How to get good night's sleep

We had the pleasure of meeting Karina Stewart, the co-founder of Kamalaya, a holistic destination spa in Thailand. Karina lives with her husband in Koh Samui, Thailand, but was in London to give a talk at the Grace Belgravia.  Karina’s own experience with insomnia led to the creation of a sleep enhancement programme at Kamalaya, which has proven to be a very popular retreat due to its long term beneficial effects for those who suffer from sleeplessness. Karina is a fountain of knowledge on holistic healing and has an uncanny ability to take complicated, medical subject matter and make it relatable.  We got a lot out of her talk and Q&A session, so we thought we’d summarize the highlights so that we can share her advice with others.

Over 10% of the US is using sleeping medication on a regular basis.  Many of these prescriptions are highly addictive and extremely dangerous due to adverse reactions when combined with other drugs.  Most people think of sleeping pills when they think of cures for insomnia, but there are many effective solutions to get a better night’s sleep that don’t require any type of medication.


Causes of Sleeplessness

Modern, urban life values quantity of activity and efficiency over happiness, harmony, and nature.  Stress from this lifestyle causes muscle tension, hormonal imbalances, and chronic disease.  Diseases cause a physical imbalance that can prevent you from getting a proper night’s sleep. When your body is constantly under stress, the sympathetic nervous system doesn’t ever shut down (chronic “fight or flight response”), which affects the adrenal glands and the endocrine system through hormonal imbalance and obesity. Your immune system deteriorates along with your mental health.

From the perspective of holistic, Chinese medicine, sleeplessness is caused by an imbalance of the Yin and Yang in life.  The Yang is the active, fast-moving, goal oriented force within us.  The Yin is the restful, allowing, accepting force in us which lets us sleep.  Too much Yang and not enough Yin is the cause of insomnia.


Solutions for Better Sleep

All of the cures for insomnia deal with restoring the Yin-Yang balance to the body, normally by making an effort to increase the Yin force.  


Exercise:  All exercise isn’t created equal.  If you think that just killing it at the gym will tucker you out and make you fall asleep faster, it may not be the case.  You may be stimulating your body or working out too close to bedtime. 

  • Give yourself at least two hours between your workout and when you plan to sleep.
  • Avoid invigorating or energising practices in your workout.
  • Focus on Yin Yoga, such as Iyengar.  The deep, slow breathing is soothing and the mindfulness of this practice engages your parasympathetic response which causes your body to produce serotonin.
  • Cardio exercise should be done in the morning and the relaxing exercises, such as stretching should be done in the late afternoon or evening.


Diet:  A proper diet will contribute to good sleep. The type of food, the amount of food, and the timing of the meals has a major impact on how your body rests and recovers.

  • Avoid stimulants (e.g., sugar, caffeine, cigarettes) before bed.  Everyone processes these chemicals differently so there is no rule of thumb.  It takes some people 7 hours for caffeine to leave their system.
  • Eat a light meal in the evening.  “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen, and dinner like a pauper” if you want to sleep better. Your meals should get smaller as the day progresses.
  • Avoid heavy, starchy, carb-laden foods that leave you feeling too full and bloated.
  • Eat enough protein for dinner so that you will stay full until the morning.  A rumbling tummy can interrupt deep sleep.
  • Drink herbal tea that promotes sleep before bed.


Sleep Hygiene:  Creating a quiet, peaceful place to sleep is key to getting kip.  Your bedroom must be a place to sleep, not a multi-purpose room.

  • Keep a cool and steady temperature in the room.  Temperature fluctuations or extreme heat can adversely affect sleep.
  • Avoid any stimulation that activates your neo-cortex.  This can be done with ear plugs, an eye mask, or blackout curtain.
  • Block out any external noise that can interrupt your sleep.
  • Don’t do any work in bed.  You need to associate your bed with a place for sleep, not a place to stimulate your brain.


Breathe:  It sounds easy, but are you doing it correctly?  Breath is the easiest way to volitionally engage your nervous system.

  • Sit up straight, close your eyes, and place your hands on your stomach.  Clear your mind and slowly concentrate on the sound of your breathing as you very slowly inhale and exhale through your nose.  Be aware of the sensations in your body as your stomach rises and falls.  Be present and feel the tension leave your body and feel your body relax.  Notice how much slower and deeper you are breathing, then take this peace with you as you lie down and fall asleep.


Supplements:  Habit forming, prescription drugs should be avoided.  Herbal supplements should be used to complement your diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, and breathing.  Used by themselves, supplements will be much less effective and they will not provide a long-term solution to insomnia.  But there are some great supplements that help your body produce naturally occurring chemicals that aid sleep.

  • Melatonin – Produced in the pineal gland, your body uses it as an endocrine hormone to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. This popular supplement is sold over the counter in America and Asia.
  • L Tryptophan – This amino acid commonly found in many foods and is used by your body to synthesise serotonin.  Tryptophan dietary supplements  are sold as a sleep aid.
  • 5 HTP –This chemical is used by the body as an intermediary in the metabolism of tryptophan to serotonin.  In the UK, 5 HTP is used as a sleep aid, antidepressant, and appetite suppressant.
  • Magnesium – The most powerful mineral for relaxation, magnesium can be found in food or taken as a supplement. Deficiencies of this  mineral can prevent the brain from shutting down at  night.
  • Zinc – Zinc supplements can help your muscles relax so that you get deeper REM sleep, which is key to rejuvenating your mind.
  • Herbs – The following herbs all aid sleep and can be taken in various forms: Valerian, Chamomile, Passion Flower, Lavender, St. John’s Wort.
  • Teas – Herbal teas such as rooibos, chamomile, peppermint, and mulberry are effective sleep aids.  Mulberry tea is made of the leaf that is eaten by silk worms and produces gaba in the body.

The sleep enhancement retreat offered by Kamalaya is not a quick fix. It is an educational process to change bad habits and learn new tools which will change the flight or flight response within the body to a healing response for long-term benefits.


Read more: How our emotions can affect our bodyCreating positive changes through yoga and meditation

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