The Internet has its perks, but it also separates us from the natural sleep aids and relaxation tools our ancestors took for granted: exercise, nature, meditation and physical labor. Our digital lifestyle has replaced our natural sleep signals with screens; blue-light-emitting devices that constantly signal wakefulness to our brains.
As a result, today 132 million Americans have trouble sleeping at least one night each week and the sleep aid industry earned $34 billion dollars in 2014 (a 50% increase from $23 billion dollars in 2008.)
In addition to the omni-presence of screens, the velocity of the digital era puts our bodies in continual fight or flight mode. Who can sleep when trying to outrun, or at least out maneuver, a hungry coworker or client? Psychologist Dr. Richard O’Connor’s Undoing Perpetual Stress asserts that the human brain and nervous system just cannot process the constant stress that most Americans absorb every day. The National Sleep Foundation’s “Trauma and Sleep,” page explains that “when the body is overstimulated, the brain is flooded with neurochemicals that keep us awake, such as epinephrine and adrenaline, making it difficult to wind down at the end of the day.”
Because our healthcare system doesn’t always have great answers for either insomnia or stress, it’s up to us to make sure we take the lifestyle steps that ensure our own good sleep. Incorporate these tweaks into your sleep habits for improved overall health.
A Warm Soak in the Hot Bath or Hot Tub Improves Circulation Which Helps Sleep
There’s a reason every high end resort and gym showcases its hot tub. While we know stepping into a warm bath feels wonderful, many of us don’t take the time to do it. Instead we fall into bed cradling our laptops or the television remote. Understanding the health benefits of the hot bath or hot tub soak should prompt you to skip Facebook or the nightly news for time in the tub.
The mechanisms behind our cozy after-bath sensation are these: warm water raises our body temperature, which in turn dilates the blood vessels, improving blood flow. With a warm body and circulation at optimal level:
- breathing rate slows, relaxing you naturally
- production of stress hormones decreases
- muscles relax, reducing pain
- the heart pumps with full force, evening out blood pressure, relaxing the heart muscle itself
- cells and organs get properly nourished with oxygen and nutrients
Doctors call of these in aggregate, “the relaxation response.”
Improved circulation isn’t the only benefit from soaking in hot water. When your body temperature rises, your body releases “opioid peptides,” also known as endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that invoke feelings like the “runner’s high,” and “drunk in love.” Endorphins also help to diminish pain which, as you’ll read below, often wakes people at night, interrupting important sleep cycles. Even better, because this sleep substance is natural, there’s no risk of addiction or side effects.
People have sought out hot baths for centuries, even millennia, to improve health. In the United States, Native Americans revered hot springs as sacred healing spaces. The Ute Native Americans called the mineral-rich hot springs beside the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado “Yampah” or “Big Medicine.” They knew. Artifacts found around hot springs in Arizona, Yellowstone National Park and many more indicate frequent activity around the pools going back thousands of years.
Turn Off the Electronics!
No wonder your brain won’t shut down.
Much of the money going into sleep health programs could be saved if Americans just turned off the iPads and televisions within an hour of going to bed.
A study from Harvard Medical School’s Director of Sleep Medicine, Dr. Charles Czeisler, found that the using electronic devices like iphones and e-Readers delayed the onset of sleep by 30 minutes. Worse, the use of electronic devices within one hour of bed-time decreases the amount and duration of rapid eye movement sleep (REM), the sleep that restores us the best. Czeisler explains that the electronic device light pours, “white light right at your retina, sending a signal to the brain saying its morning . . .” That the use of electronic devices before bed stimulates the brain is just the beginning. It also hampers the production of natural melatonin, the hormone that helps to signal sleep time.
All sleep specialists encourage insomniacs to develop a night-time, wind-down routine involving darkness to work with our natural brain wiring. Putting on pajamas, drinking warm milk, reading in low light or even listening to the radio in the dark can be part of that.
Things you can try:
- Reading a paper book that doesn’t emit light rays
- Listen to a book on tape.
- Take a warm bath in dim light.
- Listen to relaxing music
Medicate or Massage Away Sore Muscles
Those with chronic pain struggle to sleep because the pain can interrupt truly restorative “deep sleep.” When muscle pain is severe enough, it not only wakes us, it prevents us from getting through the proper repetition of the four crucial stages of sleep necessary to restore proper brain and body function.
Even non-athletes get sore muscles. Desk jockeys suffer from hand, arm, shoulder and back soreness. Stress causes us to draw our shoulders in toward our ears in a protective move, tightening our neck muscles. Keeping those neck and back muscles tense all day has some of the same effects running for hours does on leg muscles. Massages aren’t just for NFL greats. The rest of us use our muscles repetitively throughout often long days.
Make Sure You Work Out Earlier in the Day
Exercise helps with sleep because it provides a variety of physical effects. Most of all, it
acts as a physical stressor to the body, prompting the brain to compensate with deep sleep. Early morning exercise is best, but if you must work out at night, make sure to do so two hours before bed time because the adrenaline boost exercise creates can keep you awake.
Research has shown that magnesium rich foods like pumpkin seeds, spinach, swiss chard and magnesium supplements helps people sleep through the night. Chamomile tea reduces stress that keeps the brain alert and postpones sleep. Coffee drinkers should have their last cup before noon.
Don’t Make Inadequate Sleep a Source of Pride
Some brag about “getting by” on four or five hours of sleep per night, insinuating that they are so in demand and popular at work and in their social lives, sleep just has to go.
These people only harm their physical and mental well-being, creating problems for their families, friends and co-workers. Healthy sleep is critical for effective learning, memory, decision-making and creativity. In other words, in sleep, the brain not only relaxes and stores information; it organizes and prepares for the next day’s tasks. Healthy sleep gets you ahead more than overwork and excessive networking.
Cognitive ability is the first thing to go when any individual gets inadequate sleep, but physical repercussions can be more threatening. The National Institutes of Health tell us that unhealthy sleep correlates to increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Nearly every creature on earth sleeps, even fruit flies! Skipping sleep is nothing to take pride in. Sleep doctors speculate that sleep’s contribution to overall health will start to get as much attention as diet has gotten over the past decade.
Sleep can be a wonderful and luxurious part of human life. Chasing the next big career title or award isn’t worth ruining your well-being and happiness. Giving your sleep the respect it deserves is your first step in getting a good night’s sleep.