Perfect Rest: Yoga for Insomnia, Part Two

This entry was posted on Feb 4, 2012 by Charlotte Bell.
Perfect Rest:  Yoga for Insomnia, Part Two

Last week I posted the first of a three-part series on dealing with insomnia. Part One talks about some of the reasons why we can’t sleep, especially the infamous monkey mind. Today’s installment talks about strategies for helping you wind down, some of the daily life culprits that can interfere with sleep, and what to avoid as you prepare for sleep.

According to the University of Michigan Health System’s website one in three American adults has trouble sleeping. Because insomnia is so widespread there is a wealth of information available about various modalities that help relieve sleeplessness—vitamin and herbal therapies, processes such as biofeedback, acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, feng shui and Western therapies. Many of these modalities, combined with yoga and meditation, have alleviated sleeplessness for me. Experiment with different modalities and find which combinations work for you.

Physiologically the ability to sleep is closely tied to the condition of the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system operates in two modes:  sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” side, the side that activates when you must respond quickly to danger. The parasympathetic side is the side that calms. When the sympathetic side is activated sleep is impossible.

Signs that your nervous system are in this mode include: increased heart rate, cold hands and feet, indigestion, increased blood pressure and quick and/or shallow breathing, increased muscle tension and sweating. It is helpful to avoid evening activities that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, such as ingesting caffeine and sugar, heavy meals or snacks right before bedtime, strenuous exercise or mentally stimulating activity. When it is impossible to avoid these things during the evening give yourself at least a half hour of quiet time before retiring.

Too much light and sound can stimulate your sympathetic nervous system and interfere with your body’s ability to wind down. Set your lights as low as possible and avoid listening to loud music or watching a stimulating film or TV show in the half hour before you go to bed.

Sometimes a blood sugar crash can wake you up in the wee hours. Eating a small amount of protein—no carbs—before you go to bed can help keep your blood sugar stable. I don’t eat cow products, but my system does well with goat yogurt and cheese. I eat about ½ cup of goat yogurt—and share a spoonful with my yogurt-loving feline, Lily. If you eat yogurt, choose the type with a higher fat content that will allow the protein to absorb more slowly. If you are vegan, you can try some baked tofu or tempeh, a little quinoa (especially red quinoa) or a handful of nuts.

Surprisingly, alcohol can be a culprit in insomnia. Even though alcohol is a depressant, a few hours after you drink, it converts into glucose and gives you a burst of energy that can wake you up in the middle of the night. Because of its high sugar content, wine is especially prone to disturbing sleep. If you have trouble sleeping, the glass of wine that takes the edge off the day may actually create more stress in the long run. Avoid drinking too close to bedtime if you tend to wake up in the middle of the night.

Finally, if you have a low tolerance for clutter, keep your sleeping space clear and pleasant. Don’t bring work to bed with you. Leave your computer in your home office, or wherever you normally use it. I don’t check email or Facebook after dinner. I’d rather not know if there’s some computer-related crisis I need to take care of or some political rant on Facebook that can get me riled up.

If you have any strategies you’d like to share, please comment!

Part Three will talk about using yoga asana and breathing techniques to induce sleep. Stay tuned!

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

4 responses to “Perfect Rest: Yoga for Insomnia, Part Two”

  1. Avatar Nina Zolotow says:

    You’re going to write about breath practice in the future (that’s what I find most helpful), so I’ll suggest something a little surprising. I’ve found it helpful to wear perfume to bed! Vanilla, orange blossom, and lavender scents in particular are very calming, and I can quiet my monkey mind by focusing on a smelling a beautiful fragrance.

    • Avatar Charlotte Bell says:

      Nina, what a lovely idea. I know that lavender can be relaxing, but I hadn’t thought of vanilla and orange blossom. Thanks for the wonderful suggestion. I’ll try it!

  2. Avatar Alice says:

    Great article! And who are those handsome men lying on your bed? I’d like to loll with them!

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