Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of the Gerson Institute’s quarterly newsletter, Healing News.
We focus a lot on nutrition and how the food we eat impacts our health and effects healing, but today we’re going to focus on another key component to health and healing: sleep.
While sleeping well is essential for everyone’s well-being, it is especially important for Gerson Therapy patients, who may need more than the standard 7-9 hours. Rest is a vital part of the therapy. Without adequate rest, the body does not have the energy it needs to heal. It’s good to remember that food is medicine – but I think we’ve all felt the healing power of a good night’s sleep, too!
During my first two years of graduate school, I probably only slept about six hours a night on average, but there were many especially painful days when I tried to function on just three or four hours.
I’m not alone. A 2013 Gallup poll found that Americans sleep an average of 6.8 hours a night, similar to numbers from the 1990s, but far less sleep than Americans got in 1974 when the Gallup poll found the average American sleeping 7.9 hours per night. Unfortunately, a lack of sleep – and especially chronic sleep deprivation – has serious health consequences.
First, sleep is incredibly important for optimal mental processing. While we sleep, our neurons get a chance to rest, and the brain actually constructs new neural pathways, which is why sleep is so important for learning new information. If you’ve felt groggy from too little sleep, you’ve experienced the obvious impact of serious sleep deprivation on your mental alertness. New studies, however, suggest that mild chronic sleep deprivation can also have a serious impact on certain mental functions, especially in the areas of creativity and innovation.
There is also growing evidence of a connection between adequate sleep and mental health. Although the exact nature of the relationship is still being explored, psychiatrists at Harvard suggest “a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability.” A lack of sleep is also associated with greater risk for depression and other serious psychiatric conditions.
Getting enough sleep is also important for our physical health. While we sleep, our bodies produce cytokines and other antibodies that are pivotal to our immune system’s ability to fight off dangerous bacteria and viruses. In addition to directly affecting our ability to protect ourselves against infectious disease, chronic sleep deprivation is associated with increased risk of numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, diabetes, as well as heart attack and stroke.
Finally, sleep actually ends up relating to our health through nutrition, as how much we sleep may have an important impact on what we decide to eat. Studies have found that sleep deprivation increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while at the same time decreasing the hormone leptin (which lets your brain know you’ve had enough to eat) and increasing ghrelin (an appetite stimulant). Thus, getting more sleep may be an important factor in helping you make healthier eating choices.
As I consciously began focusing on getting at least eight hours of sleep a night, I noticed significant changes in my mood and my ability to regulate my emotions. Everything really does seem better after a good night’s sleep.
If you already get your 7-9 hours a night without fail, congratulations! Keep up the good work. If you don’t, here are some helpful hints that I used to work on setting and maintaining a healthier sleep regime.
6 Tips for Getting More Sleep
1. Make sleep a priority
Simply deciding that getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night is going to be one of your health priorities can go a long way. Resist putting work or household chores – or even a good book – ahead of sleep.
2. Develop a sleep routine
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on the weekends. Studies suggest that going to sleep at 10 pm and waking up at 6 am works the best with our body’s natural rhythms.
Developing a ritual that you follow each night before going to sleep (e.g. journaling, reading, paced breathing, and drinking chamomile tea) can also help prepare your body for rest.
3. Make the bed a “sleep only” space
Sometimes it is easy to convert your bed into an all-purpose area – especially if you live in a small apartment. Eating in bed, watching TV in bed, or even working in bed can make it more difficult for you to sleep at night.
4. Avoid eating and exercise within three hours of going to sleep
This can be hard for night owls, but it is important to remember that eating and exercise both get your body energized, not ready for a good night’s sleep. Although regular exercise can make it easier for you to sleep eventually, you should make sure to leave your body plenty of time to wind down afterwards.
5. Turn off the lights (and devices)
Make sure that the area where you sleep is dark and quiet (although if you live in a noisy neighborhood, a white noise machine can be helpful). The hormone melatonin is produced in total darkness, and the longer you stay in the dark, the more melatonin the pineal gland produces. Melatonin regulates our sleep and wake cycles, destroys free radicals, suppresses the development of breast cancer, increases the immune system’s killer lymphocytes and more. Some people use black-out shades or eye masks to block out light when they sleep and/or turn off or move anything out of the room that emits even dim light in their bedroom (e.g. LED lights in TVs, clocks or night lights). If you need a night light, a dim red light is the best choice. [LINK TO SOURCE 6]
Additionally, the blue wavelength light emitted from TVs, computer screens and cell phones suppresses melatonin production more than other wavelengths, so it is wise to avoid exposure to them 2-3 hours before bedtime. That means no more falling asleep in front of the TV! However, exposing your eyes to lots of bright natural light during the day can help you sleep better at night.
6. Listen to your body – and get rid of the alarm clock!
After starting to get into a sleep routine, see if your body can awaken on time naturally, without the help of an alarm clock. (Maybe try this out on the weekend first, though!) Listening to your body is the best measure of whether you’re getting sufficient rest.