by Dr. Steven Johnson
Has your sleep changed over the last few years? Does sleep refresh and inspire you? What happens to “you” during sleep? How important are these and similar questions? Hopefully after this short essay you’ll think and feel differently about sleep. Maybe you’ll even adopt a renewed reverence and attitude about sleep.
Depending on what sources you read, about fifty percent of Americans have a form of sleep disorder which affects their mental capacities and potentially compromises their health. As if the stresses of daily life weren’t challenging enough, the modern assault on our senses through polarized media, internet, cell phone dependance, and other technologies have pushed their way into both our day-time and night-time rhythms. Additionally, we’ve experienced a diminishment of “soul breathing” activities: festivals, seasonal activities, resting days, family celebrations, social mealtimes, religious rituals, and many things that used to be part of the normal fabric of our lives. We are more awake now in our external “senses” than at any other time in our earth’s history. The modern nervous system in the western world is on overload and we spend more time in our “fight or flight” responses which lower crucial hormones, increase blood pressure and divert metabolic resources from our vital organs.
A recent John Hopkins study showed that just minimal interruptions of our sleep rhythms (3 days) reduced positive moods by 31% and affected resilience measures and depression scores. In the short term these interruptions were worse than no sleep at all. Increased sympathetic tone (our fight or flight response) can get us into a vicious circle or poor sleep patterns. Good sleep and homeostasis of our bodies requires a balance between our sympathetic andbparasympathetic nervous system. Studies have shown how the covid-19 pandemic has further disturbed this balance and intensified the frequency of sleep disorders.
Each night we have four, 90-120 minute deep-sleep stages which are inter-dispersed with intervals of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep which cycle several times per night. In the deeper stages of sleep and REM sleep, numerous regenerative processes of the body are most active, such as metabolic activities, secretion of growth hormone, and regulation of thyroid and sex hormones. REM sleep is also when our dreaming is most active. Infants spend up to 50% of their day in REM-type sleep which is necessary for tremendous growth and differentiation. If the human body has no REM sleep for more than 10 days, we die from immune collapse (sepsis).
It is fair to say that the regenerative or what we call “etheric” forces in anthroposophic medicine are most active at night, building and regenerating our body (anabolism) and maintaining homeostasis in our organism. Sleep is not a “passive” process! Numerous studies point to significant increases in Diabetes type 2, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and many other chronic diseases after many years of poor sleep hygiene.
Let’s take a look at sleep now from a less materialistic perspective…
Looking at the human being from a fourfold or spiritual scientific perspective, sleep takes on a profound and mysterious character. Rudolf Steiner (founder of Spiritual Science and Anthroposophy) describes that during sleep the human being’s two higher sheaths, the ‘I’ (our spiritual identity) and the ‘astral body’ (consciousness body) separate from our nervous system and physical body. These sheaths also contain the archetype of our living-organism and form the “source” of regulation and balance within our organism. Furthermore, they carry the wisdom of the stars and planets within them and bring this to the lower sheaths of the human being. The lower sheaths are called our etheric (regenerative) body and physical body. These higher sheaths (the I and the astral) also bring back with them from sleep an unconscious memory of our karmic journey through life. Rudolf Steiner suggested that we are guided into this night-time journey by our angel. Depending upon what kind of moral or materialistic thoughts we carry within us, our angel and other higher beings and influences can help us on our journey to grow, mature, and find a creative and meaningful path in life. Perhaps such a picture can help us to trust and let go of our waking day challenges so that higher and wiser beings might guide us forward, leaving us the freedom to evolve towards our highest potential.
It is interesting that in anthroposophic medicine the constitutional picture of chronic inflammation and disease is based on a “situation” where the higher two sheathes (“I” and “astral” bodies) cannot relate properly to our etheric and physical bodies. This leads to an unhealthy state of warmth and metabolism which in modern medical terms we call chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is the general foundation for all chronic diseases mentioned earlier as well as vascular sclerosis, depression, dementia and even cancer. Modern research confirms the connection between sleep disorders and chronic inflammatory disease in study after study.
What are some ideas for improving sleep and improving our relationship with the unconscious starry world we journey into every night? One example is to do a short meditative exercise where you review your day backwards for 5-10 minutes. This is done like a camera taking pictures: your consciousness simply acknowledges impressions, sounds, colors, gestures, and expressions of moments in time as you move backwards through your day. Many people describe that this not only helps them sleep better, but also helps them become more present-minded during the day. They notice becoming more aware of spiritual signs, lessons and insights. Rudolf Steiner described this as working with our guardian angel, who is helping us become more aware of our freedom of choice in every moment.
Good sleep is a behavior that sometimes needs to be practiced. Here are some common practices that may help you develop better sleep hygiene. Most of these are documented in accepted sleep science research or part of my clinical experience.
Habits and Routines
• Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, including on weekends
• Following a steady routine before bed, including plenty of time to wind down and relax
• Avoiding alcohol, cigarettes, caffeine, and big meals in the evening, especially in the hours before bed. Try not to get “hooked” on sleep aids or drugs which don’t always promote good sleep rhythms even if you sleep.
• Reducing your use of electronic devices before bed and trying to never use them when in bed. Avoid news or intense thoughts which stimulate you to be more awake or upset.
• Getting outside or opening your blinds to get daily exposure to sunlight, especially the early morning sunlight.
• Finding time to be physically active every day for 20-30 minutes minimum. Work to accomplish something meaningful every day. In order to sleep well at night, we need to be fully awake during the day, as it is a balance.
• Use blackout curtains, a low-wattage bedside lamp, and if necessary, a sleep mask to avoid being bothered by excess light
• Wear ear plugs or use a white noise machine to block out noise
• Set your bedroom temperature to be comfortable, erring toward a cooler setting. Make sure your feet are warm.
• Make sure your mattress, pillows, blankets, and sheets are comfortable and inviting
• Talk to a bed partner or roommate if they snore, grind their teeth, or otherwise cause potential sleep interruptions
• Consider a warm bath, light a candle, practice a meditation, prayer, think of loved ones deceased and alive, review what is important to you and form a question to take to bed. Having a sleep routine can be very helpful. Practice Eurythmy, singing, Qi Gong, Yoga or other gentle movements and breathing to set a calming and sacred tone.
• Don’t eat much before bed. Drink something warm. You can also talk to your doctor about gentle herbs, minerals and remedies that promote sleep without addiction. There are many anthroposophic, herbal and homeopathic remedies that are helpful.
Address Underlying Issues
Working with a health professional can help if your sleep is being interrupted by underlying sleep disorders or health problems. For example, sleep apnea if you are snoring quite a bit. Unresolved trauma, anxiety and depression can lead to persistent sleep problems which further compound these problems. Chronic insomnia will limit your quality of life substantially. You don’t have to accept this way of living.
Dr. Steven M Johnson