What’s huge and grey and sends people to sleep?
A hypno-potamus!

Unfortunately the magical hypno-potamus cannot visit everyone, and many of us don’t get the sleep we need.

According to a 2006 study by the National Sleep Foundation, about 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders with an additional 20 million people experiencing intermittent sleep-related issues. The most common sleep disorders are insomnia, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. If you think you have any of these sleep disorders, it is important to talk to your health care provider, because some sleep issues can be quite serious. This article will focus mostly on insomnia, or the chronic inability to sleep.

In many cases, insomnia is a symptom of some underlying condition such as stress, anxiety, depression, ADD/ADHD, or physical pains and can be exacerbated in women by hormonal changes associated with menstrual cycles, pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause. In order to provide long-lasting insomnia relief, treatment must address the underlying cause. When no underlying cause is evident, treatment for insomnia aims to reduce sleep disruption as much as possible.

Survival

Even though scientists still do not fully understand everything that occurs while we are asleep, we know that sleep is necessary for survival. Sleep maintains mood, memory and cognitive performance. Unless you do shift work or keep an unusual schedule, humans are likely to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Our internal “clocks” are regulated by hormones (including melatonin and human growth hormone) and are set by the external signals of light and dark. The drive to sleep at night is based on both a 24-hour circadian rhythm and our homeostatic drive, which is the need to sleep based on how much wakefulness we’ve had.

As we age

As we age, our need for sleep changes and our ability to get the sleep we need often becomes a factor. Newborns typically need about 16 hours of sleep every 24 hours. By age six, we need ten hours of sleep and by age 12 about nine hours of sleep. Teenagers often experience “sleep phase delay syndrome” which is a shift in one’s internal clock that leads to staying awake later at night and sleeping later in the morning. Unfortunately, school and other activities start bright and early, so if teens stay up late they are likely missing valuable sleep time. In adulthood, our total sleep requirement averages seven to nine hours depending on the individual.

Medications

Since so many of us have trouble sleeping, there are a plethora of prescription medicines, sleeping potions and lifestyle techniques available. Physicians may prescribe sleeping pills, anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs that can help people sleep. Most conventional over-the-counter sleeping pills use antihistamines as their active ingredient, which depress the central nervous system to make you drowsy. These usually stay in your system for a long time and can cause a “hangover” effect the next morning.

Routines

If you need to improve your sleep, first take a look at your daily routine and sleep environment. Try to take a walk or play outside everyday for a dose of sunlight and some exercise. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants. An evening bath or shower is soothing, and afterwards the body cools slightly, which can help us fall asleep. Practicing relaxation exercises at bedtime can also help you to drift off to sleep. Try breathing deeply and slowly and relaxing small sections of your body from your toes to your head. Make your bedroom a quiet, cozy space with a comfortable supportive bed used exclusively for sleep and sex.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy with essential oils in a bath, infuser or room spray can help soothe, calm and relax us. Try some of the following essential oils, available in the Wellness department, alone or in combination: chamomile, lavender, jasmine, lemon balm, neroli, rose, sandalwood, sweet marjoram, and ylang ylang. Try infused massage oils or balms on acupressure points like the hand (palm facing up, find the juncture where the wrist meets the hand with the thumb of your other hand; rub just below the first crease of the wrist), the face (the spot between your eyebrows, at the juncture of the bridge of your nose and your forehead), or the back of your head (at the indentation at the base of the skull; move outward an inch on both sides of the skull at the hairline).

Food therapy

Eating certain foods can make us sleepy because of the amino acid tryptophan, which our brains convert to serotonin to modulate sleep. Kids and adults can benefit by eating small amounts of the following foods in the evening: almonds, bananas, chamomile tea (or chamomile tincture in water for a stronger effect), flaxseeds, a bit of honey, milk or other dairy, oatmeal, potatoes, turkey, and whole wheat bread.

Natural remedies

At Willy Street Co-op, we have many products designed to help you get more restful sleep. Bach flower essences are useful for treating many types of problems of psychological, emotional or spiritual origin. We sell individual remedies for specific issues as well as the popular blends Rescue Remedy and Rescue Sleep, which act upon our feelings and emotions to bring us into balance and relax our inner chatter. Homeopathic remedies work with the body’s own mechanisms to bring our physical and emotional systems into balance. We have a variety of homeopathic sleep aids including the popular Calms Forte for adults and kids, as well as other blends from different manufacturers. Melatonin is a hormone in us that plays a role in the sleep/wake cycle. Melatonin supplements can be helpful for resuming normal cycles after jet-lag or for shift workers and are only for healthy adults.

Many herbs are traditionally used as sleep aids. Some common herbs for relaxation and sleep are: chamomile, valerian, lavender, catnip, St. John’s wort, passion flower, hops, jasmine, peppermint, kava kava, and sage, as well as many others. At the Co-op we have a variety of pure herbs as liquid tinctures, in bulk, as packaged teas, in capsules and as blends by many different companies, including some local producers.

Please check with your health care provider to make sure that any over-the-counter product, including herbs and other natural remedies, is right for you or your family. Sleep well!

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