One of my favorite lines from Shakespeare's MacBeth is when MacBeth declares that he "hath murdered sleep" after killing the king (in his sleep) in order to take the throne for himself.
"(I) hath murdered sleep, and therefore … shall sleep no more."
The guilt of committing murder overwhelms MacBeth so much that he will forever have sleepless nights. Sleep is a major theme in this classic story as his co-conspirator – Lady MacBeth, sleepwalks throughout much of the story, washing the imaginary blood from her hands.
MacBeth even characterizes sleep as the "chief nourisher in life’s feast."
In today's real world, millions of Americans are also "murdering sleep" due to the stresses of our current lifestyle, and the fact that we do not make good sleep health a significant theme in our own life’s story. Like MacBeth, we murder sleep in favor of our professional and personal gains, or to just keep up with life's demands.
Many of us are compelled to trade sleep for more productive hours of "awake time," but quality sleep can be as crucial to our health as proper nutrition and exercise.
National Sleep Awareness Week is right around the corner - March 11-17. This would be an ideal time for all of us to examine closely our sleep patterns, bedtime rituals and evening activities that affect the quality of our sleep.
Several studies have revealed that a lack of quality sleep can increase the risk of developing obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Insufficient sleep routines over time can also shorten lifespan.[i]
- More specifically, when we are not getting enough sleep, the "chemical messages" that tell our brain that we are full become off-kilter, causing us to overeat and gain weight. Poor quality sleep also disrupts the release of insulin in our bodies, thus raising our blood sugar levels and hence, our likelihood of type 2 diabetes.
- Sleep deprivation – especially if we are averaging less than five hours per night – increases blood pressure as well as levels of chemicals associated with inflammation, and both of these afflictions contribute to heart disease.
- In our daily lives, poor quality sleep can have a profound impact on our short- and long-term memory, as well as our ability to concentrate, problem-solve and be creative. Improper rest also causes drowsiness, poor balance and lack of coordination during the day, which increases the risk of car accidents and injuries in the work place.[ii]
There are some "sensible solutions" according to the National Sleep Foundation that can greatly improve sleep health. Using your five senses as your guide, you can develop positive behaviors and bedtime rituals that can boost the quality of your sleep and make it the "chief nourisher" in your life!
It is preferable that you do not eat after 8:00 PM, but if you do, you should snack lightly on foods with the amino acid tryptophan (which promotes the creation of serotonin – a chemical that makes you sleepy). Tryptophan can be found in several proteins, such as milk, eggs, red meat, fish, and poultry. Avoid eating fried, fatty or spicy foods that upset your stomach before bedtime, and refrain from caffeine drinks after mid-afternoon.[iii]
Pleasing scents in your bedroom can have a calming effect on the brain and the rest of the body. Lavender, for example, has been proven to reduce heart rate and blood pressure, thus putting you in a more relaxed mood. Using fragrant candles and oils can help you drift more easily into sleep and even influence your dreams more positively.[iv]
We have all seen our share of sitcoms and cartoons in which a character's sleep is continuously disrupted by noise pollution. It makes for many laughs, but when our own sleep is affected by disturbing noises, it causes us to wake, shift sleep stages and even experience changes in heart rate and blood pressure. Introducing "white noise" to your bedroom can significantly enhance sleep quality. White noise can be defined as soothing, consistent sounds like a fan or air purifier, and its effectiveness can even offset disruptive sounds coming from inside or outside of the house. Many of us like to watch TV in bed, but the continually changing noises, tones, and volume levels can impact sleep quality, not to mention force you to wake up to turn it off. For best results, keep the TV out of your room or turn it off before you start your bedtime routine. Same goes for your smart phone and all other electronics.[v]
Your bedroom's temperature is an essential factor affecting sleep health. If your room is too hot or cold, your body works harder while you are sleeping to maintain proper temperatures. Air quality, the comfort of your pajamas, mattress, sheets, and pillows also play a big part. Make sure your room is not too humid, and there is proper ventilation. Choose a breathable cotton fabric so that you do not overheat, and check to see if you are using a mattress made from materials that trap heat. Click here for tips on sourcing mattresses.[vi]
Any artificial light can stimulate alertness and energy in the brain. This includes TVs, electronic devices, and even a room light. Darkness, on the other hand, is essential for sleep. The absence of light in your bedroom sends critical messages to the body that it is time for rest. It promotes the sleep hormone melatonin. Therefore, it is helpful to keep all artificial light off in your bedroom during the bedtime ritual and use darkening curtains or shades to block out any outside light.[vii]
Using your five senses as a guide for healthier sleep routines will influence your circadian rhythm or "sleep-wake cycle." It is like a 24-hour clock that runs inside your brain telling you when you are alert and when you are tired.
If you are getting enough quality sleep – between 7 and 9 hours per day – your circadian rhythm will operate on normal cycles so that you are focused and energized during the day, and relaxed and restful during the night.