The Importance Of Sleep, And How To Get More Of It

Photo by:    Gregory Pappas

Photo by: Gregory Pappas

Did you know that two-thirds of adults, living throughout all developed nations, fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep?

Sleep is crucial to our health and well-being. I have always taken sleep seriously, but after reading the book, Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams, I now have a greater understanding and appreciation for the health benefits of getting a decent night’s sleep on a regular basis.

The following bullet points are taken from Why We Sleep:

*Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.  

*Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease.

*Inadequate sleep, even modern reductions for just one week, disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic.  

*Too little sleep is a proven recipe for weight gain: hormones that signal hunger are released while hormones that signal satiation are suppressed.

*The ability to learn, memorize and make logical decisions and choices are compromised, as well as our psychological health, because our emotional brain circuits cannot be recalibrated.

The science of Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, has a lot to say about sleep.  It says it is important to “wind down slowly” around 6pm each night, and to try and be asleep by 10pm, in order to avoid catching a “second wind,” which has the potential for keeping you awake for many more hours. It places great importance on synching your life rhythms with the rhythm of the planet.

I think the key words here are, “wind down slowly around 6pm.”  For me, my “ideal night” means wrapping up dinner and reducing all stimulating activities by 6pm. By 7:30pm I am reading, not social media or news, but something that is calming and relaxing. By 8:30pm the lights are out.  

Ideally, you want to be mindful of the following things in order to get a consistent good night’s sleep. I call this my “sleep damage control” list:  

  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.  

  • Make an effort to go to bed at the same time every night.

  • Do a “wind down” activity,  like taking a warm epsom salt bath or reading a good book (that isn’t too stimulating) before bed.  

  • Refrain from excessive alcohol consumption and avoid drinking right before bedtime.  — It has now been proven that although alcohol might help induce sleep, after 90 minutes it actually disrupts sleep.

Need a little help? Here are 8 of my personal go-to’s for when I can’t sleep:

1. Rasayana Ayuvedic sleep tonic.  My first Ayurvedic teacher in 2004 taught me about this, and I’ve been drinking it regularly ever since. Rasayana means “rejuvenation.” It is a warm drink made of milk, honey, ghee and spices. You can substitute almond milk if you are lactose intolerant.

2.  Ashwagandha. This Ayurvedic adaptogen helps promote sleep and calms the nervous system.

3.  Lavender essential oil. I keep a bottle on my bed stand and apply a few drops to my wrists and pillow to promote a feeling of calmness.

4. Melatonin. Take 30 minutes before bed.

5. CBD oil (no THC). I have recently been trying this, it does make me feel more calm and relaxed.

6. Diaphragmatic Straw Breathing (favoring the exhale). Practice Diaphragmatic breathing, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through a straw, for 3-5 minutes to create a calming effect. You could also practice deep breathing techniques without a straw, but when you are holding the straw it keeps your mind on what you are doing and you will exhale more powerfully with it than without it.

5. Exercise. Often times when I can’t get to sleep I realize I have not gotten my heart rate up in awhile. It does make a huge difference.

6.  Yoga poses that help you fall asleep, like “legs up the wall” or easy forward bends.

7.  Yoga nidra. This practice can help you get to sleep and/or make up sleep debt. If I am experiencing “monkey mind” I will illicit the first stage of yoga nidra (rotating attention throughout my body). Granted this takes tenacity, but with patience and practice I have proved to myself that I can shut down my monkey mind and self-soothe myself to sleep using this technique. When I need to make up sleep debt, I do yoga nidra during the day. Just 30 minutes of yoga nidra is likened to 3-4 hours of sleep. plus a bonus 65% dopamine boost.

8.  Seated Meditation. This practice is at the heart of my life. I really believe that in the end, when we are not connected to our inner compass, life speeds up and spirals into many directions. Learning how to meditate in the upright position, and marinating in silence has been my greatest tonic.  

If we can learn anything from the animal kingdom it would be that human beings are the only species that deprive themselves of sleep. My sleep gurus are my cats. They constantly demonstrate to me, how much they appreciate sleep and how blissful it can be.

I read once, that a nurse recorded the most common regrets patients recalled before dying, and among the top listed were, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” It is the constant “doing” we as humans get sucked into and without the “tools” of learning how to not “do” we become restless and overstimulated.

It is no wonder sleep becomes elusive, interrupted and secondary.  The saying “I will sleep when I am dead” is no longer working for the well being of our society. I encourage you to take action in your own life, if you are neglecting sleep, and reap its many health benefits. Not just for yourself, but also for the people in your life.  

Recommended reading:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power Of Sleep And Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD

Matthew Walker is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley, the Director of its Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab, and a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. He has published over 100 scientific studies and has appeared on 60 Minutes, Nova, BBC News, and NPR’s Science Friday.

A Yoga Unplugged collaboration - written by Jennifer Reuter, edited by Sarah Burchard