Want a happy H-E-A-R-T? Get more ZZZs.
February is American Heart Month, and when we think of heart health, we often think of movement--of "getting the blood pumping." But did you know that your heart health is also deeply affected by the quantity and quality of the rest that you get?
Studies have shown that people who don't get enough sleep are at a higher risk for cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks and even Type 2 Diabetes (which is another cause of heart problems). In fact, one staggering statistic from top sleep researcher Matthew Walker, who has published over 100 studies and literally wrote the book on the subject, is that "adults forty-five years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 PERCENT more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime."
The average person needs a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep per night....and even just that one extra hour can be crucial. According to Walker, "The switch to daylight savings time in March results in most people losing an hour of sleep...should you tabulate the millions of daily hospital records, as researchers have done, you discover that this seemingly trivial sleep reduction comes with a frightening spike in heart attacks the following day...and in the autumn, when the clocks move forward and we gain an hour of sleep time, rates of heart attacks plummet the day after. Most people think nothing of losing an hour of sleep for a single night, believing it to be trivial and inconsequential. It is anything but."
And the massive impact that sleep has on the body doesn't just stop with your heart. According to Walker, "the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep." He states that "getting too little sleep across the adult life span will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease" and that "routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer."
If you're wanting to catch those extra zzzs, here are some tips to help you have an easy, restful night's sleep:
Be consistent. Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on the weekends, helps the body establish and maintain a healthy rhythm.
Be aware when you're awake. The choices that you make during the day, especially right before bedtime, all affect your ability to both fall asleep and sleep soundly. So maybe think twice about watching that scary movie late at night or postpone that difficult conversation until the morning.
Quit caffeine early. We're not asking you to completely give up that cup of coffee or Coca Cola, just sip it earlier in the day. According to Walker, caffeine is one of the most common causes of insomnia because it can still be active in your system for up to 7 hours after ingesting it. So try not to have caffeine after 1 or 2pm.
Avoid alcohol before bed. According to Walker, "alcohol will fragment your sleep. So you'll wake up many more times throughout the night. And alcohol is also a very potent chemical for blocking your dream sleep or your rapid eye movement sleep." If you're looking for another nighttime beverage to knock you out, try warm milk with a small sprinkle of nutmeg or a soothing tea like chamomile, rose or holy basil.
Go dark. Start dimming the lights an hour before bed, in order to encourage your body to start releasing the hormone melatonin, which regulates the body's sleep cycle. Try to avoid electronic screens as well, because the blue light that they emit disrupts melatonin in the body.
Keep cool. The body's core temperature begins to drop as it moves into sleep, which is why it's easier to fall asleep in a cool room than a warm one. The ideal room temperature is 68 degrees.
Just breathe. If you're having a hard time shutting off your thoughts, focus on your breath. One of our favorite techniques, which has been shown to relax both the body and mind, is the 4-7-8 Breath: inhale through your nose as you count to four, hold your breath for a count of 7, and exhale out your mouth for a count of eight. Do this for at least four full cycles of breath. Another easy breathing technique is called Equal Breathing, where you inhale and exhale for the same length of time; for example, inhale for a count of 4 and exhale for a count of 4. Continue this breathing pattern until you grow tired or fall asleep.
Meditate. The breathing techniques we listed above are a form of meditation, but you can also download a meditation app like Calm, Headspace or Unplug, which have meditations specifically designed to help guide you into stillness and sleep. We also love using a short, simple mantra to quiet and focus the mind. Simply repeat a phrase in your mind with each inhale and exhale. Some of our favorite mantras to choose from are:
My mind and my heart are at rest.
I am calm and still.
I welcome sleep into my being.
I fall asleep with ease.
Peace and ease flow through me.
I sleep soundly.
Wishing you the sweetest slumber...