May 12-18 is National Women’s Health Week, coordinated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. At Ageology, we like to give equal attention to the health of both genders, but this week we have an excuse to focus on women.
One health issue women of every age experience more than men: insomnia. According to a briefing by the Society for Women’s Health Research, women are 1.4 times as likely to report insomnia than men. Thirty-five to 40 percent of menopausal women have sleep problems. Because sleep problems impact health in multiple ways – increasing risk of obesity, stroke, heart disease, and high blood pressure, in addition to raising risk of death due to all causes – this is a crucial piece of the puzzle of optimal health.
Few things can cramp one’s style as quickly and intensely as lack of quality sleep. Fortunately, poor sleep is one of the easiest things to remedy with the right information and an intention to make a few simple lifestyle shifts and take a few self-care steps. Our next three blog posts focus on exactly that.
One in 10 American adults suffers from insomnia. If you’re one of them, start your path to better sleep with this simple advice.
Are you one of the 35 million or so American adults dealing with sleep problems? If so, I encourage you to look at the big picture…to be exact, a picture of the entire planet Earth.
Most of us have seen pictures of Earth viewed from outer space. But have you ever seen a picture of the earth at night? What you’ll see right away are regions – the east and west coasts of the United States especially, along with most of Europe and parts of Asia – all lit up, like vast carpets strewn with Christmas lights.
We humans don’t pay much mind to the fact that the sun has set. We’re active and wide awake well into the night – indeed, we have some of our biggest fun after sunset, with the help of electric lighting and glowing screens. Certainly we are the only creature on Earth that has managed to so effectively rebel against this aspect of Mother Nature’s plan.
In trying to override these natural rhythms of light and dark, modern human beings are paying a price: loss of precious hours of restorative, rejuvenating sleep.
For most of our history on this planet, humans have been in darkness for at least a few hours each day (with notable exceptions at the far ends of the Earth, where days and nights can be 24 hours long – but those places aren’t exactly hospitable to human life). Over the millennia, our bodies developed a specific response to darkness that works something like a natural sleeping pill: melatonin production in the pineal gland, a small endocrine organ situated right in the region of what yogic traditions call the “third eye”.
Melatonin release is the body’s cue to relax and sink into slumber; it entrains our biological clock. Light at night blunts its release. This includes every light source from the brightest (computer screens right near the eyes, bright indoor lighting) to the dimmest (even the glow of a bedside digital clock is enough to reduce melatonin production).
The first step to promoting better sleep is to let night be night. As much as is realistic, schedule sleep to concur with hours of darkness. This will mean more sleep in winter and less in summer for many of us, and that’s a natural and healthy rhythm that matches what we evolved for.
Keep evening light to a minimum. Don’t watch glowing screens within an hour or so of going to bed, and keep your bedroom as dark as possible when you go in for your night’s rest. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex only – don’t watch television or read in bed. This will not only help melatonin production, but will also ‘train’ your body and mind to respond appropriately to being in the bedroom (i.e., by becoming sleepy).
Melatonin is useful as a supplement for some people. If you try it, choose a sublingual (under-the-tongue) variety that passes right into the bloodstream. Use it only occasionally, as there is some evidence that supplemental melatonin can reduce the body’s production of this all-important hormone. It is most useful when jet lag is the reason for sleeplessness – it can be used to ‘reset’ the body’s circadian rhythms to align with a new time zone.