Sleep Easy

Insomnia is one of the most common problems I see, which makes sense because it is a symptom of stress as well as many psychiatric conditions.  As many as 20-40% of adults suffer from insomnia in any given year, and 55% of adults have problems falling asleep during their lifetime.  I’m willing to bet that every adult has had at least a few sleepless nights!  I’m no stranger to insomnia myself.  It’s not unusual for me to lie in bed with my mental wheels spinning furiously.  I may replay the day, plan for tomorrow or just worry.  This was an almost nightly occurrence for me until I started doing yoga.  The combination of physical exercise and deep relaxation led me to fall asleep more easily.  Since then I’ve found a number of techniques to enhance sleep, including restorative yoga and breathing practices.  Sometimes my mind needs more distraction to let go of thinking.  So, I have a repertoire of ways to gently steer my mind away from thought and into a state of relaxation.  Keep in mind that these techniques may help mild to moderate insomnia, but more severe symptoms or reduced need for sleep can indicate a serious condition.  Please consult your doctor if your sleep issues are chronic or severe.

Sometimes the simplest things are overlooked when it comes to creating a good atmosphere for sleep.  I can’t tell you the number of people who disregard the “Sleep Hygiene” rules, and don’t recognize how their habits affect their sleep.  So the basics include a room that is a comfortable temperature, dark enough and quiet.  If you are a light sleeper like me, you may want to use a white noise machine or relaxation track to disguise other sounds.  It’s also important to minimize disruptions, so turn off phone notifications or, better yet, leave your smart phone outside the room.  The same goes for any bed-hogging pets!  Also, bright light signals wake time to the brain, so if you wake during the night, leave the lights off.  Even LCD alarm clocks can disrupt the normal release of melatonin, so turn the clock away from you, or place it across the room.  This also prevents clock watching, which leads to the endless calculations of “how much sleep can I still get if I fall asleep right now?” Or maybe that’s just me.

There are many habits that promote good sleep.  Get regular exercise, avoid caffeine after noon and keep a fairly rigid sleep schedule.  That means go to sleep at about the same time every night, and wake at about the same time every morning.  Even on weekends.  I know, I don’t want to do it either, but it really does help.  Other simple changes include turning off the TV and back-lit electronics at least an hour before bedtime, and choosing a relaxing activity instead, like reading or meditation.  This can be incorporated into a nightly routine that sends a signal to start to wind down.  I also like to journal before bed, to allow myself to write down any thoughts or worries.  Then I can tuck them away for the night.

Even if I follow all these rules, it’s pretty normal to still get an occasional bout of insomnia.  Then I like to use my favorite relaxation techniques to quiet the mind and the body.

1. A yoga practice that coordinates breath and movement is a good way to release tension.  Try this simple flowing yoga sequence, demonstrated by yoga and meditation expert Tanya Penny:

2. Meditation is the ultimate expression of a quiet mind.  Practice before bed, or consider listening to a guided healing meditation designed especially for insomnia, like this one, also by Tanya Penny:

3.  Try deep breathing.  We can easily induce the relaxation response by lengthening the exhalation of each breath.  I like to count the length of my inhale, then try to make the exhale 1 or 2 counts longer.  This has the added benefit of giving my mind something to focus on.  If I get distracted, I simply return to counting at one with my next in-breath.

4. Progressive muscle relaxation is another tried and true way to ease into sleep.  This involves sequentially focusing on muscle groups in the body and deliberately allowing them to relax.  I like to start at my feet and move upwards, breathing deeply between each section.  I notice the sensation in my toes, and relax any tension I feel there.  Then I bring awareness to my feet and release any last feelings of tightness, and so on.  The combination of the breath, body focus and a structured format allow me to release thinking for feeling as I relax deeply.  I’ve had several patients tell me they never get through their entire body with this exercise, sleep comes well before they reach the torso!

5. There are also many natural herbs and supplements that promote sleep. Lavender oil is safe and surprisingly effective when sprayed on your linens or in the air, and chamomile tea is very soothing as party of a bedtime ritual.  Your doctor or natural health provider can offer suggestions specific for you.

Often, one or a combination of several of these techniques can restore healthy sleep.  Remember that a good night’s sleep is an important part of self-care and good health.  Many things may seem more important than a bedtime routine, or a full 8 hours of rest, but the next day will look a lot brighter if we’ve allowed sleep to restore our body and mind.

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