RETREAT WITH US THIS FEBRUARY 13-20, 2022 in PLAYA HERMOSA COSTA RICA

Honoring Cycles: Rest and Sleep


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HONORING CYCLES: SLEEP AND REST

Like food, rest and sleep are nutrition for our whole self. Creating a lifestyle that honors rest and sleep is essential for physical, mental, and emotional health. Without enough rest, the physical systems of our body are affected, as is our mental clarity and ability to balance emotional responses.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly) sleep is not highly valued in our modern culture and society. There are no magazines at the grocery store checkout dedicated to sleep. We don’t see celebrities promoting designer pajamas. No one is publicly praised for how skilled they are at sleeping. Rather, our society rewards productivity, action, accomplishment, efficiency, and success. Rest and sleep have somehow come to represent the opposite of those values. Still, if our society undervalues sleep, our bodies most certainly do not. A lack of sleep affects our mood, performance, and overall health. We add that lack of sleep even affects our relationships and finances, too. And when our attitude toward rest and sleep is one of resistance, we can form habits that negatively affect our health, such as working late to be productive, for example. Understanding your personal barriers to sleep—be they physical, mental, and/or emotional—is one of the goals of Yoga Therapy. Let’s get started by inquiring into your personal rest and sleep baseline.

YOUR REST AND SLEEP BASELINE

Sleep puts our brains and bodies into an active recovery mode. To understand this better, let’s do a quick biology review of a few body systems, starting with the endocrine system. This system consists primarily of glands - the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, thymus, and others - as well as a region of the forebrain called the hypothalamus; plus the pancreas and the sex organs, ovaries and testes. These glands, brain area, and organs all work together in a complex cascade effect, creating an intricate web of messaging that enables the body to (for example) regulate its temperature, feel hunger and thirst (and then stop feeling them after we eat and drink), and regulate sleep/wake cycles. The endocrine system is also responsible for metabolism, sex drive, muscle repair, and in children, growth and the onset of puberty. A complex and vital system, for sure!

The endocrine system does its maintenance and repair work during deep sleep. The amounts of hormones the system holds in “reserve” are checked, like gas levels in a car; and levels are replaced if necessary so the body is ready to function again the next day. Deep sleep is also when other systems do their repair work. It is when your endocrine system tells your immune system to replenish its supply of white blood cells, the substance that enables you to fight off infections and other micro-invaders, and your immune system responds. That’s why you need to sleep more when you are sick; you need the time to generate additional reinforcements. Similarly, when the endocrine system signals the musculoskeletal system to repair itself (or grow, in children), both the endocrine “work order” and the physical muscle repair and growth happen during sleep. So you can see why sleep - and deep sleep in particular - are essential for health. If our bodies aren’t asleep for a long enough time to generate the right amount of a hormone, the systems don’t get a chance to work properly and health problems can result.
It’s important to note that sleep is not the only factor in maintaining a healthy endocrine system. Genetics, behavior, and other factors also come into play, factors which can lead to endocrine diseases such as diabetes. However, science is increasingly learning that sleep is an important aspect of health.

As researchers are better able to study brain activity during sleep thanks to technological advances including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI,) we learn more and more about the different ways sleep affects us. We all know that a lack of sleep can make one irritable, for example. Now we can begin to see that process work inside the brain. Though it isn’t yet clear why, too little sleep compromises the brain’s ability to adequately regulate and express emotions. It’s exciting to think that in time, these finding may help doctors be better able to treat mood and anxiety disorders, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).10

THE POWER OF DEEP SLEEP

Sleep puts our brains and bodies into an active recovery mode. To understand this better, let’s do a quick biology review of a few body systems, starting with the endocrine system. This system consists primarily of glands - the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, thymus, and others - as well as a region of the forebrain called the hypothalamus; plus the pancreas and the sex organs, ovaries and testes. These glands, brain area, and organs all work together in a complex cascade effect, creating an intricate web of messaging that enables the body to (for example) regulate its temperature, feel hunger and thirst (and then stop feeling them after we eat and drink), and regulate sleep/wake cycles. The endocrine system is also responsible for metabolism, sex drive, muscle repair, and in children, growth and the onset of puberty. A complex and vital system, for sure!

The endocrine system does its maintenance and repair work during deep sleep. The amounts of hormones the system holds in “reserve” are checked, like gas levels in a car; and levels are replaced if necessary so the body is ready to function again the next day. Deep sleep is also when other systems do their repair work. It is when your endocrine system tells your immune system to replenish its supply of white blood cells, the substance that enables you to fight off infections and other micro-invaders, and your immune system responds. That’s why you need to sleep more when you are sick; you need the time to generate additional reinforcements. Similarly, when the endocrine system signals the musculoskeletal system to repair itself (or grow, in children), both the endocrine “work order” and the physical muscle repair and growth happen during sleep. So you can see why sleep - and deep sleep in particular - are essential for health. If our bodies aren’t asleep for a long enough time to generate the right amount of a hormone, the systems don’t get a chance to work properly and health problems can result.

It’s important to note that sleep is not the only factor in maintaining a healthy endocrine system. Genetics, behavior, and other factors also come into play, factors which can lead to endocrine diseases such as diabetes. However, science is increasingly learning that sleep is an important aspect of health.

As researchers are better able to study brain activity during sleep thanks to technological advances including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI,) we learn more and more about the different ways sleep affects us. We all know that a lack of sleep can make one irritable, for example. Now we can begin to see that process work inside the brain. Though it isn’t yet clear why, too little sleep compromises the brain’s ability to adequately regulate and express emotions. It’s exciting to think that in time, these finding may help doctors be better able to treat mood and anxiety disorders, including major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).10

WAVES AND CYCLES: STAGES OF SLEEP

Deep sleep is only one of several phases of sleep that occur each night. Scientists learned a great deal about the stages of sleep and wakefulness in the 1950s and 1960s by measuring brain activity using electrocardiogram machines (EEG), to record levels of brain activity through sensors affixed to patients’ scalps.

There are three levels of waves: high beta, beta, and low beta, indicating varying levels of intensity. A normally active and awake brain exhibits beta waves. A student taking a tough exam, two friends engaged in lively conversation, a patient waiting in a doctor’s office would each show the corresponding level of beta waves. The next level, alpha waves, are the indications of a person who is awake but at rest. Rest, like sleep, is a vital but undervalued experience. And also like sleep, our brains at rest may not be “idle” but very active. Some researchers theorize the existence of a Default Mode Network, a regular, baseline state of activity that the brain reverts to when it is not involved in goal-oriented tasks. In this more relaxed mode, they attest, you can reflect on your own and others’ emotional states, make moral judgments, or muse on things that have happened to you (that is, memories) and things that might happen to you in the future. There is also a common belief that rest times allow for creativity, though this idea is not scientifically demonstrated.11

For most people (but not all), rest is a necessary stage before sleep. Once sleep begins, it happens in cycles, and each cycle contains several stages that happen in a predictable sequence. Each stage serves a different purpose. On average, it takes a healthy adult 90 to 120 minutes to complete a cycle. The sequence of stages stays steady throughout the night, but the percentage of time in each stage changes. We all pass through numerous cycles each night depending on how long we sleep.

Stage 1: This is light sleep. Your eyes are closed, muscles are relaxed, and your body transitions from wakefulness to deeper sleep. This stage usually lasts on average for 15 to 20 minutes in healthy sleepers, that is, those who aren’t experiencing insomnia or other sleep issues.

Stage 2: This stage is regarded as the true beginning of sleep. Now the senses are completely disengaged from their surroundings. Body temperature and blood pressure lower, moving toward deeper sleep. EEG activity at this stage shows a slow pattern, which is expected during sleep, but marked by sudden bursts of activity known as sleep spindles and K complexes. Researchers believe these kinds of brain activities serve two purposes: one, to help you stay asleep in the face of noises or other activity that might otherwise wake you. The other relates to learning, including both the cognitive learning of new facts, concepts, and so on, up to the mastery of motor skills. Specifically, researchers believe that during this stage of sleep, your brain sorts through the information and experiences you took in during the day, prunes out what is unnecessary, and transfers the rest to long-term memory, where you will be able to access it. As one would expect, school-age children experience long periods of stage 2 sleep.

Stages 3 and 4: These two are associated with non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. These two stages are often grouped together because they are the periods of slow wave sleep (SWS).12 This is the most restorative stage of sleep, consisting of delta waves, or slow brain waves. It’s often difficult to awake someone in this stage of the sleep cycle. Sleepwalking, sleep talking, and night terrors occur during the deepest stage of sleep. EEG readings at this stage show long, slow brainwaves indicating deep, restorative sleep. This is the time when the maintenance and repair discussed earlier happens. After a period of roughly 30 to 40 minutes in deep sleep (again, on average), the process reverses itself. Sleep moves back to stage 2, where it is a bit lighter and the brain waves begin to look more active. But instead of moving back to stage 1, this is when the brain enters dream sleep.

REM Sleep: Called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, this dreaming stage looks completely unlike the rest of sleep. During stages 2, 3, and 4, circulation, respiration, blood pressure, and body temperature all decrease. But as you enter REM sleep, all these measures begin to rise. Brain activity increases so much it is sometimes more active even than during the waking state. Your eyes dart back and forth, quite possibly to survey the dream images created in the brain. The only thing that doesn’t increase activity is your muscles. Instead, they become temporarily paralyzed. Surprisingly, this paralysis has a practical advantage—for normal sleepers, it keeps them from trying to “act” out or move as they would in their dreams ... a good thing! During an eight-hour sleep period, you will have four or five rounds of REM sleep, with the last round lasting an hour or more.

Have you ever wondered why you dream? Many researchers believe dreams have a role in creating memories. One theory, the Contemporary Theory of Dreaming, holds that dreams are the result of connections being made and unmade within the brain, guided by the emotions of the dreamer. From a scientific perspective, however, why we dream remains a mystery.13

VALUING REST IN YOUR LIFE

As discussed earlier, modern life rewards us for achievement. And a some- what ironic example that shows this perfectly is in the healthcare field. Obviously, suffering patients need care, but this often means that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are required to forgo their own sleep to pull long hours and double shifts, routinely working well over eight hours per day. These long work hours have become a badge of honor and are sim- ply expected in the field. The same is also true in business, law, IT—so much of our work life demands time that ends up robbing us of sleep. A second area where rest may be needed relates to any activity overdone in life. While some are dedicated to their careers (or to saving their job), there are others who love to exercise seven days a week. Some artists have gone days without eating while in the midst of an intense creative surge, only to crash for days afterward.

What Are Your Beliefs About Rest?

Take out your journal to record your thoughts and insights as you consider these questions.
• What does rest mean to you? Do you rest?
• How does your profession view rest?
• How did your parents demonstrate rest? Was a family member called lazy for resting, or was rest connected to laziness?
• Do you view rest as something relegated to one day a week, or do you have a regular routine? Be inclusive when considering what a rest routine might entail—some might consider dog walking as a form of mental rest.
• Do you ever take a rest or “fast” from screens?
• How do you wish to reframe your view of rest?

A RELAXATION EXERCISE FOR REST: CONTRACT AND RELEASE

The Contraction and Release practice helps to consciously relax different muscle groups by first contracting them and then releasing and relaxing the muscles, activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Let’s begin. Sit or lie in a comfortable position and begin taking a few slow, gentle breaths. Notice how your body feels, recognizing where you feel tension and where you feel open and relaxed. With each muscle group, take a long, deep breath in through the nose as you contract the muscles. Hold the breath and the contraction to the count of four, and then slowly and gently release the breath and the contraction simultaneously to the count of four. Go through each group one at a time, working your way down your body:

1. Close your eyes tightly
2. Clench your jaw
3. Raise your shoulders up toward your ears
4. Pull your shoulder blades together in your back
5. Clench your fists, bending your arms and bringing your fists up tight against your shoulder or upper chest.
6. Contract your abdomen, pulling the muscles inward toward your spine
7. Clench your hips and thigh muscles, bringing your upper legs together
8. Flex your feet, bringing your toes toward your head
9. Press your feet away from your body, pointing the toes
10. For the next 5 to 10 minutes, remain where you are and breathe gently and slowly, allowing your body to relax more deeply.

DEVELOPING HEALTHY SLEEP HYGIENE RITUALS

Even before you get into bed, you can create rituals to prepare yourself for rest and sleep. Below is a list of recommended “sleep hygiene” habits based on the National Institutes of Health’s Your Guide to Healthy Sleep.14 These suggestions are a good place to start when considering small but significant steps you can take to improve your sleep.

• Stick to a sleep schedule. Experts advise against sleeping in on weekends. The body loves habits, and it responds better to a consistent bedtime and rising time. Additionally, sleep time cannot be “banked” for later, a phenomenon known as “sleep debt.” That is, being short one.

• Get enough sunlight. Morning sunlight especially helps set a good pattern for sleep later on.

• Exercise, but not too late in the day. Daily exercise helps sleep, but exercise too close to bedtime can make sleep more difficult. Notice the degree of exercise’s effect on your sleep: too much exhausts and depletes the body, too little creates a restless feeling.

• Don’t nap after 3 pm. Naps can help make up for lost sleep, but naps that are too late in the day or too long make it harder to fall asleep the next night.

• Avoid caffeine in the afternoon or evening and avoid nicotine. Both are stimulants that interfere with sleep.

• Look at your medications. Some commonly prescribed medicines and over-the-counter remedies interfere with sleep. Talk to a doctor or pharmacist about whether what you are taking could be causing sleep problems. Ask if it is permissible to take them earlier in the day.

• Avoid large meals and beverages late at night. A snack is okay, but eating a lot at night can cause indigestion that can keep you awake. Beverages too close to bedtime cause awakening to urinate.

• Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed. While they may help you relax, they keep you in the lighter stages of sleep, robbing you of deep sleep and dream sleep.

• Relax before bed. Leave time in your schedule for winding-down activities.

• Create a good sleeping environment. Limit light, especially from screens. Keep the room temperature cool. Your pillow and mattress should feel comfortable. Turn the clock away from you and keep your phone on silent and out of reach so you don’t stress about what time you’re falling asleep.

• Don’t lie awake in bed. If you can’t fall asleep and are getting anxious about it, move to another location to read or listen to music, or engage in another relaxing activity.16

• If you still can’t sleep, consider seeing a doctor. Doctors can diagnose sleep disorders and other medical causes of sleep difficulty.

YOGA PRACTICES TO PREPARE FOR REST AND SLEEP

There are various reasons why so many of us have trouble falling asleep. For example, sleeplessness can be a symptom of clinical anxiety or depression, and menopause frequently causes sleeplessness in women. But most of the time, the answer for why so many of us have trouble sleeping begins in our nervous systems. Your nervous system is your body’s built-in alarm, guarding you from danger. It constantly asks the question, “Am I safe?” If the answer is no, it will release the hormones that prepare the body to run away or fight. If you lie in bed rehearsing the day’s problems or anticipating the ones you expect tomorrow, you are basically telling your nervous system that no, you aren’t safe. And your nervous system can only do is its job—keeping you awake, alert, and ready to act.

The key, then, is to switch the nervous system from the on-edge, fight-or-flight, sympathetic state, to its opposite—the rest-and-digest, parasympathetic state. By convincing the system that yes, you are safe and everything is okay, you are more likely to be able to relax and fall asleep. Yoga practices that downregulate the nervous system can be very helpful in preparing your body for rest and sleep. Conscious relaxation practices such as yoga nidra and meditation help train the nervous system to downregulate and prepare for sleep. Our nervous systems thrive on routines, so building solid yoga practices as part of your routines can be very beneficial.

There are a lot of different kinds of yoga and mindfulness practices that you can incorporate into your sleep routine. We encourage you to take time to explore what works best for you. Record observations in your journal about how these practices feel and what you notice physically, mentally, and emotionally because of doing them. Your journal can also be a place to record thoughts, worries, and other things on your mind that may interfere with calming your nervous system for sleep.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND FOOTNOTES

This blog was excerpted from The Yoga Life: Applying Comprehensive Yoga Therapy to All Areas of Your Life by Robert Butera, Ilene Rosen and Jennifer Hilbert

FOOTNOTES

10. Andrea N. Goldstein and Matthew P. Walker, “The Role of Sleep in Emotional Brain Function,” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 2014;10: 679–708.
11. Randy L. Buckner, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Daniel L. Schacter, “The Brain’s Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1124, (2008): 1–38. PMID: 18400922.
12. Mark Aramli, “5 Stages of Sleep: Your Sleep Cycle Explained,” February 8, 2017. https:// bedjet.com/blogs/sleep-blog/5-stages-of-sleep.
13. 13. Ernest Hartmann, “Why Do We Dream?” Scientific American, July 10, 2006. https://www .scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-we-dream/.
14. Katherine Dudley, “Weekend catch-up sleep won’t fix the effects of sleep deprivation on your waistline” Harvard Health Publishing: https://www.health.harvard.edu /blog/weekend-catch-up-sleep-wont-fix-the-effects-of-sleep-deprivation-on-your -waistline-2019092417861. Posted September 24, 2019.
15. “Your Guide to Healthy Sleep.” US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Publication no. 11-5271. Originally printed November 2005, revised August 2011. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files /docs/public/sleep/healthy_sleep.pdf.
16. This is the official recommendation. However, deep breathing, stretching, meditation, and other activities that directly relax the body can be done in bed.


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