Are you conscientious about eating clean, drinking green smoothies, exercising regularly and living an overall healthful lifestyle?
If you are living the “perfect” healthy lifestyle then you should feel and look amazing, right? But what if you don’t?
What if you are doing absolutely everything “perfectly” from a healthy lifestyle standpoint but know deep down you still don’t look and feel your very best?
Could Stress and Lack of Sleep Be to Blame?
Stress and lack of sleep are becoming so prevalent and so chronic that in some aspects I am beginning to think they are more hazardous to our health than fast food and inactivity. And trust me, I would know. I’m the type of girl who sips green tea throughout the day, drinks a daily superfood smoothie, makes my own homemade hemp milk, does yoga, drinks organic maca powder instead of an afternoon cup of coffee and has written five books on clean eating and healthy cooking. I should feel and look better than amazing. So you can imagine my complete frustration for the past few weeks when day after day I haven’t felt very good. I found myself feeling tired and worn out. I must have looked that way too because even my own mother commented that she thought it looked like I needed to get more sleep.
Thankfully I have recovered from my own recent exhausting and stress-induced “episode” that I finally have the energy –and the clear vision—to put my terrible experience on paper (‘screen’ would be a better word choice here I suppose).
As an extremely timely coincidence to my own experience, I came across a September 22, 2014 article written by Alice Park in TIME magazine, “The Power of Sleep”, which revealed some of the latest research explaining the science behind how chronic lack of sleep accelerates the aging process (and simultaneously promotes degenerative disease) faster than any of us ever realized. I have read countless articles on the many reasons why sleep is so important, but I think this one is the most powerful one I have read yet and it truly resonated with me on so many levels.
But before I share my story and some highlights from “The Power of Sleep” article, I will just say that I know I am not the only one who feels as though many aspects of modern life have become incredibly complicated, stressful and downright tiring.
According to TIME magazine, up to 70 million people do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. Not only are these people tired, they are also stressed. Lack of sleep causes a major stress on the body, but stress can also prevent you from getting a good night’s rest.
I personally believe if we were all less stressed, we would all get better sleep. And yet, it is almost as if stress and chronic lack of sleep have become the new cultural norm.
As Park pointed out in ‘The Power of Sleep”, the way so many of us live now—checking Facebook every 5 minutes, texting, emailing, tweeting, pinning and so forth on top of trying to fit in all of the regular day to day stuff such as family obligations, work, errands, cooking, housework and so on has left very little time to truly enjoy life, much less get enough sleep. How in the world can we possibly get a sound night’s sleep with 387 unanswered voicemails (and yes, that is my personal cell phone with the 387 voicemails in the photo below). Even if you could somehow manage to stay sane enough to check and respond to those 387 voicemails, you would still not be done because you would need to head on over to Twitter, Facebook and all of the other modern “message outlets”. I find it all too exhausting and overwhelming to even think about.
Gone are the days when you could just unplug your land telephone line and get some serious rest and REAL downtime. And this is becoming a very dangerous and very REAL problem.
Stress and chronic lack of sleep can do REAL damage to your body, brain, appearance and health.
I strongly urge you to read the TIME magazine article in order to get a full understanding of why sleep is so important, but here are just a few highlights, which will hopefully motivate you to get to bed…
- All day long your brain is working hard and all of this activity and energy generates toxic free radicals, which accelerate the aging process and promote inflammation. When you get deep, sound sleep your body creates natural antioxidants that “mop up” the toxic free radicals and reduce inflammation.
- When you go to sleep your brain cells actually shrink in size so that the toxic build-up of debris that has accumulated during the day can be squeezed out. In essence, sleep is like a big “house cleaning” for your brain every night. (See TIME magazine illustration below.)
- Scientists are now realizing sleep is more powerful than any drug in its ability to restore and rejuvenate the human brain and body. (Note: sleeping pills, tranquilizers and even anti-depressants like Prozac all promote shallow rather than deep sleep and therefore do not allow your body to fully repair itself at night the way nature intended.)
- Getting adequate sleep each night can improve concentration, sharpen planning and memory skills and maintain the fat-burning systems that regulate our body weight.
- Sleeping repairs muscles and skin, remodels and strengthens bones, enables your pancreas to effectively break down sugars from your diet, along with countless other functions that are essential to good health,
- Sleep can only fully repair and rejuvenate your body if you are getting enough of it, which is about 7 to 9 hours for most people. If you are feeling tired during the day (like I had been), then you are not getting enough sleep. Some people simply require more sleep than others, so 7 to 9 hours is just an approximation.
If you are a little–or a lot!–Type A (like me) then unfortunately it is your nature to be stressed, which means you undoubtedly have trouble sleeping from time to time—or all of the time. Your lack of sleep could be caused by trying to cram too much into your day and not getting to bed early enough (or setting the alarm extra early so you can get a head start on the next day). Or maybe it is because you lie in bed thinking about all the 1,000 different things you should be doing other than sleeping?
Your sleep issues could also be attributed to too much “screen time.” If you spend the 2 hours before bedtime checking emails, texts, Facebook, etc. then the artificial screen lights from your electronic devices can interfere with your internal clock and so you when you finally send your last text message at midnight your body thinks it is noon, so it isn’t really ready to go to bed just yet (by the way, it is not just my theory that artificial screen lights disrupt sleep, this has actually been studied and proven).
Some people are lucky enough to stay calm and relaxed no matter what. The naturally low-stress people can close their eyes and fall soundly asleep even if the sky were falling down. I’m not one of them though. For people like me whose personalities are such that they were practically born stressed, it can be dangerously difficult to recognize when your body seriously needs to stop, when “unplugging” becomes a true medical necessity and when going to bed is the only “medication” that will deliver results without nasty side effects (just a lot of “side benefits”!).
Whatever the cause, sleep and lack of stress can become a downright dangerous issue. It did for me just last week.
I am just glad I can now see clearly to type my story….
The Day Sleep Became a Non-Negotiable Priority for Me
In addition to the timely TIME magazine article that was just printed, it is also a strange coincidence that I had my terrible wake up “episode” last week on 9/11, the anniversary of one of our greatest national tragedies. But that was the date, and one that I surely will not forget.
Anyway, it has been more than 15 years since I have had an “episode”. Luckily the one I had last week was not nearly as severe or dangerous as the first one, but it was plenty scary and I know if I had not have stopped and gone to bed it could have been every bit as serious—if not more serious–than the first one.
The first “episode” occurred in the late summer of 1998 after I had ben feeling stressed and exhausted for months. I finally landed in the E.R. with a terribly frightening episode of urinary retention (this is a condition where you have a totally full bladder but can’t void a drop—all I can say is that it is every bit as terrifying as it sounds.) I left the hospital wearing a catheter and within a week I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at the University of Miami.
Since I was only 22 at the time of my diagnosis and because I desperately wanted to have children, for a number of personal reasons—including the fact that the disease-modifying MS medications were contraindicated during pregnancy– I made the very personal decision to use nutritional therapy, lifestyle and an anti-inflammatory diet as the first line of defense to treat my disease. I was also told by my neurologist about other important lifestyle factors that I could control that could help slow the progression of my disease such as adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, taking certain nutrition supplements, exercising regularly (but not too strenuously), controlling stress, getting regular massages, getting adequate sleep, etc. If I did everything right, I even might be able to hold off on taking the powerful disease-modifying medications long enough to have children.
Although I was skeptical as to how lifestyle factors such as these could truly be powerful enough to control a disease that can leave you blind or wheelchair bound, it all sounded so promising and gave me such tremendous hope. Up until last week my “lifestyle” plan had been highly effective (If you are not familiar with my full story you can read it HERE.)
For over 15 years I have been living a “perfect” healthy lifestyle. Well, everything was perfect except for controlling stress and getting enough sleep. But in my mind I justified the lack of sleep and stress by saying everyone lives like that these days and not everyone drinks green smoothies everyday. Somehow I figured the green smoothies and yoga offset the stress and sleep deprivation.
But last Thursday on 9/11/2014, I was awoken by the BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! of my alarm—which I had purposely set early so I could cram a yoga session into my totally full day—but because I was feeling dizzy and out of sorts I just couldn’t seem to drag myself onto my yoga mat. I attributed how I felt to the fact that I had a terrible night’s sleep because I had spent half the night trekking back and forth to the bathroom (the familiar bladder urgency/ frequency symptoms that had preceded the 1998 E.R. episode were bothering me a bit, which can still happen from time to time if I don’t get enough sleep or if I am feeling overly stressed—which had been an issue lately.) Luckily I didn’t have to take my son to school until 8 am, so just I hit the snooze button on my alarm.
But by the time the alarm went off the 2nd time I woke up feeling even worse. And I had blurry / double vision. I was in a total panic because I knew it was MS related. My body felt just like it did back in 1998. I had been stressed and sleep deprived for months leading up to that first “episode” and I still vividly remember my neurologist saying a large percentage of first-time MS attacks are brought on by stress and lack of sleep, which is actually the case for many autoimmune diseases.
Long before we had disease-modifying medications for MS and before doctors knew anything about the role nutrition played in promoting inflammation and accelerating the disease process (sadly, many neurologists are still unaware of the importance of nutrition for MS), patients who had an MS exacerbation or “episode”—which could be anything as severe and dreadful as losing your vision, being unable to void your bladder, not being able to move your legs or walk, having difficulty speaking, etc.—were told to go home and go to bed.
And going to bed was exactly what I was told to do back in 1998. But since life was so simple and uncomplicated back then and because all I had to do was unplug my land telephone line, going to bed was not all that difficult. Life is so much more complicated these days, but I just knew if I did not totally unplug and get some serious sleep and serious rest that I was going to have real problems. So that is what I did, I totally unplugged. It was either that or end up with that damn catheter again, not being able to walk or maybe not being able to see. I decided all of the unanswered texts, emails, etc. could wait.
The 4 Day Cure
My “cure” was really so basic and so incredibly simple—it was to go to bed. However, because I have such a hard time relaxing (especially in the middle of the day!) here is exactly what I did:
- I posted on my personal Facebook page that I was certain I was having an MS exacerbation and that the only way I was going to be able to get the rest I needed without worrying about all of the unanswered messages was to publicly announce that it was a medical necessity that I “unplugged’ and that I hoped my friends understood (trust me, they did).
- I closed the blinds in my bedroom to make it super dark (Luckily I have blackout drapes, which is VERY helpful when you need to get sleep during daylight hours—but if you don’t have blackout drapes you can just put a sleep mask on. The idea is just to make everything dark.)
- I relaxed in a tub with my special Aromatherapy “Tranquil Chamomile” mineral bath.
- I made a cup of my favorite “bedtime tea”–a blend of Chamomile and lavender (in the photo above). To make my special “bedtime tea” recipe I put 1 1/4 cup water + 2 pitted dates + 5 raw unsalted macadamia nuts blended in a Vitamix and blend everything together. Then I heat the creamy liquid mixture, add my tea bag and let it steep for about 4 minutes. It truly does help me relax.
Once I was able to totally relax I fell asleep. And I stayed asleep. I had decided I was going to take off as long as it took until I felt 100% better. It took 4 full days and with the exception of eating, taking a few more baths and lying in the sun for a bit, I pretty much stayed in bed the entire time, which is very unlike me. But I just know my body needed it. There was no green smoothie in the world that was going to be able to take the place of real rest and sound sleep.
I am overjoyed to say that my 4-day rest has left me feeling better and more energized than I have felt in months. And I know for certain if I had gone to the ER with an active MS attack the only thing they would have been able to do was start me on high dose steroids, which would have terrible side effects. All I can say is that I have absolutely zero negative side effects from my all-natural 4-day treatment plan. And I couldn’t agree more with Park’s conclusion in the TIME magazine article, “cheating ourselves of sleep is depriving us from taking advantage of one of nature’s most powerful drugs.” What more can I say?