If you’re having trouble falling asleep or maintaining the quality of your sleep, you’re one third of the population.
A 2016 US Centers for Disease Control survey found that one in three American adults did not get enough sleep on a regular basis, using the parameter of at least 7 hours per night.
Dr Michael Mosley, presenter of the BBC health series Just One Thing, is part of that statistic. So he set out to search for simple, scientifically proven techniques that would help him and other insomniacs sleep better.
The result is the Sleep Well podcast, which includes the following advice:
1. Slow your breathing
A simple yet incredibly powerful way to relax is to breathe slowly and deeply. Allow the breath to come into a rhythm. Exhale a little longer than you inhale.
The research Mosley cites indicates that participants who were able to reduce their breathing rate fell asleep on average 20 minutes earlier — slept better, and woke up less during the night.
Slow breathing has a doubly positive effect: from changing your brain chemistry to calming your body and your heartbeat.
The key to understanding these effects lies in a small group of cells in a region of the brain called the locus coeruleus.
“If sleep doesn’t come and your mind is racing, that’s where the active is,” Mosley says.
Active, it releases noradrenaline (a wake-up chemical) across the brain.
Professor Ian Robertson, from Trinity College (Ireland), and his team discovered that reducing breathing rate has a direct effect on this brain system.
The recommendation is to breathe in a 4-2-4 rhythm (inhale to a count of four, hold the air for two seconds, exhale to a count of four), as well as abdominal breathing: place one hand on the chest and the other under the rib cage.
As you inhale, you should feel the bottom of the hand rise, while the hand on your chest remains relatively still.
It’s a way to calm down if you wake up with a racing mind in the middle of the night.
2. Take advantage of the morning light
Mosley says one of the best tips he’s received when dealing with chronic insomnia is to get up at the same time every morning and use the morning light.
Morning light triggers the body to wake up – and produces melatonin after about 12 hours – Image: Getty Images via BBC
This is because it is believed, based on scientific research, that the time a person wakes up has a greater impact on their biological clock than the time they sleep.
And a large part of that is due to daylight.
When light reaches the eye, it excites receptors in the back of the eye, which send signals to an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus.
Morning light turns off the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, and tells the body that the day has begun.
This starts a chain of events in the body so that, after about 12 hours, melatonin starts to rise again, preparing the body for deep rest.
According to Moseley, if you can’t sleep, the best thing to do is get up.
It may sound paradoxical, but it is about ensuring that the bed is a space that the mind associates with sleep and calm, and not with the impossibility of falling asleep.
According to Colleen Carney, director of the Sleep and Depression Laboratory at Metropolitan University in Toronto, Canada, the basic idea is that you shouldn’t struggle to sleep if your body and mind aren’t ready. This, she says, forms a bond that turns her bed into a battlefield.
If you get up when you can’t sleep and lie down again when you’re sleepy, this negative association can break down.
If this attachment is very ingrained, you may initially have to get out of bed a few times and go to a warm, quiet place to do something non-stimulating.
Besides these lines, another recommendation is to avoid napping in the middle of the day and avoid using the bed for activities such as watching TV, using your cell phone, writing on your notebook…
4. Warm up until cool
Taking a warm shower before bed can also help you fall asleep more quickly.
A recent summary of 13 studies found that people who took a hot bath before bed fell asleep 36% faster than others, slept better and felt more rested the next day.
When parts of the body, especially the hands and feet, are heated, the blood vessels that radiate heat begin to dilate.
This brings more blood to the surface of the skin, which helps speed up heat loss, so body temperature drops, and this serves as a signal for sleep.
If you don’t feel like taking a hot shower, you can get the same effect with a hot water bottle or warm socks, for example, which start initial blood flow to the hands and feet to signal to the body.
We’re used to being told we need eight hours of sleep—but the pressure to hit that goal can be exhausting and counterproductive.
Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, but this is average. Some people are completely fine with a little, and some are just fine with a little. It is something that also changes throughout life.
The eight-hour average is also known to be relatively new. In pre-industrial times, it was common for people to go to bed a few hours after dark and then get up—then do activities like talking to neighbors, studying, and having sex—and then go back to bed for a second bout of sleep.
That is, it is normal to wake up in the middle of the night.
Professor Nicole Tang, from the University of Warwick (UK), advises that insomniacs stop looking at the clock at night and worrying about how many hours they sleep.
It’s best to listen to your body, she says: If sleep comes during daytime activities, that’s a sign that you probably need to sleep a little longer.
– This text was published in https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/geral-63769995
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