Insomnia and the Brain

Got Insomnia?

Are you finding yourself tossing and turning in the middle of the night? Or, do you notice that during the day you feel more tired than usual? Our culture is constantly on the go, and one of the ways that stress and anxiety can impact our bodies—and our brain—is by insomnia. Each night millions of people struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep. For some, insomnia can become severe and an ongoing struggle night after night.

Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Poor brain concentration and focus
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty with memory and focus
  • Impaired motor coordination
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Impaired social interaction

Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington post, published a book about sleep. In The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, says that: “Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity—a rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical cleansing, and cognitive maintenance. Properly appraised, our sleeping time is as valuable a commodity as the time we are awake. In fact, getting the right amount of sleep enhances the quality of every minute we spend with our eyes open.” Over time, the effects of sleep deprivation can have significant impacts on our ability to function in our jobs, our relationships, and our overall state of wellbeing. Chronic insomnia can have a negative impact on your health, increasing your risk for depression and high blood pressure.

To prevent insomnia, you can do a few things:

  • Avoid light, noise, and keep a cool room.
  • Unplug from technology at least 30 minutes before bedtime.
  • Using essential oil of lavender, ylang-ylang, or chamomile via diffusers or spray over pillowcase, applying on wrist, or adding a few drops in a bath.
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Get up and go to bed at the same time each day.
  • Avoid large meals, excessive fluid intake, and vigorous exercise before bedtime and reduce the use of stimulants including caffeine and nicotine.
  • If you do not fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes, try drinking a cup of warm chamomile tea or a relaxing activity such as listening to a guided meditation or reading.

Deepak Chopra has a helpful exercise called “Recapitulation”. Before bed, spend 3-5 minutes replaying your day as if it were a movie. Sitting comfortably in bed, close your eyes and meditate for 2 minutes by just following the flow of your breath. Once you feel settled, begin reviewing your day from the moment you woke in the morning. As if you are watching a video on the screen of your awareness, notice the events and interactions that unfolded throughout the day. Try not get stuck at any one particular time or event. Notice where you are feeling anxiety, anger, or tension. What triggered you? Perhaps you may have been preoccupied when you wish you had been more present. Make an effort to let go. Forgive yourself and others. When you can let go of those emotions, the body is able to relax. As you feel you body begin to release tension, your mind will follow…allowing you to sleep more peacefully.

One of my favorite tools for relaxation before bedtime is called the “4-7-8 Breath”.

This is a technique I learned from Dr. Andrew Weil, a leader in the field of integrative medicine. I find it’s a great one to try when I’m having trouble sleeping. It really helps me relax and calm down my nervous system so I can get some rest. It involves inhaling through the nose and then exhaling though the mouth in the following way:

1) Inhale through your nose for a count of 4-3-2-1.

2) Hold the breath for a count of 7-6-5-4-3-2-1.

3) Purse your lips and blow out slowly through your mouth for a count of

8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.

Repeat this 4-7-8 breath as many times as you need to, until your start feeling relaxed. Make sure not to get too caught up in thinking that you can’t do it or it’s too difficult. For example, some people have a hard time at first holding their breath for a count seven. That’s okay. If you’re having trouble, you can simply lessen the number, holding for a count of four or five for example, until you build up lung capacity. It may take some practice, but the most important thing is that you make the effort and notice what happens as a result.

By using the tools and tips mentioned here, you should find it easier to shift out of your sleepless patterns and return to healthy habits at night. Your brain—and body—will thank you for it!

-Pam