The modern world of unhealthy sleepers
SLEEP is one of the fundamental elements of being a human being and not getting enough or not getting the right kind of sleep directly impacts how we feel and experience life.
Sleep issues often underlie the myriad chronic immunosuppressive diseases so prevalent today.
Good sleeping habits play a direct role in how full, energetic and successful our lives can be.
There’s no question that we feel better after a good night’s rest. So it seems that if we want to live to our full potential, we must approach sleep as a personal practice.
In this hyper-competitive world, most of us complain of a lack of good-quality sleep.
When we compare the world statistics of insomnia and poor-quality sleep, it is interesting to note that the numbers are nearly similar throughout the world.
Stress is certainly one easy culprit to blame. Insomnia can just be the stubborn refusal of our hyperactive minds to surrender to a temporary nonexistence and yield control for a few hours.
Complete loss of consciousness
Why are we all struggling to do something that is so vital and one would think, should come so naturally?
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, sleep is one of three pillars that endow the body with strength, vigour and healthy growth, which can continue throughout the full span of life.
Good-quality sleep is a panacea for a more vital, disease-free and functional life.
A hard-working body is soon tired, but it is mind that is the chief factor in sleep.
Sleep is for both the mind and the body. Even though the body is tired, if the mind is not ready for sleep, one does not get sleep.
Difficulty sleeping is often linked to ‘negative’ emotions, particularly anxiety.
It seems that anxiety triggers a feverish overactivity in the brain and switching off those thoughts in order to slip into sleep can be very difficult.
Sleep is characterised by complete loss of consciousness and full relaxation of the body.
When someone is properly asleep, both the body and the mind take complete rest.
Sleep: necessary, complex and so elusive
When all is harmonious in the natural world, the human sleeping pattern is aligned with our innate circadian rhythm (this means any process that originates within an organism and responds to the environment.)
This internal process regulates the sleep/wake cycle and repeats approximately every 24 hours.
The circadian biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals.
The SCN controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy.
When there is less light, for example at night, the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin, so we get drowsy.
Other important sleep-related hormones include adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine.
During the day, levels of the stress hormone cortisol are normally elevated, which helps us get through day-to-day activities. In the evening, cortisol and its cohorts are supposed to ebb, making way for the flow of a new set of relaxing chemicals that induce and sustain sleep.
However stress and other factors such as congested sinuses or aches and pains can disturb the chemical tides and our sleeping ability.
R.E.M - not the band
During an ideal night’s sleep, our body has enough time to go through four to five 90-minute cycles that sample different phases of sleep as the night progresses. In general, each cycle moves sequentially through each stage of sleep: wake, light sleep, deep sleep, REM and repeat.
Cycles earlier in the night tend to have more deep sleep while later cycles have a higher proportion of REM (rapid eye movement). By the final cycle, our body may even choose to skip deep sleep altogether.
During REM sleep, our eyes move around rapidly in a range of directions, but don’t send any visual information to our brain. That doesn’t happen during non-REM sleep.
As with all stages of sleep in your sleep cycle, REM sleep is about balance. Too much and too little REM sleep can have negative consequences for our mood, our alertness and ability to focus as well as our capacity to take in and retain new information.
While drinking alcohol may help some people fall asleep quicker, research suggests that it reduces REM sleep.
Needs of the human spiritual animal
Animals also sleep; a dinosaur skeleton was recently discovered in a sleeping position like a bird’s.
The period of sleep varies in different animals: dogs sleep for a very short time and experience interrupted sleep, while fish do not sleep at all.
Sperm whales take a deep breath when they need a nap and dive down about 15 metres to arrange themselves into perfectly level, vertical patterns. They sleep sound and still for up to two hours at a time between breaths, in pods of five or six whales, presumably for protection.
Dolphins sleep one brain hemisphere at a time so they can keep swimming; armadillos and bats sleep 18 hours a night and giraffes only two; platypuses spend 10 hours a day in what is known as paradoxical, or rapid-eye movement (REM), sleep. Even fruit flies seem to sleep, alternating periods of deep rest with activity.
Such creative, convergent evolution reveals that sleep is so necessary that nature will invent it again and again, even if she varies the details.
Humans need six to 10 hours sleep, the variance depending on age and health.
Interestingly it is said that a spiritually advanced human needs very little sleep, because deep meditative Samadhi states fulfil all our sleep needs and so much more.
Enlightened beings have made it clear that we are all in fact asleep, until we wake up from the illusion to the true reality of who we are.
Until we have attained that exalted state however, we should indeed endeavour to foster healthy sleeping habits, as this will enhance our spiritual practice to ultimately recognise our essential nature as formless, eternal and omnipresent Spirit.
Sleep plays an important role in our physical health; for example, it is involved in the healing and repair of our heart and blood vessels.
Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.
Sleep is our body’s natural way of healing itself. Mental peace can only happen in the absence of worry, fear and anxiety in life as well as freedom from disease - all of which leads to sound and dreamless sleep.
If we better adopted the practice of true relaxation, we would have sound sleep the moment we lie down in bed.
Sleep helps the immune system remain flexible and responsive; for example to develop a long-term strategy to a new antigen, which requires memory.
Sleep allows our immune system to form long-term memories and eureka insights, much like our brain forms them during sleep.
So sleep modulates learning in both our brain and our immune system. That is why it is such a marvel of evolutionary adaptation.
The price we pay for all the learning awake
Every night we lie mostly paralysed and unconscious, snuffed out except for brief flares of Technicolor quasi-psychosis we call dreaming.
A growing number of neuroscientists suspect the primary function of sleep is to preserve brain’s plasticity - its ability to change in direct response to experience.
The sleeping brain is untethered from the world and is a whirlwind of activity. Different parts of the brain seem to sleep more intensely than others.
Sleep may truly foster neuronal connections. Neurons all over the brain ‘talk’ to each other while we sleep, strengthening certain connections, paring down others and discarding what is deemed unnecessary.
Excite a neuron by day and it reactivates at night. Neurons are forming coherent patterns that without sleep would not be nearly as extensive, robust, stable or flexible.
Our brain is constantly learning and the more it learns, the better it can predict; and ability to predict is a necessary survival adaptation for organisms that move.
SLEEP deprivation has a critical impact on human beings - in situations of total sleep deprivation, lack of sleep can kill and has been used as a form of torture.
Lack of sleep can:
Lowers immunity, making the individual more susceptible to degenerative diseases or infections
Be a greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
Contributes to higher body weight, triggers obesity and other metabolic disturbances. Good sleepers tend to eat less.
Reduce concentration, learning ability and productivity.
Can triggers emotional disturbances
Reduces efficacy in athletic performance.
Can contribute to accidents, falls and traffic mishaps
Weakens the neuron-pruning mechanisms, resulting in less pruning of the neuronal branches, more neuronal noise and fuzzy memories.
O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
that thou no more will weigh my eyelids down
and steep my senses in forgetfulness? - Shakespeare
SLEEP hygiene includes certain practices throughout the day to sleep well through the night.
1. Be consistent about your bedtime and wake-up time; don’t deviate by more than an hour even on weekends. The more hours’ sleep before midnight the more effective is the sleep.
2. Practice ritual bedtime routines such as taking a warm bath in fragrant sedative oils, sipping sedative herbal teas, resting tired eyes with a fragrant eye-pillow, or reading a book on calming matters before sleeping.
3. For optimal sleeping conditions in the bedroom: block out all sources of light, cull loud sounds and prevent too warm temperatures. Use natural fabrics, not synthetic, for bedding and wearing.
4. Avoid heavy or spicy foods for dinner and eat as early in the evening as possible to avoid sleeping on a full stomach.
5. Avoid having coffee or caffeinated beverages after noon. Avoid them completely if you are a chronic insomniac.
6. Stay active and exercise well throughout the day, however avoid strenuous exercises three hours before bedtime.
7. Practice yoga, Yin style; light and slow stretching exercises to relax your muscles before bedtime. Try raising the legs against a wall; raising them above the heart calms the central nervous system and enhances venous flow back to the heart.
8. Try aromatherapy that involves using sedative, tranquilising and restorative essential oils. Diffuse or spray them in the bedroom or on pillows, or massage into the body or bathe in them.
9. Avoid electronic devices such as smartphones, TVs and tablets at least one hour before sleep because their blue light delays sleep onset. Switch off all power sources in the bedroom.
10. Taking 20 minutes for a relaxation practice before going to bed can also ease the anxiety of insomnia. Practice meditation and conscious breathing exercises before sleep. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery (imagining peaceful, relaxing places) are all effective ways of gently guiding our body into a relaxed state.
11. Review the day with gratitude and detachment.
12. If you wake around 3am and can’t go back to sleep, rather than tossing and turning in frustration, get up and practice focussed conscious breathing and meditation for 15 to 20 minutes. Usually this works a treat to enter into a hearty sleep. Incidentally, this is the most optimal time for achieving deep and healing meditative states.
The most evolved state of consciousness is deep sleep. Every being, big or small, will get a chance to experience the bliss that comes when the mind and self merges. In this state, the ego is dead and you become one with pure consciousness. - Sivana East
ORDINARY waking consciousness is but the tip of the experiential iceberg.
We also experience our lives unconsciously when we are sleeping and we may receive fresh promptings from our Divine source.
Indeed we may well be responding to our creator while we sleep: even if we might miss the mark while awake.
Perhaps one of the values of staying awake during daylight hours is so that we can go to sleep at night, resting in the absolute bliss of Divine consciousness.
The night is a powerful place where spiritual factors come into play.
It is said that we die every night, because the soul slips out of the body when it is in deep, dreamless sleep.
In the waking state, the mind is always centred round the body whereas in sleep it rises above body consciousness.
This is common in both sleep and Samadhi.
Otherwise, the Soul itself does not need any ‘sleep’ as we understand it. A highly spiritual person can leave their body at will, by entering Samadhi, like into a deep sleep (similar to death-state).
Here the person chooses to leave his body with full awareness and sheds the body as a sign of complete liberation.
According to the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Samadhi is a state of rest that one consciously allows oneself to transcend into.
Our practice need not end with sleep
According to yogic wisdom, sleep is a state in which the mind rests peacefully in the subtle causal body (Karana Sharira).
The inner Prana - Udana Vayu - draws the Soul from the waking state and makes it rest in the most subtle or spiritual of the five levels of embodied self (Anandamaya Kosha).
The mind ceases all its functions and gets re-absorbed into its cause and its fluctuations and habits (Vrittis and Vasanas) become dormant or latent.
It is nature’s way of recharging the mind with fresh energy and peace by allowing it to rest in its source after its exhausting daily obsession with external objects through the constant polarising streams of likes and dislikes. In spiritual awakening we transcend and become the silent witness of the three states of consciousness - waking state, dreaming state and dreamless deep sleep - to realise Turiya.
Turiya is the background that underlies and pervades the three common states of consciousness; all of which is the meaning of Om that signifies the essence of the ultimate reality.
Our Soul is eternal, timeless and cannot be touched by time or circumstance; it resides quietly and patiently within the body of its host awaiting that moment of self-realisation.
Until such an illustrious time when wholeness is restored through the exercise of free will and earnest seeking, the body/Soul must rest and restore its vitality; vitality that would otherwise be squandered by the Ego, were sleep not mandated by the Divine.
May you all rest in that sleepless sleep, the Turiya or the fourth, which transcends the three states, wherein there is neither world nor body, neither waking, dream or deep sleep - Sivananda
Delta 1-4 Hz: Sleep, deep unconscious, intuition.
Theta 4-8 Hz: Trance-like, minimal conscious thought. Deep meditation and light sleep.
Alpha 8-12 Hz: Deeply relaxed. Spacey and dreamy state. Passive and receptive.
Beta 13-30 Hz: Normal activity, alertness and critical reasoning.
Gamma 30-70 Hz: Extremely high levels of thinking, anxiety, alertness.
During meditation, we start with Beta, then alpha, theta and finally Delta. After some time the process changes to Bea and we feel awake and refreshed.
DREAMS show us how much exists beyond our conscious mind.
Like visits from the great beyond; they have their own logic and are rarely literal.
They have their own vocabulary and speak in signs, emotions and even sensations; we see how all symbols and even the characters in the dream mirror aspects of ourselves.
When we connect to our dreams, we can connect to a wellspring source of wisdom and creativity and get brilliant eureka flashes of Divine insight that tends to disappear upon waking.
Sleep is a beautiful place to study the border between consciousness and unconsciousness.
Though we seem to be sleeping, there is an inner wakefulness that directs the dream and that will eventually startle us back to the truth of who we are.
In Jungian psychology, dreams are valued as the psyche’s attempt to communicate important things to the individual as a way of knowing what was really going on.
The lucid dream is where the conscious mind gets not only to explore but also to make use of the unconscious mind.
Given that some neuroscientists suggest that as much as 95 per cent of our brain activity is unconscious, a whole new world opens up.
The spiritual seeker understands that the ‘dream body’ is better able to feel subtle energy body of channels and chakra.
Lucid dreaming can even be used to perform physical yoga and meditation as well as to communicate with spiritual teachers.
But the main point of this practice is to help us see that ‘reality’ is like a dream that is limited because it is constructed in the mind as perceived by the five senses.
If we can see through the illusion of our dreams, we can more easily see through the illusion of the false reality that the mind weaves too.
The soul’s lucid opportunity
The great spiritual masters tell us not to waste the sleeping state because it is too valuable an opportunity to cultivate exquisite awareness that can further our soul’s spiritual progress.
After much spiritual practice and meditation, instead of experiencing the normal dream state, we start to lucid dream when we become aware that we are dreaming.
During a lucid dream, we are aware of our consciousness, like a form of metacognition or awareness of our awareness.
We are able to recognise our thoughts and emotions as the dream happens.
Lucid dreaming, like most dreams, usually happens during REM sleep.
In a lucid dream, we realise how our brain is still extremely active and our heart rate and eye movements also increase.
We watch how the mind goes on playing with various kinds of thought images connected with the experiences of the waking state and how it causes disturbance to sound sleep.
We come to understand dreams as containing the flotsam and jetsam of the mind’s worldly embroilment and not to engage in them too fully, rather just witness them with lucidity and impartiality as they represent only a distraction from attaining Self-realisation.
The lucid dream provides fertile ground and opening for further enquiry into the nature of Self to transcend this busy dream state of mind into deeper inner peace and as a corollary to enjoy perfect rest in sleep.
The time of deep sleep is very little. One hour of sound sleep can refresh someone better than six hours of sleep interrupted by dreams.
Blessed sleep is nature’s way of offering meditation and freedom from ego, even if but for a while.
NATURAL herbs contain powerful sleep-enhancing properties that can resolve some of the main causes of sleep deprivation.
Stress affects the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, but taking some herbs can compensate for this loss.
Some natural herbs are high in tryptophan, an amino acid improving the synthesis of serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that allows nerve impulses to travel from one cell to another. Increasing serotonin levels offsets the chemical imbalance causing the most common sleep disorder, insomnia.
Some sedative herbs can induce sleep by reducing anxiety levels or supporting physiological changes such as relaxing muscles and slowing heart rate; they can calm the nerves and soothe the senses.
There are plenty of prescription sleeping pills that treat insomnia, but they are also addictive and come with side effects that many of us would rather do without.
If we don’t want to resort to strong pharmacological sedatives, then it might be time to look into the power of plants.
THE antidepressive, sedative and calming properties of lavender help you sleep better.
It can relax the nerves, reduce anxiety levels and stabilise mood disorders to promote a positive mood in daytime wakefulness for a more sustained sleep at night.
Researchers have monitored people’s sleep cycles with brain scans and found that lavender increased slow-wave sleep and is instrumental for slowing heartbeat and relaxing muscles.
Subjects slept more soundly with lavender and felt more energetic the next morning.
CHAMOMILE is well known for its relaxing effects on both the mind and muscles. It reduces anxiety, soothes our nerves and eases insomnia.
The presence of nerve-relaxing flavonoids in chamomile makes it a popular tranquilising drink.
Its calming effects may be attributed to an antioxidant called apigenin, which binds to specific receptors in the brain that decreases anxiety and initiates sleep.
It is safe for babies, the very young and frail and during pregnancy.
Holy Basil is a powerful adaptogenic herb for combating sleep disorders.
It promotes better sleep primarily by easing anxiety and reducing stress and promotes a balanced mental state.
It helps to calm the nerves during periods of emotional turbulence and also improves concentration and alertness.
Holy Basil has also been shown to alleviate aches and discomfort, so if you struggle to get good sleep because of muscle pain, brahmi may be a good option for you.
PASSIONFLOWER contains nerve-relaxing flavonoids, which help you de-stress and sleep better.
Use for anxiety and sleep problems, as well as for pain, heart rhythm problems, menopausal symptoms and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
It may increase levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a chemical the brain makes to help regulate mood, it counters neurotransmitters that cause excitement and for a calming effect.
Passionflower reduces the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the duration of sleep.
ASHWAGANDHA is an adaptagen that supports the body’s physiological response to stress, lowering stress levels and improving sleep.
It is effective at improving sleep onset latency and quality of rest, increasing total sleep time and mental alertness upon rising.
Specifically, the leaves of the plant contain the compound triethylene glycol, which promotes sleep induction.
It works to eliminate feelings of stress or anxiety, inducing calmness.
Ashwagandha ultimately acts like a sedative, so it’s a great alternative to anxiety medications or OTC sleep aids because it works holistically with our body to naturally enhance sleeping habits.
VALERIAN is referred to as ‘nature’s Valium’ because it works on the principles of anti-anxiety medicines, to promote tranquillity and improve sleep. The roots of the herb treat insomnia, restlessness and anxiety and also ease menstrual and stomach cramps.
Valerenic acid in the valerian roots inhibits the breakdown of the neurotransmitter GABA. This induces better quality sleep and its calming effect does not usually result in sleepiness the next day.
Valerian also contains the antioxidants hesperidin and linarin, which have sedative and sleep-enhancing properties.
These compounds can inhibit excessive activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that processes fear and strong emotional responses to stress.
Valerian also makes you fall asleep faster, improving your sleep latency (the amount of time it takes you to sleep once you lie down).
St John’s Wort
St John’s Wort is rich in tryptophan, which boosts serotonin synthesis paving the way to a good night’s sleep.
St Johns Wort stimulates the GABA receptor, a key gateway for sleep-inducing chemicals in the brain.
This herb improves mood and decreases anxiety and insomnia related to depression.
Most depression sufferers suffer with insomnia that is usually a secondary symptom of other medical maladies. Given St John’s Wort’s unique depression-fighting benefits, it can be a reliable help.
It can stimulate the production of serotonin or limit serotonin reuptake similar to some of the common anti-depressants on the market.
St John’s Wort can increase the effect of drugs that have a sedating effect, including some anti-convulsants, so it is not always indicated for those on certain prescription drugs.
Humulus lupulus is a sedative plant that is member of the Cannabaceae family.
The flowers contain methylbutenol, a sleep-inducing chemical whose pharmacological activity is due principally to its bitter resins, especially to the alpha-acid component 2-methyl-3-buten-2-ol.
Accordingly hops are used as an effective treatment option for insomnia.
In fact, in the early 1900s, physicians recommended patients use pillows with a sachet of powdered hops inside. The strong fragrance of the flower induces sleep for insomniacs.
These flowers taste bitter, so when brewing a hops tea, combine them with sweeter herbs such as chamomile for a better taste.
Peppermint is beneficial for sleep and can help insomniacs sleep for longer hours with a better quality sleep.
It acts as a natural antispasmodic and sedative to help relax both the mind and body.
As a natural muscle relaxant, it eases built-up tension in the body and prepares us for sleep.
It also helps sleep by easing headaches and opening clogged airways.
Peppermint also aids digestion, so if a bloating tummy disrupts sleep then peppermint helps.
Lemon balm is a calming nerve tonic that helps with insomnia and other sleep-related issues.
It also relieves anxiety and mild depression, especially when these conditions cause nervous indigestion that disrupts sleep.
Lemon balm combined with valerian root significantly improves sleep quality in menopausal and peri-menopausal who are struggling with unsettled sleep.
Insomnia and sleep apnoea are often accompanied by depression and anxiety and lemon balm directly affects GABA receptors in the brain, delivering a mild sedative effect while stimulating the production of the ‘feel-good’ hormone serotonin.
Mugwort is a useful sedative and sometimes called the ‘dream plant’ that can be used to enhance dreams and sleep.
It is used to reduce anxiety and as an excellent digestive, all of which contributes to its sleep-inducing effects.
Mugwort is considered a mild psychoactive herb (a substance that promotes effects such as sedation and euphoria).
Some people take it for its hallucinogenic effects and by smoking, drinking or inhaling its presence, it is said one can experience pyschedelic dreams.
It is a Native American tradition to burn Mugwort along with sage to smudge a sacred space before a ceremony and the plant was used to enhance astral projection, lucid dreaming and altered states of consciousness.
ESSENTIAL oils are natural sedatives for nervous tension, stress and insomnia and using them to help us get the sleep that our body and mind needs can be as easy as rubbing some diluted sedative oils into our skin or adding them to a warm bath before bed.
Aromatherapy reliably reduces stress and anxiety when we diffuse sleep-inducing essential in the bedroom, creating the ideal ambience to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Not only that, they are actual nerve tonics that strengthen the nervous system holistically, so the body can restore its own natural healing rhythms for wellbeing that certainly includes the ability to sleep well.
Essential oils have sedative and hypnotic effects, which can significantly reduce autonomic activities, shorten latency of sleeping time and prolong duration of sleeping time, increase 5-HT and GABA content in the brain.
All thanks to the following contituents: esters, coumarins and some aldehydes. Linalool is a hypno-sedative monoterpene found in essential oils.
Sleepy Essential Oils
Lavender, chamomile, bergamot, sandalwood, sweet marjoram, orange, lemon balm, valerian, clary sage, rose, neroli, ylang-ylang, cedarwood virginiana, vetivert, amyris, nutmeg.
All the other oils work indirectly to help ease pain and discomfort and uplift or stabilise the mood, maintaining optimal conditions for the body to heal.
Noteworthy are clary sage and nutmeg that are quite hypnotic and enhance lucid dreaming.
Clary sage is an amazing stress reliever and helps to keep us emotionally balanced.
It works wonders for helping our minds and bodies to relax; for some it can even act as a mild anti-depressant due to it’s euphoric effects.
Nutmeg is not only calming to the body but it also has a profound effect on our emotions, helping to release doubt and resistance to sleep.
As we lay ourselves down to sleep at the end of this long day, may we commit to quelling the mind's chatter for a few moments longer before waking tomorrow into that precious liminal space of possibility and letting the breath come in.