Friday, January 25, 2013

Secret 50: Sleep

And so we reach the last or the 50th of Sally Beare's 50 secrets of the longest-living, healthiest people on our Earth. You may be familiar with the saying 'laughter is the best medicine'. An even stronger and more potent medicine than laughter is sleep - deep, restorative, uninterrupted sleep. My best medicine, while I was backpacking around the world in my twenties, was a medicine that cost nothing, weighed nothing, and was readily available at my fingertips whenever I needed it since it never required a doctor's visit or a prescription. It was a good night's sleep, or, depending on the affliction, several days of sleep. Certainly medication, whether Western or traditional, plays its role in facilitating the healing process, but your first line of defense is sleep. Do not underestimate the ability of your body to heal itself if you provide it with the necessary, regular down-time. Give your body the best conditions to access and activate its own seasoned arsenal of pharmacopoeial wisdom.

Not only does great sleep heal, it also slows down the aging process. Sally Beare quotes gerontology professor Edward L. Schneider from UCLA: 'To age successfully, you must get a good night's sleep'.  Deep, reinvigorating sleep allows the body to restore itself, gives the immune system and digestive system dedicated time to work and rest, and allows the mind to sort out thoughts and feelings that occurred during the waking hours. When I am faced with a major decision, or if I am unsure of my next step, I sleep on it. The next  morning I wake up with an answer to my question, a solution to my problem, or a decision that 'feels' right. Sleep is like a mini-reset between two periods of being awake. If you have enjoyed a good night's sleep, you wake with a new burst of energy (who needs coffee when you can get a good night's rest?). During sleep, your body's defensive system can get to work unobstructed and utilize antioxidants to start repairing free radical damage.

If you fall asleep easily, and are able to stay asleep until you are ready to start your next day, you are laying a strong foundation for health. What conditions are most conducive for obtaining restful, reinvigorating sleep? The ideal bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. As much as possible you want this area of repose to be free of electronic devices. A steady flow of fresh air facilitates deep, restorative sleep. Even during a cold winter, I will keep the windows open a crack. Unfortunately modern hotel rooms are not designed for a good night's sleep. Often the windows can barely be opened - if at all - and the rooms are filled to the brim with flashing, ticking electronic gadgets such as a flat-panel TV, a dvd player, a bedside phone and a digital alarm clock. Although manufacturers will vehemently deny this and argue that nothing has been proven, do not sleep with a cell phone on the nightstand by your head and unplug any digital alarm clocks.  If you do not have the choice of leaving your cell phone in another room, then do turn it off. You will save its battery life (and perhaps protect yours). If you must own a TV, keep it in a separate room. Taking flickering images of advertisements and scenes of violence - whether real or acted - to sleep, overburdens your nervous system. You would be better off sleeping in a mosquito net outdoors.

So how much sleep does the human being need? Some research studies claim that the ideal length of sleep for adults is eight hours. But we are dynamic living things, and depending on our age, the situation of our lives, our health and ambient stress, we will need more or less sleep. When I backpacked around the world in my twenties, I discovered that if I got sick, for example, when I got a heat stroke after riding on a camel through the Thar desert for several days without taking adequate protection from the sun, or when I stupidly ate a reheated plate of spaghetti and minced meat on the coast in Peru and came down with food poisoning, my best medicine was uninterrupted sleep in a cool, dark room. I slept for days, and when I was ready to wake up, my body had been given the necessary time and space to heal. I had needed much more than eight hours of sleep. If I come down with a virulent type of flu, sleep will be my main line of defense. It may take more than 24 hours, but allowing the body the peace and quiet to deal with its stressor(s) ensures a better and faster outcome. The healthy body will know how much sleep it needs and will wake up on its own when it is ready.

The cat knows best
Going to bed at the same time each night also helps your body know when to expect its well-deserved downtime. A regular bedtime is beneficial, because the body's hormone production depends on a 24 hour cycle. An ideal job situation would allow you to wake up with the first light of day, and go to bed after the last light has receded from the horizon. Those who have irregular work hours, or have to rise in the dark, may find regulating sleep does not come as naturally. You can improve this by trying to create optimal resting conditions - darkness, quiet and lessening any distractions. The five groups of long-living people that Beare describes tend to rise with the sun and go to sleep soon after dark. Since they work outdoors, and do not live in large cities that are lit up at night, they are in tune with their natural circadian rhythms. This ensures optimal production of the anti-aging, anti-oxidant melatonin. Melatonin is produced by the body in response to darkness and enhances deep sleep, which in turn facilitates free radical repair.

Despite looks to the contrary, the sleeping state is a very active state. In most animals, including humans, sleep alternates between REM (rapid eye-movement) stages and non-REM stages. Humans need both to survive. We start the night in non-REM sleep, and over the course of the night our REM sleep increases in duration while the non-REM phases decrease in length. While our first non-REM phase may last 90 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of REM, towards early morning, we spend a longer phase in REM sleep. During REM sleep our bodies seem to be paralyzed, we dream, and our neurons  are busy making new associative connections.

While we still have much to learn about sleep, we do know which factors aggravate insomnia. Stimulants (coffee, tea), sugar, meals heavy in fat, anti-depressants and other types of medication, high levels of cortisol due to stress all adversely affect sleep. Meditation and visualization can help relax a stressed and chaotic mind. Taking the last meal of the day three hours or more before going to bed improves sleep as does exercise during the day, especially earlier in the day.  A warm glass of milk with honey (with a spoon of rum) also relaxes as does a long, hot bath. Adequate magnesium and calcium help relax the muscles. Muscle cramps and legs that switch involuntarily during sleep (restless leg syndrome) can be alleviated by increasing calcium and magnesium in the diet. Other factors that affect sleep are the type of bed you are using, the height or absence of pillows, and who else is sharing the bed with you. If you are sharing the bed with someone who will turn on the lights in the middle of the night, an eye-cover may help you stay asleep. Overall, the better and deeper you sleep, the easier it will be for your body to be ready for the next day. I conclude this blog on the last and 50th secret in Sally Beare's book with a few quotes:

A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book.  Irish Proverb

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.  John Steinbeck

Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed.  Arthur Schopenhauer

There is no hope for a civilization which starts each day to the sound of an alarm clock. Unknown

If people were meant to pop out of bed, we'd all sleep in toasters.  Unknown

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast.

Macbeth, Shakespeare