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.
My entire life, being outdoors has been a representation of freedom, transportation, and entertainment. It may have started with winning a full size BMX bike in a raffle at age five (this bike was far, far too large for a five-year-old). Even prior to the two-wheeler, I had a three-wheeled “big wheel” that skidded across the tennis court and gave me a deep sense of freedom. My personal relationship with bicycles allowed me to be outside for hours on end and see the world – or at least our neighborhood backwoods trails in suburban Michigan. This early love of movement and the feeling of the wind in my hair, whether it on skis, bikes, or out on the lake, became a driving force in my daily life.
For me, it’s a huge blessing and privilege to orient around this staple of nature, and I believe that people gain perspective, compassion, acceptance, joy, and love for the environment when they spend more time outdoors – the more undeveloped the environment, the better. We have lost some values and benefits that come from nature, and I’m on a mission to change that with a few suggestions, a bit of encouragement, and research on how realigning with the natural world can benefit both us and the environment.
The more nature we are exposed to, the more likely we are to be healthy. Recently, research shows that forest bathing (or spending time in forest environments) promotes lower concentration of cortisol (a stress hormone), pulse rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic nerve activity, as well as greater parasympathetic nerve activity, more than time spent in city environments. Coupled with the lower levels of noise, light, and air pollution, it seems a strategy in preventative medicine (and a smart investment) is to seek out and utilize forest environments.
Humans are beings of nature; our natural habitat is the world at large. In industrialized and technology-based societies, we are often removed from nature. Studies show children having outdoor time is linked to relationship health, being less sedentary, and a declining chance for obesity. In theory, we encourage youngsters to play outdoors, but based on children’s preferences, access to ample outdoor space for city dwellers, and rigorous demands for homework and productivity, this can be an uphill battle. Additionally, there are statistical correlations between access to greenery and human physical activity with health, indicating that we can physically and emotionally benefit from being out in nature.Studies also suggest that natural environments may have direct and positive impacts on personal well-being. When evaluating children and adolescents, there is conditional support for the benefit of nature-based experiences on self-esteem, self-efficacy, resilience, and academic and cognitive performance. In addition, when exposed to nature, children tend to increase their social and behavioral skills. And finally, direct economic benefits include that nature time is relatively free, decreasing healthcare costs.
In addition to the intrinsic benefits of the exercise, outdoor activity can be more beneficial than the same activity stimulated by technology in the gym. With advanced virtual reality technologies, computer-aided visuals can make the brain thinks it’s in nature or any other setting. But, it’s actually increasing our separation from time spent in nature. What’s more, smartphones prevent us from being present while actually in nature; this can be seen at any national park, where visitors are more concerned with capturing the best photo in front of the vista, rather than connecting with or bring present to the landscape itself. When (and if) possible, people should seek outdoor pursuits – sans technology. Rather than adding to an already-busy weekday schedule, consider starting with weekends and holidays!
Spending time outside can actually benefit the earth, as our emotional affinity toward nature can lead to protective actions toward the environment. This means we can cultivate the intrinsic value of protecting our precious natural lands, including state and national parks. It is suggested that there is a connection between human psychology and ecology, in that we may be useful to find each within the other. The field of “Ecopsychology” considers that perhaps pervasive of isolation and dysfunction in the human psyche have a root in the loss of connection with the natural world, and that by reestablishing the connection, we, as a species, can heal and grow like trees, plants, and animals. In fact, by communing with nature via cultivating spaciousness, consciousness, and deep sensory awareness to the wide-open lands, we may be able to find our way back to our truest inner nature.
Modern daily life is filled with pressures of time, productivity, and achievement. This is especially true in technology hubs like Silicon Valley (where this article originates) where it is very typical to move through the week in a sea of to-do lists, booked calendars, and constraints – often while stuck in traffic or attending to business or family. These pressures can lead to ongoing physical and emotional strain. In fact, a few years ago, the term “Silicon Valley Syndrome” (SVS) popped up to describe what happens to our health when overwhelmed by sedentary life: overwork, overuse of technology, and constant pressures. SVS is defined by both physical and functional symptoms. Physically, this might manifest as pain or discomfort in the cervical or thoracic spine or shoulder region, eye strain, and headaches, while functional issues might include insomnia, anxiety, and overall running at elevated stress levels for extended periods of time.
The good news is that there are simple fixes that are the best solutions, at a very low cost – in fact, most of them are nearly free! High in the mountainous region of Ladakh, also known as “land of high passes,” India, a roadside sign posted by Siachen Warriors proudly suggests the best prescription I’ve come across in my 20 years of healthcare experience:
“The six best doctors: sunshine, water, rest, air, exercise, and diet.”
“The best six doctors anywhere
And no one can deny it
Are sunshine, water, rest, and air
Exercise and diet.
These six will gladly you attend
If only you are willing
Your mind they’ll ease
Your will they’ll mend
And charge you not a shilling.”
Nevertheless, starting with these six natural changes can increase our overall health profiles, and decrease our stress levels, thereby improving our quality of life for years to come.