When I was young and growing up in Australia, the sound of the ocean's waves lulled me to sleep every night. My family lived on two acres of land, some distance from our neighbors, and free of any street lights or traffic. It was the most wonderful way to drift off to sleep and to wake up naturally in the morning without an alarm clock (we didn't even have a flushing toilet, let alone an alarm clock!). Sometimes it seems like another lifetime ago.
As a mother of three and health care practitioner running my own clinic, the evening is often the only time I have to get things done. When the kids were little, I found myself fanatic about cleaning and organizing the house, returning phone calls, and tying up loose ends until late at night. During those days, my sleep was less than optimal. But with age comes wisdom, and I now try my best to get what I can get done by 8:30 p.m. -- the rest simply has to wait.
In my many years as a women's health care practitioner, I've found that getting good sleep is absolutely one of the major pieces to good health.  Sleep is connected to brain function, immune function, healthy weight, detoxification and so much more.
The Secret Blessings of Sleep
At its most basic level, sleep is a restorative process for your body, a time for detoxifying, recharging your brain, and repairing and rebuilding tissue. But what many of us don't understand is that sleep can help to regulate healthy weight and prevent insulin resistance.  Research is showing that long periods of deprived sleep can disrupt our appetite and the way we interact with insulin.  Less sleep often leads to a rise in the hunger hormone (ghrelin) and a decrease in the hormones that tell us we're satisfied (such as leptin). This means that when we're not getting enough sleep, our bodies crave more food, making it more difficult to lose weight. And these changes can occur with even two hours less sleep per night! 
Sleep is also essential for healthy adrenal glands, the all-important organs that help to regulate blood sugar, balance hormones, and facilitate our "fight or flight" response, among other things. Healthy adrenals can encourage your whole body to tune into health because they are linked to almost every major system and organ in your body, including your thyroid. Between unhealthy food choices, pollution, and other forms of stress in today's world, our adrenal glands can be persistently taxed. When the adrenals are called on, they pump out "wake-up" hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which make sleep even more difficult to achieve. Rest and quiet time are helpful, but good sleep is one of the best ways to restore your adrenal glands.
What's wonderful is that our bodies naturally want to sleep -- and will sleep without medication, if we give them a few cues.
Shutting Down Early to Get to Sleep
Before the invention of electricity, most people were forced to wind down by candle light at around 4:30 or 5 in the evening during the winter months. This helped to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, the one that helps us to store energy, rest and restore before the next challenge. Dim lighting also lowers body temperature and signals the release of melatonin, our sleep hormone. The sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, mobilizes energy by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing to meet an immediate challenge.
Bright light automatically triggers an increase in body temperature and encourages the release of waking hormones, like cortisol, while decreasing melatonin. Our modern way of life, full of bright fluorescent lights, computer screens, and cell phones, coupled with sugar and caffeine, can wreck havoc on our body's natural sleep rhythms. All of these factors keep us in a sympathetic state too often and for too late into the night. No wonder we have trouble winding down to go to sleep!
I know we can't do much about the world we live in, but we can accommodate by turning off the computer two hours before bed. We can use this time to read, sit by a warm fire, enjoy a cup of tea, or take a bath with calming essential oils like lavender. We can also set a regular bedtime and try to stick with it. Ten p.m. seems to be a very natural bedtime for many people. I have to admit, I'm not always a perfect example of this (last night I went to bed at 11 after preparing for a party and was up at 5!), but if we can strive for it most evenings, eventually the body will respond.
Staying Asleep: Keep Darkness, Peace and Quiet
One of the most frustrating things is getting to sleep and then waking up in the middle of the night, only to find that you are restless and can't get back to sleep. When you begin tossing and turning, the first thing to do is to get out of bed. Go to a different space and read a book in dim light. You might also make a cup of chamomile, passion fruit, or valerian root tea, take some rescue remedy, or listen to a relaxation CD. Try not to turn on a bright light or do a more physical task like washing dishes because you may turn on your waking hormones too early. Keep things quiet, dim and peaceful. Your body is more likely to return to rest that way.
There are also calming mental exercises, like relaxing your fingers then your wrists, then your arms, and mentally moving through each part of your body. When my son would wake up in the middle of the night, we used the image of white light. I'd encourage him to think about a warm, white light first shining on his toes, then moving up to his ankles and calves, then moving eventually up his whole body slowly, and ending at his head. You might also take yourself mentally back to a favorite place or memory, to a place and time where you felt safe and loved.
Respect Your Body As You Wake Up
Many alarm clocks can be extremely offensive to our bodies. They are bright neon reminders of the time and stress in our lives. Their beeping can immediately ignite the sympathetic nervous system, and this is no way to start a day! The best thing to do is to wake up naturally when your body is ready, but many of us don't have this luxury.
My advice is to find something respectful for your body to wake up to. You can have your partner wake you up slowly and respectfully or look into an iHome device. I use iHome for my iPod, which wakes me up to relaxing music, gradually increasing in volume and light. It isn't anything like the ocean waves I heard as a child, but it's so much better than a piercing bell. Find something that works for you so that you can start your day felling refreshed instead of stressed.
Protect The Sacred Act of Sleep!
There are always things to do, projects to finish and phone calls to make. The reality is, those things will all be there waiting for you in the morning. Make a pact this New Year to protect your sleep -- your body and mind will thank you.
1 Ancoli-Israel, S. 2006. The impact and prevalence of chronic insomnia and other sleep disturbances associated with chronic illness. Am. J. Managed Care, 12 (8), S221-S229. URL: http://www.ajmc.com/supplement/managed-care/2006/2006-05-vol12-n8Suppl/May06-2308pS221-S229 (accessed 12.09.2010).
2 Vorona, R., et al. 2005. Overweight and obese patients in a primary care population report less sleep than patients with a normal body mass index. Arch. Intern. Med., 165 (1), 25-30. URL: http://archinte.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/165/1/25 (accessed 12.09.2010).
3 Barnea, M, et al. High fat diet delays and fasting advances the circadian expression of adiponectin signaling components in mouse liver. Endocrinology, 150, 161-168. URL: http://endo.endojournals.org/cgi/content/abstract/150/1/161(accessed 12.09.10).
4 Spiegel, K., et al. 2005. Sleep loss: A novel risk factor for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. J. Appl. Physiol., 99 (5), 2008-2019. URL: http://jap.physiology.org/cgi/content/full/99/5/2008 (accessed 12.09.2010).