Breathing our way to sleep and sleeping our way to success

Sleep plays a big role in our everyday lives and can influence every aspect of how we live and work, think, feel and behave. In fact, in last year’s State of Mind survey by Smiling Mind, Australians ranked sleep as the number one most important factor in staying positive and being able to cope with everyday life.

Unfortunately, many people experience trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early and not being able to get back to sleep. If this is you, you’re not alone. One third of Australians are not getting enough sleep (less than seven hours) and only one in seven of us actually sleep through the night. It’s not surprising given how busy and hyper-connected our lives are these days, making it more difficult than ever to switch off and settle into sleep.

What’s the big deal about sleep and why is it so important? Well, it’s our internal house cleaner.

Sleep takes place in three stages: light sleep, rapid-eye movement and deep sleep. During deep sleep the spaces between our brain cells expand by as much as 60%, which allows cerebral-spinal fluid to flush through and remove toxins from our brain. One of these toxins is beta-amyloid, a protein that can lead to the build-up and formation of plaques and create memory impairment.

Researchers have also found that the amount of delta waves we create during deep sleep serve as a biological marker for youth. 

Lack of and poor quality sleep is a big problem. Further research suggests that there is a correlation between a lack of sleep and diseases such as stroke, diabetes and depression, as well as affecting mood, cognition, memory and pain tolerance. Chronic sleep disruptions increase the likelihood of negative thinking, depression, anxiety and emotional vulnerability. Good quality sleep assists with the recovery from stressful experiences and is related to greater mental resilience. Good quality and adequate sleep fuels our performance at work and in life so it’s worth putting a little effort into creating the right conditions and giving ourselves the best chance of a good night’s sleep.

The good news is; there are evidence-based routines and activities you can do for better sleep. According to sleep expert Dr Moira Junge, “there are probably millions of ‘best top 5 sleep tips’ lists, so beware that there is no one magic formula. There are a lot of individual differences in what works for some and not others, so it’s better to talk about overarching principles rather than lists of specific do’s and don’ts.” It’s about finding what works best for you. You might need to experiment until you find the right formula, habits and conditions for a great night’s sleep for you.

Practicing mindfulness not only helps you to live a happier and healthier life, it has a wonderful benefit for sleep, too. While there have been others, one study showed that when a group of people undertook a six-week mindfulness course, 87% of them reported better sleep. Here’s a few ways in which mindfulness and meditation support better sleep:

Reduces overall stress and hyperarousal

Stress and hyperarousal are the feelings of being wound up and tense. Sometimes you might experience this as nervous energy and find it hard to sit still or relax. Other times, you might feel overwhelmed and tired, and lack the motivation to face the challenges and demands ahead of you. Good sleep requires a relaxed body and calm mind, and even a small degree of stress, anxiety or agitation can disturb it. Stress and hyperarousal are, therefore, the most common causes of poor sleep.

Regular mindfulness practice can reduce stress, tension and hyperarousal. It also helps to relax the mind and body and allows us a greater ability to regulate and calm our emotions, so we are less reactive when faced with challenges or stressful situations so that we respond rather than react. The cognitive skill of mindfulness can increase our capacity to deal with the problems we face in our lives, so that stress and tension remains low and under control. These lower stress levels are directly related to better sleep.

Improves our general wellbeing and self-care

Mindfulness allows us an increased awareness of our physical and psychological state. This means we are in a better position to look after ourselves during the day to prevent stress or hyperarousal building up.  We are more likely to take breaks when we need them, eat healthier meals, exercise and stretch the body according to our needs, take time to relax and unwind, and even practice mindfulness regularly! All of these behaviours help to improve our overall sense of wellbeing, creating better internal conditions for sleep.

Helps us cope with sleeplessness

Having a regular mindfulness meditation practice can also help reduce the emotional and physiological distress that is often associated with long-term sleeping difficulties. Mindfulness can help you find a different way of working with the problem as opposed to working against it. Mindfulness is also helpful to maintaining an attitude of patience, acceptance, and non-striving, while trusting that sleep will come eventually, in its own time.

Increases awareness of our sleep cycles

Mindfulness is about being present, decreasing the effort to sleep, and reconnecting with the body’s cues for sleepiness. This helps create the optimal conditions under which sleep can come to you, rather than desperately chasing sleep and getting increasingly worked up in the process. The classic signs that we are biologically ready for sleep include: yawning, heavy eye lids, losing focus and attention. If we are distracted watching TV, or on other devices, and not aware of these signs, we will miss the cues to go to bed. Training in mindfulness supports healthy body awareness, and a greater capacity to recognise these signs of sleepiness, so we can go to bed at the ideal time for sleep.

It can initiate in the moment relaxation

Mindfulness meditation tends to have a calming effect on the body, even if this is not the intention of the practice. When we stop to sit, or lie down, to focus on the breath, it has the effect of slowing down our heart rate and breathing rate and helps to release tension in the body. Practicing meditation at night can assist with unwinding and releasing tension, which is great preparation for sleep.

Here’s a breathing exercise to better prepare you for sleep: 4-7-8

The 4-7-8 breathing is a technique for deep relaxation conceived by Harvard-trained medical doctor and founder of the Arizona Centre for Integrative Medicine Dr. Andrew Weil. Many use this counting technique to manage stress and anxiety through controlled breathing. Specifically, it involves inhaling for the count of four, holding your breath for the count of seven, and exhaling for the count of eight. Using the 4-7-8 breathing technique activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for relaxation. Utilising this breathing technique, people report falling asleep more quickly and consistently.

The exercise, may ease the body into a state of relaxation and calmness, with the following steps:

Step 1) Make a whoosh sound by exhaling completely through your mouth.

Step 2) Shut your mouth and quietly inhale through your nose, counting mentally to 4.

Step 3) Hold your breath for 7 seconds

Step 4) Exhale by making a whoosh sound again, for a count of 8.

Step 5) Repeat this cycle another 3 times, so in total for 4 breaths.

Dr. Weil recommends using the technique proactively at least twice a day to start seeing the benefits in addition to using it in the moments immediately before sleep. He also suggests that people avoid doing more than four breath cycles in a row until they have more practice with the technique. A person may feel lightheaded after doing this for the first few times so you should try this technique when sitting or lying down to prevent dizziness or falls.

The total number of seconds that the pattern lasts for is less important than keeping the ratio. If you’re finding it difficult to hold your breath for long enough, you can try a shorter pattern instead such as ‘2, 3.5, 4’.

Don’t underestimate the importance of regular, quality and adequate sleep. If you’re looking to think, feel, behave, relate and perform better in any aspect of your life, simply sleep your way to success. Small, mindful changes can make a big, impactful difference. 

*photo by David Clode (Unsplash)