When you feel stressed or anxious, adrenaline courses through your veins, your heart beats at a rapid rate, and your breathing becomes quick and shallow. So before I get into the specifics behind how the 4-7-8 breathing trick works, I wanted to explain in my own words what it feels like when you try it. To me, the effect of the breathing technique feels almost like a sedative drug, because in order to hold your breath for seven seconds and then to exhale for eight—when your breath is so shallow and short—your body is forced to slow your heart rate. It has no choice. Holding your breath, and then slowly, deliberately exhaling for eight seconds, causes a chain reaction. It feels like going from a mad-dash sprint to a finish line to a slow, leisurely, calming stroll through the park.
So what do you do? The second step to racking more zzz's is to perfect your sleep hygiene. That means developing a regular sleep schedule, using your bed only for sleep and intimacy, and ditching electronics and caffeine well before bedtime. Here's a sleep hygiene guide to get you started. But that second step is for the daylight hours. The first step is to get to sleep now – pronto – so you can grab at least a couple hours before the birds start chirping.
Achieving the ideal temperature in the UK can feel like a challenge – especially during those extreme summer and winter months. But according to Senior Clinical Physiologist Ana Noia from the Bupa Cromwell Hospital, it's crucial. 'The temperature tends to drop at night, giving your brain a signal that it's time to sleep. That's why when we're on holiday somewhere hot, nodding off can be trickier. Equally, sleeping somewhere too cold isn't great – if your hands and feet are uncomfortably chilly, you might struggle to sleep at all.'
For something that we spend a third of our lives doing (if we’re lucky), sleep is something that we know relatively little about. “Sleep is actually a relatively recent discovery,” says Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep scientist who is currently an assistant adjunct professor in biobehavioral health at Penn State. “Scientists only started looking at sleep 70 years ago.”
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Tossing and turning all night never feels good—and most Americans are all too familiar with it. An estimated 164 million people struggle with sleep at least once a week, according to a 2016 survey from Consumer Reports. Insomnia can do worse than just tire you out the next day. If you're suffering from chronic lack of sleep, it can take a toll on your overall health.
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Use sleeping aids and devices: Experiment with white noise machines, adjustable beds, sleep masks, and indoor air purifiers if you need help sleeping. White noise machines or noise reducers create ambient or white noise, which makes it more difficult for a sleeper to hear any potentially disruptive noises. Adjustable beds can alleviate pain that can disturb sleep, especially for those suffering from hip and knee pain or acid reflux disease. A sleep mask tricks the brain into falling asleep more quickly for people who need to sleep or nap during daylight, and indoor air purifiers lessen symptoms suffered by those with allergies or nasal congestion.
Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure. Fitting Charlotte Brontë’s prophetic wisdom that “a ruffled mind makes a restless pillow,” sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality.
It’s actually pretty normal to wake up during the night, anyway. In The Canterbury Tales, one of the oldest manuscripts in English culture, they describe “second sleep.” There’s some evidence that we used to go to bed when the sun went down, then wake up for a little bit at night—putter around, make sure we’re not getting eaten by a lion—and then go back to sleep. So it’s pretty normal to like wake up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or whatever.
We evolved from bacteria in the ocean that could differentiate sunlight from darkness—that’s what ended up forming the human eye. That means every organism is responsive to a circadian rhythm that’s largely dictated by sunlight. The photo receptors in our eyes pick up on sunlight, which controls the release of melatonin and all these other neurotransmitters that dictate your energy levels throughout the day.
If you're having trouble falling asleep, listening to calming, soft music as you doze off could be a solution. A report published in August 2015 in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that listening to music before going to bed may help improve sleep quality. Just make sure you're picking something soothing, and that you set it to turn off after a while, preferably when you're already deep in dreamland.
The word meditation might make you think of spiritual mumbo jumbo, but brain training techniques can be incredibly powerful for helping you drift off. Calm features a series of guided meditation sessions lasting up to 30 minutes that can help you clear your mind at night before you sleep. Other 'mindfulness' apps to look at include Headspace and Buddhify.
If your bedroom is boiling hot — or even slightly warm — do what you can to cool it down. "Warmness may make you feel sleepy, but is not conducive to deep sleep," Logie says. "Our body starts to naturally cool later in the day and keeping your room cooler can help speed up this process that's involved with you falling asleep quickly and getting that deeper sleep."
We all have a day-night cycle of about 24 hours called the circadian rhythm. It greatly influences when we sleep and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm is, the better our sleep. This cycle may be altered by the timing of various factors, including naps, bedtime, exercise, and especially exposure to light (from traveling across time zones to staring at that laptop in bed at night).
Leave the distractions at the door and create a bedtime ritual for yourself: darken the shades, take a hot bath, and, most importantly, set a media curfew for yourself so you're not laying in bed looking at your phone for an hour. "Turn off all the screens and sit with a cup of tea or a notebook in dim light," she suggests. Training your body to wind down at the same time every night will help your inner biological clock know when to sleep, and you'll wake up feeling much more refreshed the next day.
After being awake for nineteen hours, people who were sleep-deprived were as cognitively impaired as those who were legally drunk… After sixteen hours of being awake, the brain begins to fail. Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After ten days of just seven hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for twenty-four hours.
The influence of tryptophan on sleep continues to be studied in major sleep laboratories across the nation. While this amino acid is not available as a natural dietary supplement or sleep remedy, you can easily include tryptophan in your diet through food sources such as turkey, cheese, nuts, beans, eggs, and milk. You can also boost serotonin levels in the brain -- helping you to feel calm and sleepy -- by eating foods rich in carbohydrates.
If your circadian rhythm is off, it negatively impacts your sleep quality. So having that consistent rhythm of going to bed and getting up at the same time will actually make your sleep more regenerative at night. Going for a walk outside and getting that sunlight in the morning is the best thing to do to wake up. Your circadian rhythm isn’t a fixed thing: It’s actually shiftable based on your environmental cues.
Insomnia usually becomes a problem if it occurs on most nights and causes distress or daytime effects such as fatigue, poor concentration, and irritability. It predisposes to mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and psychotic disorders; to physical problems such as infections, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes; and to motoring and other accidents. The relationship between insomnia and psychological symptoms is far from simple, as insomnia can both cause, and be caused by, depression, anxiety, and stress, opening up a vicious circle.
You can take one step per day to improve your sleep. Below are suggestions for what to work on each day for 30 days. It's not necessary for it all to unfold in an orderly manner: you may find that you need to take longer on one particular task, and conversely, you may be able to breeze by recommendations that are irrelevant to you. Personalize the plan to fit your needs and your situation as best as you can, and allow flexibility in the process.
Try “belly breathing.” Controlled, deep breathing is simply a way to direct your mind away from thoughts that might keep you awake. If you find your mind racing as you lie down to go to sleep, place a hand on your belly and breathe in deeply through your nose — so deeply that can feel the air filling your abdomen. Hold it for a couple of seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth. Breathe mindfully like this for a few minutes, just trying to focus your attention on the rising and falling of your belly as you inhale and exhale. If your mind starts to wander, just bring it back to your breathing. The more often you practice this relaxation technique, the easier and more effective it will be.