Written by Alastair Sherlock, Osteopath
9 Jan 2023
Quality sleep is ultimately important, it is where all the repair from daily activity occurs. This can include physiological, immune, psychological and any other functions that you may care to mention in the optimal running of daily activity. Sleep deprivation leads to significant impairment, both mental and physiologic. Many of us have experienced periods of sleeplessness and insomnia, which may be caused by the pressure of a modern lifestyle. However, this does not have to be the case. The good news is there are many things that you could employ to ensure good quality sleep.
Firstly, it is important to ensure your physiology is not setting you up for failure. When you fall asleep eventually you will arrive at REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. It is in these stages that most of the repair functions of the body occur. Typically there will be one and a half hour cycles of REM during a period of sleep. The optimal period of sleep to ensure quality sleep is 8 hours and 20 minutes. The old saying ‘sleep between 10pm and 6am’ holds true, since these times seem to be the optimal for quality sleep. There are many things that can interrupt this process. We are subject to a daily routine of dawn breaks and sun sets. How this influences us in a natural setting would mean that with the introduction of daylight into the eyes, melatonin (which is the hormone that induces sleep amongst many other functions) production in the body ceases. The light in the day produced by the sun has a more blue quality, similar to what you get from your computer and phone screens. At a certain time of day with the sun going down, there is less blue light and therefore less stimulation. Sadly, screens emit strong blue light and this can interfere with your circadian rhythm, the rhythm that governs normal daytime cycles, sleep and wakefulness. During the day more blue light is received at the lower portion of the eye inducing wakefulness. The opposite is true of the sun set where more amber light is received from down below into the upper portion of the eye triggering more melatonin production and a sense of restfulness. This relates to many techniques that you can employ to rectify sleeplessness that I would like to share with you.
Make sure no external factors are preventing you from getting good quality sleep. Caffeine is a big one. It has a half-life of 4 to 6 hours depending on the individual. Meaning, if you had a double espresso at 12pm you still have half of that caffeine at 6 pm. It will not have cleared your system by bedtime. It interferes with physiological repair systems at sleep time. Alcohol is the same. It might help you to fall asleep but the quality of sleep you received will be hindered.
So here are some techniques you can employ to restore a natural sleep cycle:
- Don’t drink tea or coffee or any other caffeinated drinks after midday.
- Make sure you don’t use any artificial screen, mobile phone or laptop 2 hours before bedtime.
- Take a warm shower an hour before you go to bed to ensure your feet and hands are warm. The reason for this is so that you need to lose heat from your core. Vasodilation is a process where blood is brought to your extremities, a prerequisite for falling asleep. You can also wear socks in bed to help with this.
- Try to eat before 7 pm. Digestion is an energetic process. Also, limit spicy food in the evening.
- Herbal supplements such as hops, chamomile and lime flower tea have been shown to be very helpful for sleep.
- A mineral deficiency can also hinder sleep. Taking magnesium and zinc at night before bedtime can improve sleep quality. Other supplements such as melatonin can also be taken, although that is not best relied upon.
- There are other additional last resort medications that your doctor can prescribe for you but they are best avoided due to potential dependency issues.
- Lastly, one of the best things I learnt in restoring a sleep cycle came from cognitive behaviour therapy. The technique emphasises that the bed is meant for sleeping. So after a warm shower keep your body wrapped, hands and feet warm (this is because the blood has to leave the core of the body to the periphery for sleep to occur) then retire to bed. If you are not asleep within half an hour, leave the bed and go to another area of low lighting (keeping warm) and read for half an hour or 20 minutes and then go back to bed. If you are not asleep within half an hour, get up and do it again. Eventually you will go to bed and fall asleep even if it is at 4 am, and this trains your body and mind into recognising the bed as a place for sleeping. This may take a week or so but it is very effective.
From an Osteopathic perspective, I have treated many patients suffering from insomnia. I address the issue by balancing the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic/parasympathetic) which governs rest and digest, and stress responses to ensure it is balanced and not triggering disproportionate and inappropriate nerves that would cause insomnia.
If you struggle to fall asleep and need help finding the root cause make an appointment with our Osteopath here.