Sleep ought to be a welcome respite from the cares and frantic pace of the day but never has it been more neglected in human history than in our modern age.
The invention of the electric light bulb brought us one step closer to the manipulation and ultimate domination of nature, but at what cost? In a culture that celebrates the perpetual doer, it has created a perfect scenario in which daytime can be prolonged for as long as our packed schedules require it to be.
In his book, Healing Night: The Science And Spirit Of Sleeping, Dreaming And Awakening, Rubin R. Naiman paints a romantic scene of dusk as experienced in a bygone era.
"In times past, human activity naturally downshifted as dusk signaled the approach of night. There was no rush to get home since most people were already there. A majority of Americans were still living and working in rural areas. As daylight gradually receded, the winds would quiet, and the rhythmic chirp of crickets and night birds began as all things darkened, cooled, and slowed.
Evening activities occurred in a much gentler, dimmer light and were usually relaxing and restful. Dinnertime depended less on the clock and more on the season, on nature's timing. Rather than watching television, catching up on work, drinking, and being entertained, people made a slow and easy transition toward sleep."
The seemingly mythical beings depicted above were, in fact, made up of most of the same genetic building blocks as we are. Times may have changed but we have not. Acute and chronic sleep loss still trigger HPA axis dysregulation which is itself a key factor in any chronic disease process. Relinquishing the desire to remain active right up until bedtime is, therefore, still a necessity no matter where society decides to place it on the list of priorities for optimal health.
I am not suggesting that we dispense with the trappings of modern living so that we can live exactly as our ancestors did.
What I propose is the use of technology in ways that serve our wellbeing and the elimination of habits and gizmos that do not.
Let there be little or no light. Blue light (from artificial lighting, digital alarm clocks and computer/television/tablet/phone screens) is known to suppress melatonin. The inverse relationship between melatonin and cortisol helps regulate the body’s natural rhythms governing sleep and wakefulness (or circadian rhythms). Melatonin rises as night - and cortisol - fall and aids effortless and restorative sleep. It, therefore, has an indispensable role in orchestrating the perfect conditions for the upkeep and repair of practically every system in the body. As day breaks, melatonin falls while cortisol is gradually elevated throughout the day to support wakefulness and alertness. Consider getting dimmers for the lights in your home for use after sunset. For even greater benefits, replace your bulbs with red spectrum ones - and dim them. I also recommend Blublocker glasses after sunset but only to mitigate the effects of artificial light on melatonin production - not as a means to use light-emitting electronic media late into the night. Minimise - or, better still, avoid - the use of such media at least two to three hours before bed. Cover digital clocks or get rid of them altogether. Use blackout shades on windows and wear an eye mask when you sleep for good measure.
Oscillate between periods of rest and activity. These are known as ultradian rhythms and it is extremely vital that they are observed periodically throughout the day. One cannot suddenly attain a state of zen-like somnolence come bedtime, having spent the better part of the day in an endless loop of activity and stimulation. Taking 20-minute rest or play breaks for every 90 minutes of work or activity is a good rule of thumb. You could also use breathing techniques in the Feldenkrais Method® or work with a Sounder Sleep™ practitioner in your area to further hone ultradian rhythmicity. This will, in turn, support the entrainment of circadian rhythms as described above.
Remove all forms of stimulation. Make your bedroom a sacred space where nothing happens besides sleep and sex. Simply surrounding oneself with a phone, television and engrossing books (without ever using, watching or reading them) is enough to scupper attempts to truly relax. Heated discussions or activities like workouts are also best avoided at least one hour before bed.
Keep noise to a minimum. Earplugs and/or a white-noise machine are especially helpful if your bedroom faces a busy street.
The above list is not exhaustive but is certainly as good a place to start as any.