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Mind Body and Soul: No Rest for the Weary – The Battle Against Insomnia

By Mike Sweeney

We’ve all had our share of sleepless nights. You know, the ones spent lying awake in bed, thinking about that big project coming due or paying down those credit card bills that have been piling up. Or maybe you can’t find that perfect sleeping position or setting on the thermostat. Whatever the cause, insomnia can leave us frustrated, depressed and unable to keep up with our daily tasks. And while there’s no easy solution, there are plenty of steps you can take to conquer the sleep deprivation blues.

Up All Night

To help ourselves find a more restful slumber, we need to better understand both the external and internal causes of insomnia. What we put into our bodies has a dramatic effect on how we sleep. Loading up on caffeine and sugar close to bedtime can put you in a jittery state of mind. Drinking too many liquids late in the day leads to constant, disruptive trips to the bathroom. Late night spicy foods probably aren’t the best choice, either, with dishes such as garlic and red pepper chicken with extra Sriracha sauce being a recipe for troublesome midnight heartburn.

Mental factors also play a significant role in lack of sleep, with stress being one of the main culprits. Office problems, family troubles, breakups, financial concerns and many other life woes can weigh heavily on our minds as we attempt to drift off to dreamland. These thoughts keep our brains anxious and alert, not giving them time to properly shut down. Clinical depression, unsettled nerves or anything else that causes your mind to wander all play a role in how well you sleep. Changes in your routine can also result in a lack of proper rest. Switching from a day shift to a night shift, for example, can leave your body not knowing which end is up.

Nighttime tossing and turning can be exacerbated by physiological issues as well. Physical pain, even from something as simple as a twisted ankle, can inhibit your ability to properly relax. We also strongly rely on the production of a hormone called melatonin to regulate our sleep and wake cycles. Our bodies produce greater amounts when it’s dark out to help us sleep, while less is produced during the day to keep us awake. If we expose ourselves to too much artificial light during the night or not enough sunlight during the day, our sleep and wake cycle gets disrupted.

Fighting Back

So how can you keep yourself from enduring a weary, sleepless night? Start by avoiding frequent or long naps
during the day to help ensure that you’re tired enough at night. If napping isn’t the issue, there are other remedies to help you get more shut eye.

Engage Your Brain

When bedtime rolls around, if you can’t sleep, then get up! Lying in a dark bed in a silent room will just give your mind more time to think about how much you’re not sleeping. Go into the other room and watch TV, read a book or take a walk around the block. Do something to occupy your mind and body to help get them back in sleep mode. You may find that keeping a sleep diary will help analyze why you’re not getting decent rest. Use it to keep track of how many times you wake up during the night, stress factors, good or bad dreams and more to help paint an overall picture of your sleep patterns.

Just Breathe

Breathing exercises can work to ease your troubles and reduce chronic levels of stress for some restful shut-eye. Finding a proper breathing rhythm helps improve blood flow and optimize the functions of your nervous system, both of which make catching forty winks a much easier prospect. You can peruse several articles on breathing exercises by doing a search at www.livestrong.com. Adding some extra weight to your body can also help you fall asleep faster by boosting serotonin levels. This doesn’t mean dozing off with a barbell on your chest; a simple pillow between your legs can do the trick. For a more technical solution, Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Body, recommends a product called NightWave to put you in a calmer state of mind. The small device uses a soft blue light to guide you through a relaxing, medatative routine that allows you to drift off to sleep. You can find more info at www.nightwave.com.

Nature’s Way

Sleeping pills can be beneficial, but there’s always a concern of becoming too dependent on them. Instead, consider brewing healthy herbs into a nice tea for a more natural relaxant to help you unwind. Lavender acts as a strengthening tonic for your nervous system and helps soothe sleep deprived anxiety. Valerian root and chamomile are natural herbal sedatives that work even better when used in a nice warm bath and combined with soothing tunes. Instrumental music or collections of nature sounds often work best as your brain is more intent on relaxing than singing along to lyrics you can’t remember. For a wide selection of sleep accompaniment, download the White Noise app for your smart phone (available at www.tmsoft.com), which offers a range of forty ambient sounds to help you sleep such as ocean waves, rain and thunder storms or chimes.

Ritual and Routine

The proper frame of mind can work wonders for a good night’s sleep. One helpful solution is making sure that your bedroom is meant for a specific task. Aside from sleeping or intimate time with your spouse or significant other, try not to use your bedroom for other activities such as reading, watching TV, eating or playing on your computer. Just as your kitchen is used almost exclusively for cooking, designate your bedroom as a specific slumber zone. “One of the biggest mistakes people make in their bedrooms is they try to cram too much in there,” says Gary Zammit, PhD, director of the Sleep Disorders Institute (www.sleepny.com). “They use it as an office and as an entertainment room right up until the clock strikes ten and expect to just hit the lights and fall asleep. But the brain doesn’t work that way.”

Getting into regular nighttime habits can also keep the tossing and turning at bay. Do your best to retire around the same time every night. Keep consistent with regard to when you brush your teeth, shower or make other pre-sleep preparations. “A bedtime ritual teaches the brain to become familiar with sleep times and wake times,” says Jessica Alexander of The Sleep Council (www.sleepcouncil.org.uk), a nonprofit group that offers advice on sleeping better. “It programs the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.” And while it may sound like a cliché, don’t go to bed angry! Whether it’s an argument with a loved one or an internal rant about work or school, raising your blood pressure right before bed is a sure fire ticket to insomnia. Resolve personal conflicts as part of your nightly routine and you’ll sleep much better.

No matter how much we prepare or tell ourselves it’s not going to happen, we all have to deal with insomnia at one point or another. We may not be able to ensure that every single night is smooth sailing, but by taking steps to head things off at the start or by following through with physical and mental solutions, we can usually find the rest we need and win the battle for sleep.

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