Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, so sleep, when it becomes elusive, seems a very precious thing. So it was that I misunderstood a Bible passage 20 years ago, caught in the grip of insomnia and moving rapidly toward a nervous breakdown. It was one night while trying to go to sleep that I read a promise in the Psalms: “…so He gives His beloved sleep.” In my rest-deprived state, I thought God was calling sleep itself a beloved thing. It certainly is a blessing. With four small children and a strung-out, exhausted body, I had come to understand that sleep is not a right but a privilege. As far as God calling it “beloved,” however, I was mistaken.
He was referring to me as “Beloved,” as well as anyone else who might have ears to hear, telling us that He wants us to enjoys restful sleep, and so it is that He gave the first part of the verse: “It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows.” Day after day of dragging yourself out of bed too early, staying up too late, and continually chewing over your problems and concerns will eventually put you in a state where you can’t go to sleep when you want to or, if you do, you can’t stay asleep more than half the night.
It was four years ago that my hormone doctor first told me, “You need to be in bed by ten o’clock.” And that means with the light out, settled down. How slow I have been to learn this! And I’m still learning: The later I go to bed, the harder it is to go to sleep and the sooner I will wake up. Yet getting to sleep before 10:00, I might sleep eight hours.
Several alternative health practitioners have told me some interesting things about sleep patterns. If you find you wake up between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m. on a regular basis, it often means your liver is bogged down and sluggish and that you would benefit from a liver cleanse or a supplement like dandelion root or milk thistle (silymarin). Waking between 3:00 and 5:00 consistently may mean adrenal problems.
For people prone to hypoglycemia, blood sugar dropping too low in the night can be a cause for wakefulness. I usually have a snack before bed. If I wake up in the night and feel I won’t be able to go right back to sleep, I get up and eat again. Avoid sweets, even fruits, for these snacks: aim to include three components: a complex carb, a healthy fat, and a good source of protein. That can be as simple as a half a piece of whole-grain toast spread with peanut butter or another nut butter. A rice cake or two, buttered (or not) with a piece of white cheese (avoid those fake orange colourings!) is another simple choice.
Before I have a snack though, I always have a glass of water with some sea salt in it. Adequate salt is important in regulating sleep, and if you’ve been under stress your adrenals may be fatigued and not controlling your salt levels properly.
For menopausal women, sleeplessness may be as simple as too-low levels of progesterone; then again, if it’s hot flashes and night sweats that are waking you up, you may also need some estrogen. With all the factors in our environment that are upsetting our hormonal balance, with or without menopause, we are fortunate in this day to have the option of hormone analysis and bio-identical hormone replacement treatment.
Over 50 years ago when my brother John was about four, he went through a time of sleep-walking. One particular night, when my parents were having a cocktail party, he crept downstairs to the edge of the living room, sound asleep. Then to the shock of the unsuspecting guests, he let out a war-whoop, hurtled into the room, and went springing from chair to chair. There were several doctors there in addition to my father: their consensus was that John needed a calcium supplement. Sure enough, that soon got him sleeping soundly through the night.
Calcium certainly is key for restful sleep, but we also need ample magnesium and Vitamin D with it. Interestingly, when we’re stressed, our calcium and magnesium levels drop. Then, ironically, when we’re deficient in calcium and magnesium, the body tends to get stuck in flight-or-fight mode, perpetrating the stress.
Make sure your bedroom is completely dark (or drape a dark cloth over your eyes), to enable your body to produce melatonin. And try taking a melatonin supplement.
Lying awake can be awfully frustrating, but don’t go there. To lie quietly, not with resignation so much as relinquishment, is a much healthier way to pass the time. Try praying. And even if you don’t believe in God, spend the time in peaceful, grateful reflection. As the psalmist said, commune with your own heart upon your bed.