Person wearing striped black and white pajamas wears a matching eye mask and holds a white pillow against an orange backdrop

REGENERATION – Dreamscapes

In Search of Sleep

By Kristin Condon

Like two-thirds of the population, I need sleep and have trouble getting it. The lack of sleep is such a problem in developed countries that the World Health Organization has deemed it an epidemic. And yet sleeplessness continues to be an ingrained and even celebrated part of our culture.

That is soon to change, however. We are about to start hearing even more about sleep over the next few years, and it’s critical because sleep affects almost all facets of human health. Get ready for a cultural shift that celebrates sleep. At least that’s what neuroscientist Matt Walker, Ph.D., is aiming for in his book “Why We Sleep” (Scribner, Reprint Edition, June 2019) who writes, “A balanced diet and exercise are of vital importance, yes. But we now see sleep as the pre-eminent force in this health trinity.”

For me, sleeplessness, sometimes merited as productivity, was normal. My mom worked as a nurse, somehow managing to make her three kids think she was a full-time mom by working odd hours. My dad, a biochemist, regularly worked 80 hours a week. Sleep was not something they valued. They couldn’t.

Other important habits of health I got in spades, namely nutrition and activity. They were way ahead of their time with small organic farming. My mom introduced me to yoga, and my dad keeps up his martial arts practice to this day. I was lucky to have incredible examples that helped me form great habits in nutrition and movement from early childhood.

However, a few years ago, I realized something major was missing. My persistent anxiety and hormonal symptoms continued even after years of experimenting, adjusting nutrition, getting acupuncture and trying numerous other recommended remedies. Then it dawned on me (pun intended): Sleep, in quality and quantity, was what was missing.

My husband is part of the lucky third of the population that sleeps well. I admit to unjustly judging him for his superb sleep. Secretly, I felt somewhat superior to him for my early hours. The joke’s on me, though. Turns out that despite my pretty stellar record of eating and exercising, he will most likely live longer and better.

Two years ago, I embarked on a more conscious journey toward good sleep. Like lots of good intentions, it began with a New Year’s resolution. When I told people, they thought I was ridiculous — I live in New York City, after all, the city that never sleeps. Like fitness and nutrition, sleep is a lifestyle, a habit, and there’s no foolproof formula. It’s highly individual: Genetics, environment, health and lifestyle all play a role.

Here are a few things I have tried over the years that work. Perhaps, they will inspire you to feel more empowered in your own quest for good sleep and great health.

Nutrition

In my on-going experiment with sleep and nutrition, there are three things that reliably help me.

A tablespoon of magnesium powder is scooped into a glass of water

Magnesium

Magnesium helps relax muscles and calm the nervous system. “Magnesium can help increase GABA, a neurotransmitter that improves sleep and reduces anxiety,” Nora Minno, RD, says. “Magnesium can be found in a variety of plant-based foods, including legumes, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, quinoa and avocado.”

A glass of water and pills on a bedside table next to a person sleeping

5-HTP

5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) was recommended to me by a doctor several years ago, and it has helped tremendously. It increases the production of serotonin, which plays an important role in combating sleeplessness, depression and even appetite suppression.

An empty white latte mug with dregs of espresso on a black counter

Limiting Caffeine

Obvious and self-explanatory, I bring it up because the coffee culture is huge, and while it powers industry and art alike, it’s not helping millions of Americans get their necessary zzz’s, I write as I take another sip of delicious joe. When I limit caffeine in my diet, I sleep better, but I love coffee! I fail in this department almost every day, but I will keep trying. I’m never going to cut out caffeine completely, but I have switched to half-decaf, and I try not to consume caffeine after noon.

Movement and Ritual

The “morning ritual” is much discussed and even obsessed over by thought leaders and anyone wanting to work and live more effectively and consciously. But some would say your morning begins the night before. With so many distractions, the art of winding down is becoming ever more important. I fell in love a long time ago with the morning ritual, but I agree with experts that the nighttime ritual could be even more important and, possibly, more fun. This is where you can get creative.

A person runs towards the viewer on a nature trail with trees and grass

Exercise

Recently, I discovered that both overtraining and undertraining can impact the quality of sleep. I now go for balance every day and throughout the week—pushing myself one or two days only and making sure I get at least one day when my movement is very low impact, like cleaning the house.

An assortment of pink and white foam rollers and massage balls

Myofascial Release

After my toilette, I use a foam roller for myofascial release. In a small study for fibromyalgia, it was found that myofascial release can improve sleep with results seeming to accumulate as time went on. OK, some wouldn’t consider this “fun” because it can be painful, but think of it as self-massage!

A person lays down on their bed with legs resting on the adjacent wall

Legs Up the Wall

A Harvard study found that yoga significantly improved sleep in participants when practiced consistently. Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose (Viparita Karani) is wonderful for relieving anxiety and stress and inducing relaxation. As a yoga teacher, this is my favorite pose for sleep, and I practice it nightly. Similar to myofascial release, it may help induce sleep by relieving tension in the body, specifically the lower back, abdomen and hamstrings.

This gives new depth and meaning to the familiar phrase “put your feet up.” And if your bed is pushed against a wall or your headboard is high enough for this pose, the best part is that after relaxing in the pose for five minutes or more, you’re already in bed!

An assortment of candles and a diffuser on a bedstand

Essential Oils

I have been using high-grade therapeutic oils for years, and my husband and I love them, especially at bedtime. “When I have had stressful days, I put a few drops of lavender or cedarwood on the balls of my feet,” says Claire D’Andrea, RN, an integrative nurse coach from the Pacific Pearl health center in La Jolla, California. “You can also put lavender on your pillow or diffuse through the room before retiring.”

A person sleeps while wearing a black eye mask, underneath grey bedcovers in a brightly lit room

Eye Mask

Light has profound effects on sleep, and it has been linked to the disruption of the “sleep hormone” melatonin, which signals to the body that it is time to go night-night. My blackout shades help but don’t completely prevent light coming in from the street. So I wear a silk eye mask. Silk is kinder to my skin and makes me feel luxurious and happy. Those are good feelings to have before drifting off. Like I said, find fun in your personal rituals.

I have barely scratched the surface of sleep, but I hope I have provided a bit of inspiration and some ideas to empower you to take some steps to improve your sleep. As with any lifestyle change, consult your physician, and remember, progress is what is important. There is no such thing as perfect sleep, unless of course you are my husband.

I’ll take a closer look at technology and sleep in a follow-on article. Now stop reading this and go get some shut-eye. Good night and sweet dreams.

Video credit: dualstock, Getty Images
Photo credit: Jet Cat Studio, Adobe Stock; Casimiro, Getty Images; demaerre, Getty Images; evilbeau, Adobe Stock; lzf, Adobe Stock; mvjustina, Getty Images; tommaso79, Getty Images; Leonid, Adobe Stock; Zinkevych, Getty Images

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Author

Kristin Condon

Kristin Condon is a NYC- based yoga and meditation teacher, actor, producer and writer. She is the host of the podcast Women Crush Weekly sharing diverse women's stories to create unity and community and empower all women-- available wherever you get your podcasts. She lives in Brooklyn with her writer/editor husband and their old Australian Cattle Dog.

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