The Forgotten Therapy—Sleep and Rest

Not many years ago people who were chronically ill went to special health resorts (such as the famous Battle Creek Sanitarium founded by John Harvey Kellogg) where they would stay for a few weeks to several months to recover from chronic illnesses.  People staying at these resorts would be allowed to rest and sleep as much as they needed, while being fed healthy food and encouraged to do moderate exercises, sunbathing or hydrotherapy.  This was what “nature cure” originally entailed—a healthy diet, exercise, deep breathing, lots of water, hydrotherapy, sunshine and rest.

Last weekend I attended the Annual Symposium of the American Herbalists Guild, where I had the opportunity to sit and listen to some of my favorite herbal teachers.  One of these was Paul Bergner, who runs the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism.  He talked about various therapies for dealing with fatigue, but one of the most important things he shared was the importance of getting enough sleep.

According to Paul, the average person living in the United States in 1900 got 9 hours of sleep each night. By 1963, the average person was only getting 8.5 hours of sleep per night.  By 2002, the average person only got about 6 hours of sleep during the week and 8 hours on weekends, for an average of about 7 hours per night.

This means that the average person is suffering from a sleep debt of about 1.5 to 2 hours per night.  Last year, we published an issue of Nature’s Field entitled Are You Suffering from Sleep Debt? where we addressed this subject.  Sleep debt is serious business because it disrupts brain function, hormone levels and immune function, besides making us feel tired.

Being deprived of sleep is like suffering from a vitamin deficiency.  You can’t make up for it by taking stimulants or even adaptogens. The only way to overcome sleep debt is to get more sleep.  Paul explained that when people are put into special clinics where they are allowed to sleep as much as they want, the average person will sleep over 11 hours per night for about a week and 8.5 hours thereafter.  He also showed research that demonstrated when people are able to get adequate amounts of sleep their energy and mood improve.

Sleep is very important to healing because deep sleep stimulates the release of Growth Hormone from the pituitary, which stimulates tissue regeneration and repair.  So, lack of sleep interferes with the body’s ability to mend when damaged.  Sleep is also important for lowering stress hormones and reducing insulin resistance.  This means that getting adequate sleep can lower blood sugar levels, help us lose weight and help to lower triglycerides.
Heart attack risk increases dramatically in people who get less than five hours of sleep two nights per week.  Sleep debt also contributes to high blood pressure.

Even moderate sleep debt makes it difficult for us to learn new things, solve problems and otherwise think clearly.
I can appreciate this information because this past summer I took two vacations (the first real vacations I’ve had in several years).  On one of these vacations I sleep about 10 hours per day and had an hour massage almost daily.  By the end of the week I was feeling almost “normal” again.  Basically, I’d started to recover from some of my sleep debt.  According to Paul, it can take anywhere from days to months to rebuild one’s energy after a long period of “burn-out,” so I’ve decided I need more such vacations and more sleep, period.

Of course, I’m not alone.  Most Americans are stressed and suffering from sleep debt.  We need to educate people on how to deal with these problems naturally instead of using drugs, especially sleeping pills. One of the things Paul shared was how dangerous sleep medications like Ambien and Restoril are to people’s health.  Sleep medications are addictive and can have more severe withdrawal symptoms than stopping drinking. But that’s just the tip of the iceburg, because they also increase people’s risk of dying (from things like cancer) dramatically.

You can read the notes from Paul’s full presentation online on the American Herbalists Guild website, as they’ve made the speaker’s notes available to the general public this year.  So check it out; it’s an excellent presentation.

You can also get more information on dealing with insomnia (as well as stress, anxiety and depression) from the Operation Happy webinar I did for Nature’s Sunshine. If you have a Windows PC you can watch it online at  You can also download the PowerPoint so you can teach the class yourself. In it I provide some tips on getting a good night’s sleep and talk about some of the NSP products that can help, such as Nervous Fatigue FormulaHerbal Sleep5-HTP Power and Melatonin Extra.  We have articles on all of these products on our website.

People in our society really need this information. So, join the Operation Happy campaign and educate people about how they can overcome stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia naturally.  And, do yourself a favor and get a good night’s sleep!

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