A recent nationwide study in the USA titled the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report has shown that 1 in 3 Americans do not get enough sleep on a regular basis.
Most experts agree that adults aged 18 – 60 should get at least 7 hours of good sleep a night. Sleeping less is strongly associated with chronic conditions including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart Disease
- A stroke
- Mental distress
What is one of the main causes of waking at 3 am unable to fall back asleep or lying awake an hour after you climbed into bed? It’s stress.
Countless studies have shown that stress is one of the main causes of insomnia. But what is it about stress that stops us from sleeping well?
Most people take their work home with them. Even stay-at-home parents and students do this, trying to mentally fix problems and troubleshoot solutions at nine or ten o’clock at night. These thoughts stick in your mind and make falling asleep difficult with the knock-on effect of disrupting your sleep in the middle of the night as your body and brain transitions between the various stages of sleep.
If you are under stress you tend to drink more coffee and caffeinated energy drinks looking for a boost to get going in the morning or help you get through the day. While you might feel more awake, caffeine actually intensifies stressful feelings and negatively affects the quality and quantity of sleep.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that is responsible for the flight or flight response – that sudden rush of energy you get when you feel under threat. Large amounts of stress produce excessive levels of this hormone which in turn affects our attempts to establish healthy sleep patterns.
Being very busy – and let’s face it there are few days when this is not the case – can take away from the time you should be giving to sleeping well. The push to get things done in a day can lead to getting up earlier and going to bed later, often realising too late how badly this is affecting our sleep and health.
So what can be done to help us reduce the amount of stress we feel and help us sleep better?
Turn it off, shut it down
Sleep experts are more and more in agreement that the number one way to get more sleep is to turn off technology, especially in your bedroom.
Responding to e-mails, playing video games, scrolling through Facebook causes increased electrical activity in your brain, which is the exact opposite of what should be going on before you sleep. The act of replying to an e-mail before you get into bed causes your body to tense, releasing cortisol and making sleep difficult.
The glow that electronic devices produce also works against a good night’s sleep. Even a small amount of light passes through the retina of your eye into your brain’s hypothalamus and delays the release of melatonin – the hormone that induces sleep.
Sleep specialists recommend a device detox time before bed of at least two hours. Turn off all devices – especially mobile phones and listen to music an hour before bed instead of watching TV.
Then start setting your bedtime and wake-up routine according to the number of hours you currently get, slowly increasing sleep by around fifteen minutes every few nights to re-set your body’s sleep clock.
Magnesium is one of those key minerals that plays a big role in keeping you healthy, including nerve and muscle function. While most healthy people have normal levels of magnesium, stress can cause you to become deficient, and elderly people tend to have lower levels compared to younger adults.
There is evidence that taking magnesium supplements – especially if you lead a busy, stressful life, can have a positive effect on the quality of sleep. Research shows that magnesium boosts the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain, which is responsible for slowing your thinking down and helping you fall asleep. Chat to your health professional first before taking magnesium as too much can cause stomach upsets.
Regular exercise both reduces stress and improves the quality of sleep. While there is no one particular exercise that makes us sleep better there are specific activities that have been scientifically proven to help.
Getting your heart rate up – running, fast walking, cycling, swimming, etc have been shown to be effective against insomnia. Even ten minutes a day can help but aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of more vigorous activity aerobic activity each week.
Muscle building exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, lunges and squats has been shown to help you fall asleep faster and wake up less during the nights.
The relaxing poses and stretches and calming breathing exercises that are a part of a yoga routine can be very effective against the type of stresses stopping you from falling asleep. Studies have shown that those who do yoga for eights weeks fall asleep faster and spend more time asleep.
Think on it
A number of studies have shown that sleep-focused meditation can help fight mild insomnia and restless sleep patterns. Meditation – the art of intentionally quieting or focusing the mind – creates physiological changes similar to what happens in your body during the early phases of sleep:
- Lower blood pressure
- Slower pulse rate
- Less stress hormones produced
Training your brain to get to that state on demand means you will fall asleep when you want to.
There is no one right type of sleep-focused meditation, experiment with a few different types until you find the right one for you.
This is the most popular form and involves listening to your body and nothing else. Pay attention to your breathing or how the floor feels beneath you, and as your thoughts start to drift to those emails you need to answer guide yourself back being mindful without judgement.
This involves focusing on one specific thing, either something physical like a candle or a mantra or saying that you repeat out loud – for example “I am calm” and then directing any intrusive thoughts back to that one focus.
This type of meditation involves listening to another person who guides you through the meditative state. This can be with an individual coach, as part of a class, or by using a recording from a library, book shop, or from an app store on your phone.
Meditation does not come easily to most of us, so try starting with a few minutes before bed and patiently work your way up to at least ten to twenty minutes a day.If you are still not getting the sleep you need and deserve it may be a good idea to seek medical advice. Healthy sleep patterns mean a healthy body and mind, but the 21st century seems stacked with factors that do not in any way promote a good night’s sleep.