Breathe Yourself to Better Sleep
It’s clear that getting enough sleep is an important key to better health and longevity. That’s because your brain cleans, maintains and recharges itself while you sleep, and if you don’t get at least seven or eight hours every night, then your brain goes into a slightly stressed state, which over time can affect all body function.
So, it makes sense to arrange your schedule so that you can get a good night’s sleep, but for some people, that’s easier said than done. Some have trouble getting to sleep, some have trouble staying asleep, and some have trouble organizing their day to provide enough time for sleep.
Let’s look more closely at this process. Your brain connects with your body through wires called nerves, and these nerves are arranged in a very specific way throughout your body. Some nerves are for voluntary control, like operating your muscles to walk, jump or dance. Others are designed to automatically manage your organs, like your heartbeat, your breathing and your digestion. Imagine if you had to remember to set your heart every morning! But no, it happens automatically.
The part of your nerve system that runs your automatic body functions is called your autonomic nerve system, and it has two parts, your sympathetic nerve system and your parasympathetic nerve system.
If you are in a stressful situation, like an argument for example, or you find yourself running away from a tiger chasing you, you are using your sympathetic nerve system, your “fight or flight” machinery.
If you are in a restful, recovery situation, like digesting your food after a satisfying meal, or getting well from a cold or illness, you are using your parasympathetic nerve system, your “rest and digest” or “rest and recover” machinery.
You need both, of course, but when you are trying to get to sleep, you want to use your parasympathetic nerve system — it wouldn’t make sense for you to be in fight or flight before bed, that’s a highly excited state which requires wakefulness and intense focus, not a good environment for unwinding and getting some quality shuteye.
Now, most of your autonomic functions are not under your control, but there is one that is – it’s your breathing. Your breathing happens automatically without you thinking about it – it gets faster when you exercise and need more oxygen, slower when you meditate because your heart and body slow down. That happens automatically, but with breathing, if you like, you can seize conscious control, and breath faster, slower, deeper or shallower at will.
It turns out that this is a perfect way to tap into parasympathetic function and get out of a fight or flight state and into a rest and recover state. When you pay attention to your breathing, your blood pressure goes down, your heart rate and stress hormones are reduced, and that creates the right state to fall asleep and heal and repair your brain and body. This all happens when the parasympathetic nerve system is at work.
Stress can lock you into sympathetic wakefulness. This is common — as many as 33% of our neighbors have sleeping problems. They need a way to get to sleep and remain asleep. They could use breathing to get to parasympathetic dominance. Here are some ideas on how to use breathing to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Mobility and breathing expert Dana Santas from CNN recommends counting deep breaths backward. You’ve probably heard of counting sheep – that’s designed to focus your mind away from whatever is bothering you. Counting breaths backward is even more effective because deep breathing takes you into a parasympathetic state.
Just get into bed, get comfortable, close your eyes, and imagine the number 20 as you inhale. Then, simply allow the number to fade away as you exhale. Then go to 19, then 18, and often you won’t make it all the way down to 1. If you do, you can start at 30 or 40, whatever works, but doing this regularly will drive you into a parasympathetic, sleepy state.
Santas also recommends the work of Brandon Marcello, another sleep expert, who suggests a cool, dark room, and a “pre-sleep menu” of reading, listening to relaxing music, meditating, stretching or breathing. Whichever you choose, you always want to come back to breathing.
This may all seem very scientific, but nothing could be more natural than taking a nice, deep breath and letting it out. It could be as simple as that, to breathe yourself to better sleep. And if you want to know more about your brain and nerve system, ask your Doctor of Chiropractic, your most trusted health and wellness advisor