Sleep: The Most Overlooked Key to Vibrant Health
Getting abundant, restful sleep is one of the best ways to improve your physical health and emotional well-being. As you slumber, your body may seem inert, but in fact it’s actively engaging in many processes to repair and renew itself, such as:
- Eliminating accumulated stress and physical toxins, including the amyloid that can build up in the brain and lead to Alzheimer’s disease
- Repairing and regenerating cells and tissues
- Strengthening immune function
- Balancing your hormones, particularly leptin and ghrelin, which regulate your metabolism and appetite and help you maintain your ideal weight
- Consolidating short-term memories into your long-term memory
If you are perpetually sleep deprived, you are more likely to have a weakened immune system and chronic inflammation, which is associated with many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, and some kinds of cancer. A lack of sleep also contributes to accelerated aging, including premature aging of the skin.
Recent studies of sleep and genes are finding that even just a few days of sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on your genes. For example, one study by U.K. researchers found that after only one week of getting fewer than six hours of sleep a night, study participants experienced changes in more than 700 genes, including genes that affect metabolism and inflammatory, immune, and stress responses.
Sleep deprivation can also impact your mood, causing you to feel irritable and emotionally reactive. In fact, a recent study published in The Lancet suggests that inadequate sleep may be an underlying cause of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
Most adults need between seven and nine hours of restful sleep every night. This means natural sleep that is not induced by over-the-counter or prescription sleeping medications, alcohol, or other other drugs. Sleeping medications do not provide the deep level of rejuvenation that comes with natural sleep, and they come with serious side effects and risks, including addiction.
If you fall asleep easily, sleep soundly, and wake up feeling refreshed and alert after seven to nine hours, you are getting enough restful sleep. If not, here are some steps you can take to get the deep rest you need.
1. Align with Nature’s Rhythms
You can get the highest quality sleep by aligning your sleeping times with your circadian rhythms, which are your body’s own natural rhythms of physical and mental activity. Governed by your body’s internal clock, your circadian rhythms regulate feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness, as well as body temperature and various hormonal changes, over a period of approximately 24 hours.
Our circadian rhythms are aligned with nature’s cycle of light and dark, which is why our body is naturally alert and awake when the sun rises. As the day wanes and it becomes dark, our body naturally slows down, increasing its production of natural chemicals such as melatonin in preparation for sleep.
You’ve probably noticed that if you sleep eight hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., you feel more rested than if you sleep the same number of hours between midnight and 8 a.m. This is because our circadian rhythms follow nature’s rhythms, and we therefore feel most invigorated by sleeping when it’s dark and rising with the sun.
If you’re used to staying up through the wee hours, getting to bed by 10 and waking early may be a challenge, but is one of the most beneficial habits you can adopt.
Tip: Try adjusting your sleep schedule in 15-minute increments. For example, if you normally get up at 7 a.m., but want to start waking at 6 a.m., set your alarm and wake up at 6:45 a.m., then 6:30 a.m., and so on. If you need to make more immediate shifts in your sleep schedule, try 30-minute increments.
Evening Sleep Routine
Here are a few suggestions that will help you fall asleep by 10 p.m. and experience restful, restorative sleep:
- Eat a relatively light dinner no later than 7 p.m. Avoid late-night meals or snacks, and don’t go to bed with a full stomach because this interferes with sleep and your body’s nocturnal detoxification processes.
- Take a leisurely stroll after dinner.
- Avoid intense mental activity or emotional interactions, such as balancing your checkbook, arguing with someone, or watching the news before you go to bed. Also avoid devices with self-illuminating electronic displays, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, at least two hours before bed. The blue light suppresses melatonin and can trick your brain into thinking that it’s daytime and that you need to be awake and alert. There are some computer programs and apps that can block the blue light of your screen display based on your location and time.
- Take a warm bath to relax your body and mind. You can add a few drops of a calming aromatherapy oil such as lavender, sandalwood, or vanilla.
- Enjoy some light or inspirational reading and listen to soft music.
- Sleep in a totally dark room because darkness helps increase melatonin. Even dim light, such as a glowing clock display, can interfere with your circadian rhythms and melatonin secretion and disturb sleep.
- If your mind is very active, journal for a few minutes before bed, “downloading” some of your thoughts and concerns so you don’t need to ruminate about them when you shut your eyes.
- Once in bed, close your eyes and simply “feel your body.” This means focusing on your body and wherever you notice tension, consciously relaxing that area. Then, simply watch your slow, easy breathing until you fall asleep.
Rest and sleep are so critical to your ability to thrive that it’s well worth the effort to take a careful look at your sleep habits and make any changes needed to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Tip: If you find yourself tempted to stay up late surfing the Internet, watching TV, or posting on social media sites, establish a set time (such as 7 p.m.) to disengage from your electronic devices, including your phone, computer, tablets, and TV.
2. Move Your Body
An important part of following nature’s rhythms is moving your body and getting physical exercise on a regular basis. Physical activity enhances the flow of energy and information throughout your body and releases the stress that can keep you awake at night. Your body was designed to move, breathe, and stretch, and when you do so on a regular basis, you’ll find it easier to fall—and stay—asleep.
Keep in mind that it might take a few weeks to notice the benefits of exercise on your sleep patterns. For example, in one study of sleep and exercise, researchers found that when adults with insomnia engage in moderate aerobic exercise for 30 minutes for three or four times per week, after 16 weeks their sleep quality and duration improved significantly, and they experienced a decrease in daytime sleepiness.
One of the leading causes of disturbed sleep is stress. Even though our body is tired and craves rest, we lie in bed ruminating about something that happened earlier in the day, or worrying about something that might happen in the future. Whenever we perceive physical or psychological threats, we activate our body’s stress response. Our blood pressure rises, our heart beats faster, and we release stress hormones such as cortisol. These symptoms of stress can keep us awake.
In addition to getting regular physical exercise, daily meditation is one of the most powerful ways to release stress and calm your mind and body. In meditation, you go beyond the mind’s noisy internal dialogue and experience the stillness and silence of expanded awareness. Your heart rate and breathing slow, and you activate the body’s parasympathetic system, releasing accumulated stress. After your meditation session, you carry this sense of greater calm with you into your activities, allowing you to stay more centered in the face of life’s inevitable stresses—and helping you to drift peacefully to sleep when it’s time for bed.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to meditate for hours to benefit from the practice. Even if you meditate for just five to ten minutes each day, you will receive many healing benefits.
Meditation Practice: Observing the Breath
Observing the breath is a simple meditation technique that cultivates peace, clarity, and present moment awareness.
- Find a comfortable seated position with your legs uncrossed and your back erect but not rigid.
- Close your eyes, which helps turn your attention within.
- Take a few deep breaths and then breathe as you normally do.
- Now observe your breath. Feel the sensations in your body as you inhale and exhale.
- This is an effortless process. When you notice that your attention has wandered away from your breath, gently return it to your breath, without trying to concentrate or force it.
- Do this breathing meditation for two minutes, gradually extending the time as you feel comfortable.
When the time is up, sit with your eyes gently closed, taking a moment to rest in the stillness and silence. When you emerge from your meditation, you will carry a little bit more peace into all of your daily activities … including your night’s sleep.
Discover meditations and activities to help you reach the kind of deep, nourishing sleep that transforms your daily life with 7 Days to Restful Sleep, Oprah and Deepak Chopra’s online program. Learn More.