Sleep deprivation is a widespread problem in developed countries, largely because our minds are overstimulated and we don’t know how to ‘switch off’. Research has shown time and time again that sleep is vital for our health, and lack of sleep can cause a host of physical and mental imbalances and diseases. This article describes a range of tried-and-tested practices that can help the mind transition from thinking and doing to being and relaxing. It also discusses the recommended hours we need to be healthy and how sleep affects the body.
As sleep deprivation continues to plague Western populations, researchers, tech enthusiasts, and biohackers alike are getting interested in how lack of sleep affects us and how we can sleep better. Yet, if you were to ask a bunch of well-rested people what their secret to a good night’s sleep is, it’s reasonable to assume their response wouldn’t include blue-light blockers and sleep-tracking software. No, it is a lot more simple… they don’t try. This is probably not what stressed-out insomniacs want to hear, but the reality is, you can’t strive to control sleep. Psychologists call this concept sleep effort. Sleep is an involuntary physiological process, so any direct, conscious attempts to control it may intensify and perpetuate insomnia. Putting effort into anything arouses the brain, which is counterproductive to sleep. In a culture with stress at epidemic levels, isn’t it high time we learnt how to properly switch off and relax?
The Chinese have a word that perfectly describes a state of non-doing or non-action: Wu Wei. Wu Wei is part of Taoism, which teaches how to go with the flow of the unplanned rhythms of the universe. Meditation, mindfulness and Yoga Nidra are all practices that emphasise doing less to enhance a sense of being rather than doing. Yoga Nidra is a type of guided meditation practice intended to induce a state between sleeping and waking. In her book, “Yoga Nidra: The Art of Transformational Sleep” Kamini Desai, PHD likens sleep to floating:
Floating is not something you do, it is something that happens in the absence of doing. It is an experience of being held, being carried… but it can only happen when you stop struggling to keep yourself upright. Stop doing and floating happens. Stop efforting and sleep happens.
Both the ancient Indian technique of Yoga Nidra and the ancient Chinese tradition of Taoism promote that a lack of effort is required to sleep and to live a fulfilled life. Fortunately, there are many techniques that can help us fall back in love with bedtime. Here, we’ll discuss some simple tried and tested methods to help you stress less and re-learn the art of non-doing.
The art of non-doing: How to get more sleep
Yoga Nidra is a powerful guided meditation technique that teaches you to relax as deeply as sleeping states, while conscious. It is a form of resting that helps to release conscious and subconscious stress and tension – some of the key symptoms of insomnia. Nidra is Sanskrit for sleep; however, sleep is not the aim of the practice. To reap the most benefits, you are guided to be unconscious on a sensory level, yet still be conscious of the practice. Yoga Nidra occurs at the “hypnagogic state”, known as the knife’s edge between waking and sleeping states. The brain moves through various brainwave frequencies as you move through different stages of sleep, similarly, Yoga Nidra is structured to move the brain waves from active beta waves (14-40 Hz), then pass through the relaxed, thoughtless state of alpha waves (9-13 Hz), and enter the slowest frequency of deep sleep, delta waves (1-3 Hz). Theta activity is associated with emotional release and ‘super learning’.
Although it is not recommended as a replacement for sleep, yogis state that one 45-minute practice of Yoga Nidra is equivalent to three hours of deep sleep.
How is it done?
Practitioners are asked to lie in a comfortable supine position to get grounded; a blanket is recommended as body temperature can drop during relaxation, just like it does during sleep. The instructor will then guide the practitioner through a relaxation script. The script will not always be the same but it generally includes, breathwork, a guided body scan, intention and affirmation to induce a systematic relaxation of muscles and to flow through different restorative brain wave states. Interested? There are plenty of great pre-recorded Yoga Nidra meditations available online.
Benefits for sleep:
During a Yoga Nidra practice, the body is guided into an environment of self-healing.
It activates the parasympathetic nervous system and brain wave states for deep relaxation, restoration, and stress management. This can be extremely beneficial for insomniacs as it trains the mind and body to move more easily into the deeper states of sleep. If seated meditation hasn’t worked in the past, Yoga Nidra is a more accessible way to cultivate a meditation practice.
If thoughts arise, let them, without judgement or attachment. Easier said than done, but as we’ve mentioned, trying to control sleep can cause more stress and tension, resulting in a vicious cycle of not being able to sleep and feeling more stressed. Mindfulness can be an excellent technique for the type of insomnia where stress overload causes the mind to be too alert to fall asleep. A study by the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center revealed that when people with chronic insomnia underwent a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, the results were equivalent to the group who used pharmaceutical sleep aids. Unlike pharmaceuticals, the mindfulness-based method produced no side effects, but participants fell asleep more quickly, slept longer and better.
How is it done?
Mindfulness is a powerful tool that can extend beyond sleep. A regular mindfulness practice can enhance the overall ability to handle stress in daily life. Below is a simple mindfulness method that can help calm the mind around bedtime.
- Find a quiet spot where you can sit undisturbed for 10 to 20 minutes. Sit upright, either leaning against a wall, in a chair, or in a meditative seat without support.
- Take your time to arrive into the space by becoming still, closing your eyes or taking a soft gaze down at the floor.
- Take a moment to tune into your body, taking a scan to notice any parts that may feel tense. Common areas include the jaw, shoulders and face. Start to take slightly deeper breaths, allow tension to release on the exhale.
- Next, bring your awareness to your breath. Notice where it is most vivid in the body. This might be in the belly, chest, ribs or the area around your nose. Note the sensations of breath entering and leaving the body.
- After a few minutes, bring your awareness to sounds. Sounds outside the room, sounds inside the room. Notice the stillness between the sounds. You may begin to notice the sound of the breath moving in and out of the nose. Anchor yourself into the present using the sounds. Be with the sounds for a few minutes.
- Next, follow the flow of the breath as it moves through the nostrils. You may note the temperature of the air as it moves in and out of the nostrils. Ride the wave of the breath, allow the sensation to absorb your attention for the next 5 minutes or more.
- As thoughts arise, allow them to enter the mind. Do not resist them, just let them drift in and drift back out without attaching to, or judging the thought. When the mind wanders off, gently, bring your focus back to your breath.
- Continue with this mindful meditation for as long as you wish.
- Gently come out when you are ready by slightly deepening the breath. For insomnia, a mindful meditation practise (even if it’s only 10 minutes) is highly beneficial. A short daily practise is considered more valuable than one longer session a week
Benefits for sleep:
“Disconnecting from our technology to reconnect with ourselves is absolutely essential.”
— Arianna Huffington.
When tossing and turning, and ruminating on not being able to sleep, the ability to “be with what is” is a simple but profoundly powerful tool. Mindfulness apps have grown in popularity, however smartphones are a common nighttime distraction, and the blue light can disturb your sleeping patterns. A personal mindfulness practice can strengthen the ‘mind-muscle’ that allows you to be in the present moment without attachment to good or bad emotions. Studies have shown that a daily mindfulness practice can prepare your mind for drifting off to sleep, and it can also improve sleep quality.
Breathing methods are rapidly growing in popularity as a way to strengthen the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation. There is a wide range of effective techniques available, but one simple way to breathe your way to good sleep is diaphragmatic breathing.
How is it done?
- Find a comfy position, lying on your back with a pillow or bolster under your knees, or sitting in a chair.
- Place a hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly.
- Slowly inhale through the nose down into the belly so you feel the stomach press against the hand. Exhale slowly through the nose or pursed lips, allowing the breath to completely empty. You can slightly tighten the abdominal muscles to draw the breath out.
- The chest should remain still during the breathing to ensure the diaphragm is being used. The head, neck and shoulders should remain completely relaxed.
- Practice his breathing exercise for 5–10 minutes at a time.
Benefits for sleep:
Diaphragmatic breathing can help promote relaxation and calm anxious thoughts. Breathing deeply slows the breathing rate and lowers the heart rate in readiness for sleep.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, was created by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. When we become stressed, our muscles naturally tighten in response to our ‘fight or flight response’. With prolonged anxiety or stress, these muscles can cause aches and pains, and we end up carrying around more tension without realising it. PMR is based on the theory by tensing and then relaxing each muscle group to promote physical and mental relaxation.
How is it done?
Like mindfulness, PMR is an easy technique that can be practised at home.
- Find a quiet spot and sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Begin by taking deep breaths and allowing your entire body to relax.
- Starting from your toes, tense the muscles, holding for 5 seconds before letting go as you exhale. On the exhale, let your muscles fully relax for a couple of breaths before moving to the next area.
- You can work through the muscle groups in the following order: Toes, calf muscles, knees, thighs, hands, arms, buttocks, abdominal muscles, chest, ears, lips, mouth (opening wide), eyes (closing tightly), and eyebrows (lifting). After holding for 5 seconds, be sure to relax for 10 to 20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group.
Benefits for sleep:
If anxiety is a root cause for not sleeping, PMR is a well-researched technique to help induce relaxation for sleep. The benefits of PMR are well-researched. A 2020 study on 80 burn patients found that the patients who did PMR showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an improvement in sleep quality compared to the control group who only received routine care. The physical and psychological conditions of burn patients mean that they often experience poor sleep and high anxiety.
Although research into the effects of CBD on sleep is relatively new, early indications show promise when it comes to sleep, stress and anxiety. Research shows that CBD interacts with the Endocannabinoid System (ECS), a complex cell-signalling system that helps the body achieve and maintain homeostasis. Because cannabinoids naturally occur within the body, CBD has no severe side effects and is well tolerated by the body. Many personal testimonials report that CBD is effective at calming the mind and reducing stress. Increased cannabinoids in the body are also linked to a reduction of pain and nervousness, two common causes of sleep deprivation. CBD can be a valuable tool to help prepare your mind and body for the practices discussed above.
How much sleep do we need?
While the amount of sleep needed differs from individual to individual, The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) has produced a guide for recommended hours based on nine age groups:
- Newborn (0-3 months old) recommended 14-17 hours;
- Infant (4-11 months old) recommended 12-15 hours;
- Toddler (1-2 years old) recommended 11-14 hours;
- Preschool (3-5 years old) recommended 10-13 hours;
- School-age (6-13 years old) recommended 9-11 hours;
- Teen (14-17) recommended recommended 8-10 hours;
- Young adult (18-25) recommended 7-9 hours;
- Adult (26-64 years old) recommended 7-9 hours;
- Older adults (65 or more) recommended 7-8 hours.
In some cases, sleeping an hour more or less than the average range may be acceptable based on a person’s circumstances.
Quality, not quantity?
“Timing your sleep is like timing an investment in the stock market — it doesn’t matter how much you invest, it matters when you invest.”
— Dr. Kulreet Chaudhary
Mostly, people become concerned with how many hours they get, but a good restorative night’s rest depends on both sleep quantity and sleep quality. Not only can too few hours put you at risk of sleep deprivation, but getting 7-9 hours of low-quality sleep can be just as damaging to health. Sleep quality refers to how effective sleep is, which depends on going through the several stages of sleep uninterrupted. There are believed to be four stages of sleep which we cycle through each night. Typically, when you are sleeping, you begin at stage one and go through each stage until reaching REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and then you begin the cycle again. Each complete sleep cycle takes from 90 to 110 minutes, and your brain waves act differently during each stage.
Stage 1 sleep, is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. It’s also known as light sleep, and it’s the period where you can easily be woken up. Very slow brain waves known as high amplitude theta waves are experienced during this time. In each cycle, light sleep lasts around 1-5 minutes.
Collectively, almost half our time sleeping is spent in stage 2 sleep, lasting between 10-60 minutes per cycle. During this stage, your breathing becomes more regular, and body temperature drops. Your brain waves become slower, and there will also be brief bursts of brain activity called sleep spindles that make you less responsive to external noises and activity.
During stage 3 the body becomes even more relaxed with a combination of slow brain waves, known as delta waves, combined with faster waves. This is the first stage of deep sleep; if you are woken up during this stage, you may feel groggy and disoriented. Experts believe that this stage is critical to physical recovery and growth and contributes to our memory and our ability to think creatively. This stage typically lasts 20-40 minutes each cycle.
REM Sleep (Rapid Eye Movement)
This is the stage where vivid dreaming occurs. REM sleep is so-called because your eyes move rapidly while your muscles are immobile. This stage is also known to be important for creative thinking as well as long-term memory consolidation. REM sleep often gets longer towards the morning.
To optimise sleep quality, cycling through all four sleep stages, uninterrupted is essential because it allows the brain and body to recuperate and develop. Missing out on deep sleep and REM sleep may explain some of the detrimental consequences on thinking, emotions, and physical health. Waking frequently during earlier stages, typical of conditions like sleep apnea, and not getting sufficient sleep in cases like insomnia, may prevent getting enough sleep in these deeper sleep stages. A couple of simple ways to reduce nighttime waking include keeping your bedroom as quiet and as dark as possible, keeping to a regular bedtime routine and making sure there are no pets in your room.
When does lack of sleep become a sleep deprivation?
Of course, we all have nights when we’re tossing and turning and having trouble falling asleep. A restless night often means getting out on the wrong side of the bed, and general grogginess and grumpiness the next day. But when does lack of sleep become more of a health issue? Sleep deprivation is caused by a lack of sleep (less than 7 hours) on a regular basis or continued reduced quality of sleep. Eventually, a lack of good quality sleep can lead to health consequences that affect your entire body. Trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep can be caused by a wide range of underlying issues, from poor sleep hygiene to an underlying sleep disorder. However, as mindfulness-based psychotherapist Peter Strong, Ph.D., explains in an article from Psychology Today, for many insomniacs, the cause is simply stress. Overstimulated brains can make sleep feel impossible.
Sleep your way to good health
Most people believe that most of our change happens in the realm of consciousness, but sleep is an active process. It is profoundly regenerative. While we sleep, our cells are being repaired, our brain processes what we experienced throughout the day, our immune system gets strengthened and our metabolism gets regulated. Below are some bodily processes that are affected by sleep.
Sleep deprivation may affect digestion leading to weight gain. Lack of sleep has been shown to affect the levels of two hormones, called leptin and ghrelin. Leptin tells your brain that you’ve had enough to eat and ghrelin is an appetite stimulant. Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can increase the production of ghrelin and reduce levels of leptin. These changes may explain why exhaustion can lead to nighttime snacking or why someone may overeat later in the night. In addition, a lack of sleep leads to stress, which exacerbates digestive issues, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Research shows that getting a good night’s sleep can strengthen your immune system. As we sleep, our immune system produces substances that combat foreign invaders like antibodies and cytokines and also improves immune cell functioning that combat foreign invaders. These immune cells are known as T cells. In a recent German study, researchers discovered that quality sleep can bolster the T cells in your body that fight off foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses. A good night’s sleep can thereby enhance the ability of T cells to adhere to and destroy cells infected by viruses and other pathogens.
Central Nervous System
When we’re tired, we often become forgetful, experience mood swings and can find it difficult to make decisions. That’s because sleep deprivation can impact the functioning of the central nervous system. The Central Nervous System is our body’s main information highway, and while we sleep, our cells are repaired and pathways form between nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. These pathways help us remember new information we’ve learned throughout the day. In addition, the CNS receives sensory information from the nervous system and controls the body’s responses. When these signals are delayed which can happen as a result of lack of sleep, coordination is decreased which increases clumsiness and risk for accidents. Your brain and central nervous system are also responsible for coherent thinking, reasoning, and judgment. These functions will be less effective in sleep-deprived people.
A good night’s sleep plays an important role in repairing the heart and blood vessels. While we sleep, the body heals, the immune system and the cardiovascular system can rest and other organs can be restored.
Just like eating and drinking, sleeping is vital to health. The modern world and technological revolution have put a premium on productivity, but if we’re not also prioritising rest, it comes at a cost to our physical and mental health. This striving to be productive is especially unhelpful when it comes to sleep. The techniques above show that preparing for high-quality sleep doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. The ability to relax is inside of everyone if we just learn to have moments to let go of all doing. By incorporating practices that teach us to just ‘be’, we can not only improve our health but our ability to be creative and productive too. If stress and anxiety is keeping you up at night, why not give these techniques a go. Find what rituals fit your needs and enjoy a happier, more joyful life.
Verified by a health professional
Anastasiia Myronenko is a Medical Physicist actively practicing in one of the leading cancer centers in Kyiv, Ukraine. She received her master’s degree in Medical Physics at Karazin Kharkiv National University and completed Biological Physics internship at GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research, Germany. Anastasiia Myronenko specializes in radiation therapy and is a fellow of Ukrainian Association of Medical Physicists.