Archive for March, 2012
Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking of sleep. (No it is not always just idle intellectual curiosity.) It represents a third of our lives and it dramatically impacts the remaining 2/3 and our health in general. (And that’s not even touching the dreams and how we can take that for granted -awesome xkcd cartoon on that topic…) Numerous people suffer from a variety of sleep disorders and various forms of insomnia touch just about everyone at one time or another.
From the Plant Bed to Your Bed – Herbal Sleep Remedies
There is no shortage of information on-line on herbs and supplements that folks swear by when trying to sleep – so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on that.
Here are some of the classic herbs used:
- Blue Vervain
- California Poppy
- Lemon Balm
And there are ones that don’t seem to make the “classic” list but really are just as nifty:
- Red Clover
And there are herbs that are good for nervous exhaustion and when you are just too tired to sleep like Milky Oats, Ginseng and Eleuthero. These often work well in blends with the above.
Personally, I’ve been working with a nice sleep blend tea lately that I put together of California Poppy, Lemon Balm, Lavender and Motherwort. It is probably not for everyone since it is a tad bitter and complex in its flavors but it really works wonders for me.
Now there’s a point worth mentioning. Not every herb is good for everyone. Can’t be emphasized enough. Experiment and find what works best for you. Valerian for example is a classic that can have the opposite effect for some folks, like myself, where it just keeps me wide awake. Hops proved another great disappointment for me where it relaxed my body and revved my mind wide awake.
It’s also best to rotate herbs and go off them from time to time. Your body will get used to them, expect them to do its work and/or you’ll find them less effective. I usually fill a small mason jar with my herbal blends and use it until it gone. Then move on to something else the next time I need need help.
It Ain’t What You Do – Assorted Non-Herbal Remedies
There is an almost limitless list of other things you can try as well. Here’s a few I like and have found valuable at different times.
- Don’t eat a couple of hours before bed time
- Foot baths to draw your energy down just before bedtime (regular baths are awesome too!)
- Take a walk before bed time and/or stand barefoot on the earth
- Blocking out lights – less lights the better. Remember to block out all the little electric lights on electronics that lend an unearthly glow to the night. I keep things on power strips which I turn off at night (saves money too!)
- Ear plugs and white noise generators – I’d recommend the latter rather than plugs since ear plugs can be damaging with long term use
- Shifting mode – stop working, watching TV etc. in the hour or so leading up to bed time – instead relax. Read, meditate, light conversation, etc. ease yourself into the move to sleep.
- Electrical – cut down on the active electrical wiring around your bed. Move things around and unplug at night.
And here is one remedy that I have never been desperate enough to try myself from Brother Aloysius: “An excellent remedy for insomnia is to take 1 to 2 raw onions in the evening.”
Maybe that would be good for crying yourself to sleep? 😉
And I don’t need to mention the problems of caffeine and other stimulants and sleep do I? DO I? Don’t make me get out the clue 2 x 4. 🙂
Overall, it is best not to try block out things too much though, or you risk making yourself increasingly sensitive to light, sound, etc. (I’ve seen allergy sufferers do similar things.) There is value in get used to some light, noise, etc. instead of protecting yourself so much that you can not deal with the slightest disturbances. And frankly some times you can press your system down so hard into trying to relax it that it resists and causes the opposite effect. I think of that as bounce back.
Sweet Dreams are made of – Honey!
One of the things that appears in a lot of sleep remedies is honey in combination of things, including one of my old favorites two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar and one of honey in a cup of hot water just before bedtime, but honey by itself can be a remarkable sleep aid. Based on some readings I had done on honey, I experimented for a time with a tablespoon of honey an hour before bed time and was pleasantly surprised by how well it improved the quality of my sleep.
Here’s an except from the Honey Prescription on why that works:
In a lecture and poster presentation at the First International Symposium on Honey and Human Health on January 8, 2008. McInnes described this complex process, which begins with the ingestion of one to two tablespoons of honey in the hour prior to bedtime.
The glucose portion of honey is digested and passes into the general blood circulation, producing a mild glucose spike. This mild elevation in blood sugar causes the pancreas to release a small amount of insulin into the bloodstream. This in turn drives trytophan (an essential amino acid) into the brain, where it is converted into serotonin, a key hormone that promotes relaxation.
McInnes teaches that in darkness, serotonin is converted to melatonin in the pineal gland. (The melatonin signal forms part of the system that regulates the sleep-wake cycle by chemically causing drowsiness and lowering the body’s temperature. McInnes stresses that melatonin inhibits the release of insulin from the pancreas a rapid drop in blood-sugar level.
Liver glycogen, the molecule that functions as the secondary long-term energy storage in animal cells, also plays a role. The liver takes up the fructose from honey, where some is converted to glucose and then to liver glycogen, thus providing the brain with a sustained supply of glucose for the night fast. McInnes maintains that the production of adequate glycogen by the liver can eliminate the release of stress hormones normally released by the adrenal glands to maintain fuel supply to the brain.
Personally, I wouldn’t do it every night, but I did find it worked pretty well and will do it every now and then. The darker and more complex honeys seems to work better that I could see.
Alone in the Dark – The Sleep Cycle Revisited
Now one of the more interesting things about sleep is that we may be thinking of it all wrong. There was an interesting article in the BBC recently on a topic I had heard about before but really want to research more – that our more natural sleeping rhythm may be to sleep for several hours, wake and be active for a while and then have a second sleep for several more hours before starting the day.
In 2001, historian Roger Ekirch of Virginia Tech published a seminal paper, drawn from 16 years of research, revealing a wealth of historical evidence that humans used to sleep in two distinct chunks.
His book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, published four years later, unearths more than 500 references to a segmented sleeping pattern – in diaries, court records, medical books and literature, from Homer’s Odyssey to an anthropological account of modern tribes in Nigeria.
Much like the experience of Wehr’s subjects, these references describe a first sleep which began about two hours after dusk, followed by waking period of one or two hours and then a second sleep.
“It’s not just the number of references – it is the way they refer to it, as if it was common knowledge,” Ekirch says.
During this waking period people were quite active. They often got up, went to the toilet or smoked tobacco and some even visited neighbours. Most people stayed in bed, read, wrote and often prayed. Countless prayer manuals from the late 15th Century offered special prayers for the hours in between sleeps.
He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses – which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.
Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.
This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.
But the majority of doctors still fail to acknowledge that a consolidated eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.
“Over 30% of the medical problems that doctors are faced with stem directly or indirectly from sleep. But sleep has been ignored in medical training and there are very few centres where sleep is studied,” he says.
Jacobs suggests that the waking period between sleeps, when people were forced into periods of rest and relaxation, could have played an important part in the human capacity to regulate stress naturally.
I know that I have often woken up in the middle of the night at pretty consistent times and have long suspected there was something actually natural about that, rather than it being a “problem.”
And to wrap it all up
Sometimes you can do all the right things but things beyond your control will still keep you from sleeping. And there is no shortage of advice on how best to get a full night of sleep and almost all of it right. The problem is almost everyone offering advice presents it as this is what will work. The truth is closer to a sleep version of that great quote by Lincoln
“You can help some of the people sleep all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not help to sleep all of the people all of the time.”
Okay cat, now you’re just rubbing it in!
Books of Note:
- Comfort to the Sick by Brother Aloysius
- Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine by Andres Chevallier
- New Age Herbalist by Richard Mabey
- Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress
- The Honey Prescription by Nathaniel Altman
- The New Holistic Herbal by David Hoffmann
Officially Spring starts tomorrow, but Spring is in in the air – it is so warm and beautiful here in Boston. Most definitely, not a week for serious, or even semi-serious, blogging!
Plus I spent the weekend in Reiki training and had no time for putting together formal posts, but during one of the post initiation meditations I had this pop into my head and I choose to share it for the fun, herby spring like essence it embodies…
If I Could Talk to the Plants
(based on If I Could Talk to the Animals from Doctor Dolittle – apologies to the lyricists…)
If we could talk to the plants, just imagine it
Chatting to a Hawthorn in Hawthornese
Imagine talking to a Cleaver, chatting to a Mugwort
What a neat achievement that would be.
If we could talk to the plants, learn their languages
Maybe take a plant degree.
We’d study Fenugreek and Basil, Butterbur and Nettle,
Schisandra, Shatavari, and Tulsi.
We would converse in Iceland Moss and Saffron,
And we could curse in fluent Feverfew*.
If people asked us, can you speak in Astragalus,
We’d say, “Of courserous, can’t you?”
If we could talk to the plants, learn their languages
Think of all the things we could discuss
If we could walk with the plants, talk with the plants,
Grunt and squeak and squawk with the plants,
And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to us.
Yes, I took a little license here and there but I think I did a pretty spanking job, especially considering it is extremely close to how it appeared whole in my head over the weekend! Or is that a too disturbing insight to how “special” my mind is? 🙂
* I’m betting Feverfew swears like a drunken sailor!
There are several threads that have been weaving in my head which are slowly becoming a pattern I’m working out my thoughts on. One thread is following the current discussions of the Anusara yoga community and John Friend, another is my own experiences as a student of herbalism and various spiritual practices, and my own growing beliefs about teaching, learning and growing along your path be it yoga, herbalism, spiritual or other healing arts.
I believe that there are two primary poles of being a teacher and the sort of paths they form for students. I’d tend to call them Priesthood and Guides. Personally, I tend to prefer, and like working with folks, who favor the later style and have always been less fond of or drawn to those in the first. I don’t condemn the first if that is what works for folks and it does seem to be the strong preference for many people – and, like plants, different people grow better in different environments so it is not always so much a good/bad thing.
The Priesthood (I actually like calling it Guru-centric but that has a stronger implication for most people that is a bit distracting) often has the teacher be the sole focus with the view of knowledge and being centered on and flowing from them. (This all applies to focus on knowledge and spiritual practice as well.) Folks and groups with this orientation tend to be more formalized and hierarchical. They are more concerned with gatekeeping and are drawn to licensing, testing, etc. The communities are often more closed and over time develop increasing standards and organization. Paradoxically, the first wave of folks often enter with very loose standards and diverse backgrounds and strive to make it more difficult for succeeding generations to enter. Too often students and other teachers are seen as competition. All of which I think is pretty stagnating to the health and growth of both the groups and people in them.
The Guides see things as a journey and exploration and themselves more as guides than gatekeepers of wisdom or knowledge. They tend to be more informal with open communities and aren’t as competitive. The view is you can learn from everyone and the more people explore and do things differently the better for all. It is more about exploring and sharing. It doesn’t mean everyone is an equally good and useful as a guide, but instead tries to cultivate greater opportunities for more folks. Admittedly, the free form qualities can be a bit daunting for folks who are more comfortable and grow better with a more formal structure.
(Check list making folks shouldn’t go crazy here because people and groups can have aspects of both. I just find it a useful way for thinking about what I do and don’t like in teachers and groups. And yes it is all a bit broad brush but that’s half the fun of such musings.)
I believe a lot of what we’ve seen in Anusara at the top was very strongly in the Priesthood model (not exactly unique in yoga or spiritual movements mind you – due to the strong influence of their origins) and now we have a number of former members who are trying to cultivate the Guide aspect and find a balance between those two aspects. I find that a really positive direction myself and hope they find a way.
Personally, I find that Guide style folks tend to have more a sense of humor and realness to them that I like. But heck it is hard serious work for the Priesthood folks to keep up that image of being especially knowledgeable and spiritual! 😉 (It is also no surprise that I have a strong affection for some strains of Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Christian Mystics and the Society of Friends/Quakers.)
I prefer it when folks think (when studying with a teacher of any stripe) “I could do that if I work at it”, “They really inspire me to try it myself”, etc. Instead of along the lines of “Oh they are so cool, deep, spiritual, wise, etc.”
But that’s just my own partly formed musing and odd .02 worth.
I finished reading Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress yesterday and then spent the rest of the day marveling at what a great approach it is to teaching herbalism to the beginner as well as inspiring the seasoned herbalist with new insights and approaches.
The first section of the book is appropriately called, the Basics – and it covers that extremely well with chapters on everything from picking herbs to preparing them in just about every common herbal form imaginable (infusions, oils, salves, vinegars, etc.). There are more than a few herbal books out there and considerable more online resources discussing all of that or you may feel you already know all you need to know – so you might be tempted to skip that or skim by without reading with due care.
That would be a mistake. Really!
Because within every part of the book are Henriette’s keen humor and insights which are worth the time spent in a careful read. I chuckled out loud at several points in the book and I can’t recall when I last did that in any beginning herbal book or any herbal book for that matter.
One of the nice details is her sharing of tips, tricks and shortcuts for work with herbs. Most any beginning herbal books will lay out the essentials of how you make a tincture, decoction, etc. But as with anything in life there are sometimes easier ways to do things or problems that pop up that are never mentioned in such books. She shares these useful insights gained from her practice (thus perhaps another aspect to the title “Practical” Herbs!)
The bulk of the book is her take on about two dozen herbs. It may not be an all encompassing encyclopedia of 100s of herbs, but she covers them in better depth than any other book. Many of the plants she talks about are often the backbone of herbal medicine (or should be!) Interspersed throughout are short side bars and one pagers on different conditions and the best way to treat them and informative extra information. For each plant she discusses all the essentials and more including cultivation, habitats, look a like plants, uses, preparation, harvesting, recipes and more. She also includes several great color photos of each plant as well – no poor drawings or blurry photos to be found here!
I really appreciated her ability to step beyond herbalism when the more appropriate solution is found elsewhere. Here’s one of my favorite from the chapter on nettles:
“A word about sex drive, if you do the cooking, laundry, the cleaning, and keep track of the kids where your other half watches sports on the telly, a lack of libido isn’t surprising. Get your partner to do the housework for a week or two, and you’ll get it back. (Your mate might be too tired, though.) See to the basics before you start looking for magic pills or herbs.”
Not only a great truth, and funny, but I appreciate the broader awareness of attending to the basics of one’s health and happiness as being the first place you go when looking for healing. Too often, I’ve seen the trend of treating herbal remedies (wonderful as they are) in exactly the same destructive way as mainstream Western medicines are – magic pills to cover up things but deal with the true underlying problems.
Overall, an excellent book which I’ll be referring to repeatedly over time as a reference or just for the pleasure of looking at old plant friends in new ways.
Sadly you aren’t likely to find it in your local bookstore in the US or at Amazon – but you can buy it directly from the author!