The thalamus acts as a relay for information from the senses to the cerebral cortex (the covering of the brain that interprets and processes information from short- to long-term memory). During most stages of sleep, the thalamus becomes quiet, letting you tune out the external world. But during REM sleep, the thalamus is active, sending the cortex images, sounds, and other sensations that fill our dreams.
You toss and turn, trying to fall asleep, watching the minutes tick toward morning on your bedside clock. Does this scenario sound familiar? Do yourself a favor: Hide the clock. Constantly checking the time only increases your stress, making it harder to turn down the dial on your nervous system and fall asleep. “If you stare at the clock, it increases your stress and worry about not falling asleep,” says Meltzer.
We tend to think of sleep as a time when the mind and body shut down. But this is not the case; sleep is an active period in which a lot of important processing, restoration, and strengthening occurs. Exactly how this happens and why our bodies are programmed for such a long period of slumber is still somewhat of a mystery. But scientists do understand some of sleep's critical functions, and the reasons we need it for optimal health and wellbeing.
Valerian root is a plant with roots that contain many healing properties, in particular for a relaxation and sedative effects. It’s often found in combination with chamomile in a tea. By increasing the amount of gamma aminobutryic acid (GABA), it helps calm the nerve cells in the brain, resulting in a calming effect. GABA works by blocking brain signals that cause anxiety and that ongoing trickle effect that can come from it. This calming effect has made it a favorite natural remedy for anxiety too. (9)
Are you physically uncomfortable? A too soft or too firm mattress, an uncomfortable pillow, or an older, worn-out bed can all impede a good night’s sleep. Check your mattress for signs of wear at least twice a year, and consider new pillows. You may also want to see an osteopathic physician who specializes in osteopathic manipulative therapy. A session or two of this safe and effective sleep aid treatment can be life-changing.
Now that you know how much sleep you need—and if you've allowed your body to pay back your sleep debt and "find" its natural sleep patterns and duration—you are probably also feeling a lot better, sharper, happier, and healthier. This is how it feels to be well rested. The next step is to make sure that you continue to make sleep a priority and find ways to protect your sleep time.
You can take one step per day to improve your sleep. Below are suggestions for what to work on each day for 30 days. It's not necessary for it all to unfold in an orderly manner: you may find that you need to take longer on one particular task, and conversely, you may be able to breeze by recommendations that are irrelevant to you. Personalize the plan to fit your needs and your situation as best as you can, and allow flexibility in the process.
Try “belly breathing.” Controlled, deep breathing is simply a way to direct your mind away from thoughts that might keep you awake. If you find your mind racing as you lie down to go to sleep, place a hand on your belly and breathe in deeply through your nose — so deeply that can feel the air filling your abdomen. Hold it for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth. Breathe mindfully like this for a few minutes, just trying to focus your attention on the rising and falling of your belly as you inhale and exhale. If your mind starts to wander, just bring it back to your breathing. The more often you practice this relaxation technique, the easier and more effective it will be.