If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have suffered from insomnia, you know that it can be truly debilitating. We often find ourselves irritable, depressed, over-emotional, excessively hungry, and craving carbs and sugar.
Bottom line: sleep is essential. And ironically, SO many people (more women than men) struggle with getting adequate, quality sleep on a regular basis. In fact, there are millions of prescriptions written each year for sleep aids, and an impressively long (and scary) list of drugs available to combat sleeplessness.
When it comes to the crucial connection between sleep and weight management, it is a well-known fact that sleep deprivation causes weight gain, or weight loss resistance (the inability to lose weight.
In fact, a 2012 study by the Research Journal Obesity, positively associates lack of sleep with being overweight.
Other symptoms commonly associated with sleep deprivation include depression, mood disorders, hormonal imbalances, weakened immunity, and greater risk of cardiovascular disease.
Why Can’t I Sleep?
Whether you fall victim only occasionally to sleepless nights, or struggle with chronic insomnia, these might be some contributing factors (we’ll get to potential solutions later):
- Ruminating thoughts: either you struggle to initially fall asleep or wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep due to ruminating on thoughts, worries, plans, regrets, to-do lists, etc.
- Sleep Anxiety: This is the vicious cycle in which we can’t sleep simply because we are panicked that we won’t sleep. Especially for those with chronic sleep problems, this is common, and can make bedtime seem scary.
- Sleep Apnea: This is a potentially serious medical condition where breathing actually starts and stops with sleep. If you or the person sleeping next to you suspects this, see a doctor.
- Environmental Factors: This could be a snoring partner, traffic or other outdoor noise, a crying baby, etc.
- Physical Pain: If you have an injury, are recovering from a surgery, or any other type of physical discomfort that makes it hard to sleep, this can also become an ongoing problem.
The point is, sleep is personal and depends on the individual. Some are blessed to be able to sleep anywhere, anytime, while many of us might need conditions just so. Before getting into sleep maintenance strategies to improve sleep no matter the cause, lets take a look at the hormonal factors involved in sleep loss, and why they can be a direct contributor to weight gain.
 Obesity, “Short Sleep Duration and Weight Gain: A Systematic Review.” Retrieved February 9th, 2016.
 European Heart Journal, “Sleep duration predicts cardiovascular outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies.” Retrieved February 9th, 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21300732
The Cortisol Connection
Cortisol is our primary stress hormone and is released by the adrenal glands, two grape-sized glands located atop our kidneys. When stress levels rise, the brain sends our adrenals the signal to produce more cortisol (as would be needed if we were running from a tiger, for example), and if this occurs chronically over time, our body and mind suffers the consequences.
Sleep loss is a MAJOR stressor. Typically, when we think about stress, we automatically think of mental/emotional stress. This is very real and impactful, but physical stressors such as insomnia are interpreted the same way by the body, meaning that the body will have an identical cortisol reaction no matter the type of stressor.
Furthermore, our hormones are an intricately connected web. For example, cortisol is closely tied to insulin, and when insulin levels rise, a cascade of imbalances and potentially serious conditions can occur, such as diabetes, kidney problems, and obesity.
How Can I Improve My Sleep?
Now, let’s get on to the solutions. Some might work perfectly for some and not whatsoever for others, so play around to see what works for you, personally. Here are some important sleep maintenance tips, and we’ll end with the importance of incorporating deep breathing and/or meditation into our daily routine.
SLEEP MAINTENANCE 101:
- The bedroom is for 2 things: sleep and sex: Especially if you have trouble sleeping, I cannot stress enough how detrimental it can be to work, watch TV, or do any other stimulating in bed. Make your bed and your bedroom a sacred, calming, peaceful place that you look forward to going to. Spruce it up with calming candles (like lavender), and dim lighting.
- Develop a routine: While it might sound silly now that you are an adult, this is actually essential for combating sleep troubles. Ideally, you’ll begin about an hour before bedtime, and routines might look different for each person. Perhaps you take a relaxing Epsom salt bath, and then read a good book. Or maybe you sit with your partner on the couch to unwind, trade foot rubs, and then engage in some deep breathing before bed (see below for more info). Some find it quite helpful to keep a nightly gratitude list (written or just in your mind). It is key to develop your strategy and stick to it, and realize it might take persistence, practice and patience.
- Turn off electronics: This is of utmost importance. At least one hour before bed, unglue yourself from computers, TV, phones, etc. This might seem impossible given our technological addiction these days, but melatonin (our sleep hormone) is suppressed by the light given off from electronic devices, and this mistake can profoundly affect our sleep quality.
- No caffeine after noon: Depending on the metabolism of each individual, caffeine can stay in our systems for up to 24 hours. I recommend saying no to any caffeine after 12pm, but for some this might even be earlier. Particularly if you suffer from insomnia, your hormones are already on high alert, and caffeine is the last thing they need.
- Supplement: There are some wonderful and safe nutritional supplements and herbs that can help you relax. Of course, even though they are natural, it is best for your body to be able to sleep naturally and without any sort of physical or mental dependence, but supplementation can help on those tough nights. One of my favorite herbs is passionflower, as this can be very effective in helping to fall and stay asleep. Gaia Herbs makes a high quality product.
The Importance Of Deep Breathing
Whether you already have or are interested in developing a meditation practice, deep breathing is an important relaxation tool that can be used anytime throughout the day to calm the central nervous system.
Benefits of Deep Breathing:
- Has a calming and restful effect on our physical and mental state
- Enables better and more restful sleep quality
● Supplies the blood with oxygen
● Clears carbon dioxide from the lungs
Deep Breathing Technique:
- Begin by sitting in either a crossed legged position, on a comfortable chair, or even laying down. The important part is that you are totally comfortable and relaxed. It can be helpful to gently place one hand on your belly, at least in the beginning of your practice.
- Inhale through your nose, and focus on feeling your belly expand with your breath (like a balloon). As you exhale, the belly should return to normal. Try to keep your breaths steady and not strained.
- Focus your breaths on the inhale through the nose, and the exhale through the mouth. Keep your eyes closed, if this is comfortable.