Following on from a post I wrote recently, aiming to give insomniacs hope and / strategies for dealing with the long and often worrying periods of wakefulness, there's a new study that simply must be shared.
The findings are a mixture of the expected and the downright mysterious. It's an American study looking at sleep disturbances and dementia risk. It considers three cohorts of adults: those who struggle with falling asleep, those who use sleep medication, and those who struggle to stay asleep. And there's one big, inexplicable surprise for those of us who fall into the latter category. The results are as follows:
Sleep initiation insomnia was associated with a 51% increase of dementia risk (I'll return to this ..to simply leave it unaddressed would be unforgivable).
Sleep medication use was associated with a 30% increased risk.
And then comes the baffling anomaly, sleep maintenance insomnia was associated with a 40% decrease in dementia risk!
I've just had one of those nights, my sleep was not maintained, in fact it was pretty awful. I'm so well versed in managing this that lying awake worrying is rare. I usually meditate, or more recently practise light breathing and slow breathing, ideally simultaneously and meditatively if I'm able to. But to now have not one, but two reasons to be more optimistic, is significant.
I'm curious about the study results as are the authors of the paper who are clearly unable to offer a conclusive explanation for the surprising result for sleep maintenance insomnia. Is there something more that we need to know? Quite probably. Nevertheless, I would have expected it to go in completely the other direction so it's potentially positive news for those, like me, who are usually deterred from reading yet more about the dangers of poor sleep in respect of cognitive impairment.
And my other cause for optimism? These dismally poor sleep experiences are definitely fewer in number now …it's pretty much switched around. I used to have occasional good nights in a sea of poor to terrible nights; I'm now seeing the opposite and it's been happening for long enough to feel confident that elusive sleep is no longer my lot in life.
But back to the sleep initiation insomnia group for whom the result was not encouraging. Do you know what it is that causes a delay in you falling asleep? Can you do anything about it? If so, I urge you to let go of the habits that may seem so pleasurable, the evening coffee or alcohol, the big, late meal, screens before bed (and especially in bed!) Good sleep is ultimately so much better than any momentary pleasure. But more likely it's something you have less control over. An agitated mind is one of the primary causes of poor sleep.
Do you take your worries to bed with you? So many of us do. It's hardly surprising when the days are full of distractions, that the time before we fall asleep may be our first real bit of downtime. Could you make it a habit to breathe slowly and gently through your nose before you go to sleep? Put your attention there and when the worries return to your mind, as they will, check on your breathing again. And again. And again. After a busy day it may be that your breathing is faster than is useful to you which is likely to give your body the message that there's a threat and you must therefore stay alert. If this is the case, you may need to slow your breathing in stages to get you to a really relaxing, gentle and effortless pattern. The previous blog post highlighted some of the advantages of doing this even if you still can't sleep.
What if you're just awake? You may be tired and yet you're also hyped and the reason why may not be apparent. If you're hyped, or just feel vaguely anxious, there's a high chance that you're breathing too hard and too quickly. Is this your normal? There's potentially good news for you if it is; breathing retraining can alleviate some or all of this. Poor breathing is often nothing more than a habit acquired following a period of stress or illness or habitual mouth breathing. It may have been your normal for years which makes it hard to identify, but it can change. Is it worth retraining your breathing? It surely is. A Buteyko Breathing Instructor should be able to help you if you're unsure how to go about it or if you need someone to keep you focused and accountable. Your sleep is valuable. Let someone help you.
Graham and I are both Breathing Re-education Instructors and would be happy to answer any questions you may have.