Restless, I rolled over for the hundredth time, and opened my eyes to the clock numbers on my cell phone staring back at me, unblinking and unforgiving. 3:31 am. If I get to sleep exactly now, I thought, I will get two hours and forty-four minutes of sleep tonight.
I’ve always been a light sleeper, but this tendency to toss and turn all night was new. For most people, the occasional sleepless night is inevitable. When we’re stressed or excited – the night before an important work presentation or an early-morning flight – it can be hard to get enough shut-eye. That’s normal. If you’re prone to more frequent episodes of sleeplessness, you’re not alone. An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, and along with the obvious consequences – mental fog, reduced productivity, drowsiness – restless nights can contribute to chronic disease (hypertension, diabetes, and depression); lack of sleep has even been linked to cancer.
A range of sleep disorders exist, and some may require pharmaceutical or surgical intervention to correct. For more minor conditions, over-the-counter sleeping pills might help, but for those looking for a natural and lasting fix, we have to get to the root of the problem. What’s driving our sleepless nights?
On a recent trip to the jungles of Northern Guatemala, my sleep problems disappeared, and it dawned on me just how unnaturally we all live. In our sprawling modern-day cities, we spend most of our time indoors under artificial lights, with temperature-controlled air pumping in to keep us comfortable. We stare at screens all day, eat things so processed they hardly even resemble food, and hardly exercise. We’re a workaholic nation, and our stress levels are intolerable. So how do we fix it without turning to medication?
Pack your bag and book a flight. You need to spend a night in the jungle. I’m kidding, but only sort of. I’ve traveled to, lived in, and worked in rainforests around the globe, from Borneo to Costa Rica, and as anyone who has spent a night in the wilderness will tell you, out there, you sleep like a log. If we take the same principles, the rules of the rainforest, and apply them at home, we can improve our sleep habits one tiny change at a time.
Rainforest dwellings are often open- air structures designed to take advantage of gentle ocean breezes and cooling rains (while still keeping you dry, of course). With no barriers between you and the outdoors, you spend 24 hours of every day breathing oxygen-rich rainforest air.
At home: Set a half hour aside every day to get outside. If weather allows, open a bedroom window at night to boost your oxygen intake while you sleep.
On the equator, the sun rises and sets at roughly the same time year-round. In the morning, the jungle greets the dawn with a chorus of birdsong and cicada thrum – nature’s alarm clock. At night, with limited solar energy available and no WiFi or television to entertain, lights out happens earlier. Early to bed, early to rise.
At home: Keep a consistent routine, even on weekends. An hour before bed, put on your pajamas, brew a warm cup of herbal tea, and relax with a book. Leave electronics and work outside the bedroom, and dim the lights to allow your brain time to wind down.
When the closest town is over an hour away along a bumpy, pitted, potholed road, most eco-lodges grow their produce onsite, which means deliciously healthy meals filled with fresh, organic produce, and a noticeable absence of excess sugar and fats. Set meal times ensure there’s no late-night snacking, and early-morning commitments encourage guests to reach for water instead of wine at dinner. Who wants to wake up for a 6:00 am hike with a hangover?
At home: Avoid caffeine after 3:00 pm, and eliminate drinks with dinner – they may be affecting your sleep cycle more than you think. Swap processed meals with fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats. Opt for lighter fare at suppertime, and aim to eat dinner three hours before bed, giving your body time to digest.
After a full day of yoga, hiking, and surfing, it’s blissfully easy to fall asleep when your head touches the pillow.
At home: Blow off some steam by spending more time exercising, aiming for three hours or more of activity throughout the week. In addition to helping you sleep, exercise helps to improve cardiovascular health as well.
When you’re on vacation, you’re removed from your typical day-to-day stressors. On top of that, sunlight has been proven to boost serotonin, the “happy” chemical in the brain, helping to ward off depression and stress.
At home: Practice relaxation techniques to calm your mind throughout the day and before bed. Sama Vritti (equal breathing) is especially effective to help you relax and drift off to sleep. Begin by inhaling through your nose while counting to four, then exhaling through your nose, while once again counting to four. Once you’ve got the basics down, aim for longer intervals, with the eventual goal of inhaling and exhaling for a count of eight each.