All we need is sleep

Category : General advice 25th February 2019

Inside Yoga 261 (25/2/2019)

We have been sleeping since we were born, yet all those years later, have we mastered the skill of sleep? Probably not, surveys by the UK sleep Council report that one third of adults suffer from poor sleep and do not get the recommended eight hours per night.

Sleep might have been with us since we were born, but it seems that it is only recently that we are waking up to the problems that lack of sleep and poor sleep are causing us.
Many of us have our own idea of what is the ideal amount of sleep we need, and perhaps most of us accept and know that the recommended amount is about seven or eight hours per night (children need more, and elderly tend towards six or seven hours).

There are, of course, different ideas of what constitutes a good night’s rest, with some suggesting that we sleep in two sleep shifts, in the same way our ancestors did, according to some studies (for example, Roger Ekirch) whilst some studies have suggested that we cannot know what our ancestors did because research was not done back then.

Many of the studies look for patterns, for example, a study which sought to see how our ancestors sleep (Can we ever know the sleep of our ancestors? by MatthewWolf-Meyer PhD). This study explains that our ancestors did not sleep the seven or eight hours we expect nowadays, and also, it points out that uninterrupted sleep is a myth, because the idea that we sleep like a log through seven or eight hours does not happen; though it did concede the lack of studies at the time, so this is speculation.

Another study looked at the premise that we will be unhealthy if we do not get our seven or eight hours sleep, because some people do sleep less and feel no worse than others, (Measuring Sleep Need by Prof Mary A Carskadon and Michelle A Short, 2014).

Though, Matthew Walker (author of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams) wrote in the Guardian sleep supplement (Sleep: a user’s guide, February 2019): “Insufficient sleep is now one of the most significant lifestyle factors influencing whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. During sleep, a remarkable sewage system in the brain, called the glymphatic system, kicks into high gear. As you enter deep sleep, this sanitisation system cleanses the brain of a sticky, toxic protein linked to Alzheimer’s, known as beta amyloid. Without sufficient sleep, you fail to get that power cleanse. With each passing night of insufficient sleep, that Alzheimer’s disease risk escalates, like compounding interest on a loan.

“Parenthetically, and unscientifically, I have always found it curious that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – two leaders who were very vocal, if not proud, about sleeping only four to five hours a night – both went on to develop the ruthless disease of Alzheimer’s. The current US president, Donald Trump – also a vociferous proclaimer of sleeping just a few hours each night – may want to take note.”

Walker also points out: “Sleep is perhaps the greatest legal performance-enhancing ‘drug’ that few people are taking advantage of. Obtain less than eight hours of sleep a night, and especially less than six hours a night, and the following happens: time to physical exhaustion drops by 10 to 30 per cent, as does aerobic output; limb extension force and vertical jump height are reduced; peak and sustained muscle strength decrease. Add to this the cardiac, metabolic and respiratory effects: higher rates of lactic acid build-up and reductions in blood oxygen saturation with converse increases in carbon dioxide, due in part to a reduction in the amount of air that the lungs can expire in a sleep-deficient state. And then there is injury risk. Relative to sleeping nine hours a night, sleeping five to six hours a night will increase your chances of injury across a season by more than 200 per cent.”

In fact, he says: “Scientists such as myself have even started lobbying doctors to start ‘prescribing’ a good night’s sleep (though certainly not sleeping pills). As medical advice goes, it’s perhaps the most painless and enjoyable to follow.”

Our “so-called” modern way of life does appear to push us the other way, because we are told how our way of living is so much busier than the past, but, I suspect that it is not that our lives are any busier than people’s lives one hundred or two hundred years ago, but what has changed is our attitude to sleep; nowadays, assisted by technology that never sleeps, we want to fill our waking hours with activity and busy-ness. There is a pressure to fill our days, and to extend our days to fit it all in.

This is what needs to change, as Walker says: “I believe it is therefore time for us, as individuals and as nations, to reclaim our right to a full night of sleep, without embarrassment or the terrible stigma of laziness. I fully understand that this prescription of which I write requires a shift in our cultural, professional, and global appreciation of sleep.”

How do you sleep? Soundly, “like a log”, or are you a restless sleeper, repeatedly awake more than asleep, constantly moving or hardly moving? Are you a dreamer or do you not remember your last dream? The debates and studies around sleep cover two main areas, firstly, do we get enough sleep (the recommendation being seven or eight hours) and secondly, how do we sleep: soundly, restless, light or heavy?

The studies explain that normal sleep comes in bursts of one or two hours, so the idea of restlessness while sleeping is not something to see as a problem. We should expect to wake up during the night, and even those who say they sleep like a log, do stir and go in and out of deep sleep, but come the morning they have no recollection of this happening.

This is the theory but what practical steps can we take?

If we look at the sleep debate from a perspective of yoga and Buddhism, we would first look at how we respond to our particular situation, whether it’s changing or always the same as regards sleep. Like a meditator who responds to rising thoughts with a calmness and clear mind, and returns to the stillness of meditation, as if nothing had changed as regards the practice, we need to approach our sleep and any problems we might have in a similar way. Take for example, waking in the night, as the studies show, this is normal as our sleep goes in and out of deep sleep, REM sleep and wakefulness in cycles of about one and half hours, so expect to feel awake at times. So if we do wake up, the last thing we want to do is get upset, angry or worried at having woken up. In the same way, when meditating, if we do get distracted by unwanted thoughts, the advice is not to give ourselves a hard time, berating ourselves for having failed in any way, we simply return our attention to the practice, for example, our breathing and mindfulness of the body. (Yes, I know it’s easier said than done, but I am writing about a practice, which takes practice!). We approach sleep as if it is a meditation practice. Remaining calm as can be, we lie still (moving around will just wake us up more) and concentrate on the silence and breathing. Keep it simple. And even if we do not feel that we slept well, as long as we have remained in the dark in bed all night we would have had more rest than we would have managed had we got up repeatedly to do XYZ in the hope that this will help us sleep.

Additionally, if you struggle to sleep, do not try to solve your life while trying to go to sleep. This is why as a meditator we do not ask why I am not sleeping? But how do I respond, and how do I get back to sleep? Whatever tactics use we must aim to respond calmly because any agitation or stress over waking up or failing to sleep will only cause us to be more awake!
During the day we can help our sleep at night: fresh air and natural sunlight helps keep us on track with the circadian rhythms so that we are more likely to want to sleep at night. Also, yoga asanas (exercises) really do help to relax the body and mind, helping a good night’s rest, as many who attend a yoga class report that the best night’s sleep is usually that evening after yoga the same day. Spot the hint: practice yoga every day – however brief the practice!

What we eat and consume affects us: being mindful is not just a meditation practice reserved for those times we sit still, it also helps us to be more in touch with our own rhythms and needs, so that we take note of what nourishes us, and what stimulates us too much. For example, yoga (and ayurveda) does not say that we should never drink coffee but says that use it wisely and it depends on our constitution (ayurvedically speaking), for example, I drink coffee, and strong as well, but no more than two a day and not after lunchtime.

A few weeks ago I was listening to Jeremy Vine talk to a sleep expert who spoke to some insomniacs, and what was interesting is that he dismissed the rituals that people employ to get ready for sleep every night. He explained that these rituals which we think helps us prepare for sleep actually wake us up, because our mind (and sub-conscious) sees these activities and knows that something important is about to happen. Sleep in this case. So our mind is on alert, waiting for something to happen… and it is not sleep! The opposite of what is intended.

in other words, sleep is natural, and will happen if we let it. Remember to go to sleep at an appropriate time allowing the required seven/eight hours – most of us, have to wake up at a certain time, so the time we go to bed is important. Also, it is recommended to stick to a similar pattern of sleep, even if we are not working and don’t have to go to bed or get up at any particular time. This is especially important if we already struggle with not having enough sleep.

And if waking up at night, remain calm, waking up is natural, and wait for sleep to take over once again.

Remember: sleep is what the doctor prescribed.

Guardian Sleep report–a-user-s-guide
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
Can we ever know the sleep of our ancestors? by MatthewWolf-Meyer PhD
(Associate Professor of Anthropology, Binghamton University, USA)
Measuring sleep need by Mary A. Carskadon, Professor, Director, Professor of Psychology (Psychiatry & Human Behavior, The Alpert Medical School of Brown
University, USA)
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