonin: Cannabis compounds have been shown to naturally increase melatonin.
Cannabidiol—or CBD—is a cannabinoid that’s available in supplement form, and has a number of possible uses, including help with stress and anxiety, pain, and sleep problems. Unlike medical cannabis, CBD is legal in all 50 states. Even if you live in a state where medical cannabis is currently not legal, you can still purchase and use CBD.
What is CBD?
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a chemical compound that’s found in the cannabis plant. There are multiple species of cannabis that naturally contain CBD.
Cannabis has been used medicinally for centuries, as a sleep aid, a pain and nausea reducer, to relieve anxiety and other mood problems. In the mid-1960s, scientists identified the first cannabinoid. Since then, scientists have gone on to identify more than 80 individual cannabinoids and continue to investigate them for their potential symptom-relieving and disease-fighting abilities.
They each have distinctly different effects within the body, and different potential uses for health and disease. Two of the cannabinoids that are most widely recognized for their medicinal value are THC and CBD. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is a chemical compound that delivers the “high” that occurs from ingesting marijuana.
CBD, on the other hand, has no “high” associated with it. Instead, this compound has calming, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic effects. In fact, CBD is sometimes used in combination with THC to counteract THC’s mind-altering effects.
CBD has captured a great deal of scientific attention for its health benefits. Along with THC, CBD is the most well researched of the cannabinoids.
CBD can be extracted from the cannabis plant. CBD is also made synthetically. Both extracted CBD and synthetic CBD are found in supplements and medications specifically developed to take advantage of this compound’s therapeutic abilities. CBD is produced in pill form, as well as in sprays, tinctures, and inhalers.
How does CBD work?
Scientists have made a lot of progress in understanding how CBD produces its calming, pain-reducing, anti-inflammatory effects in the body—and there’s still more to learn. We know that CBD interacts with many different receptors, proteins, and other chemicals in the brain. These interactions create changes in the activity of neurotransmitters, hormones, and other cells throughout the brain and body. Through these interactions, CBD appears to be able to affect many of the body’s functions, from sleep-wake cycles and emotional regulation to inflammation, pain perception, and seizures.
Our bodies actually produce their own cannabinoids, as part of what’s known as the endocannabinoid system. This system is involved in regulating many physiological processes, including mood, pain perception, appetite, and cognitive functions. CBD interacts in part with the body’s endocannabinoid system and its receptors.
According to a growing body of research, CBD may play a role in the growth of new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis. CBD is also widely recognized as having anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities, which make CBD a promising therapy for a wide range of conditions, from neurological disorders to autoimmune diseases to chronic pain and depression.
CBD also works as an analgesic—a pain reducer—in the body.
Benefits of CBD
Scientists are devoting a great deal of attention to CBD these days, and we’re continually learning more about the broad spectrum of benefits it may offer to health.
CBD For Sleep
CBD has the ability to reduce anxiety, which can be helpful in reducing sleep difficulties and improving sleep quality. CBD may increase overall sleep amounts, and improve insomnia, according to research. CBD has been shown to reduce insomnia in people who suffer from chronic pain.
In smaller doses, CBD stimulates alertness and reduces daytime sleepiness, which is important for daytime performance and for the strength and consistency of the sleep-wake cycle.
Putting It All Together: A Daily Routine for Better Sleep
A daily (and nightly) routine can make a big difference in how easily you fall and stay asleep. You’ll have to experiment to find out what works best for you but here are some helpful suggestions:
Wake up and go to bed at the same time, even on weekends to keep your hormone cycle regular.
Avoid eating "bedtime snacks" as this can warm your core temperature and metabolic rate, making it difficult to fall asleep.
Avoid caffeine after 1 pm.
Drink enough water during the day and stop drinking about 2 hours before bed so you don’t have to wake up to use the bathroom.
Take a soothing salt bath about an hour before bed with some relaxing music or a great book.
Get at least 30 minutes of sunlight each day (even if you aren’t trying to get your vitamin D). The exposure to the wide-spectrum light during the day boosts serotonin levels, which will help improve melatonin levels at night.
Avoid artificial light as much as possible after the sun goes down.
Pray, meditate or find a way to reduce stress.
Give yourself a massage before bed to release stress and help relax
Stretch out with some gentle yoga before bed to relax muscles. Legs Up The Wall and gentle forward folds are great poses to help calm the mind and prepare for rest.
Supplement for sleep-time success!
How to Improve Your Sleep Environment
Your sleep environment is also extremely important for sleep quality. Artificial light, warm temperatures, and sudden noises can all effect sleep quality, but these things are almost always fixable. Again, you’ll have to experiment to figure out what works best for you, but in general, here are some tips:
Remove ALL artificial light, including the light on your alarm clock, TV light, phone, etc. Try blackout curtains if you have artificial light outside, and cover clock lights with a towel before bed.
Keep the temperature around 65-68 degrees and always below 70 degrees.
Try some white noise like sounds of rain or a fan.
Trade out your jolting buzzing alarm clock for a gentle alarm clock that will wake you up much more softly.
Try diffusing a calming essential oil! Lavender is a great one, known to help soothe and comfort.
Take the time for yourself and just sleep!! It is tremendously important for your health and it doesn’t cost anything!
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