12 Days of Giving: The Gift of Sleep

This is the fourth in our special “12 Days of Giving” series running for the holiday season. It’s a little different from what you might think of as traditional presents or giving. We aren’t really talking about stuff you buy or a gift list. Rather, on these 12 days, we will be talking about different gifts that you can give to yourself, or others — those that have a deeper meaning, that can help you live with intention, be happier, be healthier. Soul gifts, you might even call them. Join us on the journey.

For those who sleep well most all the time and don’t really have any sleep issues, the idea of it being a “gift” may be hard to understand. But for anyone like myself who often struggles with getting a good night’s sleep, you know how much of a challenge it can be — and what a true gift it is when you do enjoy needed, quality sleep.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, about 40 million people in the United States suffer from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year and an additional 20 million people experience occasional sleep problems. That’s a lot of missed sleep.

Problems Caused by Poor Sleep

Lack of sleep, or quality sleep, equates to a lot more than just being tired. It’s linked to a host of other health problems, especially if it’s chronic. It’s also divided a bit among gender lines, with women reporting more sleep issues overall. Women tend to have more problems with insomnia, while for men it tends to be sleep apnea that causes issues.

Info from the Sleep Foundation, https://www.sleepfoundation.org/media-center/press-release/lack-sleep-affecting-americans-finds-the-national-sleep-foundation
Info from the Sleep Foundation,

On the other hand, there are a host of important benefits that good sleep provides us:

“Sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood,” says Dr. Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

  • Image courtesy of National Institutes of Health Sleep helps you think more clearly, have quicker reflexes and focus better.
  • Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease and infections.
  • Recent studies also reveal that sleep can affect the efficiency of vaccinations.
  • Lack of sleep influences your mood, which can affect how you interact with others.
  • A sleep deficit over time can put you at greater risk for developing depression.

A good night’s sleep consists of 4 to 5 sleep cycles. Each cycle includes periods of deep sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when we dream. “As the night goes on, the portion of that cycle that is in REM sleep increases. It turns out that this pattern of cycling and progression is critical to the biology of sleep,” saysDr. Michael Twery, a sleep expert at NIH.. Although personal needs vary, on average, adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.

Tips for Getting Better Sleep

As someone who has suffered from insomnia and sleep issues on and off throughout my life, I’ve tried just about everything. When I was younger, I had more insomnia, or difficulty falling asleep. After my 30s, this turned more into a difficulty staying asleep — I could fall asleep okay most of the time, but would often wake up with a “monkey mind” in the middle of the night and find it hard to go back to sleep. A lot of this I believe was due to my mild anxiety, and a lot of people suffer from this type of sleep interruption: that feeling that you just can’t turn off your mind, and all its constant whirring and planning. Just as I was getting that under control, along came menopause — and a whole new set of sleep issues.

Here are a variety of different tools and methods to help you get a better night’s sleep, and it’s usually a matter of trial and error to help you find the best ones for yourself.

Good Sleep Hygiene

This is one of the most important, and probably the single thing that makes a difference for me in getting the right amount of good, quality sleep without interruptions. If I consistently practice good hygienes and sleep habits, I can enjoy quality sleep 80-90% of the time.

  • Sleep hygiene begins in the morning: flood your room with light as soon as you wake up.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and spicy foods in the couple of hours before bedtime.
  • Start powering down one to two hours before the time you want to go to sleep. Turn off bright overhead lights in favor of lamps, and get off screens (phone, computer, TV, etc) — the blue light emitted from them royally messes with our brains, basically kicking them into high gear rather than slowing down.
  • Take a hot bath or shower. I love to use relaxing bath salts in mine.
  • Try some aromatherapy. Essential oils in a diffuser by your bedside are a great way to relax, particularly using oils that have calming properties such as lavender, vetiver, frankincense, myyrh, and clary sage.
  • Get the proper temperature in the room. Most experts agree that the ideal temperature for sleep is somewhere between 60 and 72 degrees.
  • Make sure your mattress and bedding are as comfortable as possible.
  • Keep an eye mask handy if it’s needed, and use noise reduction and sound to help (see section below).

All of these things are instrumental for me in establishing good, solid sleep. The biggest thing about implementing these steps for success was to make it a routine each night, because having a regular, repeated routine trains your body and brain that it’s time for sleep.

Sound Therapy and Sleep

There has been a lot of research that has been done showing the relationship between sound and sleep — and generally, it’s a lot deeper than we tend to think. Just like with meditation, certain sounds help to slow and stabilize our brainwave activity, both the theta (meditative state) and delta (sleep; where internal healingcan occur) waves. Studies have shown that meditation literally changes the brain (in a very good way!), and these changes have a huge impact on sleep.

Those same effects of meditation can be had with certain sounds, called binaural. A lot of people have created specific music using binaural beats, that is shown to reduce stress and induce a meditative state and sleep. Here are a few:

  • East-London based writing and production duo Silence & Air invited Lyz Cooper to create a piece of music aimed at helping people to drift off to sleep more easily. Lyz refers to her compositions as ‘Consciously Designed Music™’. CDM™ draws on the latest research in cognitive neuroscience and music psychology as well as Lyz’s research in the sound therapy field over the last 23 years.
  • The Sound Healing website offers a selection of Binaural Beats, that you can use to quickly induce the frequencies associated with sleep in your brain within minutes.
  • My partner clued me in to Marconi Union, a group that composes music in collaboration with sound therapists. Its carefully arranged harmonies, rhythms, and bass lines help slow a listener’s heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It helps reduce anxiety, and I listen to this music when I’m writing, going to sleep, doing yoga or just need to relax.

I also recently discovered one of the best inventions I have ever come across in my life, called SleepPhones®. I was actually doing an Amazon search for travel pillows when a couple of these headband-style headphones started popping up. I had never seen anything like it before, so I took a look. They are small, soft headphones encased in a headband in such a way as to easily be worn while sleeping. While they were being touted (in this instance, anyway) as a travel aid to help sleep or listen to music and watch movies on planes, for instance, as a frequently sleep-deprived person I immediately saw the many applications for having headphones that you could comfortably wear while sleeping, that wouldn’t dig into your ear or move around.

Immediately I started researching this novel idea, and after a little bit of research I decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to invest in the best, highly-rated sleep headphones on the market. I’ve listened to sounds and guided meditation while falling asleep before using earbuds, but of course the problem is they get uncomfortable after a while and the second you start to move around or turn over, they either come out or you get tangled up in the wires.

Then I discovered SleepPhones. And let me tell you, this discovery has literally been a game-changer for me.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that was certainly the case back in 2007 when Dr. Wei-Shin Lai was taking patient calls deep into the night. When she couldn’t find comfortable headphones to wear in bed, Dr. Lai and her husband got to work creating their own.  After six years and more than 100,000 units sold, the duo decided to dive into the business full time, helping a million people all over the world live and sleep better.

One of the things that appealed to me about the SleepPhones was the fact that they were wireless. And customer review after review talked about how they excelled in two areas: sound quality, and comfort. No mean feat considering that it’s not easy to put speakers and technology that really work well and sound great, into a headband that will also be super soft and comfortable to wear, with no hard plastic poking you. I also wanted something that had a good warranty and would last, figuring it was better to invest in something well-made instead of something cheap that might last six months.

I ended up getting the SleepPhones® Effortless™ (retail $149.99), which have the wireless functionality as well as a very easy, and convenient charging pad (you just lay the headphone band right on it, and voila!). They come in two fabric choices, soft fleece and moisture-wicking breeze, and in 7 color shades (mostly of gray, purple and black).

The first week I had them, I was staying in Hawaii on a rural farm with lots of roosters around, sometimes right outside my window. In case you don’t know much about roosters, they don’t just crow at dawn — they seem to start at about 2 am and go all night. If it weren’t for my SleepPhones, I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep.

Now I pull these on when I meditate, if I need help falling asleep (or even when I don’t — being able to listen to soothing music or nature sounds, which I love, while going to sleep is soooo nice), when I’m walking or exercising, and when I travel. In fact, besides travel and as a sleep aid, the SleepPhones are super popular among athletes, runners and other people who work out as a great, secure way to listen to music while they exercise.

A few other tidbits about this product that has literally changed my life: if you can’t afford the $150 pair, they also make wired and other versions that will set you back quite a bit less (as low as $40). And they offer some great free MP3 soundtracks and other resources on their website.

Food, Exercise, Managing Stress & Other Sleep Helps

Speaking of exercise, it also has been proven to have a direct, and influential, impact on sleep. Mounting evidence shows that people who exercise regularly tend to snooze better than their couch potato counterparts—especially when it comes to those with chronic insomnia.

One study, published in the journal SLEEP, concluded that people who get 60 minutes of exercise five days per week have more normal REM sleep than non-exercisers. But you might not need to sweat it out for quite that long to reap the benefits. Other findings show that insomniacs who engage in thirty minute spurts of exercise just three or four times a week sleep for nearly an hour longer than sedentary folks, and wake up less frequently during the night.

What you eat can affect your sleep as well, and there are some pro-sleep foods such as cheese, almonds, salmon, cherries and bananas that help with sleep. Stress could also be stealing your ability to fall asleep. In fact, nearly 40% of Americans say that they often feel tired or fatigued because of stress. Amerisleep has some great tips for managing stress and a list of pro-sleep foods, as well as a whole lot of other fantastic resources and advice to getting better sleep.



Photo from Amerisleep

I’ve been prescribed a number of different sleep medications. I’m not someone who generally likes to take chemical pharmaceuticals unless I have to, and will usually try natural or homeopathic remedies first. When it comes to sleep medications, I definitely take them if I need them (I can’t function well on multiple nights of poor sleep). But I have generally disliked most of the stronger, more hard-core sleeping pills such as Ambien and Lunesta, finding that the side effects were too severe and they gave me a “hangover” effect the next morning. When I do need to take something, over the past few years my doctor and I have come up with a low dosage of Sonesta that works well for me. Just keep in mind that everyone is different.

There are also a lot of over-the-counter medications, as well as melatonin, which I’ve heard people swear by. However, neither melatonin or the OTC products have ever worked for me.

Herbal/Natural Remedies

A lot of natural ingredients have been shown to help people with relaxation and sleep. The main ones of these (besides melatonin) include valerian root, St. John’s wort, kava, passion flower and poppy. There are also a lot of teas which can help promote sleepiness, most notably chamomile.

Do you have any best tips for falling asleep or dealing with sleep deprivation issues? Please share in the comments below!

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