Sleep Research News - September 2020

Just Breathe

Better Sleep Council research has shown that Americans are having more trouble sleeping than ever.

One thing that might help — deep breathing exercises.

“Relaxation helps to reduce stress hormones, which block melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep,” said Claire Barker in a July 6 article on Insider. She is a clinical sleep specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center’s Sleep Program in Burlington, Vermont.

The article described three types of breathing exercises that may help relax the mind and body. Maybe give one of them a try the next time insomnia strikes.

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: To begin diaphragmatic breathing, focus on breathing into the belly, rather than the chest. (It might be helpful to put your hand on your stomach to feel the rise and fall.) Take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds before releasing. Visualize air filling up your belly and then traveling out through your nose. Slowly repeat for 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Body scan: This is a type of mindfulness meditation that has been shown to improve sleep, according to the article. First, get into position. If using a body scan for sleep, lie down. Second, take an inventory of your body, noticing how it feels. Many who do this breathing exercise choose to start at the top of the head and work down toward the toes. Third, when you notice an area of tension, breathe into it and see if you can get that part of your body to relax.
  • 4-7-8 breathing: This relaxation technique starts with breathing in through your nose for 4 seconds. Next, hold your breath for 7 seconds and then exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds, making a whooshing sound. Then repeat the cycle.

Why the Whole Family Needs a Sleep Routine

Lack of sleep is known to make people irritable and grumpy. Throw in the uncertainty of a pandemic and summer’s lack of structure, and it becomes a recipe for unhappy families, according to a July 24 report on CNN.

“I think a lot of people are staying up late because of what’s going on,” said New York-based sleep and health psychologist Joshua Tal. “That can be a problem because now you’re going to bed later, you’re waking up later, you’re losing a routine. I think setting up proper routines could be the No. 1 intervention for sleep and mood.”

Children, in particular, benefit from routines, which include waking up at the same time every day, getting dressed, eating at the same times and winding down before bed. 

“Routine provides a sense of reliability and stability, helping children know what to expect and when to expect it,” said Jennifer L. Hartstein, a New York-based family psychologist. “As a result of routine, children can better manage their emotions and reactions.”

Adults need to follow that same advice to help them manage their days.

The place to start is a regular wake-up time. Sleep experts have long recommended waking up at the same time each day — even on weekends. 

Another component of routine is making and sticking to a daily plan. “Knowing what comes next in our day is great,” Hartstein said. “Our emotions are more even, our physical state is better and our stress levels reduce when we know how to follow a schedule and have that structure.”

At the end of every day, follow a routine or ritual that prepares your brain and body for sleep. 

“Our body knows how much rest we need, and a routine promotes that for all,” she said. “Lack of sleep is a significant factor in emotional dysregulation, so finding a solid sleep schedule is key.”

Less REM, Shorter Life

Getting enough sleep has been shown to be critically important to health. Now researchers have found that getting the right balance of sleep stages also makes a difference.

“In our busy, fast-paced lives, sleep can feel like a time-consuming nuisance,” said lead researcher Eileen Leary, senior manager of clinical research at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “This study found in two independent cohorts that lower levels of REM sleep were associated with higher rates of mortality.”

During REM sleep, or rapid eye movement sleep, the body repairs itself and dreams occur. According to a July 7 article in Medical Xpress, the study found that for every 5% reduction in REM sleep, mortality rates increased 13% to 17% among middle-aged and older adults.

Researchers note that the study doesn’t prove reduced REM causes death, only that it’s associated with a risk of dying earlier.

“This study shows yet another reason for the importance of proper sleep and a good balance of sleep stages by assuring that any possible conditions, such as obstructive sleep apnea, that can cause a reduction in REM be evaluated and managed,” said Michael Jaffee, an associate professor of neurology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

The study was published online July 6 in JAMA Neurology.

Helping Children With ADHD Sleep

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder often have trouble with sleep. A  study published July 14 in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that parents can help their children sleep better by focusing on an improved diet, more activity and less screen time.

According to a July 27 article in ADDitude magazine, researchers used data from an online, multi-country survey of 309 caregivers. They found that ADHD had an impact on a child’s sleep as well as their diet. What the children ate influenced how much exercise they got, as well as their sleep. The amount of activity also influenced how much they slept, and the amount of screen time was a large factor in how much the children moved about. 

“In other words, decreasing a child’s screen time and improving their diet both led to greater physical activity, which improved sleep,” the article said.

Unhappy? Try Sleep or Light Housework

With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many people at home more often than normal, activity levels — and moods — have taken a downward shift.

But a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that getting more sleep or doing light activity is more refreshing to body and soul than sitting in front of a screen for hours, according to a June 11 Medical News Today article.

“With everything happening right now, this is one thing we can control or manage, and it has the potential to help our mental health,” said lead author Jacob Meyer of Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

Sedentary Americans are nothing new. Previous research has shown that U.S. adults spend 75% of their waking hours sitting, including 90% of leisure time. Now, with the pandemic, activity levels have dropped by 32%, according to the article.

The first thing researchers recommended was turning off screens and going to bed. If you’re going to sit around and zone out, that time would be better used for sleeping.

Second, add some light activity, such as walking around as you talk on the phone or standing as you prepare dinner. 

“People may not even think about some of these activities as physical activity,” Meyer said. “Light activity is much lower intensity than going to the gym or walking to work but taking these steps to break up long periods of sitting may have an impact.”

So, get moving. Even if it’s moving from the sofa to your bed for a longer night’s sleep.

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