Sleep is a natural physiological process, during which nervous and intellectual recuperation takes place. The actual cause of sleep is still an open question. We know that during normal sleep the brain is comparatively anaemic, and the activity of the higher centres at least is suspended for a time.
What it is that actually induces sleep, however, we cannot say. We sleep when we are tired, or, at least, we ought to. It is thought that certain products of fatigue accumulate in the blood during our waking hours, and that these act in a soporific manner upon the brain. On the other hand, over-fatigue will prevent sleep.
Many cases of sleeplessness are due to very slight causes. The habit of quiet, restful, soothing sleep can be acquired. Insomnia is, in nine cases out of ten, a bad habit which has been allowed to form after two or three wakeful nights due to very simple causes. The one condition necessary for restful sleep is a quiet state of mind, with certain physical essentials in addition. Excess of mental work, anxiety and worry are frequent causes of sleeplessness. Cold feet, ill-ventilated bedrooms, and an uncomfortable bed are also conducive to insomnia.
It is most important to keep the brain free from active exertion before going to bed. Heavy mental work late at night must therefore be avoided. Many a woman sleeps badly because she takes her worries to the portals of sleep, and plans out her next day's work at the very moment her mind should be composed and restful. The fear of sleeplessness seems to keep sleep at bay. "I know I shall not sleep," says the nervous, over-strained victim of insomnia, and from mere force of auto-suggestion, sleep is banished.
Sleeplessness is very common at the present time. This might be, with a good deal of truth, designated the age of insomnia. In its worst form it will bring on melancholia and mental instability. In its milder forms it will produce irritability and impaired capacity for work. It is most important for every woman to have a fair allowance of restful sleep every night of her life. Nothing spoils a woman's looks and health more than persistent under-sleeping. I have heard women pride themselves on the fact that, like Napoleon, they could do with five hours' sleep at night. Almost anyone could - for a time. Most of us can work at high pressure and curtail our hours of sleep without apparent ill-results in the present. But the time comes when Nature exacts payment. We find sooner or later that we are more easily tired, that we are subject to headache and other nervous signs. We may realise that we need more sleep, and try to get it. But it is not easy to break a habit once it is formed, and the woman who has made a habit of going to bed at 12.30, or even 2 a.m., may find that she will only toss about sleepless for a couple of hours if she goes to bed at ten.
The people who work hard especially require plenty of sleep. The old adage about the number of hours requisite for a man, a woman, and a fool must have been written by a fool. The woman who can get into the habit of having eight or nine hours' sleep will find that she can get through more work in the twenty-four hours than if she limits her sleep to seven hours a night. Sleep is the best restorative, the one preventive of nervous ills. We can work hard without risk so long as we sleep enough. So let the women who have to work either in the home or in the world outside have their sleep at all costs.
Now, if you have allowed yourself to acquire a sleepless habit, how can sleep be regained quickly and naturally?
Medical conditions of ill-health, such as gout, chronic constipation, or dyspepsia are common causes of sleeplessness. Heavy meals late at night would keep a Hercules awake. See that your environment is conducive to sleep. See that you have a comfortable bed, with a simple, firm mattress. Bed-clothing which is not too heavy, but is yet sufficient to provide warmth, a quiet, well-ventilated room are all points to be noted. The last meal should be taken at least two hours before retiring to bed. Some people will find that a glass of very hot milk, sipped after getting into bed, will encourage sleep. A warm bath, also, at a temperature of 98.4 degrees is an excellent measure, whilst anyone who suffers from cold feet will probably sleep better if a hot-water bottle is provided.
The great thing is in old-fashioned language to "compose the mind." It was a clever child who replied to the nurse who wanted her to lie down quietly and go to sleep: "I cannot make my mind lie down." Half an hour's reading of a light, interesting but not exciting book will often soothe the mind, and the deliberate determination not to worry is a far better device than counting up to a thousand, or concentrating upon imaginary sheep jumping over a gate.
The best methods of inducing sleep are self-suggestion and the deliberate freeing of the mind from thought. Say to yourself: "I intend to sleep well." When you get into bed, deliberately banish thought from your mind. Breathe quietly, evenly, and rather deeply, and count each breath you take. In nine cases out of ten the device will be found successful from the first. The tenth case must simply practise until it does become successful. It is always a mistake to become depressed or worried because one cannot sleep. Say to yourself: "Even if I do not sleep, it does not greatly matter either to myself or anyone else." Never allow the idea of sleeplessness to grip you, to make you become unhappy, excited, angry, or depressed, and whatever you do, never upon any account take hypnotic drugs without a doctor's advice. You are better with five hours' natural sleep than seven or eight which are the result of drugging. Once you begin to take drugs, every week will make it more difficult for you to give them up. Small doses may suffice at first, but they soon lose their effect, and you have to take more and more. The result is poisoning by the accumulated drug in the system, and there is risk that you may become a victim to drugs, than which there is no more pitiable object.
What is the best procedure, then, to take ? Follow the rules for obtaining restful sleep already given. Deal with the cause by attending to any condition of ill-health such as excess of uric acid in the blood, indigestion, or excess of alcohol, which, even existing in a slight form, will cause dyspepsia. Perhaps 50 per cent. of the cases of insomnia are due to overtaxing the nervous system. So that it is most important to regulate one's daily work, to avoid hustling, to strive for intellectual and nervous discipline. Try to keep the evening hours for recreation. Go to bed at 10.30 every night for a month, and rise shortly before eight next morning, whether you have slept or not.
It is a mistake to lie late in the morning with the idea of making up for a sleepless night. Never sleep during the day, but rather be out of doors in the fresh air, and get as much gentle exercise as you can. Your aim should be to sleep between 10.30 p.m. and 7.30 a.m., to establish a habit of soothing sleep during the night. By sleeping late in the morning or during the day you are simply pandering to your nervous system, which has got out of hand.
Take a short period of rest once or twice during the day, if you like, without sleeping; until you have got into the habit of sleeping at night it is wiser not to doze off, especially in the evening. Be sure that your bedroom is well supplied with fresh air both by day and night, and choose as quiet a room as possible. If these simple measures do not prevail, you should see a doctor, as sleeplessness is a habit very difficult to break if it has been persisted in for any length of time. This is especially necessary if you have got into the habit of taking drugs. Under the advice of a doctor, a drug can either be cut off all at once or gradually reduced in amount according to the condition of your nervous and physical health. It is impossible for a non-medical person to know exactly what to do to break off a habit of drugging, whilst the confidence in the stronger will of the doctor is in itself a good thing for the sleepless patient. Many a patient will sleep simply because the doctor says that she will.
If worry is at the root of insomnia, the fact must be faced. Women are very liable to worry unnecessarily over matters that cannot be altered. Useless worry saps the mental, moral, and physical health. If anything has gone wrong with us, it can either be righted or it cannot. In the former case the wise woman works to that end with all her might, and does not worry, because worry will handicap her efforts. In the latter case the thing must be accepted as inevitable. Worry will only increase the burden one has to bear, and lead to all sorts of additional ills besides sleeplessness. Healthy sleep is a great good, worthy of preserving; insomnia an evil habit, which every sensible woman will keep at bay if she desires health and happiness in this life.