We all know the feeling of crawling into bed after a long day, snuggling into your favourite blanket and letting your head rest into your pillow and having a solid night’s sleep.
We also all know the feeling of doing exactly that and then not being able to sleep at all for whatever reason, or waking up in the night numerous times… counting sheep, listening to your breath and convincing ourselves that this is an amazing time to practice that meditation technique you were reading about instead of thinking about how a conversation should have gone three months ago.
Sleep extremely important, it is the time in which we rest and restore the body, mind and spirit in order to be able to emerge into our days with ease and with a sense of ability. Many things can have an impact on our sleep cycles, from technology, food, room temperature, hormonal changes, disease, mental health and many many more.
As Dr. Nayantara Santhi says: “Sleep disturbances occur when the normal processes of waking and/or initiating sleep do not happen. This can occur because of a combination of genetic, environmental, sleep habit, and other psychobiological factors…If the pattern of sleep disturbances continues over time, these factors can create a vicious cycle of ongoing sleep problems with consequences in our waking lives. As they say, sleep health is as important as diet and exercise for our wellbeing.”
Before I jump into some incredible allies which can help you in achieving a more restful night’s sleep, I want to explore what sleep is actually and why it’s so important.
What is sleep?
Sleep is the body’s natural way of healing. A good 7-9 hours (for an average adult) a night of rest allows one to have feelings of relaxation and rejuvenation preparing you for productivity in the day ahead.
We dance and cycle through two types of sleep at night – REM (rapid eye movement) which happens around an hour and a half after falling asleep, this is generally when vivid dreams take place and non-REM, which occurs first and includes three stages, two being deep sleep, and which is hard to wake up from. These two stages are unique in their effect on the brain and body as well as how they affect our health and wellbeing. A full sleep cycle of these four stages takes around 90 minutes, where REM sleep increases in the night and deep sleep lessens.
The three stages of non-REM sleep are essential in building bone and muscles, repairing and regenerating tissue as well as strengthening the immune system and functioning. As one gets older there is less need for non-REM and therefore there is generally less deep sleep experienced.
- Stage 1 – light sleeping lasting around 5-10 minutes. Eye movement and muscle activity begins to slow down, if woken up it feels as if you haven’t slept at all and memories can be easily retained in this time. Muscle contractions after experiencing the feeling of falling can take place – this is called ‘hypnic myoclonic’ or a ‘hypnic jerk’ and are common experiences with people who are going to sleep with busy minds or after a long day of mental, spiritual and emotional exertion.
- Stage 2 - This light sleep stage includes a mixture of muscle contractions and relaxation, where eye movement stops, heart rate slows down and body temperature decreases. At this stage brain waves become slower too, however there can be occasional experiences of rapid waves called sleep spindles which act as mediators for many sleep-related functions including memory consolidation and brain cortical development.
- Stage 3 – The blissful and serene deep sleep we all wish for – this stage is where the brain produces delta waves which are very slow. It is very hard to wake up from this sleep, and there is no eye movement or muscle activity.
When entering REM, brain activity increases again and this is where the dream world begins to open up, however the muscles such as those in the arms and legs are temporarily paralysed. This sleep stage increases in duration as the night goes by and the amount experienced changes with age. Scientists have found that it is highest at infancy and early childhood and decreases with age.
Aside from muscle relaxation and increased brain activity, REM includes eye movement increased heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing and even increased libido.
We have neurotransmitters which aid our nerves in communicating whether or not to sleep: those in the brainstem produce serotonin and norepinephrine which keep the brain active when we are awake whilst those located at the base of the brain allow for us to fall asleep.
Sleep supports us in many ways, allowing for:
- Nervous system function and health – Aiding in the health of our nerve cells, sleep allows for this essential system to repair and strengthen nerve connection and ability, therefore promoting memory, clear thinking, mood, hormonal health and overall cognition.
- Health – Lack of sleep has shown to be extremely hard on the physical body, the lack of repair and rest time can make one more vulnerable to illness, and also at further risk of developing chronic issues such as diabetes and heart problems.
- Longevity: Sleep is still not fully understood by researchers – however studies in various animals have shown that REM deprivation can actually shorten lifespan – this can be due to the effects it has on immune functioning and its overall health-promoting and protective actions
- Growth – For children, young adults and pregnant women deep sleep is necessary to support growth overall – this is done through the releasing of proteins and growth hormones which aid in development, cell growth and damage repair.
How can Herbs help with sleep?
Herbs are our allies – they aid in calming nerves and soothing the mind and body. Most times there is an underlying cause for sleep deprivation – most commonly due to stress. Stress is the overproduction of cortisol and the dysregulation of serotonin – this is where a lot of herbs can step in and have a regulatory effect on the neurotransmitters.
Herbs such as ginger, peppermint, rosemary and more and high in tryptophan, which is an amino acid which aids in the synthesis of serotonin thus allowing for a re-balancing of imbalances which are most common in sleep disorders such a insomnia.
There are numerous ways in which herbs can aid in sleep apart from serotonin interaction, this is achieved through reducing stress levels, being muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety in nature, as well as being nervine tonics, adaptogenic and more.
This root contains a number of compounds which reduces levels of anxiety and promotes healthy sleep – interacting with GABA which regulates the nervous system. Valerian has shown to aid in relaxation from mild to acute cases, it has shown an outstanding ability to improve sleep quality, is an anti-inflammatory, high in antioxidants and is a nervine tonic.
High in antioxidants this well-loved sleep tonic supports digestion, promotes heart health and protects cellular damage. Chamomile has shown to overall improve the quality of one's sleep, it improves digestive health (therefore helping in the management of neurochemicals which signal waking and sleeping hours), controls blood sugar levels, reduces anxiety and stress and even plays a role in preventing osteoporosis.
Shown to improve mood and calm the mind, including reducing levels of fatigue and depression. Numerous studies have shown that when used to promote sleep and treat insomnia and related disorders, it has aided, through long term use, to ensure one falls asleep quicker.
Used throughout Europe as a sleep medicine, modern findings have shown that Hops have sedating effects. On their own Hops have shown tremendous ability to aid in promoting sleep however when used with Valerian, there is a notable increase in both of their abilities to relieve sleep and anxiety disorders.
A nervine relaxant, these beautiful flowers interact with GABA which aid in lowering brain activity and therefore promote relaxation and better sleep. As an anti-anxiety it shows amazing results in being able to prevent the onset of anxiety and interact with levels of cortisol. It has additionally shown to soothe the stomach.
This adaptogen is well known as a phenomenal anti-anxiety medicine. Not only is it amazingly adaptogenic for the entire body, making sure that the body can handle and cope with stress better on the physiological and mental spheres but it additionally has shown to manage and regulate cortisol production and release – thereby decreasing unnecessary stress and cortisol release in the body. Complex in phytochemicals this tonic has additionally shown to be anti-inflammatory, immune regulating, cardioprotective, neuroprotective, and promote muscle and joint health.
The main action of Reishi being able to aid in sleep is thanks to the adaptogenic nature it has – in balancing levels of stress and assisting the body in soothing anxiety, this beautiful fungi is able to provide a sense of calm and therefore promote better quality sleep. Reishi is known as a three-treasure tonic medicine in TCM , nourishing the Jing (physical stamina), Chi (lifeforce energy) and Shen (the spirit) – this balancing effect allows for ease and calm to be promoted – this is why the ancient Taoist monks used it as an ally in their meditation and devotional practices. Along with this Reishi is well-loved for its abilities as a nervine tonic, adaptogen, being supportive and upregulating to the immune system, as an anti-cancer tonic, being liver and kidney tonics and aiding with bronchial health.
With all of this it's very important to have time before sleep to ground within the self. Creating a night time routine which can be as elaborate as an hour of yoga nidra and a bath, or as simple as a cup of chamomile and switching your phone off is all it takes.