One of the most essential aspects of a healthy lifestyle is having adequate restorative sleep. It buffers our stress response system and without it, resiliency and health span are compromised.
Sleep is the most important body rhythm to support resiliency, however, many of us get far less than our body requires to be fully restored. Having a busy schedule, irregular work hours, caregiver responsibilities, or other sources of stress, all impact our ability to obtain a good night’s sleep. Although there are over 80 sleep disorders, we will focus on short sleep duration.
Beyond self-imposed sleep restriction, difficulty falling or staying asleep is typically a result of stress that works to keep us awake and vigilant.
This source of sleep loss has been associated with activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA), increased blood levels of ACTH and Cortisol, which results in hyperarousal that interferes with sleep. Calming activation of the HPA axis is the target to override stress in support of restorative sleep.
But before we delve into calming measures to override stress, why is sleep essential to resiliency?
- Sleep is needed for healthy immune function. When we don’t get enough sleep, we have dysrugulation in immune function which further impacts sleep. Only in restorative sleep do we free ourselves from fatigue inducing inflammation.
- Dysregulation in immune system also affects regulatory hormones responsible for growth and appetite drive as well as key chemicals responsible for mood, memory, and concentration.
- Recent studies indicate brains may shrink during sleep allowing the fluid around the brain to flush out acculmated byproducts of the day’s oxidative stress.
Appreciating these stress-sleep associations highlights the need to calm the HPA axis both during the day and before sleep. Here are some tips to increase restorative sleep.
- Relax before bed: The brain pattern of the relaxation response is similar to the first stage of sleep, so meditating, praying, or listening to calming music pre sleep will offset stress and ease your mind and body to fall asleep more quickly and deeply.
- Avoid afternoon naps: Afternoon naps disrupt the normal circadian rhythm of sleep making it harder to fall asleep at night.
- Decrease alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and large meals, particularly 2- hours before bed: Metabolizing food and these additional substances work to stimulate the body rather than calm it down.
- Exercise during the day, but try not to exercise too late in the evening.
- Complete stress-activating activities two to three hours prior to bedtime: It takes a while to calm the brain and to settle into a good mood so best to “keep your brain out of trouble and free or worry” for approximately three hours before bed.
- Shut off devices 1 hour before bed. The light from devices keeps the brain awake.
- Create soothing bedtime rituals 10-15 minutes before bed: Playing soothing music, writing appreciations, gentle stretches, or a warm facial wash or bath can be soothing. Pleasing attitudes and behaviors set the tone for pleasant dreams and deep sleep.
- Create an ideal sleep environment: Bedrooms should be a welcoming place of beauty, order, pleasing fragrances, quiet, dark and cool, comfortable temperature. A blue light bulb may also add a calming influence. Ɓ Schedule your sleep and stick to the same schedule. The body operates under a wake/sleep rhythm that will be supported by a consistent wake and sleep time when possible.
- Avoid working in the bedroom: The brain makes and relies on associations so using the bedroom for relaxation and pleasure will support the associations that favor sleep.
- Go to bed when you’re tired and likely to fall asleep: This way you will condition your body to be in bed while sleeping. Normal sleep onset is typically 15 to 20 minutes. If you wake prematurely, don’t start thinking. Waking prematurely is often caused by the stress response, so your thoughts will be influenced towards negativity and threat and act like kindling to keep you awake and vigilant. A simple focus like a pleasing phrase aligned to the natural rhythm of your breath will elicit the relaxation response to resume sleep. If you are awake for more than 20 minutes, get up and engage in a relaxing activity.
- Stress interferes with sleep. If possible, avoid stress-activating thoughts 2-3 hours before bed and try to focus more on positive and uplifting thoughts.
- Wake/Sleep Circadian Rhythm. Light regulates the natural circadian rhythm of wake and sleep. Daylight during the day (~20 to 60 minutes) and low lighting in evenings (< 60 watts or < 200 lux from screens) supports this normal rhythm.
Here’s to Resorative Sleep to Build Your Inner Resilience!