Insomnia & Memory: Don’t Forget to Get 8 Hours of Sleep!

While recently going through some of my seemingly endless stacks of papers, I came across an article I clipped out of Newsweek about a year ago. The subject is sleep and memory and it had some interesting information about how sleep affects our ability to remember things. Since the dominant theme of my posts for the past 6 weeks has been about sleep related issues it seemed like a good idea to share the highlights of this article with you as well.

According to this article, when you are asleep (the time your body is supposed to be resting and recovering), your brain (the organ that directs you to sleep in the first place) is extraordinarily active. And much of that activity helps the brain to learn, remember and forge new connections to enforce that learning and the formation of memory.

Apparently we all have several different types of memory –including declarative (retrievable, fact-based information), episodic (events from your life), and procedural (how to do something)– and researchers have designed ways to test each one of them. Experiences we have that become memories are laid down first in the hippocampus, obliterating whatever is underneath. If a memory is to be retained, it must be shipped from the hippocampus to a place where it will endure –the neocortex, the wrinkled outer layer of the brain where higher thinking takes place. Unlike the hippocampus, the neocortex is a master at weaving the old with the new. And partly because it keeps incoming information at bay, sleep is the best time for the “undistracted” hippocampus to shuttle memories to the neo cortex, and for the neocortex to link them to related memories.

You can think of it as your brain trying to squeeze in some extra practice time while you’re asleep –bringing some truth to the old adage “sleep on it.” It’s not just memory that’s improved by sleep. Recent studies indicate that sleep not only helps store facts, it also helps make connections between them. Some sleep researchers believe that for every 2 hours we’re awake, the brain needs an hour of sleep to figure out what all these experiences mean, and that sleep pays a crucial role in constructing the meaning our lives come to hold as a result.

Sleep deprivation experiments have shown that a tired brain has a difficult time capturing memories of all sorts. But the most interesting finding revealed in this article is that sleep deprivation is more likely to cause us to forget information associated with positive emotion than information linked to negative emotion! This could explain, at least in part, why sleep deprivation can trigger depression in some people: memories tainted with negative emotions are more likely than positive ones to “stick” in the sleep-deprived brain. All the more reason to get a good night’s rest!

Aromatherapy Tips for Using Essential Oils to Cure Insomnia

Now that you know which essential oils are best for helping you get to sleep and stay asleep, the next question is what’s the best way to use these oils? Well there are a couple of ways you can do this. As with any type of aromatherapy, the two primary ways to use essential oils are via direct inhalation and topical application (usually massage).

When it comes to using aromatherapy for stress and sleeplessness, the most effective way to use the essential oils is via inhalation using some kind of diffuser. Place 5-15 drops of your preferred essential oil or “sleep” blend in a diffuser and run it in your bedroom for 15 minutes before retiring. If you have a nebulizing diffuser with a built-in timer you can set it to run for 5 minutes every hour through the night but the drawback of this type of diffuser is it can be noisy which is not conducive to helping you get to sleep!

Another type of diffuser is the fan-based type like our SpaScenter Diffuser, which is a low-noise unit with variable settings that can be hooked up to a timer. Or for a totally silent diffuser, you can use a low-heat plug-in like our ScentBall Plug-in Diffuser that can be safely left on all night.

You can also add a few drops of an essential oil or your “sleep” blend to a cup of Epsom salts or baking soda and add to a hot bath before bed. In the absence of an aromatherapy massage, a hot bath with Epsom Salts is recommended because it relieves muscle tension that can otherwise lead to a lot of tossing and turning during the night. With the essential oils added to the mix you can get the same inhalation benefit you’d get from a diffuser without the hassle and potential noise of running one through out the night.

Of course, if you’re prone to waking up in the middle of the night then having a diffuser running intermittently throughout the night is probably your best bet. If you don’t have a diffuser then a really easy alternative is to place a drop or two on a handkerchief or cotton pad that you place under your pillow, or dilute approximately 15 drops of essential oil with a tablespoon of carrier oil (either jojoba, olive, safflower, coconut, or even canola will work) and rub a small amount onto your chest where you’ll be able to inhale and smell the blend. Before applying essential oils to your skin, be sure to conduct a patch test first to make sure you’re not allergic to any of them.

Always remember not to overdo it with essential oils – a little goes a long way. Too much can have the opposite effect of the intended result. Refer to our Guidelines for Using Essential Oils for more on this.

The Best Essential Oils for Relieving Stress and Insomnia

Essential oils can play a valuable role in managing or relieving your stress and can help you induce a state of calm for a restful sleep. The trick is to find the right combination of oils that resonate with you, and then the best way or ways to use them for maximum benefit.

Let’s start by look at which essential oils have calming, soothing, and sedative properties that can be used alone or combined for even greater impact. Of course the first ones that immediately come to mind are Lavender, Chamomile, Geranium, Clary Sage, Cedarwood and Sandalwood.

Next up are citrus essential oils like Sweet Orange, Lemon, Bergamot, Petitgrain, Grapefruit, Tangerine, Mandarin, and Lime. While these oils are generally stimulating and uplifting, when used in small quantities and properly combined with other essential oils, they can do wonders for your state of mind, and state of mind is really what it’s all about when it comes to relaxing and falling asleep!

Other essential oils that are also useful in this area are Marjoram (Sweet or Spanish), which is a muscle relaxant, Fir Balsam, Spruce, Peru Balsam, and Melissa, all of which calm and balance the nervous system and assist with opening your breathing passages – enabling deeper breathing. And last but not least, Frankincense & Myrrh, which are often used to assist with meditation.

That’s a lot of essential oils I just listed! The key is to find three to five oils that work together and create a blend. If you’re not that into experimenting or don’t have access to a wide selection of essential oils, then start with individual notes and see how each makes you feel. Keep a notebook handy and record which ones and how much they helped. Then after you’ve identified a handful of oils that seem to work on their own, you can try combining them. Of course you can always try our Sleep Ease Diffuser Blend, which combines Tangerine, Lavender, Pine, Marjoram, Fir Balsam and Petitgrain, as a starting point.

Herbal Remedies & Amino Acids: Effective Natural Solutions for

Unless you shop the aisles at natural foods and supplement stores, when it comes to choosing or taking supplements most of you are probably unaware of the vast selection of herbs and amino acids available to address your health concerns.

Herbal sleep aids can come in the form of capsules, tinctures, tea bags or loose dried herb that can be used to make infusions – similar to, though slightly more potent than using tea bags. The most common ones used for relaxation and inducing sleep are Valerian Root, Passionflower, Skullcap, Chamomile, Lavender, Hops, and sometimes even Spearmint or Catnip. Rather than cause heavy sedation like Rx meds, most herbal remedies simply produce a calming effect that can assist in clearing the mind and reducing stress. They work fairly quickly, so you should know within 2-3 nights if the product you’ve chosen is the right one for you.

Valerian works by calming the nerves and relaxing the muscles, but it can have a stimulating effect in some people. Some natural sleep aids may have other side effects like morning grogginess or disturbing dreams. This is more often a problem with the dose rather than the nutrient itself. Lower the dose to minimize side effects. Also, it’s always best to take these products before going to bed rather than the middle of the night after not being able to sleep, or upon waking and not being able to go back to sleep. Actual response time varies from product to product and person-to-person, so a good rule of thumb is to use a natural sleep aid for 10 days to help regulate your body’s sleep cycle and then go off it.

Another overlooked natural solution to stress reduction and insomnia is amino acid supplementation. Amino acids like L-Tryptophan, L-Theanine, GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), and Melatonin can greatly assist with sleep irregularities. L-Tryptophan creates Serotonin, one of the brain’s four key mood regulators, which in turn is converted into Melatonin – the amino acid that regulates your natural circadian rhythms and helps you sleep.

GABA is the brain’s natural calming agent, which prevents neurons from firing too many messages from the brain to other parts of the body. When combined with ingredients like low-dose Melatonin, it can help your body de-stress and wind down in preparation for a good night’s sleep. While Melatonin supplements can be helpful for shifting your body back into a regular rhythm, start with a low dose like 1 mg rather than the typical 3 mg doses they are sold in, and don’t over use it

L-Theanine is another important amino acid in this category – the amino responsible for green tea’s health benefits and helps create a “relaxed yet alert state of mind.” It encourages relaxing alpha wave production, even protecting the brain somewhat against the stimulant effect of caffeine. It can increase dopamine, modulate serotonin, and help raise levels of GABA (the brain’s natural calming agent), easing anxiety-induced insomnia without the grogginess.

Amino acid supplements usually come in a pill or capsule form.

Magnesium & Vitamin B: Supplements for Easing Stress-Related Insomnia

Experts say magnesium helps ward off sleeping problems at the cellular level by regulating and balancing the flow of calcium in and out of cells. A diet deficient in magnesium can cause a lot of symptoms like stress, low energy, fatigue, anxiety, headaches, muscle tension, cramps, irritability, and the inability to sleep. This is partly due to the fact that Magnesium controls the channels that allow calcium to flow in and out of a cell (which, in turn, controls the cell’s movement from active to resting state). Without sufficient nutritional magnesium, the cells cannot fully close the channels and calcium leaks into the cells. This is much like leaving a light switch half on. The current is still flowing, but the light is never fully off. In the body, with the cells never fully able to rest, this results in stress.

Most of us (75%) don’t consume enough daily amounts of this vital mineral. But You can address this problem by eating foods naturally high in magnesium like raw almonds and cashews, dates, brown rice, sardines, steamed shrimp, cheddar cheese, and roasted turkey. For a variety of reasons, including foods grown in mineral depleted soils, farming methods that don’t create nutrient-dense produce, and our consumption of processed foods, we simply don’t get enough magnesium in our diets, so taking it in supplement form can really help.

Increasing your consumption of B-complex vitamins and various antioxidants can also ward off stress and sleepless nights. Another supplement you can try is Lactium – a milk-derived protein that’s been clinically shown to promote restful sleep in individuals with moderate anxiety or depression, or who show high reactions to stress-related events.

More Natural Solutions for Insomnia: Reduce Physical Stress with Massage

If your stress is physical (i.e. chronic pain due to injury or illness), some of the methods listed above like Hatha or Iyengar yoga and deep breathing can help. But if you have an acute case or suffer from chronic pain you might consider getting a regular massage and consulting a naturopathic doctor for alternative solutions for pain management.

Extensive research on the use of massage therapy in the treatment of specific medical conditions by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) among others, has demonstrated a wide variety of benefits including: reduced swelling and pain, improved immune system function, better sleep patterns, lower levels of stress hormones, improved mobility and range of motion after injury, lower levels of depression, faster recovery from surgery, and in some cases lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

Muscle tension, stiffness, and soreness are often the result of overuse, strain or injury, compounded by inadequate blood flow (which is required to provide oxygen and nutrients to the tissue), and the build up of cellular and metabolic wastes like lactic acid due to the insufficient flow or movement of lymph fluid (the body’s primary mechanism for waste transport and elimination). Chronic muscle tension can reduce the circulation of blood and movement of lymph in the areas of the body where it is prevalent.

The physical contraction of muscles accomplished via various massage techniques stretches the muscles and connective tissue surrounding them, stimulates nerve receptors which in turn dilate blood vessels enabling increased blood supply, and creates a pumping effect that gets lymph moving. So the first job of a massage is to release the tension and the build up of toxins in the muscle, the second is to stimulate the movement of lymph to “cleanse” the muscles by carrying the toxins away, and the third is to stimulate blood circulation to nourish and regenerate tissue. The other benefits naturally follow from the increased movement of fluid and muscles that were previously stuck.

There’s nothing quite like the euphoric sense of peace and relaxation one experiences after a really good massage. Heck, even an average massage can make you feel like a new person if you were feeling like hell before you indulged. The release you experience from it can definitely help you get some deep restful sleep if it has been evading you!

Natural Solution for Insomnia: Reduce Emotional Stress with Meditation

Meditation is another valuable tool for managing or decreasing your stress. The whole goal of meditation is to calm the mind and free your self from the mental clutter and emotional baggage that can cloud your judgment and perception of the events in your life. With the hectic pace of everyday life, it’s easy to lose touch with who we fundamentally are, what matters to us most, and sometimes even the source of our discontent. You can think of it as “unplugging” yourself in order to create some space and distance to regain perception.

A lot of people think that meditation is hard to do and can’t imagine carving out a long stretch of time where they are doing basically nothing. But it’s in the “being” not the “doing” we can re-connect with ourselves and tap into our intuition. That’s where the answers within us lie, but before we can access them we have to quiet down and eliminate all the distracting noises in our heads. It’s also the best way to achieve the peace of mind that you need to get a restful sleep.

Meditation can take on a lot of different forms and doesn’t necessarily have to take a long time. You can take a class or find a good CD with guided meditations to help you get in the right frame of mind and begin practicing how to let go. One of my favorites is a box set by Sharon Salzberg called (fittingly) Unplug. It has 2 CDs with guided meditations, a companion guidebook and 32 contemplation cards. You can get a copy at Amazon.com.

Other favorites are meditation CDs from Shakti Gawain, author of Creative Visualization and Living In the Light. For some free, guided meditations you can download try Debbie Ford’s site at http://www.debbieford.com/index.php?cPath=14_20#meditations. For a larger selection you can purchase and download try Audible.com.

Visualization Technique for Mastering Deep Breathing

If you have difficulty getting started with deep breathing then try the following visualization technique:

Close your eyes and imagine that inside the pit of your stomach there is a deflated rubber balloon. As you inhale slowly through your nose imagine the balloon starting to fill up with air and see it expanding inside your stomach as your belly expands. Then as you slowly exhale out of your mouth, imagine the balloon deflating as your belly contracts, until it’s back in a flaccid resting state. Now repeat. Each time you begin to inhale, imagine the balloon getting bigger as it fills with air, pushing out against the insides of your rib cage. As you get into a rhythm and find this easier to do imagine the balloon also getting taller and expanding upwards. Do this as many times as you can (at least 6 or 8 in a row to start).

With consistent repetition you will find it easier and easier to do this until eventually taking long slow deep breaths will be almost second nature to you. Once you get to this point then you can take the ritual even further. Now follow this convention:

Inhale slowly through your nose to the count of 5 (or whatever number feels most comfortable to you). Hold the breath for a count of 20 (or 4 times whatever your initial count was), then slowly exhale through your mouth to the count of 10 (or double whatever your initial count was). So the pattern is: Initial Inhalation Count=X; Hold for 4X Initial Count; Release for 2X Initial Count. Do this 10 consecutive times and repeat the whole sequence at least twice a day (once in the morning and once at night, and if possible sometime during the day).

You can use this technique to help you quickly recover from a bout of anxiety or emotional distress and change your brain chemistry to induce a state of balance and calm. And you don’t have to lie down to do it either. Of course, doing this routine regularly will also help with sleeplessness or insomnia associated with stress.

Natural Solutions for Insomnia: Practice Deep Breathing

As I mentioned in my last post on practicing yoga for stress relief and insomnia, focus on the breath and breathing are an important part of the package. But you don’t have to do yoga to learn how to practice deep breathing or experience its health benefits.

With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. It’s easy to learn, can be practiced almost anywhere, and provides a quick way to get your stress levels in check. Deep breathing is the cornerstone of many other relaxation practices, too, and can be combined with other relaxing elements such as aromatherapy and soothing music. All you really need is a few minutes and a place to stretch out.

Most of us are never taught to breath deeply so we tend to take shallow breaths using the top part of our lungs – often inhaling and exhaling from our mouths. This way of breathing puts a strain on your throat and voice when you speak or sing, and more importantly it deprives the brain from the oxygen it needs to perform optimally. So not only can it slow you down, it can cause you to feel fatigued or even winded.

The first step in developing a deep breathing practice or ritual is to bring awareness to your breath and notice how you breathe. Deep breathing starts in your belly. As you lay down in a comfortable spot, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Inhale slowly through your nose and notice which hand is rising up – the one on your chest or the one on your stomach? It should be the one on your stomach and as you slowly exhale out of your mouth, the same hand should move down while the one on your chest hardly moves. This is the correct way to do it.

Natural Solutions for Insomnia: Reduce Emotional Stress with Yoga

While you can’t avoid all stress, you CAN counteract its negative effects by learning how to put your mind and body into a state of relaxation one that counteracts what’s known as the stress response. The stress response floods your body with hormones (mainly adrenaline and cortisol) that prepare you for “fight or flight.” While this biological stress response is helpful in a real emergency situation where you have to be alert or quickly escape an imminent danger, it wears your body down and eventually makes you sick when its constantly being activated.

Moving into a relaxed state brings your body (and ultimately your mind) back into balance: deepening your breathing, reducing the flood of stress hormones, slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure, and relaxing your muscles. One of the best ways to reduce stress and learn how to quickly shift into a state of relaxation is by practicing yoga.

Yoga can be considered a mind-body type of complementary and alternative medicine practice with many health benefits. It brings together physical and mental disciplines to achieve peacefulness of body and mind, helping you relax and manage stress and anxiety.

Yoga has many styles, forms and intensities. Hatha yoga, in particular, may be a good choice for stress management. Hatha is one of the most common styles of yoga, and some beginners find it easier to practice because of its slower pace and easier movements. A more advanced offshoot of Hatha called Iyengar yoga offers the opportunity to go deeper with your practice. Both these types of yoga consist of a series of poses or postures (sometimes referred to as asanas) and controlled breathing exercises (sometimes referred to as pranayama) that force you to focus your attention on long steady movements and your breath. Through visualizations you are able to stretch your arms, legs, hips, thighs, shoulders, neck and back in ways that open your joints and release the tension in your muscles caused by stress and poor posture. By focusing your breath, you are able to calm your mind and achieve a deep state of peace and relaxation.

Over time, you’ll be able to lengthen your breath effortlessly, both on the mat and off. This lengthening of the breath, especially on exhalations, lowers your heart rate and encourages a switch in your autonomic nervous system from the flight or fight response (sympathetic nervous system) to a state of relaxation (parasympathetic nervous system). Eventually your body learns to make the shift more readily and you’ll spend more time with a balanced autonomic nervous system and less time caught up feeling the anxiety of the flight or fight response that was dominating the show before.

Most people can benefit from any style of yoga — it’s all about your personal preferences. But if relaxation and stress relief are what you’re after then power yoga like Ashtanga or Bikram with their intense poses and focus on fitness, are not the best choices.

Since injuries can happen when yoga is practiced incorrectly, it’s best to learn by attending group classes or hiring a private teacher. Once you’ve learned the basics, you can practice alone or with others, tailoring your practice as you see fit.

Stress experts generally recommend setting aside at least 10 to 20 minutes a day for your relaxation practice. If you’d like to get even more stress relief, aim for 30 minutes to an hour. That’s why yoga is a perfect choice. And a regular yoga practice will do wonders for insomnia or other stress-related sleep issues. Namaste!