Countless health studies and health professionals point to the importance of deep sleep to our overall health.
Amy Bradley Radford has had trouble sleeping since she was a child.
As she got older, it just got worse and worse. She tried herbals and prescription and over-the-counter sleep medications. Nothing was effective.
“You get a little crazy when you don’t sleep,” she said. “It makes you ornery. You’re like a fuse that’s ready to be lit.”
Her lack of sleep impacted her relationships and her work as a licensed massage therapist and massage continuing education instructor. There was a point when she was so exhausted, she said, she didn’t care if she saw clients or not. “I was so excited when people cancelled, and that’s not running a successful business.”
Jason Bratcher’s insomnia was so severe a half dozen years ago, he’d have panic attacks because he was worried he was so exhausted that he wouldn’t be able to provide good service to his clients. Insomnia, says the licensed massage therapist and owner of Austin LomiLomi Bodyworks, is “no joke.”
Countless health studies and health professionals point to the importance of deep sleep to our overall health. Not getting enough sleep has been linked by numerous research studies to increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. A new study released in October in the journal Science details new evidence that the slow brain waves during this stage of deep sleep allow cerebrospinal fluid to “cleanse” the brain of toxins, possibly protecting the brain from Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
And yet, three in 10 working adults get six or fewer hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
How Much Is Enough?
What exactly is enough sleep? You’ve certainly heard the standard recommendation that adults need seven to nine hours of sleep, but “there really is no one-size-fits-all” for “enough” sleep, said Martin Reed, a sleep expert and founder of Insomnia Coach, a personal sleep consulting service.
“If you feel pretty good throughout the day then it’s quite likely that you are sleeping just fine,” Reed said, but if you’re regularly finding yourself struggling to stay awake during the day, then you might not be getting enough sleep or not getting the quality of sleep you need to function healthily.
Sleep, he said, is divided into two states: rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Most adults spend their sleeping time in NREM, which has three stages:
- Stage 1, which serves as a bridge of sorts from wakefulness to light sleep during which the body’s basic physiologic functions, like heart rate and breathing, slow down.
- Stage 2, during which the body gets more relaxed, body temperature drops, and heartbeat and breathing slow down more than in the first stage.
- Stage 3, known as slow-wave, deep or delta sleep, which is the deepest stage of sleep, usually occurs in longer segments of time during the first half of the night. It is this period of deep sleep that is most restorative. Physiologic functions are at their slowest and brain waves are deeply relaxed and slow. Blood supply increases to the muscles, hormones needed for growth and development and immune system support are released, and tissue growth and repair happens.
REM sleep, which some call a fourth sleep stage, happens after stage 3 and is associated with dreaming. This type of deep sleep occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. Heart rate increases and blood pressure is similar to being awake, but our muscles become immobile so we don’t begin walking around during dreaming. This period of sleep is when memories are consolidated.
Sleep, and deep sleep in particular, is the “body’s beautiful way of keeping the brain functioning optimally,” said Larry Cammarata, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in mind-body medicine and mindfulness.
Unfortunately, American culture, with its goal-oriented drives, is not supportive of getting healthy levels of sleep, he says. “Good sleep is not about achievement or being task-oriented or driven or accomplishing or being quick about responding to your emails,” he said. “Good sleep requires a certain passive surrendering to our bodies’ tiredness.”
Deep Sleep Tactics to Try
Achieving good, deep sleep means being a “countercultural sleep warrior,” he said. How do you become such a warrior?
- Get some level of daily exercise, but don’t engage in vigorous exercise close to bedtime.
- Abstain from alcohol, caffeine, big meals, spicy and fatty foods within a couple of hours of sleep time.
- Avoid blue light exposure by using blue light blockers, or better yet, turn off your electronic devices in the hour or so before bedtime, and don’t bring your electronic devices to or watch TV in bed.
- Go to bed and get up around the same times each day.
- Maintain a cool sleeping environment.
- If you are struggling to fall asleep, simply lie in bed and let yourself relax. Don’t engage in negative sleep thoughts that ramp up stress and anxiety. If you need to, get up and do something relaxing in low light.
For massage therapists Amy Bradley Radford and Jason Bratcher, developing sleep strategies has helped them manage their struggles with insomnia.
The key to good sleep for Bratcher is movement. “[Movement is] vital to getting rid of all that excess pent-up physical energy so that at the end of the day I don’t need to do anything except lay in the bed, and then I am out like a light,” he said.
Radford has a multipronged sleep routine that she sticks to rigorously. Each night she has a hot bath with Epsom salts and aromatherapy. In the morning, and even sometimes during the night when her brain is overactive, she journals.
Journaling for 10 to 30 minutes in the morning allows her to work through anything that came up for her during the night, and getting up to write during the night gets whatever her mind is insisting she pay attention to out. “Once it is out on paper, I can go back to sleep usually with little to no issues,” she said.
Sleep deprivation is a real hazard, Radford said, so making sleep “sacred” is important to personal and professional life. “It is very difficult to continue to offer health-promoting services when you do not feel healthy yourself,” she added.
About the Author
Stephanie Bouchard is a freelance writer and editor based on the coast of Maine. She frequently reports news and features for MASSAGE Magazine, and her articles include “Corporate Massage of the Future: Wellness Programs are Revolutionizing On-Site Services” and “Northern Ohio Health Care Pushes Opioid Alternatives.”