Maintaining Sleep Sanity: My Absolute Favorite Self-Care Routine

“Self-care” has quite the buzz these days, but it’s more than just buzz. To be honest, it may be the most (THE MOST!) powerful prescription I write on a daily basis.

What is self-care to you? Have you ever considered it? Or why it might be important?

Self-care is a practice, just like art or athletic performance - it needs to be customized and exercised. When you start focusing on nourishing yourself, you’re able to extend more of yourself to others, whether it be friends, family, children, or your partner. It makes you feel whole, grounded, focused, and prepared for more.

The activity you choose can be as unique as you are (taking a bubble bath, walking in nature, writing, stargazing or shoegazing), but I’m going to start with sleep, because when I started treating sleep as a self-care activity, it changed everything.

It went from being a second-rate obligation to becoming a major priority that allowed me to restore my adrenals, expand my practice, and drastically improve my mental functioning and recall.

So, what’s the big deal about sleep? Well, growth hormone, or the “anti-aging” hormone, is secreted during sleep, which stimulates tissue regeneration, detoxification, muscle building, breakdown of fat stores and normalization of blood sugar. During sleep, free radicals are scavenged in the brain, minimizing its aging process. In addition, numerous health problems are aggravated by inadequate sleep. Sleep gives us renewed vitality, a more positive outlook on life and the energy we need to reach our full potential. Long-term health depends on the regeneration that occurs during deep sleep. It’s at the core of true preventive medicine.

Adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. As we age, sleeping needs tend to decrease, but it’s still essential for proper healing to take place. Inadequate sleep can lead to drowsiness, fatigue, decreased concentration, impaired memory, reduced stress tolerance, mood changes, irritability, muscle tension, and lowered immunity, among others.

Laying the Foundation

Have a fixed bedtime and awake time.

Avoid allowing the time you fall asleep and wake up to drift. The body "gets used to" falling asleep at a certain time, but only if this is relatively fixed. Even if you are retired or not working, this is an essential component of good sleeping habits. Don’t push yourself to stay up past the initial signs of sleepiness. This can create epinephrine production, causing more difficulty getting to sleep later. It is good to have a “getting ready for bed” routine to relax and prepare your body for sleep (details below). Aim for a bedtime between 9:00-11:00p, which is when our melatonin levels are naturally at their highest.

Avoid napping during the day.

If you nap throughout the day, you may not be able to sleep at night. Our cortisol naturally starts dropping in the late afternoon, and most people can start to feel a little drowsy, which might tempt you into a nap. Generally, this isn’t a bad thing to do, provided you limit the nap to 30-45 minutes.

Reserve the bed for sleep and sex only.

Do not read, watch TV, eat, or worry in bed. Solve daily dilemmas outside of the bedroom. If you find that you’ve been lying awake in bed for 15-20 minutes, get out of bed. Do something mundane until you feel sleepy, and then go back to bed. Repeat this as often as needed.

Exercise regularly, but not right before bed.

Exercising during the day or early evening decreases the time it takes to get to sleep and increases the amount of deep sleep you get. Strenuous exercise within the 2 hours before bedtime, however, can decrease your ability to fall asleep.

Improving overall health will improve the quality of your sleep.

Work towards improving or eliminating health problems. Treatment modalities such as massage, acupuncture or cranial sacral will help to relax the body. Effective stress management is essential.

Eliminating the Triggers

Avoid alcohol 4-6 hours before bedtime.

Many people think that alcohol helps them sleep. While alcohol has an immediate sleep-inducing effect, a few hours later as the alcohol levels in your blood start to fall, and there’s a stimulant effect that tends to wake you up, and the sleep you do get is fragmented and light. I find that most of my patients will wake up around 3:00a after drinking alcohol, which is curious, since that’s the liver’s time in Chinese medicine ;)

Avoid caffeine 4-6 hours before bedtime.

The stimulating effects of caffeine may last up to 10 hours in some people. Avoid it in the afternoon if getting to sleep is a problem. Caffeine is present in coffee, green tea, black tea, chocolate and some medications (pain relievers, decongestants, thermogenic weight loss products, energy supplements, etc.)

Avoid nicotine.

The stimulating effects of nicotine (first- or second-hand smoke) can last several hours.

Avoid heavy, spicy, or sugary foods 4-6 hours before bedtime.

These can affect your ability to stay asleep.

Do not go to bed with a very full stomach.

Large quantities of protein are stimulating to the body as digestion occurs. It’s best to finish eating at least three hours before going to bed.

Use natural alternatives to sleeping pills.

Sleeping pills, aside from being highly addictive and full of side effects, decrease the amount of time spent in deep sleep and only increase light sleep.

Take B-vitamins earlier in the day.

B-vitamin supplements can increase energy that keeps some people awake, if taken before bed. (HINT: B-Vitamins might be in your multi-vitamin!)

Your Sleep Routine

Try a light snack before bed.

Warm milk (or non-dairy mylk) and foods high in the amino acid tryptophan, such as bananas, may help you to sleep.

Practice relaxation techniques before bed.

Relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing and others may help relieve anxiety and reduce muscle tension.

Don't take your worries to bed.

Leave your worries about job, school, daily life, etc., behind when you go to bed. Some people find it useful to assign a "worry period" during the evening or late afternoon to deal with these issues.

Establish a pre-sleep ritual.

Pre-sleep rituals can help you sleep. Some possibilities include warm baths (possibly adding Epsom salts or lavender oil), meditating for 5-30 minutes, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation (various recordings are available) or any other means of inducing the “relaxation response”.

Daily practice brings greater results. Special acoustic recordings that increase specific brain wave patterns for relaxation and sleep (biaural music), botanical treatments and aromatherapy using herbs and their essential oils (examples include chamomile, valerian, vervain (verbena), hops, lavender, passionflower, avena (oat straw), lemon balm and scutellaria (skull cap). Calcium and magnesium supplementation may also be appropriate. Consult your naturopathic physician for dosages and recommendations.

Get into your favorite sleeping position.

If you don't fall asleep within 15-30 minutes, get up, go into another room, and read until sleepy.

Interested in Creating Healthy Change, That Lasts? Check out my free online course that walks you through the step-by- step process.

In gratitude,

Dr. Michelle and the VWS Team
(360) 828-1429