Most of you know about or are intuitively aware of the amazing healing power of sleep. It is during sleep that your immune system does most of its work in fighting disease and most of the body’s repair and maintenance work gets done.
Just think about when you have come down with a cold or the flu, getting lots of sleep and rest at the start gives you a better chance of recovering fast rather than having it linger on. The same applies to healing chronic illness and maintaining optimum long-term health, yet most of us either don’t get enough of it or don’t have good sleep ‘hygiene’.
Sleep is an essential and fundamental element in healing. It’s also something that you can do for free! Even if you have no trouble falling asleep and you generally get enough, it is still worthwhile reading on to see how you can improve your sleep and maximize the healing benefits arising from it. In fact, quality of sleep matters just as much as quantity, and sometimes you can also have too much of a good thing!
How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?
Some people claim that they are perfectly fine with 5 or 6 hours of sleep per night, but they are most probably chronically sleep-deprived and don’t realise how much better they would feel with enough sleep. They are probably suffering from a large sleep deficit.
For adults, a healthy amount of sleep for long-term good health and well-being is 8 to 9 hours, and those healing from illness should aim for 9–10 hours per night. However, sleeping longer than necessary can also be unhealthy.
We tend to think that we have more important things to do than sleep, but proper sleep can lead to a longer, healthier, happier and more productive life.
The key is to listen to your body so that you get the right amount, not too little and not too much. The only substitute for deep restorative sleep is deep meditation and there are some meditators like Tibetan or Zen monks who can stay healthy and happy with little sleep.
Research shows that 97.5% of adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each night and the amount we need ranges from 7-9 hours. The US National Sleep Foundation convened a group of 18 experts from a broad range of medical and scientific disciplines to review 300 studies on how much sleep different age groups should get each day. The results published in February 2015 are as follows:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours sleep each night
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours sleep each night
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours sleep each night
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours sleep each night
- School age children (6-13): 9-11 hours sleep each night
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours sleep each night
- Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours sleep each night
- Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours sleep each night
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours sleep each night
Five Benefits of Sleep for Healing and Well-Being
We generally feel more irritable, moody, have difficulty concentrating and are more susceptible to getting sick when deprived of sleep. Here are just a few of the benefits of good sleep:
1. All healing, especially from chronic illness, requires quality sleep and rest.
During daily activity the body primarily functions in sympathetic nervous system mode, expending most of its energy on physical work, thinking and activities that damage body tissues.
During deep relaxation, sleep and deep meditation, the body is primarily in parasympathetic mode, where most of the energy is used for cellular repair, regeneration of the nervous system, immune system response and general maintenance.
2. Detoxification requires energy, which is freed-up during sleep and rest.
Elimination of toxins requires a considerable amount of energy. These days we live in a sea of toxins and even babies are born with hundreds of chemicals already in their bodies. These include pesticides, heavy metals, chemicals ingested in food and water, or absorbed from house-hold cleaning products, paints, glues, cosmetics, fire-retardants and so on.
The body can only eliminate these toxins when it has adequate sleep, rest and proper nutrition (especially sufficient minerals, which are often overlooked).
When the body is healthy and supplied with all the nutrients it needs, it is well-designed to detoxify itself. However, with a lifetime buildup of toxins and poor nutrition, detoxification methods are required to speed up the detoxification process, thus reducing the toxic burden on the body and conserving more energy for healing.
Detoxification methods include infra-red saunas, colon hydrotherapy, coffee enemas, bentonite clay ingestion and baths, pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy and herbal detoxification.
3. The immune system requires considerable energy to do its job properly.
It is only during sleep and rest that sufficient energy is set aside for the immune system to operate at its optimum to fight and clean up pathogens like unwanted bacteria, viruses, parasites and cancer cells.
Of course, cancer cells have clever cloaking systems to prevent them being detected by the immune system so we need to do other things including taking proteolytic enzymes to facilitate detection.
4. Mental and emotional processing occurs during sleep.
We often say, “Sleep on it,” to someone who is trying to make a decision. It is during sleep that most of our brain’s repair and processing of information gathered during the day occurs. That is why the answers to problems often materialise after a good night sleep, we can perform better in intellectual tasks and we feel in a better mood and less irritable.
5. Good sleep habits support healthy melatonin levels, a super important hormone in healing, anti-ageing and fighting cancer.
Melatonin is a critical hormone for the functioning of your immune system. It is a powerful antioxidant, it scavenges free radicals, which damage body tissues and DNA, and it reduces inflammation, the real cause of nearly all disease.
Melatonin inhibits proliferation of many types of cancer cells, triggers cancer cell death (apoptosis) and can even hinder the formation of blood supplies to tumours (angiogenesis). It is far better and safer for the body to make its own melatonin than taking it as a supplement.
How to Sleep Better and Maximise the Healing Benefits
1. Get to sleep early every night.
In the days before electricity, people tended to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier in the morning. Now, in this fast-paced technological, information age, most people are staying up late and often sleeping in when they can. This is probably one reason why we have an epidemic of chronic illness.
The hours before midnight are far more important for healing and repair than the hours after midnight. The deepest, most regenerative sleep (with predominantly Delta brainwaves) occurs from around 10 pm until 2 am, but this deep sleep only kicks in about two hours after falling asleep. So ideally, if you want to maximise your healing and regeneration, you should aim to get to sleep by 8 pm.
This is very difficult for most people, myself included, but if you are facing a serious illness, then getting to sleep early every night is one of the single most important things that you can do to maximise your healing.
If you have trouble falling asleep after 30 minutes or so in bed, it might be better to get up and do something relaxing to make you sleepy, rather than lying in bed getting stressed out about not being able to sleep. Just don’t go turning on the bright lights, TV or computer!
2. Keep to a regular sleep schedule in harmony with your body’s natural rhythm.
In addition to getting early nights we should aim to stick to the same sleeping routine every day, including the weekends.
We have a natural body clock or circadian rhythm, controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain in response to light and dark signals coming in via the optic nerve. The hypothalamus signals the pineal gland in the brain to produce the hormone melatonin in response to darkness. Along with changes in body temperature and other bodily functions, it is the increased melatonin that makes us sleepy.
In the morning, with exposure to light, the hypothalamus sends signals leading to the production of hormones like cortisol and an increase in body temperature so that we wake up and become active.
Most travellers are familiar with feeling ‘under the weather’, sleepy and being unable to think clearly after long flights to different time zones. A similar disruption to the body’s circadian rhythm occurs on a daily basis if we stay awake long and irregular hours.
Obviously, many of you have social lives and will sometimes wish to stay up late, which is fine if you keep a consistent routine most of the time. If you do stay up late, it’s generally better to have a power nap during the day if possible, rather than a long sleep in. That way the body clock doesn’t get as disrupted.
For most people, the best time for a daytime nap is between 1 pm to 3 pm. This may be difficult during work hours, but a 15–20 minute power nap during your lunch break can do wonders. Don’t nap for any more than 30 minutes during daytime though, unless you work nights, as it will upset your circadian rhythm and can make it harder to sleep at night.
Aim to wake up at the same time every morning. If you get to sleep early around the same time every night, then you should awake naturally around the same time each morning. This is far better than being rudely startled awake by a loud alarm as it allows your body to finish its natural sleep cycle.
You can still set an alarm as a backup, but make sure that you are usually able to wake up before it. Make it a pleasant-sounding alarm, like a song you love or birdsong, or at least something that starts quietly and gradually gets louder. Some sound sleepers may really need a loud obnoxious alarm to wake up though!
3. Reduce your exposure to light at night.
Artificial light at night, especially blue light, is bad for your health since it disrupts your sleep pattern and inhibits melatonin production.
Until the advent of electricity, humans spent their evenings in relative darkness, with perhaps a fire or oil lamps for light. Even these lights interfere much less with our body’s natural cycle as they emit light mostly at the red/orange range of the spectrum.
Energy saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and LEDs produce more blue light than traditional incandescent lights, so their inhibiting effect on melatonin production is much stronger.
Computer screens, TV, mobile phones and tablets also produce blue light. The more recent iPhone and iPod models with iOS 9.3 or later now have a ‘night shift’ mode option, enabling you to change the screen colour to a more yellow hue for night-time viewing.
Many studies have linked night shift work and exposure of light at night to several types of cancer (including breast and prostate), heart disease, diabetes, obesity and depression. This is most likely due to the disturbance of circadian rhythms and reduction of melatonin.
So how can we reduce our exposure? Avoid reading bright screens ideally for the last 2–3 hours, or at least one hour before bed. Use dim red or orange lighting at night.
Himalayan salt lamps produce a soothing light with the added benefit of producing negative ions, which purify the air and make you feel better, like being at the beach or in the mountains. Candles are good too, but take care against fire risk and don’t leave them unattended. You can also get Himalayan salt candle holders.
If you work night shifts or if you use electronic screens at night, consider investing in blue-blocking glasses to mitigate the adverse effects.
Keep your bedroom as dark as possible and avoid clock radios and night lights — even the slightest bit of light can disturb your body’s clock and melatonin production. If you need to get up in the night use dim lighting or a torch rather than bright lights. In fact, if I can see by the ambient light from outside I don’t turn on any lights at all.
If you can’t avoid light in your room, for example if you have no curtains and there is a street light or bright moon outside, consider using a sleep mask. Since I travel a lot, my sleep mask has been my saviour on countless nights.
4. Minimise your exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs) at night.
EMF exposure should be minimised as much as possible all the time, but at night-time it is even more important due sleep disturbance, the greater sensitivity of the body at that time and the length of time we are staying in one place.
Keep mobile phones, computers, tablets, WiFi routers and clock radios well away from your bed. Even better, turn them off at night. If you really must have your phone beside your bed for an alarm/clock, switch it to flight mode. On most phones the alarm still works even when it is switched off.
Rather than using WiFi, it is better if you use an Ethernet cable connection for your computer or laptop. A disadvantage of tablets is that they can only access the internet via a WiFi connection.
Another important thing to consider is the fields produced by electrical wiring in the wall. These can be reduced by turning off the switches on the wall near your bed, but this usually doesn’t eliminate them. If you are having trouble sleeping, you can try moving your bed away from the wall a foot or two.
If you want to be scientific about it, you can purchase a gauss meter, like the Trifield meter or a Gigahertz Solutions meter, to measure the electric and magnetic fields and work out the best position for your bed.
5. Get enough sunlight exposure during the day, especially in the morning.
Just 15 minutes of bright sunlight exposure in the morning will help keep your body’s circadian rhythm in sync. The sooner after you get up, the better. You can go for an early morning walk, have breakfast outside or near a window and don’t wear sunglasses. Just don’t stare at the sun or you could damage your eyes! (I will write a post about sun-gazing at some point.).
Get some early morning sun on your face. This can be difficult during winter or bad weather, so make the most of sunshine when you can.
If you are up early enough, watch the first 5–10 minutes of the sunrise. This synchronizes the natural body clock and is also great for your mood. Take some moments for mindfulness and gratitude instead of rushing into the day.
Take regular breaks from work or indoor activities during the day and go outside into the fresh air and bright light. Go for a walk at lunchtime or after work. Let plenty of natural light into your home or office, keep curtains and blinds open and have your desk near a window if it’s not too hot.
Watch the sunset every day, maybe by taking an evening walk, as this greatly enhances melatonin secretion.
6. Get regular exercise.
This is one of the best ways to get better, deeper, more restorative sleep, not to mention all the other important benefits of exercise. More vigorous exercise leads to deeper, more restorative sleep than light exercise, but even 10 minutes of brisk walking per day improves the quality of sleep.
Just be careful not to exhaust yourself with too much exercise if you are healing from a serious illness as the immune system requires a lot of energy. Keep it moderate and regular, rather than intense and infrequent.
Also, keep in mind that the body can take 3–6 hours to fully cool down after intense, vigorous exercise so do it well before bedtime. On the other hand, gentle exercises like yoga, Pilates, tai chi or gentle stretches can help you to relax and slow down.
7. Watch what you eat and drink.
It goes without saying that caffeine keeps you awake, though some people say it doesn’t affect them. The effects of caffeine can last for up to 12 hours so try to avoid drinking coffee, caffeinated soft-drinks or black tea (green or white tea have about half the caffeine of black tea) in the afternoon and especially after dinner.
Stay away from heavy meals at night, especially heavy protein like large servings of meat and fatty foods that take a lot of effort for your stomach to digest. Also avoid overly spicy or acidic foods that can upset the stomach.
Having a big breakfast or lunch and a lighter dinner, like many cultures do, is far more sensible, but failing this, try to eat dinner as early as possible.
On the other hand, it can also be difficult to sleep if you are hungry, so a small healthy snack might be necessary if you are. Avoid any sugary or high-carb snacks though, which cause blood sugar to spike and then plummet and disturb your sleep.
Avoid alcohol for the hours before bedtime. Although it might help you relax and get to sleep faster, it interferes with your sleep cycle and the quality of your sleep. If you are serious about healing I recommend avoiding alcohol altogether or reducing it to a minimum. Sometimes I treat myself to a Pinot Noir (only organic though) and I tell myself that I am getting the benefits of the antioxidant resveratrol it contains. 😉
Also avoid drinking lots of liquids in the evening, especially in the last 90 minutes before bed, as they might make you less comfortable or have to get up during the night. Some people find that a cup of relaxing herbal tea, especially those containing chamomile or Valerian, in the evening helps them sleep better.
Supplementing with magnesium either orally or using a magnesium chloride oil massaged into the skin or magnesium salt baths also aids relaxation and good sleep. Most people are deficient in magnesium.
8. Take a hot bath or infra-red sauna before bedtime.
We all know how relaxing and sleep inducing a hot bath can be. It also raises your body temperature, which then quickly drops after you get out, signalling the body that it is time for sleep. Have a hot bath an hour or two before going to sleep.
A bath has the added benefit of being able to add magnesium chloride or Epsom salts for muscle relaxation and better sleep. You absorb much more magnesium through the skin than taking it orally.
9. Relax and clear the mind before bedtime.
Wind down and relax before bed with quiet music, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, creative visualization, meditation, some gentle stretches or yoga, a foot massage (self-reflexology or by someone else if you’re lucky :-)), sitting in front of a fire watching the flames or embers, reading a book under a soft light, or anything else that you can think of.
Just avoid too much thinking, worrying, stimulating conversation or problem solving before bed. Give your mind a break and time to wind down.
10. Make sure that you have a comfortable bed and a cool room.
Studies have shown that the optimum bedroom temperature for most people is 15–20°C (60–68°F). Many people make their rooms too warm and this interferes with the quality of sleep. Make sure you get adequate ventilation and fresh air into the room.
It is also important to have a mattress that is not too soft or too hard. Many people sleep on old unhealthy mattresses that are not only bad for the back and posture as they sag in the middle, but they also harbour dust mites, mould and mildew.
Go for organic cotton (most cotton is laden with pesticides — 25% of the world’s pesticides are sprayed on cotton crops), natural latex rubber or wool filling and stay away from the common inner-spring or coil mattresses, which have a big damp, dark space for dust mites to multiply and mould to grow in.
Most mattresses are also impregnated with toxic fire retardants, which have been linked to cancers, skin irritations, heart, lung and kidney damage, and memory problems. So check that the one you are buying is free of these chemicals. How often in your lifetime does your mattress catch fire? Yet you have to sleep on these toxic chemicals every night!
Your mattress should be washed and aired out in the sunshine about once a year. The same principles apply to buying pillows. Many people use pillows that are too thick. It is better for the spine and thus healthier to sleep using a flatter pillow, especially if you mainly sleep on your back, as long as you are comfortable.
Different people have their preferred sleeping positions that they tend to gravitate to, though we don’t stay in the same position all night. Research suggests that sleeping on the left side can relieve heartburn and is better during pregnancy as it improves circulation to the heart and baby.
11. Use Brainwave Entrainment to attain faster and deeper sleep.
This involves listening to special beats and frequencies, often accompanied by music or nature sounds, which entrain your brainwaves to certain desired frequencies, such as theta, which is associated with deep meditation, healing and the first stage of sleep.
These frequencies and beats include binaural and monoaural beats, isochronic tones and Solfeggio frequencies. You can search for them on YouTube in relation to healing, sleep or meditation so that you get a taste, but the quality of YouTube recordings isn’t generally good enough for full effect. There are many excellent brainwave entrainment audio and software packages out there, which I will be discussing.
If you want to go the extra mile you can get a mind machine. These are iPod-like devices that also include glasses so you get the visual stimulation effect combined with the audio — some of the programs on them are nothing short of spectacular and you can also play any other brainwave entrainment audios through them to greatly enhance their effectiveness.
12. Sleep on an Earthing sheet or pillow (use caution).
The healing power of Earthing is becoming better established as research shows the importance of our connection to the Earth’s negative ions and magnetic field for health. In our modern lifestyle we tend to isolate ourselves from this most of the time by wearing insulating shoes, travelling in cars and spending most of our time indoors.
Sleeping earthed can reduce inflammation, help to neutralise harmful free radicals in our body and facilitate sounder sleep.
However, you must be careful as grounding of electrical systems in houses is often not totally clean and may do more harm than good. You need to have it properly tested by an electrician before plugging into the earth socket on the wall. Otherwise, it is much safer to connect to the ground itself, but you will need to have a wire going out through the window to a metal stake in the ground.
13. Use a white or pink noise sound machine in your room.
We all know how soothing it can be to fall asleep to the pattering of rain on the roof, the soft chirping of crickets or the rumble of ocean surf. On a quiet night random noises, like a passing car or a barking dog, can wake you up, but a constant, full-spectrum background noise is a like a calming tonic for the brain; it provides a constant sensory stimulus, which the brain craves.
The ‘colour’ of noise is defined according to the frequencies present. White noise is comprised of random noise from the entire audible sound spectrum and is like the hiss of static on a radio. The human ear and brain can only process a limited number of sound frequencies at once, so white noise makes other random sounds fade into the background and become less noticeable, thus preventing them from disturbing your sleep.
Pink noise also comprises frequencies from the entire audible spectrum, but emphasizes certain lower frequencies to create a deeper, softer sound more like rushing water, rustling leaves, or heavy rain. This offers the same benefits as white noise, but many people prefer the deeper, softer sound.
You could have ocean or rainforest sounds playing softly or you could invest in a white noise sound machine like the Dohm-DS Dual Speed Sound Conditioner by Marcpac, which is a best-seller on Amazon.
Hopefully, you are now more convinced of the supreme importance of sleep for healing and you have found some useful tips to help improve your sleep. Feel free to leave any comments or questions below. Thanks for reading.