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How to: Natural Ways to Enhance Your Quality of Sleep

If you are currently experiencing poor sleep you are not alone.  According to the National Sleep Foundation,  50-70 million people in the US currently report having sleep disorders.  Sleep is often the first thing to go in our routines when we are chasing our dreams or facing challenges when, in fact, sleep is one of the most important foundations to our health. This article will help you recognize the things that disrupt sleep and give you tools that can increase the quality of sleep you experience.


Is Sleep Really That Important?

YES!  High quality sleep is imperative for brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to modify its connections and rewire itself.  Skimping on high-quality sleep will disable our brain’s ability to process information we have received throughout the day.  High quality sleep also promotes the removal of waste products from brain cells, which happens less efficiently when we are awake.

Sleep is not only vital to the brain, but it also helps every other process of the body as well.  Sleep plays a role in our overall health and when we lose sleep symptoms such as depression, seizures, high blood pressure, heart disease, and migraines worsen.


Is All Sleep Created Equal?

No!  Research has shown that it is not only the time spent in bed “asleep” that matters, it is also important to cycle through each stage of sleep.  The stages of sleep perform different repair tasks in the body and mind.  Researchers have identified two basic types of sleep:  rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep which has three separate stages.  These are the stages of sleep and their functions:

Stage 1 non-REM sleep is the stage where we go from being fully awake to asleep.  This period lasts only several minutes.  During this time, heartbeat, breathing, eye movements, and brain waves begin to slow down.

4 stages of sleep nrem stage 1

Stage 2 non-REM sleep is a period of light sleep before you enter deep sleep.  Your heartbeat and breathing slow, and muscles relax even further.  Your body temperature drops and eye movements stop.  Brain wave activity slows but is marked by brief bursts of electrical activity.  This is the stage of sleep we spend the most time in.

stages of sleep nrem stage 2

Stage 3 non-REM sleep is the period of deep sleep that allows us to feel refreshed in the morning.  It occurs in longer periods during the first half of the night.  Your heartbeat and breathing slow to their lowest levels during this stage.  Your muscles are relaxed and it may be difficult to awaken you.  Brain waves become even slower.

4 stages of sleep nrem stage 3

REM sleep first occurs approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep.  Our eyes move rapidly from side to side behind closed eyelids and breathing becomes faster and irregular.  Our heart rates and blood pressure increase to near waking levels.  This is the stage where most of your dreaming occurs.  Our arm and leg muscles become temporarily paralyzed, which prevents us from acting out our dreams.  As we age, we generally spend less time in REM sleep which can affect memory consolidation.

4 stages of sleep rem stage of sleep


Foundations to Sleep

Would you be surprised to notice that the overall state of our bodies affects sleep more than the time we go to bed?  Remember, the quality of sleep is more important than the quantity of sleep.  These are some of the foundational practices that can enhance or stifle our sleep.


Hydration

When we sleep, we experience fluid loss simply by breathing, especially if we breathe through our mouths.  Even mild dehydration before bedtime can affect our ability to get high-quality sleep.  It is best to hydrate throughout the day as to avoid drinking large amounts of fluids right before bedtime.  Drinking right before bedtime can cause some people to wake in the middle of the night with the urge to urinate.


Physical Activity

Many research studies have shown that engaging in physical activity increases high-quality sleep.  While researchers are not fully sure of the mechanism, it is clear that physical activity increases not only the number of hours asleep but also longer times in restorative phases of sleep.


Nutrition

It is no surprise that inadequate nutrition will lead to sleep disturbances.  In particular, one essential nutrient is imperative for high-quality sleep;  essential fatty acids.  Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to cause sleep problems in children as well as sleep apnea in adults.  Lower levels of DHA are also linked to lower levels of the hormone melatonin, which aids in the body in falling asleep.


Stress Management

Finding ways to adequately lower and manage stress is imperative for a host of bodily functions, including sleep.  Check out this blog to find ways to lower your overall stress response, even in the midst of a stressful situation.


Practical Action Steps

Things we do in the hours before bedtime will impact the quality of sleep we experience.  These healthy sleep habits will ensure you get high quality, restorative sleep.


Create a safe sleep space.

This space is intended only for relaxation and sleep.  Having a TV, iPad or phone in this space will tempt you to disrupt your sleep space.  This space should be catered to your personal needs and can include things such as comfort items, books or magazines, essential oils for diffusing, etc.  Check out this list of our favorite sleep space comforts.


Limit screen time before bed

Research has shown that stimulation from blue lights emitted from iPads, iPhones, and TVs can disrupt the sleep-wake cycle and disrupt falling asleep.  We recommend stopping all screens for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours, before bedtime.  A common sleep buster after tossing and turning is to turn on the TV which will only further lower melatonin levels.


Set a bedtime

Consistency of bedtime will help prepare the body to expect sleep at the same time every day.  Our bodily processes have an internal clock called a circadian rhythm.  This rhythm works best when the timing is approximately the same time every day.


Watch the sunset while grounding/earthing.

One thing that triggers melatonin production (the hormone that is responsible for the feeling of being sleepy) is the sun going down.  Earthing is the process in which bare skin is exposed to the natural earth (grass, dirt, etc. on bare feet or hands).  This practice can be combined with watching the sunset for a one-two sleep-enhancing punch.

This research study compared the effects of grounding on sleep found that “Most grounded subjects described symptomatic improvement while most in the control group did not.”  This process works by creating a stable internal bioelectrical environment in the body and regulating biological clocks.

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