Sleep is a naturally recurring state of the body and mind. We go to bed every night, it is natural, just like eating and drinking. We know that it is vital to our survival, and we know that we feel refreshed after we slept well. Sleep is one of the important elements of the “programme” here at the retreat too. But do we really understand what it is and why it is essential to get a good night’s sleep?
What is sleep and why is it important?
Sleep is defined as a necessary restorative process that is characterized by suspended sensory activity, reduced consciousness and inactivity of nearly all voluntary muscles.
We understand from numerous research that sleep has restorative and regenerative function. There is a lot going on in the body and mind during those night time hours. Constructive metabolism is happening, hormones regulating growth and appetite get created, and the brain is processing and filtering the information we gained throughout the day. The quality of our sleep affects our ability to think and remember and affects our immune system’s ability to heal.
If sleep is cut short, our body gets behind with the regenerative and repair work it has to do and problems can start to build up. We end up feeling low on energy, disengaged, more irritable and are more prone to accidents. Lack of sleep adversely affects our concentration and memory, our skills in decision making and communication.
If we are regularly not getting a good night’s sleep eventually we might have to face some serious health issues. Without adequate sleep there is an increased chance of developing anxiety, depression and other psychiatric problems. Insomnia (difficulty falling and/or staying asleep) is also linked to medical issues, such as decreased immunity, poor wound healing, metabolic disorders, heart attacks, high blood pressure and stroke.
What happens during sleep?
While contemporary society suggests that we need to acquire eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, this is not exactly how we are naturally “wired”.
Sleep occurs in a series of 90 to 120 minute cycles, and a full cycle repeats about three to five times during a good night’s sleep.
During the first part of the night (the first two or three sleep cycles) is where deep sleep, called non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep is concentrated. NREM sleep is essential for rest and recuperation. This is when we sleep the deepest. Growth and thyroid hormones are released, cell reproduction and repair takes place, and short-term memories are transferred into long-term storage.
The second part of the night we experience periods of much more active state of sleep, called rapid eye movement sleep (REM). During this time, we sleep lightly, our breathing gets faster, our blood pressure and heart rate increases. We dream more, and these dreams are likely to be more vivid and emotional.
REM sleep is linked with all kinds of psychological processing. While we are not entirely certain about what exactly happens, some scientists suggest that during REM sleep we process emotions and situations that we feel uncomfortable about. Our muscles are temporarily paralyzed during this stage of sleep, which prevents us from acting out these emotions and the dreams that occur.
REM periods increase as the night progresses. During the night, after each cycle of sleep we periodically get close to an awakened state. Even if we wake up, we are likely to go back to sleep easily and are probably not going to remember this in the morning.
Some studies suggest that this “segmented sleep” pattern and natural awakenings developed as an evolutionary benefit to keep our ancestors safe, by ensuring that they can regularly check their environment for predators and other dangers.
Contributing factors to disturbed sleep and insomnia
One in every three people in our modern society has some sort of issue with their sleep. They might find it difficult to fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night or just simply don’t have enough time for a good night’s sleep. This often creates anxiety around sleep, which can add to the problem.
There are some chronic respiratory issues (e.g. snoring, sleep apnoea) and other physical conditions which are considered as risk factors. However, the key contributor in most cases is the hyper-arousal of our nervous system, due to elevated stress hormones (cortisol, adrenalin) and/or due to different stimulants.
A lot of us suffer from living in an overstimulated state, being hyper alert and anxious for prolonged periods of time. Our sympathetic nervous system gets triggered by thoughts of danger and it pushes us to get out of said danger. Our parasympathetic nervous system (which runs parallel to the sympathetic) is responsible for rest, digestion and repair functions. While we need the help of our active sympathetic nervous system to get out of bed in the morning and to be driven to achieve our goals, we also need the opposite to bring balance.
- High cortisol levels due to stress
Cortisol naturally rises around sunrise. However, if you are chronically stressed and your sympathetic nervous system is dominating, your cortisol levels remain high all the time. It is difficult to maintain sleep when your cortisol levels are up, and you are more likely to wake up after a REM stage rather than transition back to deep sleep.
- Disturbed melatonin production
We have an inherent rhythm that requires us to be asleep in the dark and awake during the day. The production of melatonin, the hormone that helps control our sleep and wake cycles is linked with this rhythm. Daylight keeps us awake, and once the darkness comes, the pineal gland produces melatonin that helps us to fall asleep.Lot of us are working in an office, in front of screens, surrounded by high intensity fluorescent lights, and we generally don’t have a good sense of day and night. When our brains don’t get a sense of light-dark cycle it can disturb the melatonin production and sleep maintenance issues can develop.
This is why it is important to get some sunlight in your day. Try to get exposed to natural light, maybe go to the park for lunch to let your body know that it is day time. Dim your lights after 8 PM to signal for your body that the sun is going down.
Sleep cycle patterns get disturbed by stimulants. We know, that caffeine and other stimulants, such as nicotine, alcohol and some recreational drugs rev up our nervous system.It is useful to keep in mind that as we age we become more sensitive to stimulation. So while you might be able to drink several cups of coffee in your twenties, the same amount of caffeine will most probably adversely affect your sleep later on in life.
In addition, antidepressants, steroids and some other prescription medications can also get our nervous system into an overly alert state and contribute to sleep problems.
Good sleep hygiene: What can we do to get a good night’s sleep?
When it comes to getting into a healthy sleep pattern, I’m afraid there is no quick fix or magic pill. It really comes down to how you live your life and how you support your body’s inherent ability to sleep. Following the below healthy sleep habits can help you to get a good night’s sleep and wake up refreshed.
1. Allocate enough time for sleeping.
Most healthy adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to function at their best. However, a better indicator whether you had enough good quality sleep is less about the number of hours, but whether you are feeling refreshed and awake after the night. If you nod off during the day when not kept stimulated, it probably means you haven´t slept enough.
2. Maintain a regular sleep & wake schedule.
Most studies suggest that the ideal schedule for anybody is to sleep between 10pm and 6am. Going to bed around 10pm and waking up around sunrise support the natural ebb and flow of the energies of the body.
Generally it is best to spend 7 to 8 hours sleeping. Don´t spend excessive amount of time in bed, including napping, as it upsets the natural sleep pattern of the body. It is best to get up when your alarm goes off, even if you are exhausted, and just try again going to bed on time the next night.
Napping can be helpful if it is kept under an hour. If you sleep longer during the day it can impede your night time sleep.
3. Create a “wind down” routine.
Sleep specialists say that everyone needs at least half an hour to an hour before they go to bed to wind down from their day. Develop a bed time routine: unplug, do some calming breathing exercises, have a hot bath or a relaxing massage.
If you have issues with your sleep, consider keeping a sleep diary, noting down when you sleep well and when you don´t. Noticing if there are any patterns or if there are any triggers can be helpful.
4. Keep your environment conducive to sleeping and banish electronics from the bedroom.
Invest in a quality mattress and pillows that give appropriate support for your body. Making your room dark, minimizing noise and temperature extremes are also important for a good night´s sleep.
Turn off anything electronic at least 30 minutes before bed time and don’t turn them back on, even if you can’t fall asleep or wake up in the night. TV, computer, and phone screens stimulate the nervous system and can be aggravating. Once you are in bed, stay there, even if you can´t fall asleep straight away. If sleep still hasn’t come after a half hour, do something boring while keeping the lights low and then return to bed. Avoid reading anything engaging, like the news or crime novels. Keep the stimulation low. You can even move your alarm clock away from bed, if it is distracting. This way you can avoid anxiety from clock-watching.
5. Pacify your nervous system with relaxation practices.
Conventional and holistic medicine agrees that doing some gentle yoga with focus on the breath, meditation, self-hypnosis and progressive relaxation techniques can make a big difference when it comes to sleeping well.
One of my personal favourites is yoga nidra. It is a guided meditation technique that can assist you to enter into a deep state of relaxation. Follow this link to our article to find out more about yoga nidra, including a simple script that you can use at home.
Another important element is the breath. You can activate your parasympathetic nervous system by deep, diaphragmatic breathing. Learn more about using yogic breath – three part breathing here. You can also try meditation – read how to practice mindfulness of the breath.
6. Avoid excessive liquids or a heavy meal in the evening.
You will have difficulty with digesting heavy meals well in your sleep, which might keep you awake. Lots of liquids are likely to wake you up to go to the bathroom.
7. Avoid stimulants.
Avoid caffeine and nicotine at least 4-6 hours before going to bed.
If you have chronic sleep problems it can be helpful to get off coffee completely for a while. Caffeine stays in your system for a long time (seven hours plus!) and even a little bit is enough to keep your nervous system stimulated. Instead, try out different teas. They can be just as tasty and satisfying. Some herbal teas, like chamomile, valerian and lemon balm can help you to unwind as well as aid sleep.
Don’t use alcohol to go to sleep. Alcohol, even though is initially sedative, creates more of a reckless sleep throughout the night, gives you less deep sleep, less REM sleep and can make you wake up more often.
8. Increase exercise and fitness.
It is a known fact that if you exercise you will sleep better. It is usually those with sedentary jobs who have problems with sleeping, it is rare amongst physical workers.
If you have a high pressure job that requires concentration, you can dissipate focus and let go of tension by exercise. However, make sure that you don´t do very competitive, strong exercise close to bed time, because that still keeps the sympathetic nervous system active and is counterproductive to relaxation.
We hope that these tips help you to get a good night’s sleep! Many guests at the retreat report that they have not slept so well (or for so long) in years! Here at La Crisalida Retreats we combine all these elements into the programme. You can read more about our relax and rejuvenate retreat here.
About the author
- Yoga teacher and loves exploring mindset in life makeover workshops.