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Rest is for the Wicked and the Just Alike

Human beings require sleep, yet they find every possible excuse to avoid getting it: playing video games, checking email, watching TV, etc.  Why?  Because people seriously undervalue its importance in regards to our health.  We get as little as humanly possible without considering what the ramifications are, approaching sleep in a manner as out of tune with nature as we can get.

Instead of letting our bodies naturally awaken, we use alarm clocks.  We can set them to go off whenever we feel like it, regardless of when we finally hit the pillow.  Do you know what our great grandparents used as an alarm clock?  The sun...although roosters would often play the role of middle-man.  When the sun went up, they got moving and started their day.  When the sun went down, they started getting ready for bed.  Sure, they made fires and they would often read, sing songs or tell stories, but they certainly weren’t up until 4 A.M. chugging Red Bull and playing Xbox.  And guess what?  Our great grandparents were a lot healthier than we are.

So, how much sleep should we get?  That depends on your age, activities, stress level, diet, etc.  Most studies seem to agree that anywhere from 7-9 hours is sufficient for most people, so most people interpret that as “7 hours is enough.”  Wrong.  For one thing, most of these studies only look at one factor, such as alertness or the ability to perform some mental tasks with a certain degree of proficiency.  However, these studies do not actually address overall health.  Why?  Because that is a hard thing to determine.  It is your responsibility to figure out what amount of sleep is right for you.

Ideally, we should wake up when our body is ready to wake up!  Of course, your boss may not appreciate your new habit of “sleeping in” but what you can do is use an alarm and be more mindful about when you go to sleep.  Do a little experiment on a weekend and determine just how many hours of sleep you get before you naturally wake up, well rested.

For instance, if you notice that you can sleep 8 1/2 hours and wake up on your own and feel rested, then you should make it a point to get that amount of sleep routinely.  That may mean getting to bed earlier and missing out such on watching infomercials, Seinfeld re-runs, or YouTube videos, but it’s worth it.  If you have a job that includes shift work at odd hours, do your best to sneak in naps...just don't do it on company time.

So, why is sleep so important?  Sleep is when your body is in repair mode.  Your brain commits new experiences and information to memory.  Hormones are also released.  Growth occurs.  Getting insufficient sleep disturbs these functions, resulting in:

  • Memory problems
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Increased pain sensitivity
  • Weakened immune system
  • Impotence
  • Loss of muscle mass
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • And more...
But what if you can’t sleep?  Should you take sleep medications?  In most cases, no.  Sleep meds may increase your QUANTITY of sleep, but decreases the QUALITY of sleep (alcohol has a similar effect).  Studies show that people taking Ambien have a reduced ability to reach REM sleep, which is the most important phase of sleep.  Taking Ambien is like eating endless appetizers but never getting to the main course.  Plus, it has some pesky side effects, including sleepwalking, accidental death and suicide.  It also has a tendency to make you do things you don't remember, like making crazy phone calls or raiding the fridge. Instead of turning to pills, here are some things you can do to naturally improve  your sleep:

  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat a better diet (eliminating processed foods is the biggie)
  • Drink less coffee
  • Avoid alcohol overconsumption
  • Limit food intake before bedtime
  • Sleep on a consistent schedule
  • Improve your sleeping quarters.  It needs to be dark and cool.  White noise is okay and actually helps me sleep, personally.  I have an app on my phone that can play the sound of a fan, rain, wind, etc.
  • Establish a relaxing pre-sleep routine.  Read a book by a soft light.  Listen to soft music.  Try not to dwell on thoughts that make your mind race like all the errands you have to run, the bills you have to pay, or work projects you have to get accomplished.  Keep a notebook by your bed side.  If you get a great idea, write it down!  This allows you to reach closure and get ready for bed so you don't have to keep thinking about it.
Manage Your Stress
Emotional stress can have a major impact on how well you sleep.  I can’t help you there.  Work with a good therapist or do some self-help stress management to help you on that front.  Physical stress can also have a huge impact on sleep quality.  For instance, an unhealthy spine puts more stress on your musculoskeletal system and nervous system.  This causes elevated activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which has a negative impact on sleep.  Many of my patients in my Muskegon chiropractic practice are amazed that their sleep quality improves greatly after getting spinal adjustments.  They often come in for back pain, neck pain, or headaches but love the fact that improved sleep quality is a pleasant side effect.

On the flip side, I notice that patients of mine who don’t make an effort to get enough sleep progress slower in their care.  Lack of sleep impairs healing, disrupts the nervous system, and causes the muscles to be more tense, which undermines chiropractic treatments.  To quote a famous poet named Thomas Dekker, “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”

Our society views sleep as a necessary evil, an activity for the weak and the lazy.  The truth is that not getting enough sleep makes you weak and lazy, both physically AND mentally.  So quit abusing stimulants.  Start getting more sleep.  Experience better health!

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