Set your bedtime and wake time every single day. This is the most important step toward getting good sleep. Research has shown that having a set sleep schedule, regardless of weekday, workday or vacation, is essential for creating good quality sleep and maintaining a normal circadian rhythm.
Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?
In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.
As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Dr. Kristi Harter.
Dr. Kristi Wrightson Harter, ND, MS, RD, has spent more than two decades blending conventional and holistic medicine to deliver a complete protocol of care for her patients. She is the founder of Dr. Harter’s Botanicals, a line of organic botanical bitters, tonics, teas and elixirs, and the founder of Santa Barbara-based Nest Integrative Medicine Spa, an integrated primary care practice focused on women’s health, hormonal balancing and anti-aging therapies. Dr. Kristi is a graduate of Bastyr University and is a member of the California Association of Naturopathic Physicians and a supporting member of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?
I have been formulating botanical bitters, tonics, teas and elixirs for many years to help elevate my patients’ health. Long before I was Dr. Kristi, I was dancing through daffodils, growing 10-foot-tall tomato vines and playing in the kitchen with plants. My favorite pastime was finding obscure, decades-old (or even centuries-old) recipes that I could update and use to create anything from skincare salves and hair tonic to medicinal honey for a sore throat.
Dr. Harter’s Botanicals was born in 2018 after I discovered that my husband’s ancestors had a medicine-making company with wild cherry bitters as its flagship product. My husband and I decided to make my dreams come true by partnering to create a botanical company that delivers carefully crafted and curated medicines. Today, Dr. Harter’s Botanicals is helping people achieve optimal health through education, resources and high-quality all-organic products that help with everyday ailments like fatigue and digestive dilemmas.
As a naturopathic doctor and the owner of Santa Barbara-based Nest Integrative Medicine Spa, I meet individuals every day who are seeking answers to their health issues. My primary care practice focuses on women’s health, hormonal balancing and anti-aging therapies using an integrative approach.
While getting my naturopathic doctorate and master’s in nutrition at Bastyr University, before opening my own practice, I worked with physicians from Northside Hospital in Atlanta, GA and at several integrated health clinics in Seattle, WA. This training exposed me to conventional and holistic medical perspectives, and inspired me to create a more complete protocol of care that employs characteristics from both forms of healing.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?
In my late twenties, I was the primary caregiver for my grandmother who had suffered several strokes. I was taking her to all her doctor’s appointments and finding that, although each of her doctors seemed to truly adore her, my grandmother was getting just 7–9 minutes of time with her doctors. It did not feel like enough time to get our questions answered or to implement the changes she needed. I had my first introduction to naturopathic medicine through an herbal book I was reading and began exploring that career path. I started my pre-med courses while I was caregiving for my grandmother and eventually went to get my naturopathic doctorate so I could be a doctor who took the time to truly listen and understand patients and get them on a path to health.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
Naturopathic doctors are inherently taught to focus on wellness instead of disease. When I work with patients on their overall health, we look deeply at the many aspects of their lives that can be beneficial or harmful to their wellness. This includes essential areas such as energy, stress, nutrition, and, of course, sleep. Over the past 15 years, I have spoken to each of my patients about their sleep hygiene, quality and quantity, as it is a critical piece of any treatment plan to help them achieve optimal health. My unique approach to finding what works for each individual patient is the biggest gift I can give. Because each person’s physiology, lifestyle, stress management and hormone regulation is different, it means that I almost never use the same approach for any one patient. And, although there are basic foundational elements to create wellness, it takes a clear understanding, active listening and knowledge of available remedies to formulate the perfect recipe for each patient.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Yes! Jude’s Herbal Home Remedies. It is a book by a master herbalist who teaches one to use herbs in the home for basic recipes like soap-making, and advanced medicine recipes like tonics for digestive upset. This book introduced me to making herbal medicine and started my journey of using botanicals as treatment. The Dr. Harter’s Botanicals Healing Salve recipe was formulated from a very basic recipe in this book and it is one of my favorite remedies for topical healing.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
One of my favorite quotes is by Thich Nhat Hanh and it reads, “no mud, no lotus” in his book by the same title. It has influenced my growth as a person and a doctor. In his book, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the beauty of the lotus and how it would never come to be if it did not have the mud to grow in. This life lesson is about remembering that our growth comes from learning, and often, that knowledge comes out of a time of difficulty and challenge. To connect deeply to that hard piece and not run away from the suffering is not easy, but if I remember that the lotus is the result of the lesson, it can make a challenging situation more manageable. That gentle reminder helped me immensely when starting my own business and growing the business, and is now helping me as I introduce my botanical product line. I will not give up because the lotus will surely be there at the end.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?
There is absolutely a difference in the amount of sleep that we need based on age. Typically, an infant will need 16–17 hours of sleep per day, so they are asleep more than awake; tweens need between 10–12 hours; teens need 9–10 hours; adults need 8–10 hours and elderly adults need 7–8 hours.
Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?
There are many factors that go into what makes for the best sleep, but in general, you want to go to bed and wake up at the same time each night/day. It will help to set your circadian rhythm which is your internal clock that regulates sleep and wake timing. The total amount of hours matters, especially over the course of a lifetime. In fact, there is a study that showed that people with heart disease or diabetes who get less than 6 hours of sleep per night for long periods of time double their risk of death.
If you have to get less sleep one night (say you have to get up early to travel), then keep your bedtime the same and get fewer hours of sleep, so you don’t change your circadian rhythm. However, if you’re dealing with a longer-term situation (maybe due to work hours), then you should go to bed at a time that works with your schedule, so you can get 8 hours of sleep. This will help you get more sleep throughout your lifetime.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?
If you’ve ever had one bad night of sleep, you know the feeling of fatigue, brain fog and general malaise that can happen the next day. Now imagine that happening for YEARS! With improved sleep, this hypothetical patient will have improved energy so they can achieve and sustain all the projects they are pursuing. They will find that mental cognition is better and they can think more clearly. Weight management should be easier, too, as sleep helps us make the needed hormones to control hunger, blood sugar and glucose management the next day. This patient will feel like they can better react to stress because their cortisol release times should be improving substantially. They should also find that their moods are easier to balance, as most of our neurotransmitters are being made while we are getting good regenerative sleep.
Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?
Benjamin Franklin once said, “…in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” I would add sleep to that list. Sleep is something that we should count on every single night. Our bodies must have sleep time to rest, repair and regenerate our cells. Sleep should be a non-negotiable item on every person’s list so that they can regulate hormones and make certain they have optimal cellular function the next day.
The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?
Putting knowledge into practice daily can be difficult, but it is not impossible.
- The first challenge is adjusting the lifestyle choices we make right before bedtime. For example, some of my patients work long hours or stay up past their children’s bedtime to finish their to-do list. This choice usually means they will not get enough hours of sleep. Set a bedtime and wake time that will allow for enough hours in bed. Before you know it, you’ll get enough sleep without much effort. I also encourage 30 minutes of practicing good sleep hygiene before bed. This can include dimming the lights, putting on relaxing music, taking a bath, and/or doing some gentle stretches to prepare your body for sleep.
- The second challenge is overcoming sleep-inhibiting daytime habits. These may include drinking caffeine, eating stimulating foods like sugar, or drinking alcohol late in the day or at night. These habits can disrupt your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Even when a person knows that sleep is important, it can still be difficult to stop drinking coffee, eating chocolate or imbibing alcohol. In my practice, I have patients eliminate one thing at a time that may be contributing to their symptoms (in this case, not sleeping well). For example, we may start by reducing the number of cups of coffee per day or limiting the intake to not go beyond certain hours of the day. If that re-patterning helps them to sleep, then patients will generally not need as much coffee for energy through the day. Or, if a patient is eating stimulating foods such as sugar, we will work on eliminating or reducing those foods until we can get their sleep to an optimal level.
- The third sleep challenge is physical imbalances. Even if you try to go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time, your cells may not cooperate. Higher stress hormones, changing hormones (such as in menopause), low blood sugar and dehydration can all be obstacles to getting good sleep. It can be extremely frustrating to try to initiate better sleep patterns and then not be able to make headway due to physiological obstacles. With my patients, I try to make certain that hydration levels are adequate and blood sugar is under control first. These can often be easily managed by drinking enough water (half your body weight in ounces) each day and making sure to eat a small, easily digested snack 30 minutes before bedtime. Often full fat yogurt or a protein smoothie work well in these instances. If neither make a difference with sleep, I will then check stress hormone levels (such as cortisol) and sex hormone levels to see if these are in balance. Often, a simple saliva or blood test can be the difference between getting good sleep or none at all.
Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?
Absolutely! In general, most people have greater stress on a daily basis than they did in the past. Our culture rewards hard work and productivity, which means more work hours and less relaxation time. If our nervous systems are not given time to move from an excitatory state to an inhibited state, it is difficult to shut down the brain and go into rest mode. This means it can be harder to fall asleep, and if you do fall asleep easily then wake in the middle of the night, your cortisol can rise, turning on an active mind that makes it harder to fall back to sleep.
We also have screens and lights that we use at night, which don’t allow our brains to shift into a restful mode. When the sun goes down, melatonin should to be secreted to trigger the cascade of chemicals that initiates cellular regeneration that occurs while we sleep. If we turn on bright lights or screens, we artificially tell our brains that it is still daytime and melatonin won’t be released, making it harder for sleep initiation.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.
- Set your bedtime and wake time every single day. This is the most important step toward getting good sleep. Research has shown that having a set sleep schedule, regardless of weekday, workday or vacation, is essential for creating good quality sleep and maintaining a normal circadian rhythm.
- Create a sleep hygiene routine. At least 30 minutes before bed every night, wind down by dimming the lights, shutting off screens and then engaging in relaxing activities such as taking a warm bath, reading a non-stimulating book or magazine, stretching or meditating. This will allow your nervous system to start to relax and be in its inhibited state. When you get into bed 30 minutes later, you will have lowered your stress hormones and should be able to fall asleep easily.
- Stay hydrated and avoid stimulants and alcohol. Drinking enough water throughout the day (but stopping 2 hours prior to bed) and avoiding alcohol can help you sustain sleep throughout the night, and ensure that you don’t get dry nasal passages or muscle cramps that can interfere with sleep. Also, limiting stimulants such as sugar, caffeine or nicotine, that can rev up your nervous system, will make it easier for you to be in a calm, relaxed state needed for good sleep.
- Have a plan if you wake. Some people get up and read, while others lay in bed and rest, or listen to meditation tapes or recordings. If your mind is active, do some breathing exercises or quiet meditation. You can try the Cycle of 4 breathing technique: inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, exhale 4 counts, repeat 3 times. Each person must discover what works for them, but it’s critical to have a plan that you can put in place as soon as you wake. There are also botanicals, such as California Poppy or kava that can help quiet the mind in the middle of the night, but you should take them under the supervision of a healthcare practitioner.
- Get daily exercise. Moderate activity can help sleep quality. I recently had a patient who has had insomnia for decades. We implemented several of the above steps, but it was not until he got an hour of mild to moderate activity mid-day that he was able to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who has suffered from insomnia for over half of his life!
What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?
Everyone should have a plan of what to do if they wake in the middle of the night. The solution for getting back to sleep depends on the reason for waking.
- If low blood sugar was the cause of waking, I recommend consuming whole-fat yogurt or a protein-based smoothie 30 minutes prior to bed, so you can digest it prior to sleep. Alternatively, you can keep a small 4-ounce serving of easily digested protein shake or juice close to your bed or in the fridge. When consumed, this should help regulate your blood sugar and get you back to sleep.
- If you can’t get back to sleep because your nervous system starts to become active and your brain turns on (or someone/something wakes you and your mind gets active), then going back to sleep can be a little more challenging. Finding a relaxing activity such as meditation or breathing can be very helpful in these moments to clear the mind and go back to sleep. You can also take botanicals such as kava, lemon balm or passionflower in tincture form, which are easily absorbed and bioavailable. Dr. Harter’s Botanicals has a hemp-infused botanical combination that you can take before bed or in the middle of the night to help ease the body into relaxation and rest.
- Often, when women are close to or entering menopause, they can have drops in hormones that have profound effects on sleep. Typically, women will have either a hard time falling or staying asleep, or occasionally they will have issues with both. If this is the case, it is essential to test hormones and support those hormonal pathways so that 2 a.m. wake-ups don’t happen.
What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?
Naps can be beneficial if someone did not get a good night’s sleep the previous night and they are finding it hard to function during the day. Yet, if the nap is more than 20 minutes, it can impair one’s ability to sleep at night. If you can take a power nap for no longer than 20 minutes, it can help with cognitive function during the rest of the day and not interfere with sleep at night.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Morgan Freeman. We have a running joke in my family that if I had to spend one night on a deserted island, it would be with Morgan Freeman so he could tell me bedtime stories that would help me fall asleep. His voice is so soothing. I think that if he were to do bedtime stories or meditations, they would be a terrific hit!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!