As Naturopathic Doctors, we are taught how the natural cycles in and around us impact our health. This includes everything from the solar seasons and the lunar calendar, to our daily circadian rhythm (our sleep-wake cycle), and the ebb and flow of our own hormones. It is the belief in many ancient cultures and traditional medicines that have honoured the Earth for millennia that disease can arise when we become disconnected and fall out of sync with these rhythms.
Tonya Francis, from Pictou Landing First Nation, is constantly learning from her elders. With rituals like full moon water ceremonies and sweat lodge ceremonies, her elders teach the importance of honouring and learning from the natural world.
“In indigenous cultures, there is a belief that everything has a spirit,” explains Tonya. “The trees, the grandfathers (rocks), plants, ocean or water, grandfather sun, grandmother moon, mother earth herself. Everything in nature that is natural and pre-existing has a spirit. We honour each by giving thanks each day we are blessed to wake up, for mother earth allowing us to live on her one more day. Walking in nature, at times you can feel the earth below your feet, the strength from the trees, the life that continues to grow around us.”
It seems painfully ironic that, in a world where we are technologically connected more than ever, we have never been so disconnected from our natural environment, and therefore, from ourselves. This sense of disconnect and being “out of rhythm” has become very apparent with the patients I see, especially when it comes to one of the most important aspects of our health: sleep.
The World Health Organization has declared sleep loss an epidemic, with the numbers tripling since the start of the pandemic. One third of North Americans reported suffering from chronic insomnia, with 67% struggling, at least once a week, with chronic stress. This has now become the number-one cause of poor sleep.
The research is unequivocal. The cyclical pattern of stress and sleep loss is making us sick. Chronic insomnia is associated with cognitive difficulties (memory loss, brain fog, and difficulty concentrating), anxiety and depression, poor work performance, decreased quality of life, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and obesity.
Old idioms like, “Sleep on it – you’ll feel better in the morning,” suggest that sleep is not just for rest. Amongst other things, sleep plays an integral role in our immune systems, in our ability to heal from injury and reduce inflammation, energy, and moods and hormone regulation. With stress being multi-factorial in its origin, it would seem to make sense that treatment options consider the whole person and try to get to the root of the problem.
Other causes and possible treatment options for insomnia are outside the scope of this article. If you are worried about lack of sleep and/or poor-quality sleep here are a few suggestions to talk about with your healthcare provider. These are the sleep recommendations I share with my patients:
Clean up your sleep habits
Much focus and attention must be given to sleep hygiene. How and what we do to prepare for sleep in the evenings. Interestingly, research shows that our morning routine may have an even greater impact on how well we sleep at night. Naturopathic Doctor Catherine Darley from The Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine in Seattle recommends using bright-light therapy for at least 20 minutes within one hour of waking in the morning. This can be done with exposure to natural light, but on dark and overcast mornings, Dr. Darley recommends using a light therapy lamp at 10,000 LUX.
The Vitamin D test
Ensure adequate amounts of a high-quality Vitamin D supplement in the morning with your breakfast. Vitamin D has both a direct and an indirect role in the regulation of sleep. Current research has shown that most Canadians are deficient in Vitamin D even after getting plenty of sun exposure in the summer months. The only way to know if you are taking enough Vitamin D is to have your blood levels tested. To see where your levels are, ask your healthcare provider to run a test called 25-hydroxyvitamin D, or 25(OH)D.
Light pollution (this includes bright lights in our homes, outside our bedroom window, and other sources of blue-light like from our electronic devices), interfere with our natural sleep-wake cycle by decreasing our body’s natural production of melatonin. Melatonin is essential not only for falling asleep but getting into the deep stages of sleep that are imperative to every aspect of our health.
Dr. Darley, ND, recommends keeping the lights in our homes dimly lit in the evening, avoiding screen time for at least two hours before bed, and, if not able to do this, wearing blue-light omitting glasses one to two hours before bedtime to allow melatonin to increase. Supplementing with melatonin can also be very effective, but dosing and timing are unique to each individual and should be discussed with your healthcare provider before starting.
Even during these coldest months of the year here in Nova Scotia, we need to remind ourselves that we are slowly moving back towards the sun. With ever-so-slightly longer minutes of daylight spreading into the sometimes-seemingly unending darkness, now is the time to be mindful of the sunrise and sunset of each day. Setting aside a few minutes of the morning and evening to stand in wonder as the Earth rotates towards or away from the sun is a powerful way to connect to the great and mysterious rhythms of life.