During college, as an engineering student, I would head off to the library (usually not until 9pm!) and stay there working on problem sets until well after midnight. Meanwhile, my friends, mostly literature and art students, were chillaxing at the local coffee shop. Luckily, the libraries were open for 24 hours; late at night is when I’d get my best work done.
For you, were the late-night sessions back in the day or are they happening now? Living and working in Silicon Valley means living a pressured life in which work, family, relationships, and social situations leave us with too much to do and too little time to do it in. One saving grace for me: there are no yoga classes to teach or patients to see after 9pm, but it’s still easy to get distracted in the evening with productivity, instead of relaxing and prioritizing sleep cycles. Quality of life is often impacted by these irregular rhythms.
Why is it that we tend to get a late-night burst of energy? One reason the visual cortex stays stimulated in the evening is due to light sources (thank you, Benjamin Franklin!). With light, our body kicks into a second wind, and in the later hours, particularly between 10pm and 2am, we can be highly productive. However, using that time for mind-engaging activities can have a physical and psychological price to pay, as night work and lack of sleep is shown to increase the risk for obesity, fatigue, and chronic disease manifestation.
“Sleep is one of the most crucial indicators of a physiological system with low-stress levels, and it is also one of the fastest indicators to show up when a person is out of balance.”
What we know is that adequate and consistent sleep is useful and necessary for physical and psychological health. Parents see this impact daily, watching the sleep cycles of little ones and how it affects their energy the following school day. Sleep is one of the most crucial indicators of a physiological system with low-stress levels, and it is also one of the fastest indicators to show up when a person is out of balance. This is due to the inverse relationship between cortisol and melatonin rhythms.
Cortisol, released by the adrenal glands, is the stress hormone. During each 24-hour period, our bodies naturally go through a systemic cycle of cortisol levels in the bloodstream. In the healthiest version of this cycle, cortisol increases as we wake up, like a bell-shaped curve, and decreases toward late day, dropping to its lowest levels during sleep. When cortisol levels become high, due to physiological or psychological stress response over extended periods of time, initial symptoms include sleep irregularities, increased hunger, blood sugar issues, weight gain, and lowered immunity or fatigue.
Melatonin, a hormone made by the pineal gland, is considered the sleep hormone. It is released at night, typically around 9pm, and stays elevated for about 12 hours. This hormone is only released when exposed to dim light. The 24-hour melatonin cycle inversely runs to the cortisol cycle, so that when melatonin is high, cortisol is low, and vice versa. Anytime there is a disruption of this circadian rhythm, one will see impact in daytime energy, sleep, or both.
Here are seven natural ways to improve your quality of sleep:
Prevention of common ailments is the best medicine. Nobody likes to get sick, and while not feeling well is a bummer, it’s also costing the economy at large. Loss of productivity in the workplace due to the common cold costs about 25 billion dollars. As an herbalist and healthcare provider, I see daily that staying healthy starts with immunity boosts. We can help the immune system with “friends” that allow it to more effectively do its job.
A little biology review: our immunity is an interaction of higher organisms via resistance, or counteraction of pathogenic microorganisms. The immune response is typically a temporary inflammatory response to stimuli mounted in the body. The adaptive immunity in the body is by white blood cells, lymphocytes, and either B cells or T cells. Immunity is boosted by balanced sleep and exercise, stress reduction, and eating antioxidant-rich foods, such as fruits and vegetables; while decreasing sugars, dairy, and alcohol.
Physical barriers, such as hand-washing and the Ayurvedic practice of nasaya, or nasal-oiling, aid in prevention. To nasaya, place one to three drops of an organic oil, for instance coconut or sesame, into each nostril while leaning the head back, then take a gentle inhale. This practice lubricates the nasal mucosa and protects the sinus cavity from pathogens. It’s wonderful to do in any dry environment (i.e. airplanes, deserts, high altitudes, etc.) and during colder seasons.
There are also ways to internally support immunity. One of my specialties is providing herbal medicines to patients. Personally, I don’t leave home without some (often many) forms of herbal or vitamin support, especially when traveling to places where access to medicine may be limited or variant quality. When the diagnosis or condition gets complicated, it’s a good idea to consult with your herbalist, acupuncturist, or Ayurveda practitioner for specific supplements. However, when working with herbs to stay healthy or boost the body’s function, we can feel empowered to take health into our own hands.
Culturally, there are ways that herbal medicine is already a part of our day-to-day life. Whether you realize it or not, you most likely practice some form of herbal medicine for self-care; taking an herbal cough drop for a tickly throat or sipping on chamomile tea before bed. Recently, we have seen a rise in herbalism in dietary recommendations. For instance, turmeric is an ancient herb and strong anti-inflammatory that’s gained popularity and now commonly found in healthy foods and smoothies.
Each herb has a physiological impact on the body, and the combination of herbs often enhances their best properties. For this reason, many traditions including Ayurvedic, Tibetan, Chinese, and Western herbalism, combine herbs to maximize impact and improve function.
To make sure your immunity is equipped for cold and flu season, here are some of my “friends” – go-to herbs I call on to support health and immunity. I call them “friends” because each acts like a specific best friend to call upon as needed:
If we keep the body healthy, we can have more time for being of service to others, which is a noble effort and reason enough.