Sleep is one of those things that you don’t think about much until it’s gone. But when a big event is looming, a stressful season strikes, or sickness robs you of your z’s, suddenly sleep becomes an important riddle to unravel. But, like they told you in high school psychology, sleep truly is still largely a mystery. We know that it is really important – you need a regular amount to live, recover, and thrive – but how exactly sleep works and how to fix it when it doesn’t work, is less clear.
I have had few nights of insomnia, but from my long colicky infancy to my recent five-year anniversary of a sleep apnea diagnosis, I have my share of disordered sleep. Most often it has manifested itself in a desire to sleep all the time, an ability to fall asleep almost instantly, but rarely sleep past the sunrise.
Falling in love was rough on my sleep. And it’s not because Evan and I stayed up late when we were dating. We’ve never talked until dawn. I don’t think we ever even stayed up past midnight. All those falling in love hormones made it even harder for me to sleep in. That spring, my sweet slightly insomnia-prone roommate had to institute a rule: I could not get out of bed to check my email (to see if Evan had written!) before 6 am. I cannot say my compliance was particularly high. Even during our long distance engagement the days leading up to visits I still couldn’t sleep in. It culminated with the morning of our wedding I woke up at 3:30 absolutely convinced that someone had not been assigned to bake the communion bread. (They had.) But I suppose we were well matched because Evan walked over to the house before 6 because he couldn’t sleep either. We went out and got omelets at a tiny cafe before the rest of the wedding party woke up.
What I wish I knew before my wedding, but have had to slowly learn throughout the stressful and sick seasons since then, is that capturing the elusive sleep-butterfly is a combination of calming our minds and caring for our bodies with the use of healthy habits and routines that support our hormonal health. Creating an environment conducive to sleep is a bit like creating one conducive to creativity. It helps to have regular practices of movement, ordered space, reading, prayer, and eating.
Movement. A walk in the sunlight, particularly early in the day, helps set up our circadian rhythm to know when we should be sleeping. It’s also helpful in creating the vitamin, that is really a hormone, vitamin D, which is important for our health and sleep in a whole host of ways.
Yoga at any time of day that focuses on being present and ends with a time of deep relaxation pays dividends when you can lay down at night without back pain and can more easily switch to deep breathing. I haven’t developed a bedtime yoga routine, but some people really find that helpful. My favorite (and only) yoga dvd, Shiva Rea Daily Energy has a number of 20 minute lunar routines. My favorite yoga blog, Every Breath I Take, has a nice “yoga night cap” routine. Or there is an inexpensive ebook Good Night Yoga that has three night time routines.
Ordered Space. A bedroom that is simple and set up for sleep is a big part of sleeping well. Similar to the idea of taking a walk in the warm and bright sunshine early in the day, you want your space at the end of your day to support your circadian rhythm. You want a cool, dark, and quiet space.
Practically speaking this means banish the screens from the bedroom – phones, alarm clocks, anything that glows. We have our alarm clock in the bathroom – it took a little getting used to, but now I know, if it’s dark it’s time to sleep. Some people just turn their clocks around. And we bought black out curtains and a white noise machine to help the little one nap, but I cannot imagine going back to sleeping in a room without black out curtains and an eye mask, especially with the early summer sunrises. If I had my way, I would always let natural darkness guide my sleep schedules, with the exceptions of the longest and shortest times of the year near the summer and winter equinoxes.
As far as temperature goes, “cool” is a little bit open to interpretation, but most people do well between 64 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Wool socks and hot water bottles can help your feet stay warm enough. Also, invest in a good bed with good sheets. We love our low end sleep number bed and our knee/body pillows. I have made Evan a convert to high count cotton sheets. You spend a third of your day there, make it comfortable.
Reading. Reading can be a great way to wind down, although the amount of artificial light and the content of what you read are important. You want to read something that isn’t on a glowing screen and that doesn’t get you too riled up. A change that Evan and I have made within the last six months is really to get into bed earlier and read for 15 to 30 minutes. Occasionally I get to the climax of a book and just want to stay up and finish it, but normally I am disciplined to stop after 30 minutes. I find that if I have something that I am looking forward to reading in bed that I am less prone to dawdle on the internet.
Some people also find that the blue light from their computer screens really inhibits their circadian rhythm and a free program (f.lux) can cut the blue light out at sunset, or wearing inexpensive orange melatonin glasses can assist with this. Another option is to listen to a book. A book read aloud (by a person or recorded) is another way I really like to fall asleep. Although, I have found that since I fall asleep so much faster than Evan it works better if we are re-reading a story (normally Harry Potter or Narnia) so it doesn’t matter if I miss half a chapter and Evan doesn’t have to re-read the same passage over and over. Evan likes to listen to audio books after I am asleep because they don’t strain his eyes at all before sleep.
Prayer. Liturgical prayer is set up to help mark the passage of the day. The prayers for vespers (around sun-set) and compline (before retiring) are particularly pertinent to helping create a routine. The chance for confession, reflection on the day, and hearing beautiful and true words every night from psalm 4 “I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety” help to cue me that it’s time for bed. Other bedtime routines, such as drinking chamomile tea, or even just brushing teeth and washing your face, can help you associate tastes and smells with bedtime. Prayer throughout the day helps to create space for reflection and quiet outside of just when you lie down. You want concerns and things to add to the to do list to come up through out the day when they can be dealt with appropriately, not just tumble around your half asleep mind where they keep you up.
Eating. Even outside of the Paleo community, advice about foods for sleep is to limit caffeine, sugar, and alcohol consumption – both in general and particularly before bed. Most sleep experts encourage you to be neither very hungry nor very full when you go to bed. A dinner that is low in processed foods and high in quality proteins, fats, and complex-fiber rich vegetable carbohydrates, i.e. Paleo dinner, helps you stay full longer and go to sleep well. Vitamin deficiencies can affect sleep. The only supplement we take is a Magnesium one, and it really is amazing at aiding sleep. Work up slowly on the dose though; it’s a laxative if you go too quickly. Other people have found fermented cod liver oil and melatonin particularly helpful.
I know that several people have found that their sleep apnea goes away entirely when they go Paleo. Sometimes inflammation from a food intolerance can be at the root of the apneas. But for me, even with all the good sleep hygiene, I still have sleep apnea and have to sleep with a CPAP. So if you find that you are getting a lot of sleep, but still struggle with fatigue and hypertension, or if you continue to get complaints about your snoring, you may have a sleep disorder. All the previously mentioned things will, of course, still help you—but you may need additional medical support. Life with a CPAP isn’t ideal, but it’s honestly a very small and not-invasive way to be able to breath throughout the night. For more information about sleep apnea and related disorders you can visit my sleep doctor’s website.
There are also a lot of great guides to sleep from some of my favorite Paleo bloggers, Sarah Ballantyne from The Paleo Mom, Michelle Tam from NomNomPaleo, Chris Kresser from ChrisKress.com, Mark Sisson from Mark’s Daily Apple, and Katie from WellnessMama. Two books I think are particularly helpful are Sarah Gottried’s The Hormone Cure and Janet Kinosian’s The Well-Rested Woman: 60 Soothing Suggestions for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep,
What have you found is the most helpful for getting a good night’s sleep?
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