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How to sleep better

I hope everyone is still managing during lockdown, it feels like we’re making steps to get back to life as we used to know it.

One unexpected side effect of being stuck at home is difficult sleeping. I’m sure we all thought we’d have a chance to catch up with sleep now we can’t stay out late and don’t have to get up to commute to work but it turns out that people have been suffering with an inability to sleep well. 

My friend and colleague Carmen Moor wrote this blog for the clinic we both work at in London and I wanted to share it with you all as well.

Are you sleeping well?

With most of my friends and family being abroad, this lockdown initially has left me with uncountable daily phone calls. I remember a particular one: My grandparents jokingly told me that they now finally got a break from my uncle, the morning-person par excellence, who in swiss-clock style comes by every single morning at 6:40 to have his morning tea and a boiled egg. I pointed out to them that now they finally must get their long- desired portion of restful sleep (since both of my grandparents are rather trained (by my uncle) morning larks more than natural ones). They told me then that yes, they actually did get a handful of more sleep, but that it really didn’t feel like an extremely restful one. Mind, both of them have more than 70 years of sleep experience and never had trouble getting a good night’s sleep. They told me that both of them almost regularly kept on waking up from nightmares or if not, they did feel like their sleep is much lighter and disturbed more often and asked if I knew why. After all, we are currently working less and for most of us, speaking in London terms, our commute is not taking up a good precious 2 hours every day anymore. Finally, we would actually be able to aim at reaching these standard proposed 7-8 hours of good quality sleep. But why are we still not waking up feeling energised and rested to a never before experienced extent?

No, I don’t know why. But I’ve got a book about sleep which I meant to read for a long time, so I started browsing (Whoever has exploited their reading to-do list during lockdown and wants to start a new one, “Why we sleep” by Matthew Walker is truly worth reading). 

What my research uncovered….

Amongst ohter things, there is a potential neurological explanation for my grandparents and many others apparent decrease in sleep quality. For many of us, this rather surreal and uncertain situation causes acute as well as lingering stress. Constant exposure to stress has an effect on our sleep via our sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system will, if needed, recruit the evolutionary fight-or-flight stress response. We breathe more shallowly, our heart rate and blood pressure raise and the body produces more stress hormones. In a situation of prolonged stress, the body can remain “stuck” to some degree in such a fight-or-flight state. And this will prevent us from having a good night sleep by causing the following physiological co-effects:

  •  An overactive sympathetic nervous system increases the body’s metabolic rate, which leads to a slightly higher body temperature. To initiate sleep, we need a drop of a few degrees of our normal body temperature. 
  • The increase of circulating stress hormones in the body leads to a slight rise in our heart rate. As we sleep, we go through different stages of sleep. We start off in a couple of cycles of lighter before we transition into phases of deeper sleep. That transition is normally facilitated through a slightly slower heart rate whereas a slightly higher heart rate makes it more difficult.
  • An overactive sympathetic nervous system shows altered patterns of brain activity. Brain- imaging studies have shown that in order to reach high quality sleep, the parts of the brain related to emotions, memory retrospection and basic alertness regions have to be able to switch into “sleep mode”. A direct and causal connection has been found between the mentioned brain regions and the sympathetic nervous system. Needless to say that one can’t get a good deep sleep with the sympathetic nervous system not letting those regions switch to “sleep mode”.
 The first half of a night’s sleep is mostly concerned with deep, restorative sleep whereas the second half of the night is prevailed by stages of rapid eye movement (REM) phases. These phases are rather active and not as deep but they process anything we experience during the day. It’s a form of the body’s self therapy. The REM phase is also famous for being the one bringing upon dreams. The more stressed our brain and body is, the faster it wants to reach these REM phases. To do so, it is able to skip a deep sleep stage and lets us wake up unrested and unrestored. 

Abdominal breathing technique & Gargling

As we’ve established, the sympathetic nervous system, once overly active, is a driver in disturbing our sleep. Hence, we have to activate its opponent, the parasympathetic nervous system. It slows our heart rate, reduces our blood pressure and lets our muscles relax. 
Try the following two techniques every night. They aim at one and the same thing: they recruit our parasympathetic nervous system and allow our system to relax. 
Just before going to bed, take a sip of warm-ish water and gargle for about 30 seconds-1 minute. This action is activating one of the most important parts of the parasympathetic nervous system- the Vagus nerve. By activating the vagus nerve, you increase its tone (activity) which in a nutshell helps the body to relax faster when it is experiencing stress or is under overactive sympathetic nervous input.
Once you are lying in bed, put one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. For about 20 cycles, deeply breath through only your abdomen: The hand on your belly moves up and down, but your hand on your chest does not move at all. 
It is not a formula that brings you directly all the way up the stairway to the sleep heaven, but I hope that with practice you’ll find it easier to achieve your much deserved good quality sleep.

Thanks Carmen, such an interesting article. I am really interested to try the gargling technique as part of my bedtime routine. It also reminded me that I have this book on audible to listen to – it’ll be up next after this insight.

If you would like to know more about Carmen you can find her here:

The Octagon Chiropractic Clinic

For more information about Chiropractic care in Reading you can contact me here: 360 Chiropractic

Hazel Dillon
Hazel Dillon Chiropractor at 360 Chiropractic

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