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The Art of a Natural Sleep

by Nicole Dorsey Straff

New, natural ways to slip into a deeper, more restorative sleep

If you regularly have trouble dropping off to dreamland, or if you keep waking up and can’t get back to sleep, it may be time to do something about it. Getting inadequate sleep on a regular basis affects your health, memory and mood, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

“You’ll notice personality changes from sleep deprivation fairly quickly, such as difficulty concentrating, much lower energy or decreased productivity at work,” says Dr. Andy Rink, sleep researcher at Stanford University in Northern California. Uninterrupted deep sleep is essential for health and well-being, especially for brain function. “People are surprised to learn the brain has its own unique and efficient waste removal system,” Dr. Rink says. “Your brain must have enough restful sleep so it can carry out its normal detoxification and waste removal processes in order to work efficiently when you wake up.”

And if you are plagued by sleepless nights, the NSF urges you to first rule out certain conditions and medications that may be exacerbating or causing sleeplessness. Talk to your health practitioner if you take medicine for asthma, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, birth control hormones or beta-blockers for heart disease.

“Getting less than seven hours of sleep per night ties directly into other health conditions you’d normally never suspect or link with insomnia or lack of sleep,” suggests Dr. Mark Moyad, director of preventative and alternative medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Some secondary or related health conditions that interfere with your ability to get a better night’s sleep, he says, are obesity and weight gain, depression, lack of libido, menopause and other hormonal issues.

how to get your best rest

Unplug for real

Every sleep expert recommends moving electronics out of the bedroom because unnatural light from a phone or computer hinders production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. “It also creates a fuzzy jet lag feeling that mimics the symptoms of traveling across time zones,” says Dr. David Williams, a chiropractor and sleep specialist in central Texas. If you must surf the net in bed, choose technology that’s illuminated by red lights, better for sleeping than blue lights.

Boost your hormones

Melatonin is a natural hormone your body produces at night and releases into the bloodstream to help regulate your sleep and wake cycles. Much like testosterone and other animal hormones, though, we produce less as we age. “Small doses of supplements may help the timing and drive for sleep and help you get to sleep more easily, but melatonin does not guarantee that you stay asleep or sleep more soundly,” says Janet Lee, a doctor of Oriental medicine and owner of Vim +Vita Integrative Acupuncture in Burbank, CA. Melatonin is often prescribed as a sleep spray to take orally, and may contain other sleep-inducing botanicals like chamomile and lavender. Check with your health care practitioner. Sleep sprays with aromatherapy and functional herbs work for some, and not for others, she says.

Speaking of herbs

The mighty valerian root was first used by the ancient Greeks for a host of medical issues, including nausea and insomnia. The University of Michigan released results last year on double blind clinical trials, which found concentrated valerian extract (600 milligrams, 30 minutes before bed and taken consecutively for 28 days) to be at least as effective as several doctor-prescribed sleep medications. Always check with your doctor first.

Visit a Sleep Spa

In an ancient castle in Portugal, overlooking the Douro Valley’s endlessly rolling hills and vineyards, the Six Senses Resorts and Spa has just debuted the first Six Senses Integrated Wellness Program, dedicated to the art of sleep and holistic living. In the Portuguese tradition, the spacious spa is constructed of water, stone and wood and has 10 treatment rooms, including specialized sleep suites, says Anna Bjurstam, vice president, spas for Six Senses Resorts and Hotels. “We will be rolling out this sleep program to a dozen other Six Senses properties this year,” she says. “We use calming yoga and meditation to aid the sleep process.” The on-site sleep-yoga program employs highly trained “sleep ambassadors” who utilize Ayurveda and other therapies to encourage guests to eat better and exercise more, both of which improve sleep patterns significantly. Hours of daily meditation and yoga practice with pranayama (breath work) will improve your digestion and your mood as well as help regulate your sleeping cycles. Six Senses chefs carefully curate a healthy meal plan, eaten early in the evening to send you off to bed feeling light and relaxed. Expect to eat local ingredients packed with L-tryptophan, an amino acid found in many foods that help lull you to sleep, including poultry, seaweed, soybeans and very dark-colored leafy greens such as watercress and spinach.

Sleep organic and allergy-free

Sleep with comfortable, lightweight organic bedding that breathes on your body. Many insomniacs have allergies to their own down comforters and remain unaware of the correlation, warns the National Sleep Foundation. Finally, sleep on one pillow that supports your head and neck. Give your pillow the bend test: If you bend your pillow in half and it stays in position, it’s too old and floppy to support your head.

Eat to balance your metabolism

Eat more foods with natural melatonin and vitamins that balance your metabolism, suggests Lee. Goji berries, orange bell peppers, walnuts, sour cherries, raspberries, almonds and flaxseed oil are all excellent sources. Lee suggests eating the perfect slow-down snack at least 60 minutes before bed so you digest properly in an upright position. Try oatmeal with goji berries, a large handful of walnuts and cherries, even pretzels and popcorn are good options. If you tend to get reflux, don’t eat within a few hours of going to bed, Lee warns.

Wear this bracelet, you will get very sleepy

Many wristbands and sleep watches are based on acupressure techniques, stimulating the nerves on the inside of the wrist through electrical impulses and adjustable vibrations. (They don’t emit electronic currents or cause any pain or tingling.) A line of “sleep bracelets” developed by Philip Stein and his team of engineers (philipstein.com/technology#Scientific_support) does not require batteries and they are built around the science of “natural frequency technology” associated with relaxation and sleep. Well worth a try, and the bracelets are stunning.

Pay attention to the research

Though research is ongoing and new, many naturopaths recommend acupuncture, tai chi, reiki, reflexology and other methods of self-healing. In her new book, The Sleep Revolution (Harmony Books), Arianna Huffington lays out the latest research, along with a range of recommendations about how we can rest and restore ourselves with a good, sound sleep.

Sleep Stat

The National Sleep Foundation says 48 percent of people who live in the U.S. report insomnia occasionally, while 22 percent experience some level of sleeplessness almost every night.

A Delicious Ayurvedic Elixir

According to Ric Scalzo, CEO, Gaia Herbs, “Golden milk is a traditional Ayurvedic drink that relaxes the body and helps you sleep better at night.” But it can be a bit complicated to mix the ingredients yourself, which is why Gaia Herbs just launched Golden Milk, a powdered organic supplement made with aromatic herbs and spices like turmeric, ashwagandha, cardamon and more.

Traditional Golden Milk

Take one rounded teaspoon and mix it into the warm milk—almond, soy, dairy—of your choice. Or, try the traditional Ayurvedic recipe below. It’s also great for travelers with jet lag. Sweet dreams! gaiaherbs.com

Serves 1

1 teaspoon ghee

1 teaspoon Gaia Herbs Golden Milk

pinch saffron threads (optional)

1 cup milk of your choice

1–2 teaspoons honey, to taste

Place the ghee in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Once melted, whisk in the Golden Milk, saffron and milk. Heat, stirring often, until mixture is quite warm but not boiling. Remove from heat and add honey to taste.

Pour into a cup and drink immediately. —Rona Berg


photo credits: photo courtesy of coco-mat

With four new locations in Manhattan, Coco-Mat, the organic mattress and bedding company, pictured here, is making a splash in the U.S., though it’s been a power player in Greece for over 25 years.

Owned by two bicycle-riding brothers who really walk the talk, Coco-Mat features mattresses layered with natural rubber, coconut fiber, seaweed, cactus and more—but no metal. The layering of the fibers offers enough support and give to replace springs.

At Coco-Mat, the mission is “to bring natural sleep to everyone,” says spokesperson Renee Bellber. Everything including soft and lovely sheets, pillowcases, robes, towels, lavender-filled sachets and mattresses is made by hand in Xanthi, Greece, and the company just became members of the Sustainable Furnishings Council. coco-mat.com

—Rona Berg

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