The Importance of Sleep – the role it plays in your physical and mental health.

I wrote the following words for an article a while back. Having read something again yesterday about the importance of sleep to health, I thought it worth putting out again. I have added a bit more regarding  the possible protective role it plays in breast cancer.

Good quality sleep is so important. Ideally we should get eight hours a night. With families to look after and demanding jobs or even a thriving social life, we often do not get that peaceful night’s sleep that we should. Sleep plays a big role in your physical health and mental health. For example, sleep is involved in healing and repairing your body and supporting good brain function. In children and teenagers, sleep also helps support growth and development so perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on our teenagers when we have trouble getting them out of bed! Lack of sleep can impact on us in many ways and even cause harm over time; deficiency can raise your risk of some chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, and can also affect how well you think, react, work, learn and get along with others. It can affect our safety too; if we are tired when performing important tasks such as driving or operating machinery we can be prone to accidents. Children who lack sleep may struggle with school work and examinations.

Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you are sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day; it is forming new pathways to help you learn and take in information. It may be that sleep deficiency alters activity in some parts of the brain , so if you are sleep deficient you may have trouble making decisions or controlling your emotions and behaviour. It will also play a part in anxiety and depression.

Sleep is important in regulating the hormones in your body such as insulin which controls your blood sugar, and important growth hormones in children. Another interesting point is that lack of sleep makes you hungry, so if you battle with your weight and controlling your eating it may be worth thinking about a few early nights!

Melatonin and sleep

The pattern of waking up naturally when it is light and sleeping at night when it is dark is a natural part of human life. A key factor in how we sleep is regulated by exposure to light or darkness. You may say this is obvious, but in modern times we do not really sleep in the way our ancestors did or indeed as animals do. Melatonin is a natural and beneficial hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain. During the day this gland is inactive. When the sun goes down and darkness occurs, the pineal gland starts to function and releases melatonin. This has the effect of naturally slowing the body down and preparing us for sleep. When we sleep melatonin levels stay elevated in the body and then fall again with the light of the new day. So we see that light affects how much melatonin the body produces. During the shorter days of winter, your body may produce melatonin either earlier or later in the day than usual and this change can have an effect on mood, often called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Most of us know that the hormone melatonin helps regulate our sleep. But it also seems to play another role – suppressing cancer growth. Think of melatonin as helping to put cancer cells to sleep at night. Various studies have shown that women who interrupt their melatonin production by working night shifts appear to be at increased risk. Even living on a brightly-lit street may increase risk. Therefore, it’s probably best to sleep in a room with heavy curtains or black-out blinds and no lights. There is also something else you can do! Yes, eat more vegetables. Higher vegetable intake seems to increase levels of melatonin.

 All appliances should be switched off and try not to have a television in the room! Leave your mobile out of immediate range too! (It can be done!) All electronic devices can interfere with your sleep. One thing I try and do (and often find it hard to stick to) is to have a ‘wind down’ spell after 8pm. This means staying away from the computer and leaving unfinished work until the next day. Most emails can wait until the morning! Also, I try to avoid listening to late night news so that I don’t go to bed feeling troubled.

In the dark night hours, there is nothing much worse than laying awake tossing and turning. Every minor problem and worry about tomorrow becomes magnified and before you know it you have a whole list of possible bad scenarios bubbling up in your mind. The best thing to do in this situation is to get up. Instead of staying in bed worrying about how many hours sleep you will be missing and fearing you will be a wreck the next day, go and make a warm drink and try and clear your mind with some calm thoughts. Do something else for thirty minutes until you feel really tired. Just be sure it’s not something too stimulating or involving bright light.

When laying in bed, try relaxing all the muscles in your body from head to toe. This is called Progressive Muscle Relaxation and is a good way of winding down when you get into bed at night. Once you are laying quietly, work through your muscle groups from head to toe. Start with your face: lift your eyebrows and wrinkle the forehead, then close your eyes tightly before opening them and relaxing. Tense your lips, cheeks, and jaw muscles by grimacing, then feel the serenity come over you as you relax all your facial muscles. Work down through the body, tensing and then relaxing the shoulders and arms, the chest and abdomen, (breathing deeply and exhaling as you relax), the back muscles, hips and buttocks, and lastly, the legs and feet. After you have systematically tightened and relaxed all the muscle groups in your body, you should feel more relaxed and calm. You may even fall asleep half way through!

I love to listen to soothing music at night. It’s great for helping you drift off. There are many relaxation CD’s available online or you can listen via youtube.com. Also, there is now a brilliant App called Calm which you can download and listen to some brilliant bedtime stories! I challenge you to stay awake and listen til the end!

Sleep is very important in helping put away the thoughts from yesterday; with good restful sleep the brain can organise and sort the good thoughts from the bad and do away with ‘mind chatter’ so you can awake refreshed and ready to face a new day with new mental awareness. During the day and often the evening too, especially this time of the year, I have a Himalayan salt lamp plugged in. I have read various reports about their possible health benefits, such as cleansing the air, helping to reduce allergies, increasing energy levels, helping with sleep, treating Seasonal Affective Disorder, and producing an environmentally friendly light source. Whatever their benefits, I do know they certainly lighten up any room with their friendly warm glow and seem to freshen the air too. You can place them on a desk, in your living room, next to the bed or anywhere you choose.

When you are awake at night and feel the darkness closing in, remember that everything will feel better in the morning. Ok not everything perhaps, especially if you have any ongoing troubles, but you will be able to put things more into perspective when you are up and about, have opened the curtains, and chased away the night. And if you do lay awake worrying, remember also, that there is nothing at all you can do about anything in the night time hours, so you may as well get to sleep and think about it again another time!

As the sun sets, fold away your cares of the day and leave them outside your door. Then, wait to glimpse the moon and stars and know the Universe is wiser then we can ever be’.

Sleep Well!

 

dreaming

 

Finding Our Way Wherever We Are in Life…

‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’
-Lao Tzu

It is easy to become ‘stuck’. Life ticks on. If we go to work, we do what we have to do, and get through the day. We get stressed sometimes; we may be stuck in the fast lane but there is too much on the ‘to do’ list. We get caught up in a cycle; when we are at work or busy with life’s challenges, we fantasise about being on vacation, but then, on vacation we worry about the work piling up on our desks at home or worry about those who depend on us. We feel as though we are hurtling along when in fact we are slowly losing sight of what we really want. We may be comfortable with what we do but are we  excited or fulfilled by it?  If we are entrenched in a routine we can lose focus and that can mean we do not work to fulfil our full potential; we may not follow our dreams. When things are going reasonably well are you tempted to sit back and relax rather than ask yourself how they can be improved or advanced even more? I know I am. If we say we are happy for now, this means we miss out on so much more that is there for us. If we follow random stars and pick up mixed signals and information as we go through life, we may never know which path we want to follow. We fear getting older, yet we can amble along for a good part of our life until suddenly we have reached a senior age and find ourselves looking back down the years wishing we had done more with the time we had.

How do we lose sight of the best along the way? Why do some people die with their music still in them? Most of us don’t set out to squander our time or our days but often that is what happens when we get on the treadmill. We do it for the best of reasons. When we are young we feel that we have so much time ahead of us – we can follow our dreams someday, but first we have to finish our education, get a good job, find a partner we love, maybe start a family. That all can be wonderful, and if we find a lifelong partner we are happy with and who shares the same hopes and desires as we do, we are already a long way toward getting things right. But if we spend a great proportion of time trying to establish ourselves, and are motivated by ambition, then that often means we may neglect our spiritual and emotional wellbeing. We are surrounded by relentless testing and huge competition in life; social media dominates our lives and not always to our advantage. Yet science is working for us, for our benefit and for a good future. There are opportunities for us to work towards an amazing future and abundant living, we just need to take time to see them.

Fear of failure

Even if we have dreams we are often bound up with fear. Fear of what others will think about us; fear of a brave new plan going wrong; even fear of success. If we think about it, we all have heroes and people we admire and look up to, people we wish we could be like. We may quietly think to ourselves ‘it’s okay for them, they had a better start in life’, or, ‘they were lucky, they were in the right place at the right time’, but we would still like to be like them. But none of us are perfect, not even superheroes. Everyone of us has flaws, and dark moments late at night when we worry about what will happen tomorrow. But those who succeed have managed to maximise their one or two strengths and stopped focusing on their weaknesses. Everyone has fought or still fights their own battles and their own demons. The truth is, our heroes we look up to are no different to us, they just tend to handle life differently. That is marvellously encouraging as it means we can just as easily reach our new goals and aspirations as the next person.

At the very end of our life we will look back at missed ideas that could have evolved from our potential and proved invaluable. Nurse Bonnie Ware spent time caring for dying people for more than twenty years and wrote a book about their regrets. She found five sentences that were repeated and spoke of missed opportunities. The sentences were:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feeling.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
( The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – Hay House March 2012)
No matter how many times I read the above section I never fail to be moved by the list of regrets and each time they resonate anew.
So how did we get to where we are now? What has made us the person we have become?
Back to the beginning

When we are born we enter this world as totally helpless human beings. As we evolved our brains became bigger so nature had to compensate for this; for the female body to accommodate a full term baby and be able to give birth naturally, we were programmed to enter the world before we were able to fend for ourselves, unlike the rest of the animal world. At the time of birth only 28% of our brain is formed. As we grow so does our brain; it grows rapidly, and the capacity for learning is astounding, but twelve to fourteen years must pass before a human being can satisfactorily care for himself and function independently of his parents. Therefore we grow up programmed by people who can only teach us what they themselves have learned and believe. I am not saying that this is always a bad thing; only that we are governed in our early years by the facts we are given from our nearest source. We become dependant on others and are influenced by what others think about us and what they perceive to be advantageous for us. If we are lucky, we will be raised by parents who encourage us to think for ourselves and who do not object if we follow our own chosen path. Every human is born totally unique; born with an unmistakeable genetic fingerprint, with different cells, patterns and chemistry. But do we remember that when we try to conform and follow the crowd? If we try and fit in with someone else’s plan for us we will not always be happy.

Why are you thinking that?

Early man learned by trial and error. There were no instruction manuals to follow and no technology to tap into. A lot of the traits the early man developed are still present in us today. If we think about the ‘fight and flight’ mechanism we can see how necessary it was when being chased by a saber- tooth tiger as it was clearly a matter of life and death, but at times of stress in the modern day, we may still deploy this same mechanism and it can be present constantly, using so much adrenaline that it can lead us to suffer from adrenal fatigue. Normal mechanisms become completely exhausted leading to lack of energy, ‘brain fog’, depression and constant fatigue. We are not now using the mechanism of ‘fight or flight’ for preserving our lives, our modern lifestyle does not allow us to run away from stressful situations, both physically and mentally . Our ancestors were keen to improve but they also had to learn how to control their fear and increase their awareness levels. The earliest men must have thought that the vivid lightening flash and the rolling voice of thunder that followed it were the anger of the gods, especially when they saw other men struck and killed by lightening. It wasn’t until centuries later that scientific studies showed it to be a gigantic electric spark. For some, though, that primeval fear remains, as fear can transcend many generations.
If we compare different attitudes we can see how thought patterns and approaches dictate the way we live and appear to others. Again, if we are fearful, our judgement is coloured when we make decisions. The fear of something going wrong holds us back from participating in pursuits we would secretly like to try, but when we do push ourselves to try something new and exciting we are usually rewarded with great feelings of satisfaction and wish we had tried it sooner.

The rewards of the brave

People often think someone is brave to give up a thriving career, turn their back on riches and start something new which will offer more fulfilment; but is it brave to follow your heart, or just natural? Maybe it is more brave to stay in a job you hate just to keep a lifestyle going.

We know of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe as a German poet, playwright and novelist, but he also had many other talents, including being a painter, statesman, educator and naturalist philosopher. He was hugely creative and lived a very full and energetic life. This selection from Faust is one of the most frequently quoted passages in terms of self-improvement and I would like to include it here:

LOSE THIS DAY LOITERING

Lose this day loitering – ‘twill be the same story
To-morrow – and the next more dilatory;
Each indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest ? Seize this very minute-
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated-
Begin it, and then the work will be completed!
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
(1749 – 1832).
Translated by John Anster

This is an incredibly powerful piece of literature, it illustrates so completely, the idea of boldness. It tells us how, if we loiter today, and again tomorrow, we will soon end up lamenting lost days. It speaks for living for the moment. Each day is a gift; it doesn’t have to follow a rigid timetable; it doesn’t necessarily matter what pattern it follows, we just need to be sure it HAS mattered.

Living in the moment

So we need to teach ourselves to live more in the moment. Living in the moment – also called mindfulness – is a state of active , open, intentional living, whilst focusing on the present. In this mindful state, we realise we are not just our thoughts but an observer of our thoughts which means we can observe our thoughts without judging them. We need not grasp them or push them away. Instead of letting our lives go by without living them, we can awaken to experience . Sometimes we need to plan ahead, but if we spend too much time planning we can miss out on enjoying the days we have now; however, if we view tomorrow as an observer, we can relinquish thoughts of pride and let go of our ego. We are more likely to have a calm and optimistic view of the future. We can let go of negative thoughts and separate ourselves from the outcome. We can view the world differently.

An Interconnected Universe

How many times do we get an inclination something is about to happen just before it does; or a deep feeling we can’t explain? It is the collective, interlocking, energy field that we are tapping in to; the ever- moving energy fields of life. If we learn to work with these feelings we can be empowered to manifest our potential, and join with the world at large. We will all benefit. It is interesting to that note than many individuals around the world who have worked independently without the knowledge of each other, have often made the same discoveries at practically the same time. There is no obvious explanation for this, just a dawning realisation that there is a collective energy field which we can respond to in a positive way.

In this interconnected universe, every improvement we make in our own world improves not only our own lives but that of others. All positive acts we partake in find a way of coming back to us in one way or another to benefit us, even years later. Kindness towards one’s self and all living things always leaves a lasting effect, spreading out like ripples in a pond.

Once we hear amazing news it is as though we have been given permission to be a part of it. When Roger Bannister ran the four minute mile – a feat that was previously thought to be impossible- we heard of dozens of other athletes doing the same within a year. Now, as then, limits are constantly being expanded.

What makes a writer wake in the middle of the night, suddenly awake with the words of a song running through his mind? He rushes to pen to paper and writes the words that echo in the minds of many for years to come. His talent has burst through the surface of his awareness, as if out of nowhere. The writer has been moved to write a powerful song; he has channelled the energy from the collective vibrations around him.

Sometimes we can walk into a room and feel uncomfortable, the air seems thick with anxiety and tension. We can imagine the tension building and boiling over, perhaps giving way to a violent outburst. Likewise, we know what it feels like when we enter a space filled with warmth and peaceful vibrations. Both these feelings and emotions cannot be seen, yet that greatly affect us. When we consciously focus mindful energy together, simultaneously seeking positive outcomes, we can alter our future.

If we stop and evaluate our lives and where we are now, we CAN look forward to progressing. We don’t need to put the brakes on if we don’t want to! Life doesn’t have to be full of regrets and what if’s. And it is never too late to change. There is so much out there for us and our world. Everything is possible!

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Magic: Expectation via Reality.

A bit of magic helps us go forth on a January day…

In my last blog I wrote about the lull that follows the Christmas break; how I struggle with letting go of the festivities and try to deal with post Christmas blues. I talked about how we can learn from children – how they enjoy the moment and then move on and run headlong into the New Year, with all the new experiences and occasions.

I still find my emotions lurching about this week, especially after being laid low with some sort of bug that has been doing the rounds. When I say lurching, I mean the sinking feeling that creeps up unannounced and makes you miserable even though you are trying to be positive. (There is a great advert on television doing the rounds at the moment; the insurance it is trying to plug is by the by, but it features a boxer dog asking with a shocked expression if Christmas is over. His plaintive response of ‘Oh No!’ when he realises this is the case is priceless and absolutely sums up how I feel!).

I think one of the reasons for the blues this time of the year is the fact that we realise we have to get back to the normal routine; life takes on an ordered pattern again, and it can be difficult to be motivated when the days are still short and celebrations are over. Then again, some people relish the new year and the very fact that they can move on with plans and look forward to what is in store. We are all different and whilst I think too much time making plans means we don’t concentrate on today, I think the optimist who relishes looking forward is to be envied.

But I have come to the conclusion that I need to fall back on the inspiration that lies around me to make progress. This is my way of looking forward. I need to look for magic. I heard someone say the other day that they didn’t believe in any form of religion because they didn’t believe in anything they couldn’t see. I couldn’t disagree more with this; I am not necessarily focusing on religion here, but there are many things we cannot see yet know exist. Think of the leaves on the trees rustling in the breeze – we cannot see the wind yet we know it is there. Think of the electricity that brings power to our homes; we cannot see it yet we still touch the light switch knowing the power is there to lighten our darkness.

Sometimes it is easy to ignore new ideas and inspiration when we are busy getting on with everyday challenges. But it is at these times when we need magic and inspiration the most. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is an overused expression but is applicable here. For on a grey January day when we feel we are caught up in ordinariness and routine, it is the time to do just that. There is no ordinary day. Every day contains some magic whatever our situation and if we are open to it.

In a way, magic is difficult to define. I have looked up the definition in the Oxford Living Dictionaries. One says: The power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces…hmm I’m not sure that is how I think of magic. Another says: Mysterious tricks, such as making things disappear and reappear, performed as entertainment… that is not my favourite idea either. But this – this is the one I really like: A quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life.

I don’t take the above expression to mean remote in a negative way, I take it to mean something that takes us away from normal routine and injects some sparkle into our life and our thinking.

Magic isn’t about waving a wand. We can find magic in small things. To me, the early snowdrops appearing in the churchyard are magical, as is the sunlight sparkling on the river on a frosty day.

The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper’.
W.B. Yeats


‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it’.
Roald Dahl

I think magic is all around us, even in everyday things and somehow it crosses the divide between itself and reality. Magic and reality can exist together. Think of advanced technology – it is indistinguishable from magic.

When I look around the countryside this time of the year, I remind myself that although all appears quiet and bare, new life sleeps as yet unseen, ready to burst forth and enchant us in the spring; soon nature will make a brand new start, never stopping to question the mood of its heart.

So let us rely on a bit of magic this time of year. Let’s gain inspiration from ‘feel good’ stories and acts of kindness and believe in ourselves. With faith, good times will be more likely to appear.

Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen’.
John Wolfgang von Goethe

Just before writing this blog I had sent a text to my son who is on a business trip abroad. I asked him how things were going. I just received a reply from him – ‘All gold, mum’ x . There is some magic there somewhere!

Wishing you a magical week.

close up photo of a bed of white flowers
Photo by Simon Matzinger on Pexels.com