Why has sleep become so complicated? We’re designed to spend a third of our lives sleeping – it’s something we do naturally and it’s in our DNA, but it has become so medicalised, medicated and measured. I’m speaking at a technology conference this week which is focusing on the measurement of health and no doubt, there will be a number of sleep monitoring devices on show. Undoubtedly, we should care about our sleep: the pace of life is so fast and there are so many relentless demands on our time and energy – we need our sleep to rebalance and restore from the day. But do we really need to turn our bedrooms into sleep laboratories? If this is a process that is so innate, why has it become so unnatural? How have we become so disconnected from our natural rhythms and how can we restore them?
I think the first step to restoring our natural ability to sleep deeply and purely is to question our beliefs, myths and misconceptions about sleep – especially those that are stopping us sleeping. The next step is to reconnect with nature and to follow its wise lead.
5 unhelpful beliefs that could be sabotaging your sleep:
I really need 7 or 8 hours of sleep in order to feel well the next day
No, you don’t. Inflexible beliefs about how much sleep you need can sabotage your sleep. The typical scenario is ‘Sunday night syndrome’ when you can’t get to sleep because you’re worrying about not getting to sleep and how much it might affect you the next day. Human beings are remarkably well adapted to deal with the odd night of bad sleep. If we weren’t, we’d probably be extinct! We have to believe in our resilience and the fact that sleep, vital as it is, isn’t the only way in which we harness our energy. It also comes from how we eat, drink, move, breathe, think and love. It comes from our passions and inspiration.
I need to know the time when I wake up during the night
No, you don’t. Checking the time during the night can keep you awake as you go into calculating and worrying mode. If you’re a good sleeper, then there’s nothing wrong with checking the time but if you’re a sensitive sleeper, registering any data during the night is unhelpful.
I shouldn’t wake during the night!
Yes, you should! And in fact, it was probably once crucial to your survival that you woke up, checked the cave was safe, and then went back to sleep. Again, we’d probably be extinct if we didn’t have this clever in-built survival mechanism. Believe it or not, on average we can wake up as many as 10-15 times a night. Most of the time, it’s a semi-conscious state and we don’t remember waking up, but it’s entirely normal.
My monitoring device told me exactly how much sleep I got last night
No, it didn’t. Unless you’re wired up to over 60 electrodes in a clinical sleep laboratory, it’s impossible to know exactly how much and what type of sleep you’re getting. Often the devices will underestimate how much sleep you’re getting, which just makes you more anxious. This is called pseudoinsomnia. So your device doesn’t measure the sleep that you’re getting when you’re reading a book just before you turn your lights out when your eyes are wide open but nothing’s going in. Or the sleep you get when you’re dozing off while watching a TV programme.
I never go to sleep before midnight
Well, you should. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this phase sleep is vital for rebalancing your adrenals and thyroid glands, so it smoothes out the stress of the day, adrenaline and noradrenaline levels drop off and energy is restored. This sleep is especially healing for sufferers of chronic fatigue, adrenal exhaustion and chronic pain and it sets the pattern for how deeply you’ll sleep as you go through the rest of the night. Beware night owls!
Even trees sleep…
In the natural rhythms of the earth, dormancy is part of the cycle of life. We all need rest. In order to thrive, fields must lie fallow; animals hibernate; day moves into night. All of nature rests and sleeps. Recently, scientists in Austria, Finland and Hungary, using sophisticated infrared laser scanning techniques, have taken pictures of trees sleeping. Their results show that the whole tree droops during night and they measured position changes in leaves of up to 10 cm for trees with a height of about 5 metres.
Recent research has revealed the significant health benefits that come from being in nature, and specifically in forests. Forest bathing – essentially being in the presence of trees – is proven to improve sleep, increase energy levels, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, boost the immune system and improve overall feelings of wellbeing. Essential oils called phytoncide are emitted by wood, plants and some fruit and vegetables to protect themselves from germs and insects. Inhaling these phytoncides helps to improve immune system function – so it’s not just a case of forest air feeling fresher and better, there’s science behind it too.
I used to suffer from severe sleep problems which started when I was a baby. I now sleep beautifully and my annual visit to the Vale de Moses yoga retreat in Portugal has played a major role in the restoration of my ability to sleep naturally and deeply.
Located in the foothills of the Serra de Estrela mountains, one of the largest wild pine forests in Europe, Vale de Moses offers high quality yoga retreats in an exceptional environment. With authenticity at its heart, a traditional, abandoned farmhouse has been transformed into a home and business by hosts Andrew and Vonetta Winter. 10 years ago, they left the UK and moved with their two children to this remote area in search of a more energised and fulfilling lifestyle, which they have successfully shared with guests for the last 5 years. Since their arrival, they’ve added two puppies and a piglet to their family.
For me, apart from the outstanding yoga, healing treatments and Ayurvedic meals, I am able to experience a full immersion in nature and experience true silence interspersed with the meditative sounds of animals, water and the wind through the trees. All of this is vital to rebalancing my nervous system, often jangled from living and working in London and around the world. My shoulders drop, my brow smoothes out, my mind slows down and my heart opens. I put my phone down and remember what is really important…and I sleep deeply. This reconnection with my true nature stays with me until my next visit.