Updated: Aug 27, 2021
Sleep is arguably the most essential health pillar to optimize in life. If your ambitions are to improve attention span, energy levels, enhance (cognitive) performance and increase overall wellbeing, sleep quality and restfulness are crucial. In fact, when sleep quality is poor, the effects of breathing practices, physical training modalities, nutrition strategies, and even meditation techniques will add very little to your perceived quality of life.
It is not without reason that this article is enlarging upon the subject of sleep. Not only does a significant percentage of Western society suffer from insomnia -better known as sleep disorder, but insomnia prevalence also increased notably throughout the course of the current pandemic. This is well illustrated by the significant increase of “insomnia” search queries on the internet.1 With so many people suffering, and some likely without even knowing it, it is of utmost importance to address this topic now.
Read on to learn about the importance of sleep to your success in life, how to assess sleep quality, understand the two most important phases of sleep, the relationship of sleep to chronic stress and anxiety, as well as powerful strategies/practices you can immediately implement to begin improving your sleep today.
Why high-quality sleep matters
Research has linked poor sleep quality to weakened immune functioning, chronic fatigue and stress, obesity, anxiety, depression, and early aging. 2, 3
On the other hand, high-quality sleep improves (motor skill) learning, creativity, cell regeneration, rational decision making and decreases the likelihood that you engage in impulsive behaviors. 4, 5, 6, 7 Thus, when you are getting the sleep you need and deserve, you will be making more decisions that are aligned with your core values, life intentions and goals.
It is not just the amount of sleep you get that matters, however. Research stresses that sleep quality is most essential to your health and well-being. 8
As world renowned sleep authority Dr. Matthew Walker frames it; “Sleep is the Swiss omni knife of health and well-being. If it weren’t that essential, the evolutionary process would have eliminated this highly vulnerable state”.
Self-Assessment: What is your sleep quality?
If your sleep is poor, likely you are already feeling the negative effects. In case you are not quite sure however, here is a checklist:
It takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night.
After waking up in the night, it takes you 15+ minutes to fall back asleep.
You feel chronically tired and experience poor concentration at daytime.
You seem to need more and more caffeine during the day to keep going.
You experience repetitive cycles of stress, anxiety, impulsiveness & emotional turbulence.
You have an unsatiable craving for processed foods and are gaining weight.
If you even checked just one of the above items, your sleep quality is poor and whether you know it or not, your health and performance are detrimentally impacted as a result.
The Two Phases of Sleep
As the main goal of this article is to provide you with actionable strategies to enhance sleep quality, I don’t want to deplete your attentional resources on sleep-related physiology and biology. Yet, it is of use to become familiar with the two main phases of sleep.
NREM, or non-rapid eye movement sleep, is the phase in which deep sleep occurs and which is most essential for physical recovery. NREM sleep is dominant in the first part of the night and aids musculoskeletal healing, immune system functioning and hormonal regulation.4 High quality NREM sleep ensures that you will feel rested and re-energized after waking up.
REM, or rapid-eye movement sleep, dominates the second part of the night. It is essential to maintain and improve cognitive functioning. Unlike NREM sleep, this phase is characterized by higher levels of physiological activation and most dreaming happens in this phase. High quality REM sleep aids emotional recovery, memory forming and learning efficiency. 6
Chronic Stress, Anxiety, and Insomnia
Not only insomnia increased during the current pandemic, the same applies to stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide considering published data on these mental states. 9, 10, 11
Source: Synthesis of data from Office for National Statistics (UK data); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US data).
One reason for this concerning increase in mental health problems is social isolation due to extreme lockdown measures.9 However, this is not the only reason. Ongoing exposure to a disproportionate amount of amygdala-triggering news broadcasts, twitter notifications and radio announcements likewise contribute tremendously to the amount of stress and anxiety people are experiencing during this critical time in history.
The constant subjection to potential threats, via communication platforms like news channels and social media, results in excessive worry, over-activates your autonomic nervous system, and imprisons you to a state of hyperarousal. Subsequently, stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are chronically elevated which in turn block the release of sleep-inducing hormones like melatonin and serotonin. As a consequence, your ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and overall sleep quality are impeded immensely.12
But there is more to this…
Research shows not only that stress and anxiety are a primary cause of insomnia, but also underlines that sleeplessness worsens chronic stress and anxiety.13, 14 In other words, the relationship between insomnia and stress/anxiety is bidirectional. This means that strategies to improve sleep should also aim to reduce chronic stress and anxiety. The strategies and recommendations in the following section do exactly that.
Powerful Strategies To Optimize Sleep Quality
Now it is time to share some powerful strategies/practices from the Mindful Island System for Ultimate Wellness & Performance. These strategies will not merely improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety, but also increase your (cognitive) performance output and quality of life.
Explore and implement these strategies gradually into your life. Changing too much at once is often counterproductive and can have the adverse effect of creating more unnecessary stress.
Be consistent. This first strategy is straightforward but essential to optimize your circadian or biological rhythm. Your body’s internal clock works according to a specific sleep-wake cycle. Staying up late one night and going to bed early the next throws this rhythm completely off balance. This imbalance affects hormone secretion and sleep quality in a highly detrimental way. Be also cautious with randomly taking naps in the late afternoon and staying up/sleeping in later in the weekends, especially if you are experiencing sleeplessness already. One of the best things you can do to optimize your circadian rhythm is to expose your eyes for at least 5 minutes to natural outdoor light in the first 30 minutes after rising. Combine this daily with a brief morning walk for the most transformative effects on your physiological system, performance, and overall well-being.
Leave time to decompress and unwind. This strategy has many components to it, all serving one aim; to promote a relaxing internal and external environment in the two hours before heading to bed. One of the most effective ways to do this is through a nasal diaphragmatic breathing technique that emphasizes the exhalation. To provoke an even stronger relaxation response, make a humming sound when exhaling. Intend to make the exhalations twice as long as the inhalations. If you are suffering from anxiety, self-hypnosis is also highly recommended. Try the free self-hypnosis audio track for anxiety on our website. Listening to it daily in the last hour before bed will be transformative. Another way to tackle an anxious, ruminating mind in the evening is by writing all your thoughts down in a journal. This is an effective to ‘empty’ your mind of all your concerns and create a more relaxed, sleep promoting internal environment. Furthermore, eating a meal with healthy fats and fiber-rich carbohydrates will also promote sleep. These foods trigger the release of tryptophane and serotonin, which are precursors of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. However, try to avoid eating in the last two hours before bed, as doing so will cause too much digestive activation and decrease sleep-quality. The same applies for drinking tea or other beverages. Too much hydration before bed and sleep becomes fragmented due to nighttime bathroom visits. Also avoid coffee, green tea and other caffeinated drinks after 15:00, and consider eliminating alcohol entirely from your life. Alcohol interferes immensely with sleep-quality and thus performance and wellbeing. The questions here are: how much do you want to achieve your life goals, what are you willing to give up to attain them? Finally, avoid bright lights and screens in the last after before bed and/or after 9:00 PM. Using screens and bright light after this hour elevates cortisol, impedes the release of melatonin, and affects your ability to fall asleep/sleep-quality in a detrimental way.15
Establish a daily meditation practice. There are many high-quality studies showing that meditation is extremely effective to counter chronic stress, anxiety and thus, improve sleep quality. 16, 17 Meditation, and especially mindfulness meditation, has the power to make you aware of certain compulsions, provide insights in the nature of habitual thoughts (in relationship to sleeplessness), and create a necessary distance to them. This does not merely rewire your brain and strengthen neural pathways that aid relaxation, but also increase emotional resilience. 18 At Mindful Island we recommend meditating in the morning, but you can also choose for the afternoon or the evening. The most important aspect is to start nurturing a degree of sensitivity to what works best for your unique schedule and circumstances so that your practice becomes a daily habit. If you are new to meditation, I highly recommend starting with one of our brief FREE guided meditations and to download our E-Book ‘On Meditation’, available for only $2.99 on Amazon Kindle. Another way to make your nervous system more accustomed and primed for relaxation is by embedding a supine 5-25 minute Deep Rest Practice into your days. Not only will this practice decompress your system and facilitate restfulness, but also allow you to go all-out in subsequent activities like learning, writing or athletic endeavors which all require activation. Try one of our free accessible Deep Rest Protocols available on our website and the Mindful Island YouTube Channel.
It is my sincere hope that you have gained valuable insights from this article regarding the importance of this mysterious, yet fundamental state called sleep. Please share with those you love who would benefit from this important information as well.
Now it is up to you to gradually explore and implement these strategies. Without prioritizing high-quality sleep, it will be impossible to nurture the necessary Bodymind balance essential to optimize your performance, increase quality of life, and perceive the immensity that you essentially are. To know ultimate freedom. If you desire tailored help and guidance on your journey, visit www.mindfulisland.com or send an email to email@example.com for specific questions.
Until next time,
Niko Sati Nikolić.
1. Zitting K-M, van der Holst H, Yuan R, Wang W, Quan S & Duffy J 2021. Google Trends reveals increases in internet searches for insomnia during the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) global pandemic. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.8810
2. Yoo S-S, Gujar N, Hu P, Jolesz F & Walker M 2007. The human emotional brain without sleep- a prefrontal amygdala disconnect. Current Biology. Cell Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2007.08.007
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9. Knolle F, Ronan L & Murray G 2021. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health in the general population: a comparison between Germany and the UK. BMC Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-021-00565-y
12. Kalmback D, Anderson J & Drake C 2018. The impact of stress on sleep: Pathogenic sleep reactivity as a vulnerability to insomnia and circadian disorders. Journal of Sleep Research. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsr.12710
13. Bonnet M & Arand D 2010. Hyperarousal and Insomnia. State of the Science. Sleep Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smrv.2009.05.002
14. Han K, Kim L & Shim I 2012. Stress and Sleep Disorder. Experimental Neurobiology. 10.5607/en.2012.21.4.141
15. Kulve M, Schlangen L & Lichtenbelt W.D 2019. Early evening light mitigates sleep compromising physiological and alerting responses to subsequent late evening light. Science Journal. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-52352-w
16. Black D, O’Reilly G & Olmstead R 2015. Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances; A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine. 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.8081.
17. Vanhuffel H, Rey M, Lambert I, Da Fonseca D & Bat-Pitaut F 2016. Contribution of mindfulness meditation in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. 10.1016/j.encep.2016.12.001
18. Lau W, Leung M-K, Wing Y-K & Lee Tatia 2018. Potential Mechanisms of Mindfulness in Improving Sleep and Distress. Springer Link. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0796-9