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Significance of Sleep

Sleep is an important topic. After all, we spend about a third of our life time sleeping! We are the only species on earth that would deprive ourselves from sleep for no apparent reason. As a species we are not provided with the ability to deal with ongoing sleep deprivation; it makes us sick. – Research has verified that sleep is a significant part of our physiology. Good sleep helps us stay healthy!

Sleep affects every part of our health!

To Matthew Walker, neuroscientist and sleep expert at University of Berkeley, ‘sleep is a non-negotiable necessity to support all our body’s systems’. Sleep helps to keep our immune system intact. Sleep regulates our blood sugar levels and helps maintain a healthy weight. Sleep processes stress hormones and regulates sex hormones. Sleep consolidates memory. Sleep reduces emotional difficulties and deescalates anxiety. Sleep affects our metabolism and improves brain performance. Sleep supports our body functions and general health. Let’s look at two body functions, memory and immunity.

Sleep is important for memory function.

We need to sleep after learning to press the ‘save’ button. This is called memory consolidation. New research suggests we also need to sleep before learning to be able to soak up new information. The hippocampus, our informational inbox, normally has lots of activity. With sleep deprivation it hardly has any! Matthew Walker conducted a sleep study concluding that people with sleep deprivation had a 40% deficit for learning abilities because of blocked memory circuits. Disruption of sleep is a contributing factor in memory decline. Recent research confirms the link between sleep loss and developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep deprivation suppresses immune function.

In recent years, empirical evidence has been collected in human and animal studies. The most striking of these is that animals deprived entirely of sleep lose all immune function and die in just a matter of weeks. Research shows that a 4-hour sleep can lead to a drop of 70% in natural killer cells activity. (Killer cells are our secret service for our immune system: They identify dangerous unwanted elements and eliminating them.) Short sleep duration increases the risk of numerous forms of cancer. The link between lack of sleep and immune function is so strong that the WHO declared shift work as a probable carcinogen.

How much sleep do we need?

Teenagers and young adults (up to 25 years old) need 10 or 11 hours of sleep which is important for their brain development. (However, with our school system in place, this is hard to get by.) Adults need 7 to 9 hours uninterrupted sleep every night. That older adults need less sleep is a myth. Older adults need the same amount of sleep, but as many of you know, it is harder to generate good sleep later in life.

Is REM sleep the most important part of sleep?

We go through a sleep cycle several times a night. All phases of this cycle are important: light sleep, Non-REM deep sleep, and REM sleep. Deep sleep is the body’s effective way of processing excess stress hormones from the day and transporting short memories to our long memory storage. REM sleep, the kind we have when we are dreaming, is essential for good functioning of the brain, processing emotions and being creative. 

There are many ways to improve sleep.

Establishing a soothing bedtime routine, avoiding screen time one hour before bedtime, consistently going to bed and getting up at the same, creating a dark and cool sleep environment, cutting out alcohol or/and coffee, and exercising, but early in the day are all good strategies to improve sleep. Yet many people still struggle to find good deep sleep.

Do you get enough sleep? Do you feel rested in the morning?

Here is a quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Center, that gives food for thought: “If you are having a lot of trouble sleeping, your body may be trying to tell you something about the way you are conducting your life. As with all other mind-body symptoms, this message is worth listening to.”

Our ability to find good sleep is interrelated with the way we live our lives.

Most people find themselves under stress one way or the other. If under stress our our fight or flight stress response is active within seconds and highly adaptive under threat. Dealing with excessive work, being in a state of constant overwhelm, rushing and pushing through the day, trying to be as productive as possible and not taking time to rest or pause are ways to constantly engage our stress response. Feeling irritated, anxious, worried or upset again keeps our stress hormones high. How can we expect to be able to wind down at the end of the day? Insomnia is the result of an overactive nervous system and a stressed life-style.

Here is the good news: We are able to change the state of our nervous system.

Finding calm and quiet times during the day is essential for us to find better sleep and to be more balanced during the day. There are many ways to generate calm and awareness such as meditation, yoga, mindful breathing, spending time in Nature, journaling or looking out the windows letting the clouds go by… Creating awareness and calm will most profoundly have a positive effect on our physical and mental health, and our ability to sleep!

Integrating ‘the reset’ in your day

Reflexology and Alexander Technique (AT) both help to balance the nervous system, support the body’s function, and find deeper and more nourishing sleep. Many clients report finding deep and nourishing sleep with taking Reflexology or AT. In my sessions, I teach something I call ‘the reset’. You can do it in sitting, standing or lying down anywhere you are. All it needs is awareness and an inner dialogue. It only takes a few minutes to 'reset yourself' which will balance your physical and mental health:

Be aware of your support from underneath. In sitting notice your sitting bones on the chair, and your feet on the floor. In standing, be aware of your feet on the floor. In lying down, notice your whole body resting: head, shoulders, pelvis, legs and arms.

Allow yourself to be fully supported from underneath. Enjoy. Let your body ease.

Notice the space all around you, behind you, above yourself, on both sides. Allow yourself to expand into the space around you.

Listen for a moment… What do you hear? Open your senses. Do you smell anything? Let your eyes be soft.

Then be attentive to your breathing.

Just notice the movement of breath in your body. In – out. In – out. Let your belly be soft.

Be aware of your breath coming and going in your body. Notice the gentle movement in your chest, belly or in your rib cage.

Allow your breathing to naturally flow in and out of your body.

Notice the support from underneath once again. Notice the body parts in contact with the support from underneath. Allow your body to be fully resting.

Let your shoulders drop and your jaw be easy.

Notice the space around you once again, and be fully present right here.

Enjoy the flow of breath in your body. In – out. In – out. In – out.

I hope you enjoyed the ‘reset’ practice. Come back to it several times a day.


Recommended Reading: ‘Why we sleep’   by Matthew Walker

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