From Biosis 5, July 2005
The Sleep/Health Connection and How to Improve It
There’s an old Irish proverb that says, “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” Indeed, the link between sleeping well and well being has been noted throughout the ages. Shakespeare called it the “chief nourisher in life’s feast,” while to Thomas Dekker, it was “the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” And according to Emerson, “Health is the first muse, and sleep is the condition to produce it.”
Unfortunately, most of us don’t sleep well enough or long enough on a regular basis. This is probably no surprise, yet a recent  NIH panel noted it as though it were news. Indeed, you may have seen the item in the papers or on the news. According to these reports, the researchers offered little information about why we’re having such trouble sleeping, let alone how we might improve our sleep. By the end of each report, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking of consistent, quality sleep as anything short of mysterious.
Truth be told, there are many things we can do to improve our sleep. Most are behavioral, starting with going to bed and rising at roughly the same times every day. If sleep is elusive, turn on the lights for a short time, which seems to remind the body that it’s time to rest. Or get up and do something else for a while, then return to bed. Deep relaxation exercises are useful, in which you progressively relax your body, releasing the physical tension, while simultaneously calming the mind. Some people even say that listening to speech for a limited time relaxes them. The external focus distracts them from racing or persistent thoughts.
Longer-term lifestyle changes can also help, beginning with an improved diet. Often, problems such as insomnia are blood glucose- and insulin-related. Many who suffer chronic fatigue and dysinsulinism awake during the night from hunger and the rise of histamine in the blood and biological terrain. Try eliminating any nutrient-poor, over-processed food products from your diet. Replace them with higher quality carbohydrates such as vegetables and whole grains. Also be sure to get enough essential fats (e.g. omega 3s, EPA, DHA) and protein each day. Limit your intake of caffeine and sugars, especially after noon.
Like poor diet, stress can also disturb our sleep. Many of us become overstimulated by our fast-paced environment. We may be chronically stressed from the demands of both work and home. There’s no one right or even best way to counteract these forces. Each of us must make the best individual choices to manage the stressors in our lives. But one thing that can help most of us is devoting a part of every day to quiet time. This may involve meditation or relaxation exercises. Or it can involve doing any personally fulfilling activity, from reading to crafting to spending quality time with our loved ones. The key is simply to slow down for a while.
When behavioral approaches don’t work, however – or a short-term solution is needed – you still have plenty of options beyond a dose of Ambien or other drug. For instance, many are helped by herbal teas. There are dozens of brands and blends to choose from, but Trader Joe’s Bedtime Tea and Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime Tea are two of the most widely available. Such teas are caffeine-free and are made of combinations of sources such as chamomile, valerian root, passionflower, hibiscus and lemon grass. Plain chamomile tea also does the trick for many. Regardless of the kind, it’s best to take herbal tea about an hour before you want to fall asleep. You may also find it helpful to add a bag of rooibos to the brew. This red root tea is full of wonderful antioxidants that can bolster the self-renewing activities that take place in your body while you sleep.
Nutritional supplements also can help induce or support sleep. Single supplements include valerian root extract and melatonin. There are also blended supplements such as PhytoPharmacia’s Revitalizing Sleep Formula (valerian, passionflower and other herbs) and Metagenics’ Somnolin (B6, B12 and hydroxytryptophan). All of these can be taken singly or in combinations, depending on how your individual biochemistry reacts to them. Trial and error will help you find your ideal. They may also be combined with minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which further enhance physical relaxation.