Recently a patient came into the office for a follow up visit smiling broadly.
“I am feeling great,” she said. “I realized last week that I have been sleeping better than I have in at least a year. I also have more energy during the day.”
That comment has been repeated in my office so many times that it led to a conversation about the importance of sleep. Thankfully, one of the most frequent benefits most of my patients experience is improved sleep.
Sleep disorders are increasingly common and can be widely varied.
Some people have trouble falling asleep. Others are so exhausted that they fall asleep easily but are unable to stay asleep long enough to get a good night’s rest. Still others may be asleep most of the night but have problems such as sleep apnea, frequent snoring, or other types of restless sleep that still prevents them from enjoying healthy sleep.
Healthy sleep is critical to good overall health.
When sleep is disturbed or insufficient, various aspects of health are affected. The most obvious impact is often decreased energy. A feeling of fatigue or low energy may sometimes be diagnosed as thyroid or other medical issues, or may simply be a matter of inadequate sleep.
Sleep issues can lead to poor work performance, increased incidence of accidents, heart health issues, decreased immune response, digestive or anxiety issues, headaches or many other concerns.
When discussing sleep problems, many people will immediately think of the very familiar television advertisements for prescription drugs. Although these products do have some benefit in inducing longer or deeper sleep for some, the side effects can be profound. Unfortunately, taking the drugs does not typically resolve the underlying problem causing the sleep disturbance.
For many people with sleep issues, the problem may arise due to unresolved pain or discomfort that affects their sleep. Joint pain, headaches, neck or back conditions or even muscle pain can keep stimulating the brain enough during the night that deep, restful sleep is impossible. When the cause of the pain is addressed the sleep improvement follows.
Other people may be experiencing an overall imbalance in their hormonal function. Stress, poor diet, long work hours, family demands, medications, weather or environmental factors can all play a part in affecting how our bodies maintain homeostasis. Acupuncture has been used by many to help the body return to a homeostatic balance that promotes hormonal balance.
Whether a sleeper is experiencing swings in temperature such as hot flashes during the night, metabolic imbalances related to how they digest and utilize nutrients, gastric reflux resulting in heartburn, pins and needles related to restless legs, shallow stress breathing related to underlying anxiety, heart palpitations or other subtle issues, impaired sleep can be the result.
Deep, slow relaxing breathing can often improve sleep. It takes only a few minutes to practice the exercises each evening before bed.
Start by sitting in a comfortable, relaxed upright position. Now, simply breathe, but do so intentionally focusing on the actual breathing activity. Slowly breathe in until you feel that you have enough air; then pause for a moment before exhaling. As you exhale, do so slowly and allow your body to relax. Again, pause for a moment before beginning the next inhalation.
Repeat this process for at least 20 breaths. It may help to count each breath. This helps your focus on the breathing. Otherwise most people tend to begin thinking of a million other things. Simply count one with the first inspiration, then two as you exhale, and so on.
Most people will find that somewhere along the way they feel the urge to breathe in much more deeply and sharply to get enough air. That is a good thing. That means that you have successfully reduced your anxiety level enough to expand your lungs to a normal level. That also means you were breathing too shallowly in the first place.
To improve sleep quality and overall health long term, try to resolve the underlying issue that is negatively affecting your sleep. Taking a drug to mask the symptoms only leads to more medical issues.