8 Steps to a Better Sleep

8 Steps to a Better Sleep

How’s your sleep these days? It’s a question I almost always ask my clients early in the therapeutic process. Sleep, while sometimes undervalued in our high-performance ‘busy’-glorifying society, could not be more vital to our well-being. When we sleep our brain files away the day’s events and memories and our body repairs and replenishes. Waste matter in the brain is processed and removed instead of being allowed to build up. Muscles repair and rebuild. Blood pressure eases. Cuts heal. Our organs take a much-needed rest. For example breathing slows, the heart pumps more slowly, and the liver takes a break from detoxifying the rest of the body to instead repair itself. We get a break from harmful stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. And our hunger-regulating hormones are balanced during sleep making us less likely to crave sugary, empty calorie foods.

For some people sleep comes easily and reliably. But I am well aware that many people are having more and more trouble with sleep. Perhaps this is close to home for you. You may be thinking “I really really want to sleep… I just can’t!” New moms, women in general, men and women who suffer from anxiety, there are so many who aren’t sleeping well. Especially in our over-caffeinated and over-scheduled lives, I would say that most of my clients have some difficulty sleeping.

If this is you, I invite you to join me right now in taking a very careful look at your bedtime routine and sleep habits. In mental health we call it “sleep hygiene”. With time and persistence you can train yourself to sleep better. Here are eight of the most important factors in getting a good night’s sleep:

1. Stick to a routine

Using a tried and true method called ‘classical conditioning’ you can train yourself to sleep well by pairing certain activities with bedtime for a few weeks consistently. In other words, the more that you begin your bedtime routine by, let’s say, brushing your teeth, washing your face, doing your 10-minute meditation, and saying goodnight to your goldfish, the more that your body and mind will come to associate that routine with the next step: sleep! Doing the same (sleep-friendly) things before bed day-in and day-out will help to ensure that your brain and body get the message each night: it’s time to sleep.

2. Turn off all screens an hour before bed

Our modern self-lit devices: televisions, computer screens, tablets, and phones, illuminate using a rapidly flashing blue-toned light. Our eyes and brain compensate for this and we only see a solidly-lit screen when we’re viewing it, but in the meantime other parts of the brain are being highly stimulated by this light. It means that while we’re aware of feeling really tired, unconsciously we are activated and perhaps even agitated. So break the addiction and put away the phone, turn off the TV, and meditate, listen to music, or read by lamplight from a paperback book… give your eyes a break from all screens for at least an hour before you’re hoping to fall asleep.

3. Dim the lights

This one is simple and it relates to the point above. When our eyes are exposed to bright light our natural melatonin production is impacted. As recently as one hundred years ago or so, and for all our centuries on Earth prior to that, the sun would set and we would illuminate our lives for a few extra hours by candle, lantern, or fire. Quite a stark change from the florescent, incandescent, and electronic LED lights we use these days! These days we leave all the lights on right up until bedtime and then take a melatonin pill to help us sleep. Yes, I believe there is something wrong with this picture. Turn the lights down, turn some of them off, light a few candles, and trust nature to guide you to sleep.

4. Lower your temperature

Try having a warm (not too hot) bath with some Epsom salts (magnesium also helps us get sleepy) and then go to bed in a relatively cool bedroom without too many covers. As your body temperature drops gently you are more likely to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep. Studies on people with insomnia show that they tend to have warmer core temperatures at bedtime than the norm, so see if you can find a way to cool down comfortably.

5. Try a natural sleep aid

There are some things made by Nature that naturally help us to sleep. They tend not to have any harmful side effects or addictive qualities, and they often serve multiple purposes like calming anxiety as well. When I say “natural” I’m talking about things your great-grandmother would recognize such as chamomile tea or lemon balm tea. Valerian root also acts as a natural sedative. Magnesium supplements are another one that I swear by. And by the way, magnesium deficiency is also a culprit in anxiety and body aches. Please check with your doctor or naturopathic doctor first, but for me magnesium supplementation was a game-changer.

6. Cut out caffeine at least 6 hours before bed

The time it takes for the body to eliminate one half of the caffeine you consume is approximately 5.5 hours. That means that 12 hours after consuming caffeine you will still have about 25% of it in your system. It takes a full 24 hours to work its way out of your system. Do you see where I’m going with this? Some people can tolerate it better than others, so give yourself an honest appraisal of your own limits. Better yet, eliminate caffeine altogether. After the initial withdrawal discomfort you will notice, believe it or not, improved alertness and concentration as well as deeper sleep, and your adrenals will thank you! Again, trust mamma Nature!

7. Don’t lie awake in bed

Easier said than done, right? Don’t worry, you do have control over this. What I mean is that if you have been lying awake in bed for 20 minutes or so in full alertness it’s time to change things up. Get up, have a little walk around your place in the partial-dark, read something dull for 15 minutes by lamplight… the point is to train yourself that bed is a place for sleeping, not a place for lying awake in frustration or worry. If frustration and worry are winning the battle, get out of bed for a little while.

8. And the most important of all: The Anchor

The anchor of your sleep routine is your waking time. Your waking time is just as important as the things you do before bed. Setting an anchor for your sleep routine means getting up at the same time every day no matter how many hours you slept the night before, no matter whether it’s the week or weekend. It’s also important to stay awake throughout the day, no matter how tired you might feel. The next night, try your new healthy sleep routine again, and again get up at your anchor time no matter what. Repeat, repeat. (By the way, this doesn’t fully translate to new mamas. Caring for a newborn infant requires a whole other level of sacrifice… you can use these tips to get your sleep back on track later!)

The discipline required here isn’t easy, especially when you’re sleep-deprived and feeling desperate, but getting your sleep back on track in a natural and sustainable way is so very worth it. If this isn’t happening for you, see if you can simplify rather than complicate. What would your ancestors do? What does Nature suggest? Nature has designed you to sleep well and wake up feeling rested and restored, at least most of the time. Trust in that.

Seasonal Depression & Autumn Magic

Seasonal Depression & Autumn Magic

The Northern hemisphere is well past Equinox and moving toward the shortest day of the year.

I have long struggled with this time of year. Although the brightly colored leaves are beautiful and everyone becomes more grateful for the sunny days, I always have a sense of sadness and foreboding… here comes the darkness. Cold, wet, depressing darkness. Some of you will understand well what I’m talking about.

Being a mental health therapist I am well aware of the impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), when depression becomes an even more common and debilitating issue. To combat SAD some people begin antidepressant medications, some seek the support of a counselor, and many simply become amotivated and unproductive, wiling away the hours watching Netflix and sleeping. In years past I have tried all of these in all combinations. But I could never rid myself of that sense of sadness and dysfunction. The medication came with too many side-effects, the counseling didn’t make a lasting difference, and trudging around feeling sorry for myself definitely didn’t do me any good. If all my training in psychology and resources in the mental health system couldn’t help me, what hope is there? What was I neglecting?

Nature. What if we could turn to Nature for help? What if we could deepen our understanding of this time of year and find meaning in it? Understand where we come from and what our ancestors knew about this time of year. What if we could bring spiritual health into the mix?

For me this healing process began with learning. Learning what fall is for. Learning about the natural and ancient purpose that winter serves. Learning about the symbolic as well as practical applications of these seasons in the life of a human. I learned about my personal connection to winter and darkness. In my death-denying culture nobody had ever taught me that there is purpose and beauty in it. This is the time of year when the tree releases its leaves and acorns, and the acorn is embedded and incubated under a blanket of snow, a necessary process in order for the seeds contained inside to germinate next spring. I began to see the application of this in my own life.

In this culture of busy, productive, consumption nobody ever taught me the importance and irreplaceable value of resting. I think you’ll agree most of us are taught to take extra vitamins, get a bigger coffee with an extra shot of espresso, and in various other ways try our best to ‘cure’ our need for rest. But there is no avoiding it. We are Nature and we still cycle with the seasons and the Earth no matter what expectations are placed upon us. When we strip away the shame, the impatience, and the expectations and accept our need for rest as something whole and right and good, we change our relationship with the darkness and, for me at least, layers of sadness and sickness fell away.

This time of year is for gathering together in the darkness, remembering our ancestors, and putting faith in the wisdom of Nature and the feminine energies for renewal. It is about understanding that rebirth begins with death. It is about understanding that the sprouting seed of Spring began much earlier, with the dark incubation of winter.

Fall is about letting go of whatever no longer serves us. It is a time of transition. It is a time to slow down, to deepen into ourselves. Fall is a time for preparation. The seeds of what you are creating can be incubated over winter, as if in the womb. Your work at this time of year is to be intentional about what you will leave under that blanket of snow and what you will rake away during this transitional season. In letting go and clearing, trust that things you don’t need right now will be available to you when you do. You don’t have to hang on to everything. Where are your big YES’s and NO’s right now? “Maybe” can feel like a safe option but it’s just an excuse to cling to everything… with “maybe” we sacrifice depth and opportunities for growth and healing. Wield your scythe bravely and let your YES’s and NO’s be known.

There is room at this time of year for sadness, letting go, and grieving, without the need to label it as a disorder. As I learned (and continue to learn) about the beauty, purpose, and wisdom of this season and the winter to come I began to feel, for the first time in my life, at peace with the darkening days and the long frosty nights. It’s easier now to allow myself to slow down, turn inward, light a little fire in the dark and welcome the stillness… without worrying that there must be something wrong with me. My hope is to share this with you.

The Medicine of Garlic Gardening

The Medicine of Garlic Gardening

It’s time to plant garlic. Approximately. This crop is oh-so forgiving.

Do you know how easy it is to grow your own garlic? Mine grows about 2 inches away from the cement of my front stoop, amongst a mini-rose and some coral bell plants. No veggie garden, no fencing, no special soil or unique conditions. Just a few inches of dirt, lots of sun, and regular water.

And here’s my favorite part: a few years ago I bought a big expensive head of organic purple ‘elephant garlic’ from the grocery store. I ate most of it, but decided to stick 2 cloves of it in the aforementioned dirt. I happened to do that in the fall. The rest is history. Every summer I pull two enormous, plump, purple heads of this special garlic out of my little front porch garden. They hang to dry for a couple weeks in the garden office (my counselling office). Every fall I put two little cloves of it back in the dirt. Rinse the dirt from fingernails and repeat!

Choosing to work with a resilient and forgiving plant ally such as garlic can be immensely therapeutic. Not only is garlic literally medicine (it is highly nutritious, boosts immune function, can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol, is a potent antioxidant which may help to prevent dementia, and can help to detoxify heavy metals in the body), but gardening with it brings another form of medicine…

Growing garlic teaches us to notice and work with the changing seasons. Our ‘fruit’ is hiding beneath the soil so we must learn to listen to the plant in order to know when to harvest. We will notice the intense heat of summer, the abundance of bees and butterflies, and we’ll watch her green spike leaves start to turn brown and die away. Another and another, browning and sagging. It’s time to dig her up, dust her off, and give her some air for a couple weeks. We’ll need to remember to go get her if she’s hanging in a potting shed or carport. We’ll snip off the plant stalk and the roots. Suddenly plant becomes food! Then, we’ll notice the days getting shorter, the nights cooler. The geese are yelling overhead. It’s time to break off a couple cloves of that treasure we unearthed and put them back in the dirt. I love that slightly unsettling feeling of putting food in the ground instead of in my mouth… suddenly food becomes plant again. Many months later, after the snow has come and gone, we’ll see her leaves emerging and growing up. As the season is warming and the baby birds are all leaving their nests we’ll notice her growing a slender flower stalk that begins upside-down and slowly curls upward toward the sky. Are you looking forward to enjoying that flower? You might not like what comes next.

Growing garlic for eating (and medicine) demands sacrifice. We must sacrifice the big beautiful spiked flower (we’ll never even get to see it) if we want to harvest a nice plump head of garlic. Left to her own devices the plant would put all her energy into creating that flower, attracting bees to pollinate, and reproducing. The bulb would be a skinny, depleted little thing if we allowed her to make a flower. So we trim that curious curling bud (called a ‘scape’) before it develops and ask her to devote her energy to the bulb instead. The good news is we can eat the scape too.

The plant knows. One minute she is directing all her energy to the flower, the next she is redirecting it all to the bulb.

Growing garlic can teach us about ancestors and lineage. The cloves I’ll be eating and planting soon are the direct descendants of that original head I bought years ago… whose lineage stretches much further back. In fact, somewhere within each of these big juicy bulbs is the original clove I planted last year. It can help us to appreciate the whole cycle of birth and death. It plays out through the seasons of the year, in the production of that garlic head, and in our own existence. And every part of it is necessary, and beautiful in it’s own way.

When I’m tending to the garlic, whatever stage it’s at, I am grounded and focused. My other anxieties and obligations fall away for the moment. For a brief time I am engaged in a sacred relationship with this  incredible plant ally and teacher. I can feel the presence of my own ancestors: women with brave hearts and dirt under their fingernails, at least some of the time. It’s in these moments that I can remember who I am and where I’m from. This depth of belonging is transformative.

Do you work with garlic medicine? Do you think you might give it a go? Please tell me your story, I would love to hear it!



I had a lovely conversation with a stranger at a cafe today who read aloud to me a haiku he wrote, and explained how the trees where he lives appear to be breathing. Watching them has taught him to listen in a way that years of meditation never did. In a way that he can feel in his bones. He has realized that people are not the only sentient beings. What’s more, the fact that we are just now coming to realize this makes us the infants, the naive ones, the newest initiates. One by one we are waking up with a wide-eyed “Oh… I see!”

Sharing something like this can feel pretty vulnerable. I admire him for taking the risk, although I suspect he has reached an age and stage where he no longer worries much about the opinions of cafe patrons. Nonetheless, I hope I was able to convey how thoroughly I understand.

The world around us, the plants, the animals, the children, are offering guidance all the time. Patiently offering and waiting for us to listen. They still have not given up on us despite our arrogance and ignorance. They have so much comfort and wisdom to offer. So much guidance.

Are you learning to listen?

If you’re interested and not sure where to start here’s what I suggest: go outside in Nature (without your phone); sit somewhere comfortable; be still and quiet. Simply watch, listen, smell, feel. When you get bored, restless, nervous… just keep sitting. Stay still and quiet. Sit through the desire to do something. Sit through the cravings for your phone. And as you continue to sit, notice how your surroundings scurry back to life. It takes about 5 minutes. Bugs, birds, furry creatures. Watch them all venture out from hiding. Allow yourself to be assimilated.

Notice how it feels to belong.