Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Lions spend 15 hours a day doing it. And humans should be doing a lot more of it. Sleep, that is.
Yet more and more people are having trouble sleeping and at younger ages. Nearly 40 percent of Americans complain of sleep deprivation. Even teenagers are becoming dependant on medications to fall asleep.
Obviously, it is a good idea to avoid chugging espressos after dinner or choosing to sleep beside the tarmac of a busy airport. But what if you are lying awake, tossing and turning in the quiet of a clean, dark room? What to do? Increasingly, the answer is to pop a pill. But chemically initiated sleep, while preferable to no sleep at all, is far less beneficial to the brain, in my opinion, than natural sleep.
The key to natural sleep is to get your mind to a zen-like state of calm that comes easily to yogis and babies. This state triggers the cascade of brain events that brings about sleep. However, for those of us who are no longer children and have restless minds that flit from thought to random thought, successful meditation may be difficult. Thankfully, there are ways by which the body can be made to relax, allowing the brain to be lulled into sleep. This brings me to my top 10 list for going to bed naturally.
- Stay fit. The leaner you are, the better the flow of oxygen into you and toxic gases out of you. There is no abdominal fat pressing up against your diaphragm, preventing your lungs from expanding fully. There is less fat in your air passages causing turbulence as fresh air rushes into your chest. This keeps your brain bathed in a nice, constant solution of oxygen, fostering a sound sleep. Incidentally, it also keeps you from snoring, which allows those around you to sleep, reaping the benefits of your good health.
- Treat menopause. If you are menopausal, for heaven's sake, speak to your doctor about those night sweats that leave you wading in your sheets. There is help available! While sleeping while swimming is fine for water fowl, it is difficult for women.
- Reset your sleep cycle. If you are jet lagged, take melatonin to help your internal clock (your pineal gland) get your brain to the same country as your body. This also works after a series of late nights.
- Stay warm. Keep your room, your toes and your body warm. Warmth is a great soporific; ask any cat napping in the sun.
- Sleep on your back. It is a habit that anyone can cultivate with time and is physically the best position to promote optimal air exchange.
- Toss out your pillows. Pillows accentuate the contours of the neck and prevent optimal airflow. Try sleeping without them; it will take some getting used to but you will sleep the better for it.
- Make sleep a habit. Change your thinking about sleep. Prioritize it and schedule it into your day for at least eight hours. It's a time where your brain gets to frolic, take new ideas out for a test drive, work doggedly on old problems, and rehearse for your company talk the next day. Sleep is not expendable and has to occur daily. Catch-up sleep is not nearly as beneficial.
- Touch puts you to sleep. Sex is a great soporific, as are massages. Both release oxytocin in men and women, the cutely renamed "cuddle chemical". Oxytocin promotes mental and physical relaxation. Pets snoring gently beside you in bed probably help with sleep along similar lines.
- Stop worrying. Ah, if it were only that simple, especially in these uncertain climes... In my informal, completely unscientific survey of friends and family, this is the most common cause of insomnia in people under the age of 50. A friend suggests keeping a pad next to you and jotting your worries down and then nodding off. I think her technique has inherent merit. This method gives your formidable brain the arsenal it needs to help you solve your problems as you sleep. You can then rise and shine in the morning.
- And my number one way to fall asleep naturally? Toss the alarm clock! Try to go to sleep early enough so that you don't need this dastardly device to wake you up. This allows your body to tap into your own private sleep cycle. It prevents the raw and brittle imprint the snooze button leaves on the brain, even when set to Tchaikovsky. The alarm clock is nowhere near as sophisticated as the exquisitely intricate and complex internal clock that resides in your brain, designed specifically for you. Your internal clock will awaken you gently and naturally at the end of your cycle. An alarm may wake you mid-cycle, leaving you tired and irritable even if you have had many hours of sleep. Working with your own unique sleep rhythm, rather than fighting it, will help you sleep better at night and unleash your inner lion.