The Art of Natural Sleep (Part 1 of 2)

 In Anxiety/Depression/Mental Health, Education, Environmental Medicine, Gastrointestinal, Insomnia/Sleep Medicine, Mind/Body, Nature Cure

Sussanna Czeranko, ND

Fresh air is the best and cheapest of all medicines, for certainly we can class it as a medicine if the properties of a medicine are to heal and cure.                       

S. T. Erieg, 1926, p. 343

The duration of sleep has next to nothing to do with its quality, the prime question, therefore, is not how long we slept, but how well.

Edward Earle Purinton, 1912, p. 4

The importance of getting a good night’s sleep was on the minds of the early naturopaths. The causes in those days, as today, for sleeplessness and insomnia were as diverse and numerous as the recipes for a good night’s sleep. The realm of sleep took the early naturopaths into the uncharted unconscious mind where many fanciful notions about psychic factors invited explanation. For instance, the male doctors handily explained what they thought to be the differences between the sexes by speculating and theorizing about how men and women sleep. In any case, pondering the purpose of good sound sleep, many of those early doctors emphasized the importance in replenishing our energies and body. It was not enough just to sleep, but to get good quality sleep. Our thoughts at bedtime and our “mental attitude and [our] thoughts at the time [we] retire, have much to do with the restfulness and benefits of [our] sleep” (Evertz, 1917, p. 250).

Early naturopaths considered the fundamentals. Purinton, for example, explains:

The scientific fact about sleep is this: that nothing in us rests but our brain and senses. … All the vital functions continue during sleep, only the peripheral functions suspend activity; sensation is mortal, but vitality is eternal. Now the blight on manhood is intellection, the blight of womanhood is emotion, the blight of both is sensation. And the purpose of sleep is to remove the blight. When the soul absolutely rules the brain and senses, then will sleep be done away with. (Purinton, January, 1912, p. 3)

With the body acting as a storage battery, Lindlahr saw sleep as a way to recharge the body with “a reserve of vital energy [that] accumulates for the work of the following day” (Lindlahr, 1931, p. 31).

The Causes of Insomnia

From the perspective of the naturopaths of these early decades of the last century, sleeplessness or insomnia had many causes, as we will examine. For some, sleeplessness was seen as a disease of the nerves that were “in such a state of tension that they will not allow you to sleep at night, or, for that matter, to function normally in the daytime” (Richter, 1936, p. 355). Lust put it slightly differently: “any excessive strain, whether it is of a physical or mental character, may give rise to sleeplessness” (Lust, 1927, p. 271). As well, neurasthenia was strongly linked to insomnia. “In neurasthenia the entire organism appears to have lost control or the power to withstand influences from outer sources that act upon the nervous system and in this manner the disease manifests itself principally as a disturbance of willpower” (Lust, 1926, p. 334). Neurasthenia “wears the nerves threadbare and robs the mind of all serenity” (Powell, 1908, p. 2). Lust added, discussing the consequences of neurasthenia, “their feelings are disturbed and their muscles tire very easily. They suffer from all sorts of aches and pains and in many cases one of their worst sufferings is insomnia” (Lust, 1926, p. 334).

While attributing insomnia to neurasthenia and nervousness like his peers, Tilden also points to autotoxemia, intestinal toxins and mercurial mania as likely causes. “Acid stomach, from too much starch eating or over eating” (Tilden, 1921, pp. 332-3) also contributed to sleepless nights, he added. Purinton focused on insomnia as a ‘women’s ailment’ concluding that women were essentially ‘nervous’ minding and fretting over their children and therefore “always half asleep in their minds and body” (Purinton, 1912, p. 4). Women were conveniently slotted into the nervous/neurasthenia category because they presented enigmatically for the men who treated them.

It is helpful when trying to wrap our contemporary clinical perspective around the social and political norms within which how our early male naturopaths, invariably, perceived women. For example, our chagrin may be softened by recalling that women had not yet acquired the right to vote and were not even considered legal persons. In fact, Canada’s Supreme Court in April of 1928 ruled that the word “person” in Section 24 of the British North America Act did not include female persons. Five women from Alberta appealed the decision in Canada’s highest court of appeal, the Privy Council of England, and in the landmark decision on October 18, 1929, the Privy Council ruled that women were indeed persons under the law. A similar journey of women’s suffrage in the US was achieved gradually, at state and local levels, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Notwithstanding these issues, both men and women were agitated in their lives and often would not sleep well. Their naturopathic doctors were very much interested in sleep disorder issues whose causes they determined too many and varied. For example, Richter states, “sometimes patients are afraid to go to sleep for fear they will not wake up in the morning” (Richter, 1936, p.355). Densmore suggested, “an overloaded stomach is not only a great strain upon the digestive and nervous system… but it interferes also with healthful and refreshing sleep”(Densmore, 1892, p. 90). Purinton added, “over anxiety or overfeeding is the almost invariable cause of disturbed sleep” (Purinton, January, 1912, p. 4). As well, Lust himself remarked, “lustful thoughts, undue indulgence in excesses of the senses, heavy smoking, late suppers cudgeling the brain last thing at night in working out difficult business problems, reading exciting literature, sleeping in a badly ventilated room, the taking of stimulants, and the playing of complicated games of chance before turning into bed” (Lust, 1926, p. 271) contribute to sleeplessness. Insomnia was also considered to be “a symptom accompanying many cases of constitutional disease, of infection, auto-intoxication and nervous reflexes” (Dienffenbach, 1909, p. 173).

Change Your Meal TimesMany persons who have been sickly for years have been made well by sleeping out doors with only a roof over them

Purinton concluded that “undigested or ill digested food is responsible for about three fourths of the sleeplessness that haunts civilized society. There can be no insomnia without congestion.… Dinner should never come less than three hours before bedtime, a four hour interval is better still.… Foods that were considered excellent soporifics included lettuce, watercress, nasturtium, endive, chicory, onions, asparagus, spinach, kohlrabi, and other vegetables” (Purinton, 1912, p. 79).

Dr. Richter in the 1930s attributed insomnia to the “constant violation of Nature’s laws, both in the matter of food and in the rest of our daily routine of living. Food which is cooked is unable to furnish the nerves with assimilable material for repair or building” (Richter, 1936, p. 355). Purinton qualified the relationship of food to sleep problems suggesting that “Indigestion is called the great American disease−but I doubt it. The American epidemic is insomnia”(Purinton, 1912, p. 4). What and when food was eaten could aggravate sleep and much was written about this.

Sometimes even the most self-evident advice was remarkably prescient in the days before electric lights. “In speaking of sleep in its bearings upon health, the first point I make is that night is the best time for it” (Jackson, 1874, p. 95). Lindlahr reminds us that “one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two at any other time” and encouraged his patients to “establish the habit of going to bed early” (Lindlahr, 1931, p. 32). In any case, the panoply of advice from our naturopathic forebears included interesting recommendations ranging from food-related solutions, the need to remove worry and stress in thought and activity prior to sleep, and even to urging people to consider sleeping outside.

Sleep Outdoors or as Near It as Possible

Useful to note with regard to the notion of outdoor sleeping are the conclusions made by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in the Total Exposure Assessment Methodology study [TEAM study] conducted in 1985 (Crinnion, 2004). The EPA determined that indoor air was 10 times more toxic than outdoor air. Many contemporary naturopathic doctors insist that the toxic chemical mix that goes into the creation of a modern house has changed human health forever. In comparison to homes that our great grandparents built with natural materials such as wood, wool rugs, and ceramics, we are now living in a quagmire of toxicity. Today we have replaced natural building materials with synthetic chemicals which, while enhancing efficiency in construction and design, culminate in Sick Building Syndrome for those who are forced or obliged to work and live in them.

In the early naturopathic literature there is consistent agreement among naturopaths that sleeping in well-ventilated rooms, and even outdoors, was the first suggestion for a good night’s sleep. Erieg explained, “night air never hurt any one, but polluted air has, and is a cause of headache and sickness and robs the body of health and vitality. Many persons who have been sickly for years have been made well by sleeping out doors with only a roof over them” (Erieg, 1926, p. 343). The emphasis in these recommendations by our naturopathic elders was on a-well ventilated bedroom of “pure, cold air and [that] the patient must be warm before retiring” (Dieffenbach, 1909, p. 173). Macfadden recommended air baths prior to sleeping. “A thorough airing and ventilation of the skin for some time before retiring helps to induce “a delightful drowsiness and help induce sleep” (Macfadden, 1923, p. 32).

Suggestions made to patients who lived in apartments were to sleep on the roof or to “rig up a bed-extension which goes through the lower part of your bedroom window, and allows you to sleep with your head actually out of doors” (Purinton, 1912, p. 75). Richter assured his patients that “all outdoor air, no matter how bad it is, whether rainy, damp, or in whatever condition is better than indoor air” (Richter, 1936, p. 66). He even went so far as to state, “it is also wise for all those who live in the city to have an outdoor bed to sleep in”(Richter, 1936, p. 66).

Many advocated the power of open fresh air for relieving sleeplessness. Purinton was clear about the impact of “open air” on these sleeping issues. “The open air itself is a medicine which puts one to sleep better than all the narcotics” (Purinton, 1912, p. 75). In fact, Purinton who had been plagued by years of insomnia and had tried everything, listed outdoor sleeping as his number one remedy. “I used to keep my head up to the open window when I lived down on Long Island, and I awoke one morning in a strange darkness which turned out to be caused by a snowdrift which had formed over my face during the night; I had breathed two holes through it, and had never noticed the snowfall while it was going on” (Purinton, 1912, p. 75).

Sleeping in cold bedrooms brought much relief for insomniacs. Purinton went on to say, “the greatest of all cures for every ill from pneumonia and tuberculosis to nerves and sleeplessness is sleeping out doors if you can, or in an ice-cold and well ventilated room if you haven’t a roof or a veranda that you can use as a bedroom” (Purinton, 1912, p. 77). Adolf Just, the strong voice of nature cure, reminded his patients that “the windows in the bedroom must always be open at night, Winter and Summer” (Just, 1903, p. 65).

There were Nature Cure doctors who encouraged their patients to sleep directly on the ground because its magnetic vibrations were “soothing and invigorating to the tired body” (Richter, 1936, p. 357). Just, in his book Return to Nature, advocated sleeping directly on the ground and gave specific instructions about how to do so: “In order to sleep again on the earth, it is best to select a nice grass plot; if there is no grass plot at hand, a thin reed matting may be placed on the ground” (Just, 1903, p. 94). In his view, to lie on any covering such as a blanket or straw would only interfere with the connection to the earth. “No head rest is necessary, for it is of especial benefit for the head to lie on the cool, refreshing earth” (Just, 1903, p. 95). After people get accustomed to sleeping on the earth, those with obstinate insomnia will enjoy sleep that is “exceedingly refreshing and strengthening.…[for] people [who] begin to sleep less and less…the brighter, fresher and stronger they will feel (Just, 1903, p. 95). “By sleeping on the ground, consequently, more than by anything else the entire body is aroused from its lethargy to a new manifestation of vital energy…and receive a sensation of new health, new life, and new unthought of vigor and strength” (Just, 1903, p. 88).

Next month we will look at the impact of time spent before bedtime on the quality of sleep, and more recommendations from the early naturopaths for healthful sleep.

czeranko Oct 05Sussanna Czeranko, ND, BBE is a licensed naturopath in Ontario and Oregon. She is currently a faculty member in the Advancement Department at NCNM conducting historical research in its rare books room. She is applying these studies to the creation and delivery of an ongoing curriculum centered on nature cure, including balneotherapy and Buteyko, a Russian breathing therapy. She is a faculty member working as the rare books curator at National College of Natural Medicine. She is currently compiling several books based on the journals published by Benedict Lust. In addition to her work in balneotherapy, she is the founder of The Buteyko Academy, a training program for NDs to incorporate a scientific model of breathing therapy called Buteyko into their repertoire.


Crinnion, W. (2004). Spirit Med Environmental Medicine Course, Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine.

Densmore, E. (1892). How nature cures. New York, NY: Stillman & Co. Publishing.

Dieffenbach, W. H. (1909). Hydrotherapy. New York, NY: Rebman Company.

Erieg, S. T. (1926). Health and fresh air. Nature’s Path, Benedict Lust Publishing, 2(7), July, 342-343.

Evertz, O. (1917). Sleep and efficiency. Herald of Health and Naturopath, 22(4), July/August, 250-252.

Jackson, James C. (1874). How to treat the sick without medicine. Dansville, NY: Austin, Jackson & Co. Publishers.

Just, A. (1903). Return to nature. New York, NY: Benedict Lust Publishing.

Lindlahr, H. (1931). The Practice of Nature Cure, The Nature Cure Library, Inc., New York, 1931, p. 31.

Lust, B. (1926). Neurasthenia and its causes. Nature’s Path, 2(7), July, 334-335.

Lust, B. (1927). Insomnia. Nature’s Path, 3(6), June, 270-273.

Macfadden, B. (1923). Keeping fit. New York, NY: Macfadden Publications, Inc.

Purinton, E. E. (1912). Sleep. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(1), January, 1-5.

Purinton, E. E. (1912). Hints on how to sleep soundly. The Naturopath and Herald of Health, 17(2), Feb, 75-81.

Richter, J. T. (1936). Nature – The healer. Los Angeles, CA: John T. Richter Publishing.

Tilden, J. H. (1921). Impaired health: Its cause and cure, Vol 2. Mokelumne Hill, CA: Health Research Publishing.

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