by Rubin Naiman, Ph.D.
When I was a little boy and happened not to be feeling well, my mother would routinely ask me three questions. Having grown up in an old-world village, she clung to simpler, traditional views of health, including her folksy health assessment.
Her first question was always: “What did you eat?”
Today, more than ever, we are aware of the impact our diets have upon our health. Despite this, much of the modern world remains overfed, yet simultaneously undernourished. We simply consume too many empty, high-glycemic calories that provide quick energy, but limited nutrition. Such eating habits have been strongly linked to chronic inflammation — the most overlooked issue in our disturbed sleep epidemic.
Inflammation is hot. Chronic inflammation has emerged as a critical factor underlying most major illnesses from diabetes to cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders to depression. It refers to a subtle cellular smoldering caused by a confused and overactive immune system that is actually attacking its own host. This “friendly fire” results in a slight but clinically significant increase in body temperature that can impede sleep.
Chronic inflammation is not just about poor food choices; it’s about a widespread practice of consuming excessive energy. If we broaden our perspective, it becomes evident that in addition to food, we also “consume” light, oxygen, and information — all powerful sources of energy. And in today’s world, all are consumed in excess.
We are unquestionably overexposed to light at night. This not only energizes us, but also results in the suppression of melatonin, a neurohormone that both reduces inflammation and promotes sleep. Some specialists are now raising interesting concerns that we also over-breathe, consuming excessive oxygen that energizes us, but also contributes to inflammation. And who would argue with the fact that we are all inundated with excessive amounts of information? The over-consumption of information results in a unique kind of stress — a form of mental indigestion that can also contribute to inflammation.
The earth is hot. There is a striking parallel between our personal failure to cool at night and global warming. Satellite images of the Earth at night taken over recent decades reveal that the planet is growing measurably brighter with each passing year. Not long ago, Al Gore suggested that our planet has a fever. Global warming clearly results from the same general pattern of excessive energy consumption that contributes to our personal inflammation.
Consuming energy is, of course, a natural and necessary part of healthy life. Problems arise, however, not only when we consume more than we need, but also more than we are able to release or discharge.
My mother’s second question was: “Did you poop?”
If food might serve as a metaphor for all that we consume, then this question is about what we are, in turn, releasing. As a reflection of a broader, common tendency to hold on, it’s not surprising that constipation is also epidemic in our world. Natural, healthy sleep is about letting go. Letting go of the ways of the waking world — letting go of energy.
Sleep is cool. One of the most important yet overlooked features of sleep is that it is strongly linked to a decrease in body temperature. In fact, we are designed to do exactly what the outside world does when the sun goes down. At nightfall, the Earth releases its energy into the atmosphere, continuously drawing temperatures down until the sun returns at dawn. Likewise, our body temperature gradually decreases through the night, reaching its nadir just before we arise, when it returns to its waking levels.
Dreaming is the coolest part of sleep. When body temperature hovers near its depths, dreaming reaches its heights. Dreaming involves a kind of psychological cleansing and renovation that supports our emotional and spiritual health. And we dissipate a lot of heat in the process. Unfortunately, the same forces that interfere with healthy sleep impede our dreams, leaving us at least as dream deprived as we are sleep deprived.
Not surprisingly, my mother’s third question was: “How did you sleep?”
Sleep is a kind of nightly energy fast that encourages the dissipation of heat. Could it be that sleep itself is a potent anti-inflammatory? I believe so. Research has confirmed that compromised sleep impairs our immune function and triggers inflammation. Healthy sleep and dreams keep us cool. Minimizing inflammation will improve our sleep, and improving our sleep will minimize inflammation. Here are eight basic suggestions for doing so:
(1) Eat an anti-inflammatory diet — the kind advocated by Dr. Andrew Weil. Consider reducing your caloric intake and increasing fruits, vegetables and sources of omega 3 fatty acids like salmon.
(2) Get adequate daily exercise, which has many important benefits including both improved sleep quality and reduced inflammatory markers.
(3) Learn to slow your breathing by practicing breathing exercises. The Koran teaches that we are each given a specific number of breaths at birth, suggesting the benefit of slowing our breathing.
(4) Consider an information diet, including a news fast. Instead, enjoy time in nature, a walk or meditate instead.
(5) Cool your body and mind before bed. A warm bath can help drop body temperature. Consider an evening ritual including gentle yoga, as well as relaxation practices such as meditation and breathing exercises.
(6) Optimize your bedroom by keeping it cool, dark and quiet–try 68 degrees or lower (20 degrees Celsius).
(7) Befriend your dreams. Think, speak and write about them. Avoid excessive alcohol and sleeping tablets, which can interfere with dreaming. Remember that good dreaming accompanies good sleep.
(8) Practice letting go — a kind of spiritual cooling. If there is a secret to sleep, it is about learning to surrender our waking ways of being. Incorporate this surrender into personal spiritual, religious or meditation practices you have.
In summary, I am suggesting that we become more mindful of the flow of energy into and out of our lives. Consume less. Let go of more. Be cool.