How to get better sleep

Astrid Merkt

Astrid Merkt, Clinical Holistic Psychologist and Performance Coach, at Balance Health on how to get a good night’s rest every night

We’ve all heard the saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” Society’s pressures and demands continue to make us believe that we need to work harder and longer hours to succeed. Yet, research indicates that good sleep is the only way our bodies can function optimally to support our path to success. Good sleep is also important for a long life. Sleep is the number one tool for good health, a better mood, and elevated mental productivity. Feeling energized, happy and motivated will also lead you to choose habits and behaviours that foster good health and promote well-being. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, 35 percent of adults are getting less than the recommended amount of seven hours of sleep, while 20 percent of teenagers are getting less than five hours of sleep. However, the quality of sleep is even more important than the duration of it, as sleep deprivation may result in a lack of concentration and can even lead to fatal accidents.

Sleep is a restorative activity our body uses to process and compartmentalize all the information of the day. It stores the important information in memory and discards unnecessary “noise.” Apart from processing our experiences and memories, the glial cells in our brain also get some “pruning,” similar to how dead leaves must be pruned in order for a tree to grow branches and keep bearing fruit. Physiologically, this is when our body’s inner janitors and quality controllers get busy to work. Our metabolic waste gets flushed out, and our brain and spinal cord get a cleaning by flushing through new cerebrospinal fluid. Sleep also resets and balances our hormone levels and repairs any internal damage from the day at a cellular level.

What are our sleep stages, and why are they important?

We go through four to six cycles of sleep per night. Each cycle consists of four stages. The first two stages lead us into the most important third stage, known as “deep sleep” where delta waves in the brain are identifiable. Here is where we do most of the cellular repair and growth to restore our systems back to health. It also boosts your immune system. The last stage consists of rapid eye movement sleep where we do most of the cognitive and memory reconciliation, and brain activity picks up as we dream. Our sleep hygiene dictates how much deep sleep we get throughout our cycles, and thus it is important to take care of our sleep routine.

“Sleep is the number one tool for good health, a better mood, and elevated mental productivity.”

How do we improve our sleep hygiene for better sleep?

Sleep hygiene consists of adopting an evening routine. This enables us to set our brain waves to a state of rest, and what we focus on can sometimes be a topic of focus while we sleep. This means that what we do right before our head hits the pillow affects the dreams and deepness of our sleep.

Here are some tips for what a healthy evening routine should look like:

1. Setting a consistent bed time (our circadian rhythms work on a regular cycle).

2. Creating a sleep-conducive environment. This can include listening to music, dimming the lights an hour before bed and using essential oils to relax. Avoiding alcohol, caffeine and the use of smartphones and computers allows the brain to release the neurotransmitters conducive to sleep.

3. Doing what makes us relax. This can include meditating or journalling, for example. Take a moment to write down three things you are grateful for having or had experienced during that day. This shifts your thoughts into a state of gratitude and calms the mind as you bring awareness to the positive aspects, or the little celebrations, of your day.

4. Taking 10 to 30 minutes to meditate before sleeping helps to ground and calm you mentally and physiologically. Following a guided yoga nidra meditation allows you to relax the entire body, and redirects the busy mind to an awareness of relaxing each part of your limbs. You can also do some easy stretches. Better sleep is reported after doing some restorative yoga poses.

5. This can be followed by some breathwork. Deep breathing is the gateway to controlling your emotions and physiology. By doing some deep breathing, we bring a coherence to our heart rate and activate the relaxation response in our nervous system. I recommend Dr Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing exercise, which consists of a four-count inhale through the nose, a seven-count hold, and an eight-count slow exhale through the mouth. If your mind is still racing, humming out noise is one of the best ways to bring ease to a restless brain.

6. Finally, get a dose of sunlight as soon as you wake up! This triggers a neural circuit that controls the timing of the hormones cortisol and melatonin, which affect sleep and set your circadian clock to prepare for better sleep.

If readers want to know more about optimizing their own mental and emotional well-being, that they can find me through my website

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