Unlocking the Secrets of Sleep

Written by Madge Leeson, age 18

One of life’s most inimitable feelings, the moment that you’re consumed by sleep. The sensation of your eyes drooping, unable to keep them open as your thoughts of the daytime dissipate, drifting into a deep slumber.

The Importance of Sleep

Sleep is one of the few shared experiences between all of humanity, with the average person spending one-third of their lifetime asleep; Sleep is one of the indispensable requirements of the human body, it is essential for both physical and mental well-being with a variety of functions that contribute to overall health.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased risk for chronic diseases and it can affect clarity of mind causing short-term and long-term memory issues. So, despite the body’s critical need for sleep, it is not uncommon for people to struggle to fall asleep or to maintain a restful sleep throughout the night – it would be nice if we could sink into sleep as soon as our head hits the pillow but

The Struggle to Fall Asleep

At some point or other, we have all been there. You have done everything right, got into bed on time, drawn a hot bath, stayed away from your phone or blue light-producing devices, and instead swapped it for a book, and despite feeling completely ready to submit yourself to the moment of sleep you find your mind awake, preoccupied with thoughts, sleep is nothing but elusive and your brain is sent into overdrive.

Once the day’s preoccupations are no longer, the busy mind is free from distraction and suddenly the filter for all those thoughts is drawn back like a curtain, flooding the mind.

In the world of sleep science, the time it takes for you to fall asleep is referred to as sleep latency, this term describes how long it takes for you to go from being fully awake at lights out to fully asleep – you should have a sleep latency of around 10-20 minutes, a guideline states that taking 40-60 minutes to get to sleep is an indicator of poor sleep in all age groups. Once that curtain is drawn back, and the mind is no longer relaxed, a person’s sleep latency increases.

Historical Sleeping Patterns

Most people will experience periods of sleeplessness at some point in their life, if you look back to Victorian sleeping habits this is evident, where they would typically sleep for around five hours then wake back up and use their time for cleaning, reading, or other household chores before settling down for a second round of sleep, a sleeping pattern known as a biphasic sleep pattern. However, this may not be favourable nowadays, So, whether you are having a rough period of sleep or struggling with insomnia, the following suggestions might prove useful; to help you fall asleep quicker…

Techniques to Aid Falling Asleep

1. The Traditional Counting Method

We can probably all recall at some point in our lifetimes being told to count sheep to help us fall asleep; and although we may deem this as a child-like method, it is in fact one which can help attain the conditions conducive to sleep, winding down the mind. The number becomes the object of focus for the mind and without effort, the repetition of the slow unwinding counting simultaneously unwinds the mind. Begin at 1,000 and begin counting backwards, it may help to mentally visualize the number as you go down, and if the mind tries to think, return to the counting.

2. The Military Two-Minute Method

This method comes from a book in 1981 and has recently been popularized through the attention it has gained via social media. The method was tested by navy pilots, surrounded by loud sounds, and dosed up on caffeine, and after 6 weeks of practicing, 96% said they were able to fall asleep in under two minutes. The aim of the military method is to calm the mind, clear the mind and relax both the body and breath by going through a progressive relaxation.

3. Breathing Exercises

Another way to help yourself fall asleep is breathing exercises which focus on helping the body to feel more relaxed, they may help you fall asleep faster and into a deeper sleep, but they may also improve the body’s production of melatonin (an important sleep hormone).

4. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

This technique involves focusing on tensing and then relaxing your muscles in sequence. Developed by Dr Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s as a form of deep muscle relaxation. It was originally intended to help people manage stress and anxiety and was then found to be useful to help people relax and sleep.

Beginning at either your head or your toes, begin by tensing the area of muscle for 5-15 seconds, then release your muscles whilst breathing out gently. Allow yourself up to 30 seconds to relax and release the tension then move on to the next set of muscles in sequence. E.g., from top to bottom to bottom to top. This technique aims to help you release tension from every part of your body, allowing you to relax enough to fall asleep.

Natural Sleep Promoters: Herbs

Alongside these active techniques to help you drift off quicker, it may be helpful to incorporate natural sleep promoters. Some natural herbs can induce sleep by reducing anxiety levels or supporting psychological changes and physiological changes such as relaxing muscles and slowing your heart rate to enhance sleep.

So, how do you use herbs for sleep?

You can add them into your night-time routine through herbal teas or adding the essential oils to a warm bath, putting a drop of herbal oil on your palms, or rubbing them into other parts of the body or spreading them around the room by putting them into a diffuser.

Herbs to Aid Sleep

1. Lavender

The antidepressant, sedative and calming properties of lavender can help relax your nerves, reduce anxiety levels, and stabilize mood disorders.

2. Chamomile

The ancient medicinal herb chamomile is known for its relaxing effects, it reduces anxiety, soothes your nerves, and eases insomnia.

3. Valerian

Valerian is a great herb to decrease your sleep latency, the valerianic acid in the valerian roots inhibits the breakdown of the neurotransmitter GABA, inducing better quality sleep.

4. Ashwagandha

Ashwagandha is another herb proven to decrease your sleep latency, the greatest sleep-promoting compounds are found in the leaves of this plant, and it works to eliminate feelings of stress or anxiety, induce calmness, and help you fall asleep easily.

5. Passionflower

Passionflower Is a herb that contains nerve relaxing flavonoids which help you to de-stress and sleep better as well.

In conclusion

So whether you are experiencing the odd nights of sleeplessness or weeks’ worth, incorporating some of the above suggestions may prove helpful.