According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, Americans are a tired bunch. Eighty-five percent of us do not get the recommended seven hours or more of sleep a night. That eye-popping number is wreaking havoc on our health.
“Sleep is important for our immune system; it’s important for our health; it is important for our mood,” says Jason Graff, MD, Medical Director of Sleep Medicine at South County Pulmonology, who runs the Sleep Lab at South County Hospital. “Chronic sleep deprivation can result in symptoms that resemble depression, and it can worsen depression or anxiety if you already have those concerns. So you want to really make your sleep a priority.”
While scientists continue to study why we sleep, we remain in the dark about all the physiological things that occur. But Dr. Graff notes more recent data that points to the restorative nature of sleep in elite athletes. “We know more and more that a lot of repair mechanisms are very active in sleep,” he says. “We know that insufficient sleep increases your risk of infections, such as the common cold. It’s somewhat immunosuppressive to be chronically sleep deprived.”
In terms of metabolic damage, “the relationship is complex. When it comes to cardiovascular disease, it’s largely related to elevated levels of inflammation. In sleep studies, even after short periods of sleep deprivation, you can see inflammatory markers go up in the body and, over time, that promotes things like atherosclerosis, and ultimately high blood pressure, eventually leading to other cardiovascular problems.”
According to Dr. Graff, there are four stages of sleep. Stage one is light dozing, transitional sleep. If you are a normal sleeper, you spend very little time in this stage. Stage two comprises most of the night; body temperature decreases and brain activity slows. Stage three is deep sleep, or slow wave sleep. Stage four is REM sleep. This is your dream sleep.
Those final two stages are where the magic happens: memory processes are consolidated, immunity strengthens, cells repair. If you miss them, you miss important health benefits.
“Most dream sleep occurs in the second half of the night in the early morning hours. People who cut their sleep short are really cutting out a lot of their REM sleep, which is part of the reason why sleep deprivation leads to
problems with memory, focus, and reaction times,” says Dr. Graff. It’s also why chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk of dementia.
So, how do we ensure we are getting not only enough – but the right quality – of zzzs?
As long as you’ve ruled out medical problems like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, the likely thief of sleep is lifestyle factors. Stimulants like caffeine taken too late in the day can keep you buzzing through the night. Alcohol and sleeping pills will send you to sleep quickly, but keep you in stage two, so you miss out on the restorative benefits.
One hot topic is our electronic devices. The blue-wave light they emit mimics the UV wavelength of the sun. Too much exposure late at night can suppress the body’s melatonin production and trick the brain into skipping bedtime.
Then there’s the big one: stress.
“Blue light filters, night mode, etc. are helpful but not enough by themselves. You can have the filter on, but if you are getting stressed out right before bed, it’s not going to help your sleep,” says Dr. Graff. “I don’t know that I’ve ever met a patient who read work emails right before bed and slept better because of it.” Dr. Graff recommends dropping the cell phones and opting to do something to unwind prior to bedtime. “We need to practice more
The good news is, while you can’t make up for chronic sleep deprivation in one night, you can pay down your sleep debt. “On studies of brain imaging, you can see areas of low-oxygen damage improve when patients are treated,” says Dr. Graff. In other words, some of that damage can be reversed.
“You can get lost in the data of what percentage of this disease or that disease gets increased,” Dr. Graff continues. “But in the end, if you’re not sleeping enough, you don’t feel very good. And I think that the quality of life portion is just as – or even more important – than that.”
“When we smell something, a chemical signal is transmitted to the brain,” explains Madison D’Arezzo, founder of 42020 Visionaries, who custom blends essential oils for aromatherapeutic applications. “Interestingly, with essential oils, you can reap their benefits without actually smelling them.” D’Arezzo points to studies that have shown that their topical applications produce systemic effects on the body, such as slower breathing, slower heart rate, and decreased or increased body temperature, even if the olfactory nerve is shut off.
“The molecules within essential oils have a very small atom size, so they’re able to pass through the skin,” she continues. “After you receive a massage with lavender essential oil, those components will actually be in your blood plasma. They’re able to penetrate through the skin and reach the body fluids to exert a systemic effect.” Essential oils like lavender, bergamot, Roman chamomile, ylang-ylang, clary sage, and lemongrass contain esters that make them more sedative.
D’Arezzo recommends rubbing essential oil-infused lotions on pressure points on the hands and feet, or adding oils to a salt bath or foot soak. Submerging your body before adding the oils will help draw them into the skin. “It’s about putting yourself into that state of relaxation, calming your mind at the end of the night and getting yourself into a routine before bed that helps train your mind and body to get ready for sleep.”
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“The benefit of restorative yoga is simple,” says Michelle Tremont, a yoga instructor who leads the restorative classes at All That Matters in Wakefield. “Slow down and focus.”
While there are schools of yoga that focus on athleticism – like strength, endurance, and flexibility – restorative yoga uses props like blankets and bolsters to support the body in various lying postures. “It’s all supported,” says Tremont. “You relax while the heart is open and focus on breathing.”
The breath part is important. “Breathing in and out of the nose slows down the breath, which slows the nervous system,” she explains. “Diaphragmatic breathing invites the adrenal system into the equation. It allows us to focus on our hearts and minds rather than the movements.”
To bring your focus to the breath, restorative yoga begins by laying down and focusing on your breathing. Add a mantra (Tremont suggests “sohum,” which translates to “I am”), then go through a visualization that helps slow the mind and bring it back to the body.
“Stretching is like flossing,” says Chris Tarro, owner of the recently opened StretchLab in East Greenwich, a gym that focuses solely on keeping clients loose and limber. “It’s one of those things we know we should be doing every day but we don’t.”
According to Dr. Graff, pain can be a factor in insufficient sleep. While certain modalities like massage are great for easing pain and relaxing muscles, Torro notes that those benefits are fleeting. “Regular stretching builds on your flexibility. The more you do it, the more improvement you see, the better you feel.”
Thai Yoga Bodywork uses assisted stretching, yoga poses, and massage to improve flexibility, reduce stress, and improve circulation. “It’s a part of daily life in Thailand,” says Sarah Daigle, who treats clients at White Pine Wellness in South Kingstown. “It’s where you first go when you aren’t feeling well, and the practitioner decides the course of treatment.”
Daigle’s clients seek her out for a multitude of reasons. But, the majority are “the average stressed person, who wants to relax. When I work with clients, I ask myself, ‘how do I stimulate their nervous system to get them into a calm state, and how do I teach them to implement this themselves?’” She often sends sleep deprived clients away with homework for at-home jaw manipulation, since so many grind and clench their teeth through the night.
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“In the garden of your mind, you can get caught in all the weeds,” says Ann Porto, PsyD, a meditation instructor who runs Sacred SoulJourns in North Kingstown. She explains that our brains are not unlike computers that get bogged down by all the downloads and cookies that we collect during the day. Meditation can help clean all that out, which can lead to better sleep.
Dr. Porto says that it’s useful to have some instruction in meditation when just starting out. Diffusers with essential oils and white noise machines or other soothing sounds aid in getting into a meditative state. “It will take time to develop the practice,” she says, noting that a five-minute meditation is a great target to start with.
Diaphragmatic breathing (like in restorative yoga) is key. “It’s the bridge between the mind and the body,” she says. “Mindfulness, breathing, things that calm the mind amidst all of the distractions during the day – these are tools for a daily practice that will affect sleep at bedtime.”
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“Most people keep their mattresses too long,” says Ed Smith, owner of Chariho Furniture in Richmond. “After seven to ten years, the support is gone.” Smith likens this to sleeping in a hammock, which takes the spine out of alignment during the night. “Everyone has their own tastes,” he says. “What’s comfortable for me may not be comfortable for you. But it’s important to make sure your spine is aligned.”
According to Smith, mattresses made of natural materials like wool, cotton, and natural latex are best. These breathable materials will keep you cooler – and more comfortable – while you sleep. “A lot of mattresses use petroleum-based products but the natural material is just as durable,” he says, noting that natural fibers are inherently fire resistant so they do not need to be treated with fire-retardant chemicals to meet federal regulations. “We’re an old-school store. We like mattresses that can be flipped and rotated, which helps them last longer.”
Smith says coil mattresses are best for that all-important spine support. He also suggests purchasing your mattress at a store rather than online. “You need a test-rest to check for comfort and support.”
Finally, he cautions not skimping on the pillows. “Thirty percent of spine misalignment is due to the pillow you are using. Get a good quality pillow, sized properly for you, and the type of sleeper you are.”
Cardi’s Furniture and Mattresses
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