There’s nothing quite like a good night’s sleep for making us feel on top of the world and revitalized. Scientists have found that sleep cleans the brain like a plumbing system. During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours. Brain cells actually shrink during sleep to open up the gaps between neurons to allow fluid to wash the brain clean. How clever is that?
“The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states – awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up,” said researcher Dr Maiken Nedergaard.
“You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”
Sleep affects our clarity of mind, mood, energy levels, skin and even our appetite. It is also thought that failure to clean the brain may also play a role in brain disorders. It’s not just the number of hours that matters, it’s the quality of sleep that makes a difference.
More and more people are complaining that they can’t sleep well and wake up feeling exhausted and groggy. Insomnia is an epidemic in today’s society, affecting one-third of adults. People are living off adrenaline and caffeine, and consuming too much alcohol to unwind, all of which has a negative impact on the frequency of our brain waves at night. We struggle to transition from a state of Beta wakefulness to a state of Theta deep relaxation and on to a Delta state of deep, dreamless sleep. This final state is essential for wellbeing when our brain receives its bath washing away the toxins.
So what’s the recipe for a great night’s sleep?
I’m a big fan of a nightly dose of magnesium citrate to relax my muscles and promote a deeper sleep. And where possible, I include an Ayurvedic oil massage into my evening ritual before bed. It subdues Vata – an energy that’s present in all of us and governs nervous activity and anxiety. Then there’s yoga – every insomniac’s best friend. Certain yoga postures encourage the parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system) to ease off and repair. Yoga Nidra (a state somewhere between meditation and a sleep-like consciousness) relaxes you on a deeper level and is perfect to practice anytime during the day to recharge and encourage a night of deep sleep. And of course nothing can beat a calming, restorative yoga routine for soothing the body and mind.
Here are some of my favourite yoga poses to help restore sleep and take you from ‘surviving’ your days to ‘thriving’. In each pose, close your eyes and hold for at least 10 deep breaths, placing emphasis on a long, deep exhale. Use any props like blankets and cushions if you want to.
Focus on your breathing and start to slow down the breath.Feel the breath moving in and out of the abdomen. Allow the abdomen to soften. Lengthen the exhalation and notice if your mind starts to feel more calm and less busy. Make the breath slow and smooth.
Stay here for a few minutes or longer.
Come up to stand and bring the weight into the right foot as you lift the left foot and place it against the inside of the right calf or thigh (not against the knee). You can use a chair or wall for support if you want to. Try to bring the palms together in prayer pose in front of the heart. Stay for 5 deep slow breaths. Keep the gaze soft. Gently release and change sides.
Wide Legged Forward Bend
Stand with the legs wide, feet parallel and fold forwards towards the floor. Stay in the forward bend, sending the crown of the head towards the floor. Feel the navel draw back towards the spine with each exhalation. See if you can double the length of the exhalation as you stay here, for example in for 3 out for 6 or in for 4 out for 8 counts. stay for a minute or so.
Bring the hands to the hips and slowly come back with a long spine.
Hugging Knees To Chest and Lying on Back
Lie on your back and hug your knees to your chest. As you exhale draw the knees deeper towards the chest and as you inhale release the thighs a little away from the chest. Repeat for a minute or so.
Lifting Legs Up To The Ceiling
Lift the legs up towards the ceiling or if possible lie with the legs up the wall for a few minutes or as long as feels comfortable.
Bridge Pose Hands Interlaced
Place your feet on the floor hip width apart and parallel. Press into the feet evenly to lift your hips up towards the ceiling and interlace your hands underneath your back. stay here for 5 deep, slow breaths. Release the hands and slowly roll back down through the spine.
Come to all 4s and bring the hips back to the heels, the chest to thighs and rest the forehead on a cushion. Soften the face and slow down each exhalation. See if you can make each exhale 6 counts or longer. Stay for a few minutes or longer if possible. Feel the mind becoming quieter and the breath deepening. Try to practice ‘Viloma’ by adding a pause to the breath each time you exhale. Exhale and pause the breath half way through the exhalation, then exhale the remainder of the breath, inhale normally and repeat. Don’t add pauses if you feel any strain or anxiety pausing the breath. Continue for a couple of minutes or longer. Finish in child’s pose breathing normally for 5-10 breaths before you come back up.
Seated Forward Fold
Sit tall with the legs stretched in front of you and fold over the legs, lengthening the spine. Slow down the breath and again try to lengthen the exhalation. stay 5 -10 breaths. Notice how the forward bends, have a calming effect on the mind.
Rest on the floor, with the legs apart, the arms by the sides, palms facing upwards or on your abdomen. Use a blanket so you are warm. You can place a rolled blanket or bolster under the knees to release the lower back. Place an eye back (or a rolled t-shirt or sleeve) over the eyes. Stay for 10 minutes or longer if possible.