How to Sleep Better: Part One

Sleep is an important topic about something every single one of us needs, as it's essential for our survival. I love this definition of health via AZ Ferguson, fitness coach.

"Your health is the key to taking your life to the next level. It's fundamental to everything you do, to who you are right now and who you can be in the future. Without your health, nothing is possible. If only a portion of our health is in place, only a portion of what we're capable of is possible."

Sleep is essential to our health. Yet it's often the first thing we cut back on when we're busy. We think, or rationalize that there's no time to sleep more, and that sleeping takes time away from other things we need to do, or that we'd rather be doing.

In fact, the Center for Disease Control reports that "Insufficient Sleep is A Public Health Epidemic" and contributes to chronic diseases like hypertension, depression, diabetes and obesity. The stakes of poor sleep are huge.

The National Sleep Foundation reports the average American gets just 6.7 hours a night sleep on a weekday. Dr. David Schulman, the Medical directory of the Emory Clinic Sleep labs says, "If you're chronically sleep deprived, you can't tell when you're sleepy. You lose the ability to detect how tired you are." In another study reported in the New York Times, Maggie Jones writes, "In other words, the sleep-deprived among us are lousy judges of our own sleep needs. We are not nearly as sharp as we think we are."  As if that's not enough, people most likely overestimate how much they sleep, as they tend to report the time spent in bed, not time actually spent asleep.

Carving out enough time to sleep is important, but what can you do to optimize your sleep? The following is from the Ayurvedic perspective. It is the science, or knowledge of life that goes hand in hand with your yoga practice.

Sleep better habit number one: Eat an Earlier, Lighter Dinner

We must take a series of actions that starts well before we get into bed to promote a good night's sleep. For most of us, our largest meal is in the evening, at the end of the day. It's cultural, it's habitual, and based on the fact that we're all busy during the day. Dinner has also become often the only time to connect with friends and family.

Especially when I lived in New York, dinner was the time a lot of socializing happened, particularly because many apartment kitchens are small and dining rooms a luxury. BY (Before Yoga), when I worked in corporate America, 3-4 nights a week I'd get to the gym at 6pm, and THEN go meet up at a restaurant around 8pm. By the time I was actually eating it was even 8:30 or 9pm. I'd get home and it was at least 11pm before getting to bed, before an alarm would awaken me around 6am. That's fine, you might think, of seven hours of sleep. It could be on the low end of quantity needed for some, but it's not only the hours we spend asleep, it's also WHAT TIME that sleep takes place, that effects the quality of sleep.

So in the example above there are less than two hours to digest a big, heavy meal (about two courses plus a shared dessert). According to Ayurveda, to digest a meal of this size, our bodies need at least three to four hours.

Eating too late may actually make us feel more awake, when our body is really ready to go to sleep. Eating sugar or drinking caffeinated beverages at ANY time during the day may cause us to miss our body's signals that it's tired. So although we feel may feel awake, at a much deeper level, our bodies are TIRED. Then, when we do go to sleep with a full stomach, a few things happen. Being upright, or vertical after eating allows our digestive system to move in the right direction, which is downwards,. Lying down interferes with optimal digestion and feels uncomfortable. Number two, our body does not have the chance to do the deeper rest and repair that should be taking place while we sleep, especially between the hours of 10pm and 2am, because it's too busy digesting the late dinner. 

Yoga is about awareness. We cultivate the body's awareness on the mat so that we can be clear about causes and effects. So ask yourself, how do you feel in the morning after eating a big meal less than 3 hours before bed. How long does it take to fall asleep? Do you awaken in the middle of the night, or stay asleep? How do you feel in the morning, including your joints, your mood and digestion?  

And next time you know you'll be home for the entire evening, try an experiment. Have your main meal, like your usual dinner, at lunchtime. In the evening, as early as possible, have a lighter dinner, like soup. You might notice you're less hungry for a large meal in the evening when your appetite has been satisfied by a bigger lunch. You don't even have to cook the soup; simply blend some raw or lightly steamed vegetables with bone broth or coconut milk. 

In fact, according to Ayurveda, our digestion is much stronger in the middle of the day, and better able to absorb, assimilate and digest a larger meal. After the lighter dinner, notice how you feel the following morning, the quality of your sleep, and your energy level throughout the day. Making a series of small changes will make a big difference in your health and well being, so begin by eating larger lunches and smaller dinners just once or twice a week. As often as you can on other nights, eat dinner just 15 minutes earlier. And these days, I'm more likely to meet friends for a walk in the park with our dogs, or take a yoga class together, rather than just meeting for dinner. After all, it's really about enjoying the company, not just the food.

Better restMarjorie Nass