Lights, Camera, Action
Setting the Stage for a Good Night’s Sleep
Sleep isn’t something you DO actually As long as you don’t have chronic insomnia, it’s something you LET HAPPEN. Your body wants to sleep! Sleep is the time for recuperation, recovery, repair and integration of everything you’ve taken in throughout the day for both your mind and body. Your body’s natural tendency is towards HOMEOSTASIS - the fully smooth and balanced state when your body mind can do exactly what your body mind most needs. That state is found in moments of deep rest like meditation when you’re awake, and in the rhythms of sleep.
However with all of the effects of this pandemic situation - social isolation, financial uncertainty, boredom, anxiety about health and loved ones, and more - it’d be understandable if you find yourself exacerbating some habits that are counterproductive to a good night’s sleep.
Sylvia Mack (Acupuncturist) and I have put together this outline of things you can do TODAY to get better sleep from here on in. In no particular order, consider:
Your body was built to respond to the cycle of natural light. Consider that electric light only became widely available within 200 years and you begin to get an idea of how hard wired that is. The hormones that regulate sleep - especially melatonin - are produced and released in response to diminishing light.
So the first change you can make is to follow the decreasing light outside, inside. As the evening progresses turn off unnecessary bright lights, darken rooms you’re not using and dim the lighting in rooms where you are. You might be amazed how little light you need to do some of your routine activities, because we’ve become so addicted to fake light that we’ve forgotten how our eyes do adjust to low or little lighting. I do my whole bedtime routine by nightlight, and it’s easy to do.
Check the darkness in your bedroom - it should be so dark you almost have to feel your way along the walls if you have to get up in the middle of the night. Install darkening curtains. That means even covering the little blue or green lights on any electronics in your room. Extreme? Not if you want to sleep.
Here I need to say a word about the displays on digital clocks. Ask yourself why do you really need that? Have you been paying attention to the times you wake up? How much time have you left ‘to’ sleep? Do you start your day making an account to a sympathetic partner about how little time you slept? If that’s you: You’re not alone, but WHY? What you’ve actually been doing is using your clock to interfere with your sleep! So my question becomes: is the sympathy worth the sleeplessness? That’s a change you can make today! Just cover your clock when you go to bed, and catch yourself if the first thing you do if your sleep is disturbed is look that way. You can let go of needing to know! If you need an alarm to wake up, your phone has one that can be dead and dark all night and faithfully wake you up - preferably with soothing sounds - when you need to wake up. If you want your phone by your bed at night, make it silent and turn it face down so no light, sound or vibration will disturb your sleep.
Likewise it’s equally important to get enough sunlight during the day. Open your curtains first thing every morning, and if possible sit or walk in sunlight whenever you can throughout the day. You might think you’re getting enough via electric light, but a brightly lit room has about 500 lux whereas you can get between 10,000 and 100,000 lux in sunlight. Natural light regulates both melatonin and serotonin production, which means it regulates sleep rhythms, body temperature and mood. If you can’t get enough because it’s cloudy, consider using a bright light box 10 - 20 minutes per day.
Overall, follow the circadian rhythm: get outside and move during the day and gradually decrease light and activity towards sleep time.
Here we’re referring to external and internal noise.
Loud and violent sounds come at us so often from films and games that you might believe it has no effect. However the body mind DOES respond as though we’re being threatened. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself why you watch or play what you do? Ask yourself why you leave a game or film you find ‘boring’? It’s precisely because you’re looking for that little rush - that tiny jolt of adrenaline and other stress hormones that makes you feel a bit more alive for an instant. The fact that it goes away is why games in particular are designed with one threatening scenario after another - like a constant adrenaline drip for players. It’s the addictive quality of games and films. Not inherently bad unless mindlessly consumed.
So yes gradually as the evening progresses, get off the violent and disturbing sounds too. That includes the NEWS - not only during the pandemic but always - because our News systems are built around the hypervigilance that kept our ancestors alive. Except now it too is a constant feed of all worst possible scenarios from all corners of the planet. Hardly conducive to restful sleep. Get your news earlier in the day to give your body mind time and ways to process it. And acknowledge that you can only do your best, then let the rest go.
Then internal noise: we’ve all been awake in the middle of the night with the hamster wheel of our mind running in circles, ramping us up to fight or flee. That’s not new, but it’s also NOT inevitable! Have you ever noticed that the things that keep you awake a night are almost without exception about THERE & THEN instead of HERE & NOW…? We worry about what will happen, regret or re-play what did happen, rehearse what we want to happen… we’re everywhere but where we’re at!
This is another benefit of learning to meditate: meditation is about practicing bringing our attention into the HERE & NOW, over and over again. YES your mind will wander - it’s been doing that for how many years now…?
My way of teaching meditation is that you do NOT get caught up in the distraction NOR in beating yourself up over being distracted - just acknowledge the distraction, understand that whatever you really need is there for future reference - and return to the focus of your meditation. That’s it. It’s a method that leans heavily on neuroplasticity. KNOW that every time you bring your attention back from there and then to here and now, you’re rewiring your own stress response! Pretty profound stuff.
So in general control the external sounds you can - or consider wearing soft ear plugs - and let go of internal noise. It’s not doing you any good if you want a good night’s sleep.
Here we’re referring to all electronics and screens. Chances are we’ve all binged something on Netflix or Crave already, so this isn’t a NEVER - but a DON’T MAKE A HABIT OF IT kind of advice. You know the blue light on your phone and tablet is slightly more damaging for melatonin production, so wean yourself off as a habit.
What can you do instead? Anything you find soothing, inspiring, or a calming stress release. Cuddle with loved ones (oxytocin production), read a good book (interesting to note that paper books reflect more on the yellow end of the spectrum isn’t it?), set up a jigsaw puzzle without worrying about completing it, listen to inspirational music or talks, and of course - you knew I’d get to this - MEDITATE! There is literally no better time to learn to meditate than these days.
You can start with progressive muscle relaxation or any of the dozens of good guided meditations for sleep on apps like Insight Timer, Calm or Headspace. Insight Timer has a Sleep function that shuts the app down, so you can deaden your phone (turn off everything else, including sound/vibration) and you don’t have to worry about waking up again - you can just drift off to sleep. Which is the whole point right?
There are so many things we DO throughout our days that affect our ability to sleep that it’s hard to list them all here. But here are a few good ones to consider:
ROUTINE: there aren’t many better ways to set the stage for a good night’s sleep than creating a pre-sleep routine. Adjusting light, sound and electronics as the evening winds down are good, and here are a few more:
Cleanse yourself: you no doubt do have a routine for brushing, flossing, washing etc. before bed. Remember that these give your body a head start on its own natural tendencies towards homeostasis as mentioned above.
Tune in and Pamper yourself :
Moisturize: especially with our more frequent handwashing, you might want to keep a small pot of cream by your bed and apply it to your hands and/or face right before turning off the light. That gives it time to soak into your skin as you drift off to sleep, allowing your skin to be the best version of the immune system’s biggest organ that it is.
Mindfulness: Tuning into your body will help you objectively consider whether you’ve had too many stimulants (caffeine, some prescription meds, illicit drugs like cocaine or amphetamines…) today that are keeping your heart rate and therefore whole body racing.
Mindfulness: will also help you recognize the limited usefulness of alcohol. One glass of wine with dinner won’t hurt, but more can. Alcohol can help you fall asleep but NOT STAY asleep. It suppresses deep sleep patterns and can create intense dreaming or nightmares, exacerbates snoring and sleep apnea and generally disturbs not only your own sleep.
Eating: foods we eat, particularly in the evening, also can affect our ability to sleep. For example if you’re not used to spicy foods you might want to pass on those after about 6pm. ALWAYS minimize highly refined carbohydrates (white flour and sugar). Their high glycemic index messes with your blood sugar balance whenever you eat them. White bread or pasta might feel like a comfort food so yes eat them but with awareness of the roller coaster you create in your body mind. If you feel the need for something before bed, try a piece of fruit, multi-grain toast or some warm milk with a little honey and/or nutmeg (not cinnamon).
Drinking: increasing your fluid intake is especially important these days to keep your system at optimal functioning levels. Two litres of water a day isn’t excessive, with coffee, tea, tisane, vegetable juices all good alternatives (but see caffeine above). Drink as much as you can early in the day, reducing after supper.
STOP SMOKING! If there’s ever a time to bite that bullet it is now. Nicotine speeds up your brain waves, heart rate, and stress hormones. Nicotine withdrawal during the night leads heavy smokers to the tragic belief that they have to wake up and have another cigarette! Nicotine also increases breathing rate while of course blocking the tiny alveole where our body exchanges vital oxygen and nitrogen with carbon dioxide - vital gasses that keep our bodies functioning. NOW consider how the Corona Virus attacks the body: by damaging your ability to breathe. Do you really want to encounter Covid 19 with already compromised lungs??
If you’d like to join an ongoing weekly meditation group, email me firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add you to the RAWM invitation list. (Tuesdays 5:30 - 6:30 on zoom)
We have online Tai Chi, Yoga and drumming circles now too! And we’ll soon have a lunch time MBSR meditation online too. Everything we offer now and usually - is designed to build the strength of your body and mind.
Watch our YUWC Events page for times and links to them all.
Overall Sylvia and I wish you peace, health, high resiliency and all the best even in these challenging times.
Namaste, Sheila Southon, Counsellor & Naturotherapist
and Sylvia Mack, Acupuncturist