Why sleep is as important as diet and how yoga and meditation help you snooze better
The busy lives and constant worries are taking up most of our time. We all want to be able to relax when we feel the need to, but reality is, most of us tend to forget what really matters for us at the end of the day. Some people might say small details like food and sleep will not make a big difference to our typical day. I said small because during a stressful day, our health is not a priority anymore, right? Ever noticed how your perception of the world, your thoughts, your emotions and energy levels change depending on the amount and quality of sleep you get? Some parts of the brain work less efficient if you are not getting enough sleep. This can affect your ability to make decisions, solve problems, your behaviour and also the ability to control your emotions. Children and teens are the best example, they might have mood swings, feel angry, unmotivated and might even feel sad or depressed when they are not getting enough sleep. A study carried out in Sweden showed that high work demands & physical effort at work pose a high risk for disturbed sleep. Another from Sweden concluded that 33% of people had fatigue and 13% disturbed sleep. Shift work and work stress were the top predictors of sleep disturbances.
When it comes to the physical health, sleep is important for both your heart and your immunity. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute underlines the importance of sleep. Not getting enough sleep for a longer period of time, the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke increases. Studies in shift workers have shown that the elasticity of the blood vessels decreases after partial sleep deprivation. Similarly, the risk of infection rises significantly, in this way you are prone to common colds. If this is not convincing enough, hormone disruptions can also occur. Ghrelin levels go up (hunger) whereas leptin is low (fullness). In this way, when you are well-rested, your appetite is lower compared to whenever you are not getting enough sleep. In addition to alterations in appetite-regulating hormones, both cortisol and anabolic hormones levels increase. Cortisol is the stress hormone that rises if you work under pressure for example or when you are afraid.
What you want to do is to shift towards activities that increase the parasympathetic activity and lower the sympathetic system. The former is responsible for the feed and breed response of the body, helps the body relax and there is low mental stimulation. By contrast, the sympathetic system is responsible with the fight, flight or freeze reaction. When active, blood glucose, adrenalin and cortisol rise triggering a shift in homeostasis. It is thought to be related to the inhale, whereas the parasympathetic system with the exhale. Through meditation we can engage the parasympathetic system and lower down the activity of the sympathetic system. If during our yoga practice we are mindful and use our breath too, benefits increase two fold.
Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program which started in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, studied the mental and physical benefits of mindfulness. But what is mindfulness? Observing and being conscious of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the environment around you is one way to describe it. It means that you accept what is and you observe without judging or identifying yourself with your thoughts or feelings.
So how does it relate to sleep? I like how the centre founded by Dr. Deepak Chopra has phrased it.
“Meditation is a simple yet powerful practice gives you access to the inner silence and calm that lies beneath the mind’s noisy internal dialogue. Meditation allows you to experience profound relaxation that dissolves fatigue and long-standing stresses. Contrary to a common misconception, meditation is not about forcing your mind to be quiet; it is finding the quiet that is already there“.
On the physical level, meditation helps lower heart rate, blood pressure and the production of stress hormones. Hence we calm down and sleep better.
A study done by Carnegie Mellon University published in the journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology concluded that 25 minutes for three consecutive days can alleviate psychological stress. They recruited people aged 18-30 years of age and tested their ability to be resilient under stress.
There is a great quote I read in a yoga studio “yoga without mindfulness is just a gymnastics class”. Yoga connects the mind and body through postures, breathing exercises and meditation. Consequently, the activity of the nervous system is reduced, not to mention flexing the spine, engaging the muscles and in this way the circulation improves too. Not only it reduces stress but it also improves insomnia, especially in pregnant women.
Halpern and his team carried out a study in 2014 and recruited men and women over the age of 60. Overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep duration and latency improved after the group took part in 24 classes of yoga over 12 weeks. Not only could they sleep better but their general wellbeing, anxiety, stress and vitality improved!
Start by being patient, persistent and remember that relaxation is a benefit of practice, but it’s not necessarily the direct goal. Remember you don’t need expensive or fancy equipment. You just need yourself and maybe some comfy clothes. Remember to be a detached observer. Enjoy your sleep.
Åkerstedt, T., Fredlund, P., Gillberg, M. and Jansson, B. (2002). Work load and work hours in relation to disturbed sleep and fatigue in a large representative sample. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53(1), pp.585-588.
Åkerstedt, T., Knutsson, A., Westerholm, P., Theorell, T., Alfredsson, L. and Kecklund, G. (2002). Sleep disturbances, work stress and work hours. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53(3), pp.741-748.
Halpern, J., Cohen, M., Kennedy, J., Reece, J., Cahan, C. and Baharav, A. (2011). Yoga for improving sleep quality and quality of life for older adults. Altern Ther Health Med, 20(3), pp.37-46.
The Chopra Center. (2018). Meditation and Yoga. [online] Available at: https://chopra.com/articles/meditation-and-yoga [Accessed 17 Mar. 2018].