Evidence based techniques and therapiesto tame your brain and change your life

How you feel and how you perform during the day is influenced by how well you sleep.

Many of us experience times in our lives when sleep seems to be a problem.  We can’t seem to get enough or our quality of sleep is poor.  Perhaps waking up during the night, struggling to get back to sleep or waking in the morning not feeling refreshed and ready for the day.

While there may be some factors outside of our control, there are practical ways in which we can improve our sleep.

The need for sleep

We spend approximately one third of our lives sleeping, but the actual reason we sleep still remains a mystery.

We know that sleep, both quantity and quality, is essential for survival.  Sleep affects almost every type of tissue and system in the body, from the brain, heart and lungs to our basic metabolism.  It influences, immune function, hormonal and thermoregulation, our mood and disease resistance.

Poor sleep can impact on both mental and physical health.  Research shows that a chronic lack of sleep, or getting poor quality sleep, increases the risk of disorders including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and obesity.  We know that sleep is necessary for learning and creating memories, and poor sleep is associated with cognitive decline.  Not surprisingly, without sleep we find it harder to concentrate and respond quickly.

Sleep mechanisms

There are two mechanisms that govern sleep.  Sleep-wake homeostasis and circadian rhythm (internal body clock).

Sleep-wake homeostasis balances our need for sleep, known as ‘sleep drive’, with our need for being awake.  The longer we are awake the stronger our ‘sleep drive’ becomes.  Essentially, telling us it is time to go to sleep.  Then, once we have slept, our ‘sleep drive’ diminishes and our need to be alert increases, telling us it is time to wake up.

Overlaying this mechanism, is our internal body clock, which co-ordinates with environmental cues, such as sunlight.  As a consequence of our natural circadian rhythm, our levels of alertness cycle throughout a 24hour period, which determines the amount of sleepiness and wakefulness we experience in a day.

The major factor influencing our circadian rhythm is light.  Within the brain, in the hypothalamus, there are a group of cells called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which respond to light and dark signals.  When light enters our eyes, our retina sends a signal to the SCN.  When this signal is received it initiates a series of events, resulting in hormone changes throughout the body, that affect temperature, appetite and ‘sleep drive’, among other things.

A typical circadian rhythm starts in the morning as we experience sunlight.  Body temperature starts to increase and cortisol levels peak, which increases our alertness and causes us to wake up.  Cortisol levels naturally fall throughout the day.  As it becomes dark in the evening, body temperature lowers and melatonin levels rise, promoting sleep.  Melatonin levels remain high throughout the night.

It is easy to see why light exposure is a critical factor in influencing sleep.

As long as our eyes perceive light, then the SCN suppresses melatonin production.  This is why evening exposure to light makes it harder to fall asleep.  This includes exposure to indoor light or electronic devices that emit blue light, such as a computer, smart phone or television.

We know ‘sleep drive’ changes as we age.  Teenagers’ levels of melatonin tend to rise much later in the evening, making it difficult for them to get to sleep at a reasonable time and consequently they struggle to get up in the morning.  As we enter our senior years, our internal clock may be less reliable, we may become tired earlier, and wake up earlier.  This overall reduction in sleep can increase the risk of cognitive decline in the elderly.

Other factors known to impact our ‘sleep drive’ are jet lag and shift work.

Modern living adversely affects sleep

A major factor that disrupts our sleep is stress and there is no doubt modern living can be stressful.

Work related stress – Deadlines, anxiety around job security and finances, as well as general pressures of the workplace are common causes of sleeplessness.  We often find ourselves caught up worrying, ruminating over things that went wrong during the day and catastrophising about the future.

Hectic schedules – We have a tendency to want to ‘pack more’ into our day, with many people seeing sleep as a waste of time, when we could be doing things.  There is often a ‘badge of honour’ attached to only needing a few hours’ sleep.  Unfortunately, a continual lack of sleep can seriously damage our health.

Advances in modern technology – The overuse of electronic media devices has resulted in later bedtimes and longer hours of night-time arousal.  Many people find themselves on their phones late at night, checking social media or responding to work emails. Others, may simply be watching films or shows, thinking they are ‘resting’, not aware of the stimulating impact on the brain.  In all cases, sleep patterns are disturbed by night light exposure, and over stimulation makes it difficult to fall asleep.

Diet – to cope with the pressures of modern living, many people turn to stimulants and drugs, to increase alertness or to lift their mood.  This can include caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, all of which can impact on sleep.

Tips for getting a good night’s sleep

If you want to be at your best during the day, try these tips for getting a better night’s sleep

Create a room for sleeping

Make your bedroom an inviting, comfortable, uncluttered space for sleeping.  Preferably, dark, cool and quiet.  If possible, keep it free from electronic gadgets.  If you need to have your phone in the room make sure it is switched to do not disturb/night time mode.

Establish a time routine – Make good choices before bed

Consistency is key.  Try to establish a regular bedtime and a waking up time, ensuring that you get an appropriate amount of sleep. This can vary between individuals, but most experts recommend between 7 and 9 hours.

Establish a ‘cut off’ time for checking and sending work emails, engaging with social media and internet surfing.  Avoid over stimulating activities such as computer games, and strenuous exercise just before bed.  Include a relaxing, unwinding activity instead.  To help support your natural circadian rhythm try to get exposure to natural light in the morning and maintain a dark room for sleeping.  It can be beneficial to have dim lights earlier in the evening, as you begin to unwind.

‘Listen’ to your body

It is really useful to be able to ‘tune’ into your body and read physiological signals.  This includes both emotional and body maintenance signals such as hunger and tiredness.  Practising mindfulness can help us to reconnect mind and body, and learn to recognise these signals.

It is important for us to be aware of our ‘signature of tiredness’.  As we learn to recognise our internal cues and act on them, this primes us for a good night’s sleep.

Manage stress

Stress is a major disrupter of sleep patterns.  It often prevents us from getting to sleep and wakes us up in the early hours.  Learning to manage stress throughout the day helps us to keep our stress levels under control.

Mindfulness and yoga have both been shown to be beneficial in reducing stress.  You may wish to try meditating for 10 minutes a day or taking a regular yoga class.  If you have anxiety or other stress related issues you may want to consider therapy, such as clinical hypnotherapy.  Most clients find their sleep improves after a few sessions.

Research shows, that specific practices, such as gratitude practices or loving kindness meditation increase positive emotions, improve wellbeing and reduce stress.  Maybe at the end of your day you could take a few minutes to focus on 3 good things that have happened during the day.  Really tuning in to a ‘felt sense’ of what that feels like in the body.  Orientating yourself to the positive and encouraging the flow of serotonin.

Relax – unwind before bed

Spend some time relaxing – unwinding before bed.  This can be through gentle movement, stretching or yoga.  Taking time to deliberately release tension, relax the body and mind.  It could also involve activities such as having a soothing warm bath.  If you find the mind really busy, caught up ‘overthinking’ then it is helpful to do something to focus and calm the mind.  Perhaps reading, journaling, meditating or listening to music or an audio book.

If you feel particularly stressed, then you might benefit from taking a practice to deliberately ‘switch on’ the relaxation response.  This could be breathing practices such as slow diaphragmatic breathing or relaxation practices such as progressive muscular relaxation, or a guided visualisation.

Enjoy establishing your bedtime routine

Remember if you find yourself awake, having difficulty getting to sleep.  Don’t berate yourself, let go of frustration and be gentle with yourself.  Studies have shown that one of the factors contributing to difficulty sleeping is trying too hard.  Let go of stress, allow and let be.  Perhaps engage in a calming activity.  Maybe make yourself a warm drink, keeping the lights low, listen to a favourite pod cast, use a guided relaxation or read until you recognise that signature of sleepiness.

Unwind before bed with gentle yoga

If you would like to calm the mind and relax the body with gentle yoga.  Please join me for an online class on Monday evenings to Release, Relax and Refresh.

A perfect way to unwind, release tension and let go of the busyness of your day.  Learn to relax and refresh your body and mind preparing you for a restful evening.

Get a great start to the week and set your intention for a better night’s sleep.