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Yes, you can achieve a good night’s sleep

About 2700 years ago, the sage in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad described the natural progression from sunlight to moonlight to firelight and then to voice (sound). And when asked, “When the sun and the moon have both set, the fire has gone out and speech has stopped, what serves as a light for man?”, the sage replied, “The soul then becomes his light.” In the Upanishad, the sage goes on to explain the soul then abandons its body by the gate of dreams and, in the rest of deep sleep, the soul goes beyond and “shines in its own light”. The experience is likened to a bird that leaves its nest in charge of the “breath of life” and soars afar, where it sees no dreams and feels “I am all”. In this state there are no desires, no fears, no sorrows and all evil has vanished.

The belief was that man’s ordinary self becomes his spiritual self during dreaming and the soul experiences events just as you might enjoy a dramatic film. Even today, it’s said that most dreams are beyond the realm of science; for example, when four psychoanalysts were given the same dream to analyse there were four different explanations. Most dreaming occurs during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

My interpretation of this belief is that during deep sleep you have an inner peace experience and become one with the universe. When you wake you are not conscious of this spiritual experience but you are left with a feeling that your sleep has been good — in every sense of the word. It’s said that when you are in deep sleep you are in God’s hands and perhaps that’s why we say “I had a good sleep” even though we’re not conscious of sleeping. If you compare the ancient experience of “winding down” before sleep with modern life, you shouldn’t be surprised that many people suffer from insomnia. Do you get home from work after dark, have a late dinner, look at stimulating TV or play with your computer — all these activities accompanied by bright or flashing lights? There are many causes of sleep problems and your evening lifestyle may be one of them. Before the electronic age, our evening entertainment was usually chatting, knitting, playing cards, reading or listening to the radio.

My experience is that appropriate sounds are among the best sleep inducers.

 

Music

When people aged between 60 and 83 listened to sedative music tapes for 45 minutes at bedtime, it gave them significantly better sleep quality compared with those who did not listen to the music. Not only was the quality of sleep better but they had longer sleep, less sleep disturbance and less daytime dysfunction. (Journal of Advanced Nursing 49 (2005): 234-44)

Other studies have shown that light classical, relaxing or “new age” music can reduce physical and mental tension. However, music alone does not always work for depressed or anxious insomniacs because it may not occupy enough of the mind to blot out disturbing thoughts.

 

Lullabies and stories

Singing, storytelling and reading aloud have stood the test of time as sleep inducers for young children. Infants often have a favourite story and perhaps calmness together with familiar sounds relates to closeness.

When there is prolonged resistance to sleep, infants may be soothed by the use of audio discs. Common sense suggests parents’ voices may work better, and the simplest way of doing this is for them to record some children’s stories or songs. However, babies are probably used to hearing various noises in the uterus and some parents find traditional Tibetan chanting works quite well — perhaps because the low rumbling sounds are something like digestive noises.

You can buy meditation and relaxation discs in retail stores or through the internet, including sounds of the sea, dolphins, whales and so on. Not all babies like the same sounds and you might find that classical music or even vacuum cleaner or engine sounds work better, because most babies seem to fall asleep very quickly in trains and cars. Is it possible that newborn babies find it alarmingly quiet at night? Babies are also used to motion in the uterus, so if you’re desperate you could reorganise the baby’s bed with a battery-operated vibration pillow as a mattress, or buy a rocking cradle.

 

Reading

Some sleep experts don’t recommend reading in bed because the bedroom should be a place for sex and sleep rather than mental activity. Also, light is disruptive to the body’s production of melatonin — a sleep hormone. My experience is that reading is very effective for diverting worrying thoughts, but the book should not be controversial, frightening or stimulating. If the reading light bothers a sleep partner, you can buy eye masks from your local pharmacy — or read in another room.

I think spiritual or travel books the most suitable because generally they are neither boring nor stimulating and you are not tempted to speed read to find out what happens at the end. My preferences are texts with commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and any book by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. Buddhist books usually contain a lot of commonsense advice about daily life that’s not contrary to any particular religion. You may prefer the Bible or texts related to your own beliefs. There are specialist religious and alternative bookshops in large cities and most libraries have a reasonable selection.

 

Relaxation CDs

Some relaxation CDs don’t work for me because they’re “syrupy” and seem to reinforce the notion that I am not feeling relaxed or peaceful. Always listen to at least part of a CD before buying it because the voice or music may not suit you. The actual sound of the voice and the regular pace seem to relax me more than the context, although it is probably helpful to have something uplifting for our minds as we drift into sleep.

The best option for poor sleepers may be CDs that incorporate sounds with visualisation. This imagery distraction can reduce the time it takes to get to sleep. A CD is not necessary as you could, for instance, visualise your imaginary country cottage retreat, or picture your ideal resting place — perhaps near a gentle stream in a rainforest, or by the sea or in the mountains. What might work even better is to combine a sound, mental images and a relaxing aroma such as lavender oil.

As a general rule, don’t lie in bed “trying to sleep” for more than 45 minutes. The usual recommendation is to get up and do something. However, I think this recommendation must be made by good sleepers because if you can’t sleep you generally feel terrible and simply don’t want to get up. You want to sleep! Furthermore, if you put on a light and start doing things, this will give your body and brain the message that the night is for activities.

My suggestion is to have a portable audio system next to your bed so that if you wake and can’t get back to sleep, you can listen to appropriate CDs. My recommendations about audio books are given below, but you may have to experiment to find out what suits you. Personally, I find that music, breathing and relaxation techniques don’t sufficiently occupy the brain to divert thoughts. If you wake very early in the morning, I think it’s preferable to get up and begin your day’s activity — but it requires great willpower to get out of bed if you’re tired!

Poor sleepers should not spend more than eight hours in bed because lying in bed in the vain hope of sleeping will aggravate insomnia.

 

Audio books

The variety of talking books is relatively limited but some I have found useful include A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle and The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. Your local bookstore or library will be able to provide some audio books or you can source them through mail-order suppliers (see Resources below).

I make my own cassettes and have recorded for my personal use Eastern philosophical texts such as The Dharmapada. Once you get used to listening to yourself, your own voice becomes familiar and soothing, but you need to do the recording when you’re having a “good day”. Don’t attempt to make your reading theatrical; read calmly and slowly in your everyday voice.

Audio books are ideal for people who wake during the night and can’t get back to sleep, because all you have to do is press the “play” switch and say to yourself, “I’m going to listen to each word.” The more I tell myself to listen to the words, the quicker I get back to sleep and now I rarely hear the latter part of the cassettes.

 

Meditation

In many spiritual traditions, it has been the custom to get up at dawn to pray or meditate, and to do this again around sunset, followed by dinner and prayers before bed. This spiritual custom is in synch with your biological rhythm. Although you may not be living in a monastery, you can take some steps to set the tone for the day’s work and for the night’s rest.

It has been demonstrated by brainwave tests that if meditators sit quietly and repeat words such as “dog” or “cat” it doesn’t have the same effect on the brain as traditional meditation. An Indian study showed that meditators have significantly more alpha brainwaves (indicating calmness) and more logical mental functioning than non-meditators.

Repeating words such as “peace” or “relax” may produce a message that you are not peaceful or relaxed. You may have to trick your brain with some other strategy; for instance, instead of using the word “peace”, use the Sanskrit word “shanti” (pronounced shontee). Meditation techniques include:

  • Repeating and thinking about verses from a religious or spiritual text
  • Focusing on a symbol such as the lotus flower, a light, or a spiritual being
  • Chanting mantras, which may be done silently and privately, or with a group
  • Guided meditation.

In the context of this article, meditation is “concentration with a spiritual aim”, and combining words with visualisation generally prevents the mind wandering — but it doesn’t matter if you focus on the exercise for only a few minutes initially. You can buy CDs that contain mantras and guided meditations.

 

Unwanted sounds

Some people are very sensitive to noise in general or to particular noises. For instance, a dripping tap is torture but the sound of rain is soothing. Your own dog’s bark may be cute or reassuring but a neighbour’s barking dog is irritating noise pollution. If your neighbours are entertainers or shift workers, you have to understand that they are entitled to live a normal life in their free time. And others may not want to coordinate their lives to your bedtime. Although we should be neighbourly, there are laws about excessive noise levels and if there is an unreasonable noise that repeatedly disrupts your sleep there are steps you can take, including the following:

 

Change your perception of the noise: Do you go to bed and wait anxiously for the irritating sound? It is not possible for poor sleepers to block out irritating sounds; instead, think that the noise is washing over you, or imagine the sound is from a different source. For instance, a barking dog is a cute little puppy. Imagine the puppy, what type it is, what colour and so on; try to picture every detail.

Use earplugs: Use earplugs you can buy over the counter at most pharmacies. You may have to try a few different types, and generally these deaden the noise rather than obliterate it completely. Some people find earplugs adequately reduce the sound of snoring.

Soundproofing: If it’s an outside noise, perhaps have double windows or shutters for your bedroom. If you’re desperate you can even have the bedroom soundproofed. I’ve been told corkboard about 2.5cm thick is effective…

Mask unwanted sounds: Use some pleasant music, relaxation or meditation tapes or audio books to mask unwanted sounds. “White noise”, such as the hum of an air-conditioner, can block out other noises. If you are noise sensitive you may find even neutral sounds, like air-conditioners, are disturbing, in which case you may be able to imagine you are resting comfortably in a soft, green rainforest, listening to the sounds of the breeze in the canopy as you visualise the details of the forest. I “think” my cooling fan sounds like rain.

Sometimes, absence of noise keeps people awake! City dwellers, for instance, may find they can’t sleep without the familiar sound of traffic.

Speak with the offender: Wait until you’re feeling calm and speak to the offender. Simply explain that the problem noise disturbs your sleep. This is a last resort as most “noisy” people are inconsiderate and will get angry, irrespective of how you approach them. They may deliberately increase the noise or become more of a nuisance in other ways — or tell you about some of your irritating habits.

If the noise is unreasonable and your friendly request is ignored, contact your local council to find out the regulations. You’ll be surprised to learn, for instance, how high the fines can be for barking dogs and there are limits to all noise based on the decibel level above normal background noise at your property boundary.

 

Snoring

Snoring may or may not be linked to sleep apnoea. There are different types of sleep apnoea but it’s basically a combination of suspended breathing during sleep and snoring. Repeated pauses in breathing result in less oxygen being carried throughout the body, which in turn may lead to headaches, fatigue, mood swings, memory loss, inability to concentrate and loss of libido. Every cell in your body needs a steady supply of oxygen and you should get medical advice for sleep apnoea because it’s linked to a higher incidence of heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke and accidents.

Simple (primary) snoring is the noise made by the vibrations of the soft tissues in the throat while inhaling. It may cause others to lose sleep and to lose their tempers and can lead to loss of friendships and partners. Few people choose to share a bedroom with a snorer.

Snoring may be caused by obesity, excess alcohol, sleeping on the back, exhaustion, the structure of the throat or respiratory system disorders. Habitual mouth breathing may also lead to snoring. Apart from snoring drying the mouth and throat tissues of the snorer, it’s estimated the bed partners of snorers lose one hour’s sleep a night, which is likely to cause sleep-deprived stress and a higher disease risk for the bed partner.

As far as possible, remove the causes of snoring and if necessary consult a health practitioner. The snorer’s partner could use earplugs, usually available in pharmacies. For the snorer, you can buy over-the-counter products from pharmacies which sometimes reduce the problem. Sewing a tennis ball on the back of the pyjama top may help because it prevents lying on the back. Other options include dental mouthguards and a strap-like support for the jaw that fits over the top and back of the head and under the chin (you can view this on www.quietnitecap.com/nav.html). Sleep apnoea centres supply more complex equipment, but before buying equipment discuss it with your practitioner. If you’re desperate, surgery and laser treatments are extreme options but may not be a permanent solution.

A study of children aged 5-10 years indicates snoring tends to reduce memory and intelligence scores. Get practitioner help for childhood snoring. Children’s snoring may be linked to large tonsils and adenoids, infections, large tongue, respiratory disorders, small receding chin and disorders such as Down’s syndrome.

Caution: Snorers generally have “relaxed” throat tissues and sleeping tablets may make the throat even more relaxed.

 

Tinnitus

Ringing, buzzing and other abnormal noises in the ears may be accompanied by hearing loss and dizziness, causing anxiety and preventing sleep. First, get a medical check because there are different causes of tinnitus, including impacted earwax, infection, a nutrient deficiency, high blood pressure and nerve damage.

 

Medical trials: Hypnosis gave some benefit to 68 per cent of cases. This therapy was less successful in cases of accompanying hearing loss. (American Journal of Clinical Hypnotherapy 37 (1995): 294-9)

Biofeedback gave a 50 per cent improvement compared with 30 per cent for acupuncture and 10 per cent for cinnarizine, an antihistamine. (Ear, Nose & Throat Journal 70 (1991): 284-9)

A study of army personnel with occupational noise exposure found low levels of vitamin B12 were significantly more prevalent among those with tinnitus, and injections of that vitamin provided some relief. (American Journal of Otolaryngology 14 (1993): 94-9)

 

Herbs and supplements: Circulatory herbs may help, including ginkgo, bilberry, hawthorn, rosehip, ginger, garlic, turmeric and chilli. Specific nutrient supplements such as magnesium and fish oil may provide relief in some cases.

Ear drops: You could also try ear drops using a small dropper bottle bought from a pharmacy. Put 20ml of either glycerine or sesame oil into the bottle. Add six drops of lavender and six drops of rose oil. Shake before use. Put 2-3 drops of the mix into each ear 2-3 times daily, having one of the doses before bed.

Caution: Don’t put the dropper itself into the ear because you may damage the eardrum. Tilt your head to one side, put the dropper near the external opening of the ear and you’ll feel the remedy go in.

Other therapies: Sound therapy is also suggested as a diversion from tinnitus, with various types of sound diversion covered above. Also, use a large, soft pillow because the ears are sensitive and you need support for your neck. Tinnitus is difficult to treat and most therapies require some months of treatment.

 

Asleep or awake?

Babies normally sleep 16-20 hours, young teenagers about nine hours and the average for an adult is about seven hours, although during pregnancy women often need 1-2 hours more than usual. After age 60, average sleep is about 6.5 hours. Research indicates that a century ago adults in developed countries were averaging nine hours sleep a night, so it’s possible many of us are actually sleep deprived because of work.

Humans have an internal biological clock that controls the sleep-wake cycle and many of our physical and behavioural systems. This inner clock is located within the hypothalamus — the part of the brain that also controls hormones, body temperature, thirst and appetite. Your biological clock is modulated by the natural light-dark cycle but is also affected by genes, thousands of brain cells and many environmental, biochemical and lifestyle factors. Women are said to absorb more “cues” from the environment, which may explain why they have more sleep problems than men.

Inappropriate sounds impede sleep, while pleasing sounds help sleep. In my book Tired of not Sleeping?, which I have co-authored with Dr Sandra Cabot, I list 68 factors that prevent sleep and give details of what you can do about them.

 

Resources

ABC Shop — www.abcshop.com.au

Audio material that may be useful for insomnia in general and also as “sound diversion” for tinnitus sufferers

Adyar Bookshop — www.adyar.com.au

Books, CDs and cassettes on just about every belief system and alternative therapy

Australian Tinnitus Association (NSW) — www.tinnitus.asn.au

Tinnitus information, self-help groups, literature, CDs and cassettes

Pauline Books & Media — www.paulinebooks.com.au

Christian books, CDs and cassettes

Southern Scene Pty Ltd — www.southernscene.com.au

Specialist supplier of large-print and audio books

 

Why you need a good night’s sleep

  • The benefits of adequate and restorative sleep include:
  • Optimal daytime mental and physical performance
  • Prevention of injuries and accidents
  • Possibility of living longer because of rest, repair and reduced oxidation
  • Reduction of some diseases and disorders
  • Improved immune function and glucose metabolism
  • Help to maintain wellbeing, happiness and relationships, improve quality of life not only for those with sleep problems but also their bed partners
  • Reduction in “sickies”, thereby contributing to the economy
  • Respite from your daily problems and your conscious mind
  • Sleep is an important part of our biological (circadian) rhythm which in turn affects the nervous system, enzymes, hormones, mineral metabolism, cell, muscle and organ function, blood pressure, urinary excretion, temperature, digestion, vision and physical appearance.

 

Nancy Beckham is a qualified naturopath, herbalist, homoeopath, yoga teacher and horticulturist. She is the co-author of Tired of not Sleeping? (WHAS Pty Ltd) and the author of Rejuvenation (Universal WellBeing).

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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