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Ah, a good night’s sleep. We all want it but approximately 2/3 of adults throughout all developed nations are not getting enough. The World Health Organisation (WHO) labels lack of societal sleep a global health epidemic.
The field of sleep research has come a long way. We now understand that good sleep is essential to short and long term mental and physical health.
Sleep is not a luxury. Every physiological system gets out of whack when our sleep suffers. Adults need 7-9 hours’ sleep a night. Skimp on sleep and we run into problems. Not getting enough significantly impacts our quality of life and can even kill us!
Evidence shows that sleep loss has devastating effects on the brain with strong links to many neurological and psychiatric conditions, increases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, suicidality, stroke, and chronic pain. Countless disorders and diseases are associated with lack of sleep, including cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, infertility, weight gain, obesity, and immune deficiency.
The benefits of a good night’s sleep include living longer, having a better memory and being more creative. Good quality sleep lowers food cravings and protects us from cancer and dementia, wards off colds and flu, and lowers the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.
Good sleep lifts our mood and makes us happier, less depressed, and less anxious.
While healthy sleep habits are essential, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have multiple benefits when it comes to getting a great night’s sleep. But before we explain how meditation helps let’s explore a bit of the science.
Our body has its own finely tuned internal clock. It knows when to go to sleep, how long to sleep and when to wake up. However, not everybody has the same sleep-wake cycles. People differ according to their sleep chronotype . We’re either genetically wired as early birds, night owls or somewhere in between.
About 40 % of us are early birds, preferring to wake around dawn. If you function best earlier in the day, that’s probably you. Thirty percent of us are night owls - preferring going to bed late and to wake up later the following day. The rest of us fall somewhere in between.
Two chemicals - melatonin and adenosine - play an essential role in falling and staying asleep. Let’s look at melatonin first. As dusk arrives and darkness prevails melatonin is secreted into your bloodstream by the pineal gland deep in the brain. When melatonin peaks it signals that it is time for bed, and you begin to feel sleepy. As morning approaches clever light receptors signal the brain that daylight is here, melatonin levels drop dramatically, and wakefulness returns.
Unfortunately, today’s modern lighting - especially light from our devices - delay melatonin release, making it much harder to go to sleep.
Adenosine works differently. The longer you’re awake the more adenosine builds up in your system creating a kind of ‘sleep pressure’ which strengthens your desire for sleep. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors and tricks the body into feeling alert and awake. Because caffeine has a half-life of around 5 hours, having that afternoon coffee at 4pm means 50% is still in your system at 9pm making it difficult to get to sleep.
During sleep we repeatedly go through two cycles known as REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep is associated with dream sleep, while NREM has 3 stages ranging from light to deep. While cycles differ, we need all stages for optimal health and wellness.
Get them out of balance and we pay a high cost.
Deep sleep is necessary to repair the body physically and for functioning optimally the next day. Not enough dream sleep makes it harder to stay on top of our game mentally, to learn, remember things and to concentrate.
Interestingly, sleep allows the brain to put things together in new and novel ways that the awake brain never would. So, sleeping on a problem is extremely good advice!
Let me introduce you to Harry.
Harry’s job requires regular travel across different time zones. He works long hours and tries to get by on just 6 hours’ sleep a night, drinks coffee all day, and uses alcohol to wind down after work. Harry spends his evenings on his smart phone answering work email and surfing social media before bed. He’s stopped exercising, says he doesn’t have the time, and prefers takeaways to cooking.
Harry goes to bed late, is always tired, has trouble sleeping and regularly wakes at 3am worrying about work and struggles to get back to sleep. He tries to compensate for his sleep-debt by binge sleeping on weekends. But this is ineffective. The brain cannot recover lost sleep.
Once a shining star at work, Harry’s performance is beginning to suffer. While his boss believes Harry’s fatigue is evidence of a strong work ethic, Harry’s colleagues begrudge how little he contributes on team projects.
Harry gained 15 kgs over the last year. His doctor is concerned about Harry’s abnormally high blood sugar and blood pressure levels and his deteriorating mental and emotional health.
She suggests lifestyle changes before considering medication, and advises cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, avoiding his device before bed, an earlier sleep time, getting more exercise, a healthier diet and meditation.
Harry’s high caffeine intake is blocking adenosine, reducing ‘sleep pressure’, staying up late on his device is interfering with his melatonin levels and alcohol is contributing to a restless broken sleep.
Even though he feels tired, Harry’s mind is still wired when his head hits the pillow. The excess cortisol in Harry’s system related to stress is keeping him hyper-alert, makes going to sleep difficult, and is also contributing to his weight gain.
Lying awake ruminating about work is a recipe for a bad night’s sleep and being anxious about not being able to get back to sleep simply makes things worse.
An overly active mind is not conducive to the relaxed state needed to drift off. Harry is trapped in a vicious circle. With so much to do he thinks he can sacrifice sleep, but a fuzzy sleep deprived brain means having to work harder and put in longer hours just to catch up.
Ironically, if Harry just changed a few unhealthy habits and simply slept more, he’d be more productive, efficient and get more done.
Do you regularly take work home or answer work email after hours? If you do, you’re not alone. Our modern work world is making it more difficult than ever to get a good nights’ sleep, mainly due to an increasing pressure to do more with less and expecting staff to be available 24/7.
Many workplaces even view exhaustion and stress as a sign of real job commitment.
If you’re working in an open plan office, you’re probably dealing with constant distractions. Many businesses keep inflexible work hours. Forcing night owls to keep early bird hours and vice versa is problematic.
We know that lack of sleep makes us more reactive and likely to snap which is associated with unethical behaviour in the workplace and being less of a team player!
Thankfully, today many forward-thinking businesses no longer equate exhausted employees with evidence of a strong work ethic and have started offering sleep programs, installing high grade office lighting, and allowing flexible hours so people can match their work hours with their natural chronotype. Some have even dedicated nap rooms and pods for people to sleep at work, something you’d once be fired for!
All these changes are backed by sound science.
When it comes to sleep many things are within our control. Let’s look at those next.
If you struggle to go to sleep, stay asleep or feel you’re not quite getting enough, what can you do? Here’s some important basics to help with your sleep.
Start with the basics. Get these right and if that doesn’t work, consider seeing a sleep expert.
While mindfulness meditation is not solely a technique for calming the body and quieting the mind, when it comes to sleep a calming practice is particularly powerful.
We’ve all had the experience of lying-in bed unable to sleep because our mind is in over-drive. Perhaps you’re worrying about something that happened that day or planning the day ahead? The next thing you know you’re anxious about being anxious.
An overly active mind keeps you hypervigilant and on high alert and creates tension in the body, which is not conducive to sleep. The more anxious you become the more stress chemistry is released which keeps you awake.
Fighting with your mind just ends up making it worse.
A simple mindfulness meditation practice for calming the mind and relaxing the body involves learning to stay focused on one thing, usually the breath or sensations in the body while systematically relaxing different parts of the body. When the mind is more concentrated the body naturally calms and relaxes and when the body is more settled it’s far easier to fall asleep.
From a physiological perspective these practices work by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest, digest, and repair) and counterbalancing the body’s sympathetic nervous system (stress response).
Your sympathetic nervous system is a healthy adaptive mechanism for keeping you safe, but you’re unlikely to need it when you’re snug and warm in bed at night.
Of course, mindfulness meditation is just as much about developing insight, personal growth, and wisdom. The more you meditate, the more likely you are to notice any activities you engage in during your day that either increase or decrease stress, tension and anxiety, and consequently impact on your sleep.
With more awareness comes more choice because the more aware you are of any behaviours that are getting in the way and compromising your sleep, the more likely you are to change them.
Mindfulness also deepens your ability to become extremely sensitive to changing sensations in your body. The earlier you notice feeling anxious or stressed the more likely you are to deal with it.
The Awakened Mind Sleep Suite includes educational videos, amazing sleep meditations, sleep stories, bonus resources and Neurosync™ - the world’s most advanced brainwave entrainment technology - packaged into beautiful soundscapes to help you get to sleep, stay asleep and wake up refreshed.
Everything you need is housed on the Awakened Mind app.
Watch this brief animation to see how the program works.
If you’d like to try out a guided meditation to help you drift off quicker and get more restorative sleep, this meditation is great for calming an overactive mind and relaxing the body.
Why not try out Neurosync™. This track combines multiple sound modulations for brainwave entrapment and can be used with or without headphones. Simply set your player at a comfortable volume, lay down and prepare for a great night’s sleep.
Our sleep stories are soothing tales that mix music, sound and incredible voice talent to help you drift off into dreamland. The Highway Home will have you drifting off into blissful sleep in no time at all.
Plus, you can listen to a fascinating podcast series with an internationally acclaimed sleep expert. Topics include:
Remember, when it comes to getting better quality sleep, changing your environment is much easier than changing a longstanding habit, like using your device just before bed or cutting back on caffeine.
Make as many adjustments to your sleep environment as you can first but avoid trying to change too many behaviours all at once.
You’re more likely to be successful by introducing one new positive habit, like adding meditation to your evening bed-time ritual.
Start with something achievable and take it from there.
Here’s wishing you a great night’s sleep.
The team at Awakened Mind.