21st Century Living Has Created The Perfect Storm For Insomnia.
This is what’s keeping us awake at night. Dietary dogmas on every corner, blue screens and LED lights flashing continually in our eyes, information over-load, and perhaps, the diminishing of classic methods of communication and unburdening of our hearts and minds.
In 2017, a group of scientists won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of a gene that serves as a type of biological clock. With exquisite precision this biological clock adapts our physiology to different phases in the day, regulating functions such as hormone levels, metabolism and behaviour.
So how did things go so drastically wrong? How could so many (approximately 30% of the population) people be so bereft of something that should…just happen? You know, lights off, head on the pillow, sleep.
Let’s just get one thing straight. You were designed to sleep – right down to every cell in your body. So, what’s stopping you?
From my own personal and professional experience of insomnia, there are three ‘conditions’ that need to be met for us to sleep well: Light (the ‘right’ light at the ‘right’ time), Mind (an unburdened mind) and Physiology (un-stressed body). Here’s how 21stCentury living is creating the perfect conditions for an imperfect night’s sleep.
1. The Wrong Light At The Wrong Time
We only have to take a short look back in history so see how much we have changed our habits and our fundamental way of living, in a very short space of time, to find the clues.
For example, the industrial revolution heralded a seismic shift in our exposure to light. Most of the population went from working outside – exposed to bright daylight all day – to working in factories under dim light by day. Today, most people work inside, some not getting under the power of the sun for even one hour in a day. Now we have a very poor substitute. Blue/green spectrum light all day…and all night too. Because who needs to be governed by the sun anyway, right? Sorry, wrong. Don’t you know, all life is governed by the sun? Not just as the source of light and warmth, but the co-ordinator of life too. The buds on the trees this spring, the birds gathering sticks for their nest. These are all timed events. Timed by the sun. We are a creature of light too. When we get into the light, the sun, it sets the beat of our internal clock, promoting better sleep and melatonin (our hormone of the night). Traditional light – flame (candles, roaring fire) is predominantly in the red spectrum of light which promotes melatonin and sleep. But the light from our screens, does the opposite, opposing the onset of melatonin and reducing our time spent in REM sleep, a deeply restorative phase of sleep, of particular importance for our mental and emotional well-being
So let as much light in your life as possible. The right kind of light and at the right time.
2. An Unburdened, Over-Loaded Mind
Traditional methods of communication are diminishing too. Writing (pen and paper), talking (yes, quality conversations) and quiet contemplation/meditation/prayer.
Hammering away on a keyboard does not do the same as getting out a pen and paper and writing to a friend, a loved one or even yourself (by keeping a diary). Recent research has revealed that writing freely and expressively about our strongest and deepest emotions for 20 minutes for 3 consecutive days improves heart rate variability, which is a marker of cardiovascular health and also reflects a reduction in our flight or fight response. Evening prayers were a more common ritual. The belief in an external means of support and a giving over of things beyond our control.
3. A Stressed-Out Body
Our bodies are simply not getting the fuel or the nutrients needed to deal with an always-on modern lifestyle. Add to that poor dietary advice (clean-eating, cutting out food groups) and you have a recipe for insomnia.
Our great-grandparents had a much more simple approach to food. They simply ate a good balanced diet. There was not low salt this, low fat that. No, they just ate good, basic food. Salt was (and still is) an essential preserver of food. Try telling someone with no fridge to have a low salt diet. Or how about low carb? What? Cut out potatoes? But that’s what we eat every night! Veganism? What’s that? Margarine? But I like my butter! The confusion abounds now and with it the loss of our inner voice. The voice that tells us what we need and when we need it. Apart from robbing us of the dual purpose of food – nourishment and pleasure (yes, pleasure), it is fuelling the insomnia epidemic by causing us to act against our instincts and cut out some of the very foods that assist sleep – salt, carbohydrates, good quality protein, dairy and traditional fats.
What Else Is Stressing Our Bodies Out?
- Magnesium deficiency. Most people are. Magnesium is vital for sleep. In fact, this ‘sleep mineral’ is needed for over 300 biochemical processes in the body, so when we don’t have enough of it, we can develop a myriad of symptoms, including insomnia. That’s because magnesium plays a role in supporting deep, restorative sleep by maintaining healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. People with low magnesium often experience restless sleep, waking frequently during the night. Maintaining healthy magnesium levels often leads to deeper, more sound sleep.
- Tired but Wired? Stress of any kind activates the release of stress hormones, turning on the “fight or flight” response (and these are what keep us awake at night). Stress can be a good thing (running away from danger for example), but, we were not designed to live in alarm mode constantly. High stress hormones can leave an individual feeling in a constant state of alarm and yet, as the stress persists, a feeling of fatigue and depletion usually follows leaving them feeling ‘tired but wired’. Stress hormone, Adrenaline also suppresses the hormone of darkness ‘melatonin’ which tells the body to go to sleep.
- Anxiety and depression both can cause sleeplessness and the other way around too. But here’s the thing, an article entitled ‘Rapid recovery from major depression using magnesium treatment’ published in Medical Hypothesis 2006 it concluded
- Poor Thyroid Function = Poor Sleep. An underactive thyroid can lead to insomnia, anxiety and depression. In fact, it may seem paradoxical that a generally under-energised person with hypothyroidism could have trouble sleeping but a wonderful doctor, Dr Broda Barnes, discovered some hypothyroid people can produce up to 40 times more adrenaline than normal as a compensatory reaction, the consequences of which can be insomnia and anxiety.
- An ineffective external environment for sleep – our external environment can have an effect on our internal environment (for example, light through the eyes effects our physiology and our hormones) so if the bedroom isn’t dark enough, if the room has wifi connections (wifi affects melatonin production) or if an individual has been spent too long in the evening in front of blue screens – all of this will have an impact on the quality of sleep
How Do We Know If Our Bodies Are Stressed?
In short, poor sleep indicated by the very fact you wake unrefreshed in the morning despite the number of hours ‘spent asleep’ (I put that in quotes because often people do sleep more than they realise, even when it seems that they have not, numbers are unreliable but how you feel is not). Waking early such as 4am can be an indication of low glycogen (the body’s glucose reserve, stored in the liver). What can you do about that? Milk, honey and salt, hit the button below to find out more.
So What Can We Do To Restore Our Sleep?
Twenty-first Century living conspires against good sleep in such a way that we need to put in place extra measures to win our sleep back. Measures such as: no caffeine after 2pm, a specifically relaxing tea after work such as a strong chamomile or tulsi, a nourishing dinner including protein, carbohydrates and salt, no screens after 9pm, an Epsom salt bath, retiring to bed at the same time each night sipping from a mug of our bedtime drink Sophie designed to de-stress the body and calm the mind whilst reading from real book paper book before bed.
Here’s the good news though. You can get your sleep back and it’s quite possible that your quiet, inner voice is trying to tell you how.