In thinking about how to live a healthy lifestyle, understanding the mysteries of sleep might just be the final frontier. There is a plethora of information available about how to eat in a healthier way and how to move more, but getting better quality sleep takes time and strategy. If you’ve ever had a sleep issue, you know it’s not just a matter of willing yourself to sleep. In fact, we currently have an epidemic of sleep problems. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in three adults in the US gets less than the recommended amount of sleep (7–9 hours a night for adults, according to most sources). Lack of sleep causes tiredness, fatigue, reduced alertness, and low energy. The quality of our sleep affects our overall health and almost every system in the body, including our hormones and immune system. Research shows that chronically getting an insufficient quantity or quality of sleep increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, depression, and mental disease.

Sleep Problems and Their Causes

There are several types of sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep; waking up multiple times or waking up early; having trouble falling back asleep; and not feeling well-rested when waking up in the morning or feeling very sleepy during the day. A number of different factors can cause sleep problems, including stress, anxiety, and lifestyle factors such as nicotine and alcohol intake. Nicotine acts as a stimulant, making it harder to fall asleep, and alcohol may make you drowsy but reduces your ability to enter deep sleep and can cause early wakening. Some medical conditions, like sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome, can cause difficulty in sleeping. There are also some prescription medications, such as corticosteroids, stimulants for attention deficit, and certain blood pressure and asthma medications, that can interrupt a good night’s sleep. If you think a medication or condition is disturbing your sleep, talk to your healthcare provider for other possible options.

Strategies to Improve Sleep

Knowing how important sleep is to our health, let’s review some things we can consider to improve sleep. A system called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) combines two types of strategies for improving sleep: strategies that work with thoughts and beliefs that may interfere with sleep, and strategies for sleep hygiene—cleaning up our sleep by cultivating lifestyle habits that help us sleep better. In working with beliefs and thoughts, for example, CBT might lead us to the insight that “If I don’t get enough sleep, I won’t be able to function,” which brings to our awareness the importance of good sleep. Furthermore, this realization may prompt us to observe what thoughts may be intruding on our sleep.

As far as sleep hygiene, or lifestyle habits, how can we draw on CBT, as well as yoga and ayurveda, to cultivate better habits with regard to our sleep schedule, diet, exercise, and sleep environment? Let’s start with some simple guidelines regarding sleep itself:

  • Do not go to bed unless you are sleepy.
  • Wake up at the same time every day, including weekends and vacations.
  • Get out of bed if you are unable to sleep.
  • Minimize non-sleep activities in bed (e.g., watching TV).
  • Limit napping, but if you need a daytime nap, try to nap less than 30 minutes and before 3:00 p.m.

Next, let’s look at our diet and exercise habits and how to create a conducive sleep environment and bedtime routine:

  • Sleep is a time for assimilation of food and thoughts, so limit heavy meals and heavy discussions within the three hours before sleep. This allows digestion of ideas and food to be completed during waking hours, and the path is set for utilization and storage during sleep.
  • Exercise releases tension that builds up in our body during the day, while also using energy. This sets the stage for our body to slow down and be tired when it is time for sleep. Get exercise during the day to help you get to sleep faster and sleep longer.
  • Make your bedroom environment comfortable: keep the room temperature cool, minimize noise and light, and keep your clock out of clear view to prevent clock watching.
  • Develop a calming, quiet, relaxing bedtime routine or ritual to act as a buffer from the stress of the day. Consider reading a book, taking a warm bath, or drinking herbal tea like chamomile or lemon balm.

Finally, breathing (pranayama) and other mind-body techniques can be very effective in reducing hyperalertness and promoting a sense of calm. The simplest and most profound of these takes just a few moments and is literally right under our nose—focusing our mind on the flow of breath in the nostrils. Our mind can only do one of two things: either have an inner conversation or feel a physical sensation. It cannot do both at the same time. Thus, when the mind’s chatter keeps us awake, focusing our awareness on a sensation is the best solution. Focusing on the sensation of the airflow at the entrances of both nostrils helps us quickly quiet our mind.

Our mind can only do one of two things: either have an inner conversation or feel a physical sensation. It cannot do both at the same time.

Try it for yourself! As you inhale, notice a faint sensation of coolness at the openings of your nostrils. Your lungs will warm that air, which will create a gentle sensation of warmth in the nostrils as you exhale. As you focus on the coolness of the airflow during inhalation and the warmth of the airflow during exhalation, the mind becomes quiet—its conversations cease.

This time-tested method is one of the most effective for interrupting unhelpful thought loops and bringing a calm quietude as a gateway to sleep. Additional techniques for calming the mind and body include systematic relaxation techniques; diaphragmatic breathing and other breathing exercises; meditation; and guided imagery.

Putting even a few of these strategies to use can make a big difference in how well we sleep and thus in our health, energy level, and mental clarity. In the next article we will look, more specifically, at why sleep is critical to the health and functioning of our brain, playing a major role in cleaning the brain and in the storing of memories.

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