After introducing myself to a client, the very first thing I ask them is, “How did you sleep?” Often, it is followed by the something like “Meh,” “Awful,” or “I can’t remember the last time I slept through the night.”
Getting out on the wrong side of the bed literally sets the stage for all the choices we make on a given day. Have you ever had the worst night’s sleep, and then proceed to have your most productive and happiest of days? I believe a resounding “no,” would be the most common response.
Sleep Is The Foundation to Wellness
If there is one positive action you can perform to improve your physical, mental, and emotional health, choose sleep. While nutrition and exercise are important factors to overall health, a mindful approach is much more holistic in that we look at our actions, as well as, non-actions. Sometimes, it is a matter of not doing that restores us.
While you may be thinking, “As long as I get five hours of sleep a night, I can function.” Or, “If I catch a power nap, I’m good.” Take a moment and ask yourself if the response, “I can function” is enough? Although rest, such as a cat nap or reading a book for half an hour, aids in recovery from physical exertion and can help collect our thoughts or emotions, it does not provide complete mental recovery. Lack of quality sleep over just a few nights can lead to sleep deprivation. In this state, our immune system may begin to suffer, and we may experience cognitive impairment.
Regulating Your Sleep
Rather than get too bogged down in the science, let’s look at the brain like a highway system made up of chemical “cars” known as neurotransmitters. Throughout the day, you put gas and oil in and you go. But, what if you run out of gas, get low, or another substance gets in your oil filter and inhibits the oil from going where it needs to go? When this happens, your car does not function properly, if at all.
When you put substances, such as caffeine, in your body they have a direct influence on molecules like adenosine which aid in sleep regulation. Being mindful about sleep does not mean you will never have a cup of coffee or tea again. Instead, it is a conscious awareness of how much and when you are sipping at this delightful nectar.
Additionally, if you live with a disease such as Hashimotos’s Thyroiditis or a condition that causes fatigue, it is essential to look at what you put in your body or environment that stimulates stress and in turn raises cortisol levels. A raise in this hormone mobilizes energy and suppresses the immune system. Is it any wonder we often become ill when we are stressed and not sleeping well?
Take a moment to think about times in your life when you sleep and feel well. Perhaps you feel best after a vacation or a day at the beach or a hike? After being in the soothing warm sun all day our muscles are relaxed, but also that little chemical car, melatonin, in our brain received a signal that it typically did not receive while we sat behind a desk all day, or worked under conditions without much exposure to natural light. Now you’re home, the sun is setting, and maybe you’re cooking a nice meal or building a fire. As the environment darkens, the melatonin levels begin to drop, as should your eyelids.
By exposing your body to the natural light in the day, you elevate melatonin levels, creating a luxury automobile to aid in initiating and maintaining a good night sleep.
The role of supplementary melatonin is debatable. Some people report a positive effect, while others notice no change at all. Rather than put something of unknown quality in your body, consider a lifestyle shift. Take fifteen minutes for yourself and sit, relax, or walk in the sun every day. Make a conscious effort. For those of you who are short on time or feel like you will never be able to fit in fifteen minutes, start with five.
Creating a Mindful Sleep Routine
Remember to make subtle new priorities in your life. Try not to think of it as change, but as a positive shift that will add to your life. For every five minutes, I promise you will feel twice that, if not more, in return. Take back your sleep in fifteen minutes, and not only will you raise melatonin levels naturally, this time can double as a seated or walking meditation.
Let’s begin with subtle shifts you can start right now to improve your wellbeing.
- Give yourself the gift of a set bedtime.
This is probably the most challenging, yet it’s an effective addition you can make to your day. Take an honest look at when you typically go to bed. If so, what time do you find yourself beginning to drift off or tire? If it’s ten o’clock, make your bedtime routine goal nine o’clock. This extra hour is your gift. See #2 on how to use it.
- The hour of power.
A whole hour to yourself should not be a luxury. Your body and mind need time to wind down–without electronic devices. If you use your cell phone for an alarm clock, check that it is set correctly and then place it near the bedside, turned upside down so the screen is not visible.
Think about self-care tasks that you find relaxing. Consider slowly and methodically washing your face, brushing your hair and teeth, or taking a twenty-minute soak in a tub of Epsom salts. Nurture yourself. The magnesium in Epsom salts will help tired muscles and improve digestion, and adding calming essential oils such as lavender and chamomile will help you drift off more easily. Take time to massage your hands and feet with lotion. Or, if you have a partner, a foot massage is a lovely way to connect and chat at the end of the day.
If you have older children, communicate with them that this is the time you are taking to care for yourself. Set an example on the importance of self-care and sleeping habits.
- Let there be dark!
We are all familiar with the adage, “Let there be light!” It’s time to experience the dark side. Turn off as many light fixtures as possible. Dim the remaining task lights. Create a more introspective environment with candles in heat-safe holders. They can double as a focal point for meditation if you are just beginning a practice. Simply gazing at the candle and focusing on the breath is a gentle introduction to single pointed focus meditation.
If you do not already have blackout shades or curtains in your bedroom, they are easily made and do not have to break the bank. Sheets or shower curtains backed with a blackout lining from a local fabric or craft store will do the trick. Or, you may find blackout curtains or shades on sale in a pattern that is not your cup of tea. Place self-adhesive wallpaper over the shades or a matching sheet from your bedding to cover the pattern. The dark will aid in triggering a decline in melatonin and help initiate and maintain sleep.
- Give it time.
New routines take a minimum of two weeks for our bodies to recognize as habit. Try to hang in there. Remember to think of this as a positive shift and not a habit change. The benefits you will begin to feel will outweigh the missed TV show. Once you are consistently going to bed at the same time, you will notice your body will habituate to a consistent wake up time as well. Everyone requires a different amount of sleep. Be patient with yourself.
- Family considerations/new traditions.
Consider this option as a prelude or alternative to suggestion #2
Depending upon the age of your children and their current bedtime routine, a new family tradition is a delicate and fun way to regain your hour of power. Growing up, my father held music appreciation nights. We would turn off all the lights in the living room, except for the soft glow of one table lamp. Then, he would lay on the floor, along with me and my two sisters. Make it cozy. Grab a favorite blanket or pillow. Maybe string a few white lights that are only turned on for this occasion. Introduce music your child does not typically listen to: classical music, nature sounds, bedtime sing along songs. You may just find yourself dozing off with your wee ones.
Thank you for taking the time to introduce yourself to a mindful approach to sleep. Please visit again after you consider and possibly integrate one or all of these approaches into your daily life.