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To boost immunity, forget ‘magic pills.’ Focus on sleep, exercise, diet, and cutting stress.
By Christie Aschwanden
If there has ever been a time to focus on keeping your immune system healthy, this long winter of the pandemic is it.
As the ongoing coronavirus crisis hits it darkest hour yet, we have the cold and flu season to contend with, too.
Amid these ongoing threats, the notion that we might somehow “boost” our immune system with one weird trick — an herb, a supplement, a particular food — holds obvious appeal.
If only it were that simple.
When it comes to bolstering the immune system, “a lot of people just want a quick fix or magic pill,” says Cristina Porch-Curren, an allergist and immunologist in private practice in Ventura County, Calif. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing, she says.
If that’s disappointing, there’s still some good news: the most scientifically sound approaches to keeping your immune system healthy are healthy habits that don’t require you to buy pills or eat strange foods.
One of the most effective ways to improve your immune system's health is by reducing stress.
Researchers have known for a long time that stress can hamper the immune system, Porch-Curren says.
For instance, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 1991 found that when researchers gave volunteers nasal drops containing common respiratory viruses, participants who reported higher levels of psychological stress were more likely to become infected and develop symptoms of the common cold compared with people who had lower stress levels.
The more stressed the volunteers were, the greater their chances of becoming sick.
More recently, a 2004 review summarizing 30 years of research and more than 300 studies on stress and immunity concluded that chronic stress can cause measurable suppression of the immune system. It said that even short-term stressors, such as academic exams, can impair the body’s immune response.
You probably cannot eliminate stress from your life in this time of uncertainty, but anything you can do to manage or reduce it will be helpful, Porch-Curren says.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers tips for managing distress during a pandemic that includes building social connections, managing negative thoughts, maintaining a sense of humor, getting outside, and finding ways to relax, such as listening to music or meditation.
Meditation is a well-known approach to managing stress, and it comes with another benefit — it may also help you sleep better.
A randomized, controlled trial published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015 found that meditation could produce “robust improvements in sleep among older adults,” says the study’s senior author, Michael Irwin, a psychiatrist at the UCLA Geffen School of Medicine where he directs the Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Sleep is crucial to maintaining a robust immune system.
“We know that sleep problems, especially difficulties maintaining sleep, make you more susceptible to viral infections,” Irwin says.
His research has shown that even modest amounts of sleep loss can increase the production of signaling molecules that promote inflammation and make someone more prone to illness.
“Even one night of disturbed sleep can have an impact,” he says.
One phenomenon Irwin has been tracking is how health-care workers often experience particularly serious outcomes from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
(A report published by the National Nurses United in September estimated that more than 1,700 health-care workers in the United States have died of covid-19.)
Although some of this is probably a result of them being exposed to high doses of covid-19 in their work, Irwin also suspects that lack of sleep may play a role.
“We know that many of them are experiencing huge sleep debts because of scheduling and the long hours and night shifts they’re working,” he says.
To keep your immune system healthy, it’s important to maintain a regular sleep schedule, Irwin says.
“That means going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day.”
Go easy on the alcohol, which can interfere with sleep, especially the deep sleep that Irwin calls especially critical for your body’s antiviral immune response.
Exercise can also improve your sleep — according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, even small amounts of physical activity can help you sleep better.
But it comes with a huge added bonus: It helps your immune system become better prepared to fight off viral attacks, too, researchers have found.
Regular physical activity at a moderate intensity — enough so that you’re breathing a little harder and your heart is pumping a little faster — improves the immune system’s surveillance against pathogens and reduces the chances of getting sick or dying from viral infection and respiratory illnesses, including the common cold, pneumonia, and influenza, says David Nieman, an exercise physiologist at Appalachian State University.
Thus, it may reduce your chances of getting sick at all.
Nieman has conducted numerous studies on exercise and the immune system.
Last year, he published a review of research over the past century regarding the relationship between exercise and the body’s immune defense system, which concluded that there’s “a clear inverse relationship between moderate exercise training and illness risk” and “habitual exercise improves immune regulation.”
Experiments have shown that exercise stimulates the recruitment of the immune system’s best fighter cells, Nieman says. “What exercise does is it signals the best fighters to come out and patrol the body at a higher rate than normal.”
It doesn’t take much to get these effects.
Something as simple as a 30 to 45-minute brisk walk is enough to activate this immune response, which studies show begins during exercise and lasts several hours afterward, Nieman says.
If you exercise day after day, “It’s like the military patrolling the countryside.
You’re going to keep the enemy-controlled a lot better as time goes on than if you haven’t done this patrolling.”
Nieman’s review concluded that exercise is associated with a 40 to 45 percent reduction in the number of sick days people experience from acute respiratory infections.
The research done so far has found this effect for the common cold, influenza, and pneumonia, but Nieman thinks that “it’s only a matter of time before we find that the coronavirus also responds in a similar fashion.”
If you’ve noticed that the list so far of scientifically confirmed approaches to maintaining immune system function essentially amounts to a set of common tips for improving one’s overall health, you can probably guess the final component that experts point to nutrition.
The Internet is littered with lists of “superfoods” that supposedly bolster the immune system, but Rene Leon, a clinical immunologist at Texas Regional Allergy and Asthma Center, says he doesn’t advise his patients to eat superfoods for their immune systems — in fact, “absolutely not.”
If there was a food or subset of foods that would help patients improve their immune response, immunologists would be the first to say so, he says. “But we don’t, because I don’t think there’s any hard science to prove that.”
Nutrition is definitely important to staying healthy, but “you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to eat blueberries,’ because they’re full of antioxidants,” Porch-Curren says.
Single foods aren’t the key to bolster immunity. Instead, it’s the totality of your diet that matters.
If you’re trying to maintain a healthy immune system, the best approach is to eat a well-balanced diet with an emphasis on whole foods rather than processed ones, she says.
Despite the heavy marketing, there’s no vitamin or nutritional supplement that can magically bolster your immune system, experts say.
Leon regularly works with patients who have suppressed immune systems because of diseases and genetic conditions.
He says that if an easy immune booster really existed, he would jump at the chance to point his patients to it.
“There are a lot of bogus claims out there,” Leon says.
Pay attention to the fine print, he says. “If there’s a disclaimer on there that says that [the product] doesn’t treat or cure any disease, then the proof is in the pudding.”
“I have patients who come in with a box of supplements and so many different bottles,” Porch-Curren says, but “none of them” have cured their immune deficiencies with any of these products.
When these things seem to work, it’s usually because of a placebo effect, and that might make it seem like there’s no harm in trying them.
But diet, weight loss, and sex supplements are tainted with unapproved drugs.
How to rest well
Taking a break isn’t lazy – learning to recharge is a skill that will allow you to enjoy a more creative, sustainable life
by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Need to know
Attitudes to rest have changed
Downtime is undervalued in today’s busy, always-on world.
But for most of human history, rest – time in which we can recharge the mental and physical batteries we use while labouring – was prized as a gift.
To Aristotle, work was drudgery and necessity; only in leisure could we cultivate our mental and moral abilities, and become better people.
In The Sabbath (1951), Rabbi Abraham Heschel argued that, in Judaism, this day of rest was more than just a pause in the week, it was a ‘palace in time … made of soul, of joy and reticence’.
Even for the less philosophically inclined, leisure provided the time and freedom to do what they loved.
When George Washington retired from public life in 1759, he threw himself into building and maintaining Mount Vernon, an enterprise that, according to the historian William Abbot, ‘had on him a stronger and more enduring hold than did either war or politics’.
Today, though, it’s become commonplace to think of work and rest as opposites.
Work is active and valuable: it’s where we prove our worth and create a legacy.
Popular books such as What You Do Is Who You Are (2019) by the venture capitalist Ben Horowitz carry the implication that being and doing are synonymous.
Busyness is a badge of honour, even a sign of moral superiority. Rest, in contrast, is often treated as if it’s passive and pointless.
Indeed, I’ve noticed many people hardly think of rest as its own thing. It’s just a negative space defined by the absence of work.
The importance of rest
Rest is as essential to a good life, and a productive career, as work.
Overwork is bad for individuals and organisations: a long period without adequate rest burns people out and wrecks company productivity.
A deep dive into the lives of history’s most accomplished scientists, writers and even generals reveals that they laboured far fewer hours than do many people in today’s industrialised Western societies, and they crafted daily routines that balanced periods of intensive labour with downtime.
In his book The Use of Life (1895), the Victorian author John Lubbock wrote:
Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summers day, listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the blue sky, is by no means a waste of time.
Lubbock spoke from experience.
He himself was an innovator in the world of finance, a noted archaeologist (he coined the terms Neolithic and Palaeolithic, and used his wealth to save the ancient stone circle at Avebury), and a political reformer who led the campaign for bank holidays; yet he found time to retreat to his family estate at Downe in Kent, where he spent time playing cricket, entertaining friends, and talking about natural history with his nextdoor neighbour Charles Darwin.
Recent work in neuroscience and psychology supports this approach to rest, showing how it allows us to recharge and stimulate our creativity, and gives us the mental space to cultivate new insights, and even helps us have longer, more sustainable creative lives.
Moreover, studies show that good rest is not idleness. The most restorative forms of rest are active, not passive.
Further, rest is a skill: with practice, you can learn to get better at it, and to get more out of it.
So I believe we should not regard work and rest as opposites, but partners. Each supports and justifies the other.
Each provides things that every person needs.
You won’t fully flourish unless you master both work and rest.
What to do
Rest is like breathing or running.
On the one hand, it’s completely natural; on the other hand, it’s something you can learn to do better and, in so doing, you’ll more effectively harness its power to benefit other aspects of your life.
Just as swimmers and Buddhist monks learn to use their breath to maintain energy or calm their minds, busy people need to learn how to rest in ways that will help them recharge their mental and physical batteries, and get a burst of creative insight.
That requires developing new daily practices, and thinking differently about rest.
Take rest seriously
First, you have to take rest seriously, and give it a higher priority.
The fact that you’re reading this Guide is a positive first step.
The world is not generous with downtime.
There’s always more to be done, or things that could be done a little better.
So to harvest the benefits of rest, you need to nurture it and protect it. That means reserving time for it in your daily schedules, and in your life more broadly.
Take a look at your calendar – is it stuffed only with meetings, deadlines and domestic responsibilities?
If so, spend some time now thinking about when and where in your schedule you can start to make and protect some time for quality rest.
If there’s no apparent space, what are you willing and able to give up to make the necessary space? You might need to get creative – for instance, making a childcare-swapping arrangement with a friend so that you’re both able to carve out some adult downtime; or collaborating with your partner so that you both agree to give rest a priority amid all the other demands on your time.
Establish clear boundaries
The people in high-stress jobs who have good work-life boundaries, take weekends off, and regularly take vacations are less likely to burn out than those who don’t.
It’s fine for this time to be unstructured and unplanned; the only bad vacation is the one you don’t take.
Avoid trying to rest and work at the same time (an aspiration made more challenging by the fact that you carry the office around in your pocket).
Writing an email at the playground is more likely to yield a poor message and a neglected child than to secure that deal.
Clear boundaries between work and rest make both more effective. So, aim to retake control of your nights, weekends and vacations.
Start by cutting down on work phone and email checks in the evenings and weekends, and resisting nonwork distractions during the day.
Also, try to schedule regular restful activities with other people, whether daily walks with a spouse or monthly outings with friends – doing so will increase the chances you’ll stay committed to the plans and focused on rest.
Treat rest as a skill
If you’re particularly busy and highly driven, you need to give the benefits of rest a chance to manifest.
Don’t rush it.
Remember, rest is a skill that improves with practice.
Just as it takes time to settle into a new job or place, or a few days to shift into vacation mode, so too will your mind require time to start harnessing the power of rest.
In my own case, it took several weeks for my mind to start taking advantage of a new early morning routine (that freed up rest time later in the day), or to start turning out insights during regularly scheduled breaks from work.
So if you don’t see results immediately, give it time.
That said, if you’ve been patient and yet your approach to rest really doesn’t seem to be yielding benefits, you can always look for ways to tweak and improve your rest strategy, just as you can with a diet or workout regimen.
This is not to say that you should overplan your rest, or give up your daily walks if they aren’t making you into the next Beethoven or Warren Buffett.
Be realistic about your expectations for rest and, remember, if you’re human, you’re getting something out of your protected downtime.
Craft a daily schedule layering work and rest
Your daily schedule is one area where this kind of self-experimentation and improvement can pay rich rewards.
We all work in different ways, depending on our profession, the demands of our jobs, and whether we’re introverts or extroverts, or morning people or night owls.
But I’ve found that almost everybody does better when they follow these two steps:
First, schedule your work around periods of uninterrupted, highly focused blocks of 90-120 minutes, followed by rest breaks of 20-30 minutes.
Most people’s minds have a difficult time focusing for longer than that, even though we might try to convince ourselves that we can work longer (bear in mind that your ability to accurately assess your productivity drops as you become more fatigued).
Second, schedule those work periods so you do your most important tasks during your periods of peak energy and focus (your ‘circadian highs’).
For most people, this means doing the most important, engaging work first thing in the morning, and leaving meetings and email for the afternoon, but you do what works for you, so if you’re most energised in the afternoon, plan your schedule around that.
No matter the specifics of your schedule, layering periods of work and rest, and matching critical work time to circadian highs, encourages you to plan your time better, work more effectively, and create periods in the day when your creative mind can work on unsolved problems – and generate solutions that elude your conscious effort.
Practise deep play
Doing world-class work requires having great escapes from work, in the form of serious hobbies or ‘deep play’.
Winston Churchill advised that, for busy people:
‘It is not enough merely to switch off the lights which play upon the main and ordinary field of interest; a new field of interest must be illuminated.’
If you are used to keeping busy and hate the idea of slowing down, it might be comforting to realise that some of the most restorative rest is active, not just passive.
Rest isn’t stopping.
‘It is no use saying … “I will lie down and think of nothing”.’ Rather, he said: ‘It is only when new cells are called into activity, when new stars become the lords of the ascendant, that relief, repose, refreshment are afforded.’
What to choose?
That’s up to you, but a surprising number of Nobel laureates, CEOs, entrepreneurs and generals have hobbies that are time-consuming, physically or mentally demanding, even dangerous, such as sailing or mountain-climbing.
Others are dedicated runners, painters or musicians. No matter what you choose, though, it should be mentally absorbing, provide you with some of the same psychological rewards as your best work, but in a very different context, and away from work’s problems.
For Churchill, painting was deep play – a form of recreation that was a respite from work, and a source of new challenges and rewards.
Painting reminded him of the best parts of public life: both required decisive action, a clear vision and skill.
But painting got Churchill out in the open, was visual rather than verbal, and the Labour Party wasn’t around to critique his choice of colours.
Don’t neglect sleep and naps
In his 1993 study of violinists at the Berlin conservatory (that inspired Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule), the Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson reported that all the students rated sleep as highly relevant to improving their performance and, moreover, that the ‘best group’ (superstars in waiting, as he called them) and the better students (very good, but not superstars) napped more in the afternoons than the third, merely ‘good’ group.
The top two groups practised harder, and they appeared to nap more often as a way to recover.
They planned their days more carefully and took naps in the afternoon.
A 20-minute nap provides an energy boost comparable with a cup of strong coffee (without the later crash), and helps us retain new information better.
And even if you can’t nap at work, improving your sleep at home, by setting a regular bedtime, and having a pre-bedtime ritual that settles mind and nerves, will pay off.
Long-term studies show that good sleep provides lifetime benefits in terms of better physical health, greater emotional stability, lower levels of dementia and healthier ageing.
Encourage others to rest with you
As you begin following the advice in this Guide, the chances are you’ll find yourself pushing back against bosses who want you to believe that overwork is a virtue, resisting greedy professions that demand your loyalty, and avoiding distractions that aim to hijack and resell your attention.
The world tells us: Work is important; we need to reply: Rest is important too.
This perspective can be a lonely business that puts you at odds with colleagues or creates challenges with spouses (who’s going to fold the laundry?).
As companies that have moved to a four-day week show – and as I explain in my latest book Shorter (2020) – the more we can solve the problem of rest collectively, the better we all will be.
This means building new restful habits with family, new rituals with friends, and new daily schedules with colleagues (sharing this Guide will hopefully help to convince them).
For example, holding meetings only in the afternoon, and leaving the mornings free for people to work on their most important tasks, works brilliantly when everyone is on board.
Change needs to come from the top too, and I’ve encouraged organisational leaders to adopt a shorter working week for everyone.
In companies that have made this change – which include software startups such as Cockroach Labs, Michelin-starred restaurants such as Noma, law firms such as YLaw in Canada and Kromann Reumert in Denmark, and pest control services such as Griffin Pest Solutions in western Michigan – the shorter workweek becomes a group project that everyone contributes to, and everyone benefits from.
One person’s rest doesn’t come at another’s expense; everybody creates more space for rest together.
Key points – How to rest well
- Attitudes to rest have changed. For most of human history, rest was prized as a gift; it’s only recently that busyness has come to be seen as a badge of honour.
- Rest is important. It allows you to recharge, boosts your creativity, and will benefit your work time.
- Take rest seriously. To harvest the benefits of rest, you need to begin by recognising its advantages and carving out protected time for it in your schedule.
- Establish clear boundaries. Cut down on work phone and email checks in the evenings and weekends; take your vacations; and recognise that clear boundaries between work time and personal time make both more effective.
- Treat rest as a skill. Don’t rush it – your mind will require time to start harnessing the power of rest.
- Craft a daily schedule layering work and rest. If you have control over your daily routine, don’t design a workday with long unbroken periods of work; instead, alternate periods of uninterrupted, highly focused work with breaks that recharge your batteries.
- Practise deep play. A surprising number of Nobel laureates, CEOs, entrepreneurs and generals have serious, demanding hobbies such as sailing, mountain-climbing or painting – they provide an important diversion, offering the same rewards as work, without the challenges.
- Don’t neglect sleep and naps. Naps are a potent way to recharge during the day, while regular sleep patterns contribute to physical health, emotional stability and healthier ageing.
- Encourage others to rest with you. The more we can solve the problem of rest collectively, the better we all will be. This means building new restful habits with family, new rituals with friends, and new daily schedules with colleagues.
What To Do When You Can’t Sleep
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Written by Eric Suni
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Abhinav Singh
In This Article
If you’re one of the millions of Americans who struggle with insomnia, you may find your mind racing and your body tossing and turning when you just want to be asleep.
With the right approach, you can reliably fall asleep within a matter of minutes.
One of the keys to smoothly falling asleep is relaxation.
Research shows that the relaxation response1 is a physiological process that positively affects both the mind and body.
By reducing stress and anxiety2, the relaxation response can enable you to peacefully drift off to sleep.
Our step-by-step guides offer proven relaxation methods that may help with insomnia and other sleep problems.
Experts emphasize that it can take time to master these techniques, but the practice pays off.
Even better, these methods are customizable, so you can adjust them over time to make them work for you.
The Four Key Elements to Cultivating Relaxation
For thousands of years, relaxation has been a central focus of spiritual and cultural practices, enabling a sense of calm and connection with oneself and the surrounding world.
Only in recent decades, though, have meditative practices for relaxation become a focus of scientific research, which has come to identify four key elements3 for fostering the relaxation response.
- A quiet environment. Quiet does not have to mean completely silent. Calming sounds or music can be beneficial. Loud, abrasive sounds or noises should be avoided.
- A focus of attention. A word, phrase, mantra, breathing pattern, or mental image can all be used to draw your attention and reduce thinking about external concerns.
- A passive attitude. Accepting that it’s normal for your mind to wander allows you to remain at ease and draw your focus back to the object of your attention.
- A comfortable position. Finding a cozy place to relax is critical. Naturally, when relaxing to fall asleep, the recommended position is lying in bed.
- A comfortable mattress Finding the best mattress for your sleep position and body type can be instrumental in good night’s rest.
All of the following methods are ways of achieving these core elements so that you can calmly fall asleep. Keeping these basics in mind empowers you to adjust these methods to suit your preferences.
Falling Asleep With Relaxation Techniques
Once you’re lying comfortably in bed, try one of these techniques to put yourself at ease and settle gently into sleep.
Why It Works:
A series of slow, deep breaths can enable a sense of calm.
How to Do It:
Option 1: Counting Breaths
- Inhale slowly and gently through your nose.
- Exhale slowly and gently through your mouth.
- Count up. You can count each breath or each cycle of inhalation and exhalation,, whichever comes more naturally to you.
Option 2: Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 Method6
- Place the tip of your tongue near the ridge behind your front two teeth and hold it in this location throughout the breathing exercise.
- With your mouth closed, slowly inhale through your nose while counting to four.
- Hold your breath while counting to seven.
- Open your mouth and exhale while counting to eight. Because of the location of your tongue, exhalation should cause a whooshing sound.
- Repeat this 4-7-8 cycle three more times.
Who It’s Great For:
Controlled breathing is excellent for people just getting started with relaxation techniques or who have difficulty using other objects of focus like imagery or mantras.
Meditation and Mindfulness
Why It Works:
Mindfulness is centered around slow, steady breathing and a non-judgmental focus on the present moment.
How to Do It:
There are many variations of mindfulness meditation for different situations.
One easy-to-use style is the body scan meditation9.
- Focus on slowly inhaling and exhaling at a comfortable pace.
- Notice the position of your body on the bed.
- Notice any sensations, good or bad, in your legs and feet. Let your legs be soft.
- Continue the “body scan,” observing, from your legs up to your head, each region of your body and its sensations. The goal is to stay present and observe your body without judging or reacting and then letting each part of your body relax.
- After scanning each part of your body, reflect on your body as a whole and allow it to relax.
This version is adapted from UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good in Action (GGIA) program that offers audio recordings for this and other mindfulness meditations10.
Who It’s Great For:
Anyone can meditate, including with mindfulness meditation, but it can take more practice to get used to.
As a result, it usually works best for people who can devote at least five minutes per day to increase their comfort with it.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Why It Works:
Progressive muscle relaxation11 (PMR) creates a calming effect by gradually tightening and releasing muscles throughout the body in conjunction with controlled breathing.
How to Do It:
- With your eyes closed, slowly breathe in and out.
- Starting with your face, tense your muscles (lips, eyes, jaw) for 10 seconds, then release your muscles and breathe deeply in and out for several seconds.
- Tense your shoulders for 10 seconds and then relax and breathe.
- Continue tensing and relaxing the following body parts, skipping any area where tensing the muscles causes pain:
- Upper arms
- Lower arms and hands
Who it’s Great For:
PMR is not recommended for people with uncontrolled cardiovascular problems.
Why It Works:
Visualizing a peaceful image from your past and all of its details engages your attention in order to promote relaxation.
How to Do It:
- With your eyes closed and in a comfortable position, think about a place or experience in your past that feels relaxing, such as a quiet natural setting.
- While slowly breathing in and out, reflect on the details of this setting and how it looks.
- Continue focusing on this image by adding details relating to your other senses (smell, sound, taste, touch) and experiencing the calmness of this mental imagery.
Who it’s Great For:
Visual thinkers who easily recall past scenes replete with details are ideally suited to using imagery as part of their bedtime relaxation.
Are There Downsides to Relaxation Techniques?
Negative consequences are rare for relaxation techniques, but a small number of people find that they can provoke anxiety.
Anyone with concerns about trying these methods should talk with their doctor for specific advice before getting started.
What to Do About Mind Wandering
Even experts in meditation find that their minds can wander during these relaxation techniques, so don’t worry if it happens to you. Instead, stay calm, keep breathing slowly, and try to bring your mind back to the main focus of attention.
What If I Still Can’t Fall Asleep?
If you get into bed and cannot fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up, go to another part of your house, and do something soothing, such as reading or listening to quiet music.
Lying awake in bed for too long can create an unhealthy mental connection between your sleeping environment and wakefulness.
Instead, you want your bed to conjure thoughts and feelings conducive to sleep.
Pre-Bedtime Tips to Help Fall Asleep Quickly
Before you actually get into bed, a few simple tips can help make sure your mind and body are prepared to fall asleep easily:
- Wind down for at least half an hour before bedtime. Reading, light stretching, and other relaxing activities are ideal during this time.
- Disconnect from close-range electronic devices like laptops, phones, and tablets because they can stimulate the brain and make it harder to fall asleep.
- Dim the lights to help your eyes relax, and make sure you’re in comfortable clothing.
- Make sure your bedroom is set to a pleasant temperature. The cooler the better.
- Consider a calming scent, like lavender essential oils, that can generate a calming effect.
- Avoid big meals, spicy foods, caffeine, and alcohol in the lead-up to bedtime.
Big-Picture Tips to Fall Asleep Easily
Beyond the immediate run-up to bedtime, incorporating fundamental sleep tips can aid in falling asleep and prevent serious sleeping problems.
- Follow a consistent sleep schedule with the same wake-up time every day, including on weekends. This helps fine-tune and entrain your internal clock for more regular sleep.
- Make time for physical activity. Regular exercise benefits the body in many ways, and facilitating better sleep is one of them.
- If you have a hard time sleeping, start keeping a sleep diary to identify trends that could be throwing off your nightly rest.
- See a doctor. If your sleeping problems are severe, long-term, or worsening, it’s important to see a doctor who can work with you to try to identify a cause and recommend optimal treatment.
The Japanese Character for Rest Helped Me Find It
How to find real rest and relaxation
When you imagine someone resting, what do you visualize?
Perhaps you would describe a person on the couch, or a person curled up under the covers in bed. Maybe you’d imagine a person lounging in a hammock, or suntanning on the beach.
If you were to ask a Japanese person, they would probably describe rest as a person leaning against a tree.
The Japanese character for rest is the combination of ‘person’ and ‘tree’.
It’s a universal image, the person leaning against the tree to rest– a representation of rest as not simply sleep or the absence of work, but it’s about being in a safe place, a place where we can feel peace.
Recent work-from-home set-ups have tempted many of us to blend our environments– to eat where we work or work where we sleep–but this sort of blending of environments has made places that are traditionally designed for rest into spaces that aren’t conducive to finding peace.
When we see our work laptop we are reminded of our unread emails, and when we see the stack of mail in the corner we are reminded of our unpaid bills.
It doesn’t matter if there is an urgency to these responsibilities or not, but their presence can make simple events that should be relaxing–such as enjoying a meal at the kitchen table– something quite difficult to enjoy.
In a similar vein, when we see the dirty dishes and empty cups slowly stacking on our bedside table, or documents and papers were strewn across our bed comforter, it becomes very hard to fall asleep in bed. It reminds us that we have dishes to clean, or that we have work that is unfinished, and suddenly the space we turned to for comfort does not feel as safe anymore.
Japanese imagery of rest showed me that the rest isn’t found in a vacuum, that we can’t just close our eyes and put in our earplugs if we want to find real rest.
What we really need to feel is safe from the distractions of life; we need to be under our tree.
So the next time you have difficulty falling asleep, or find that you’re lying on the couch but not quite allowing yourself to feel well-rested, try thinking about the presence surrounding you.
What is in your immediate vicinity?
What influence is it having on your sense of safety?
These small details might seem negligible, but the unconscious mind takes note of these stresses– and you may find that by simply putting them away from that finding a sense of relief and rest becomes much easier to find.
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Six Reasons to Wake up Early, Even If You Hate It
Time is working against us, and we are all experiencing those hectic days very often, right?
Those hectic days put us in a very stressful life.
But there is a beautiful solution to your stressful life: get up early!
Don’t worry; that doesn’t mean that you are sleepless.
All you need to do is putting your alarm clock a few minutes before.
That is something else, and they are not successful entrepreneurs just because they wake up early. But if you still want to learn why those successful entrepreneurs wake up early, you can check this book.
Believe me; you would be surprised when you realize how many positive things you gain.
If you make a little effort to get up early, you will not have to have your breakfast quickly, or you will not worry about connecting your Zoom meeting on time.
The best sounds to use as an alarm inspire tranquility and comfort — for example, Ph.D. David M. Greenberg, who studies musical behavior, made a beautiful playlist on Spotify, “Wake up.” The playlist has so many cheerful songs like Coldplay’s Viva La Vida, giving you positive energy that helps you wake up quickly.
The significant impact on your health and quality of life.
A night of good sleep has a significant impact on our health and quality of life.
It doesn’t only affect how we experience our day-to-day, but in the long run, it makes a huge difference in our lives.
Likewise, you can transform yourself and become a totally different person after a while by getting up early.
Waking up early is a must habit for your well-being.
Of course, in the very first few days, you will have to force your body to abandon those puffy blankets, but little by little, you will be aware of why you wake up early. And then it will become one of your healthy habits.
In the first hours of a day, you can find yourself in a wonderland like Alice. Nature becomes so beautiful.
You can feel the climate, listen to the sounds of nature, and smell your delicious morning coffee or tea.
You could have breakfast!
The best way to start your day is by having breakfast because breakfast brings happiness.
A good breakfast that gives you all the energy you need.
How many times have you stopped eating your breakfast because of lack of time?
Or how often you have had breakfast with a coffee and a small piece of bread with cheese.
Keep in mind that if you wake up a little earlier, you will have time to have a beautiful breakfast and gather your thoughts and take a deep breath.
So think about your health and wake up earlier and prepare your delicious breakfast every day.
Stop having your first meal in the afternoon.
Getting up early improves the quality of sleep. ?
Let me guess!
You woke up today and felt that you just wanted to stay in bed, right?
The alarm clock was ringing many, many times, and you knew that you had to get up, but you couldn’t.
And this happened yesterday and the other day.
If I am right, that means you are both physically and mentally tired, which makes you want to sleep a little more.
It is utterly normal to feel that way because you didn’t get all the rest your body required.
To avoid feeling tired, you should first go to bed early, and then secondly, wake up early.
Studies reveal that getting up at dawn means a better subjective quality of sleep.
Getting up early improves work and academic productivity. ???
Be ready to be surprised!
According to Harvard Business Review, people who do a good performance in the morning are better positioned for career success.
Morning people are more proactive than those who have their best time at night.
Yes, some very talented professionals prefer working at night, but here we are talking in general. They are a few, and not the case here.
Waking up very early makes people organized. ??
You can control your time better.
The first hours of the morning are ideal for dealing with your daily responsibilities.
It will be your time, and you can do what you like best such as reading your favorite author or the New York Times, exercising, riding a bicycle, listening to your favorite radio station, etc.
However, it would help if you waste your time by spending your time on Twitter or Instagram.
Make sure that you make it worth it!
By getting up early, allows you to better plan the day.
Moreover, if you wake up early, there will be no interruptions or any distractions.
Your time will be utterly productive, and you can complete a two-hour task in 30 minutes.
It is an opportunity to exercise.
The early hours of the morning are an ideal time to exercise.
It would be best if you take advantage of the best time of the day to get active, and it predisposes you to face the day with your mind awake.
Cycling or pilates are good options for morning exercises.
13 Weird-Yet-Proven Ways To Improve Your Sleep and Feel Revitalized
Ready to have a blissful night?
Fun fact: According to Dr. Michael Mosley, bestselling author of Fast Asleep: How To Get a Good Night’s Rest, the easiest and fastest way to know if you are getting enough sleep is to do the Spoon Test:
On any given day, skip your usual morning coffee or tea.
Between 1 pm and 3 pm, head to your bedroom with a metal spoon and metal tray, close the curtains, place the metal tray beside the bed, check the time, and hang your arm over the same side of the bed where you put the tray, clutching the spoon.
Lastly, close your eyes and try to sleep.
As soon as you drift off, the spoon will slip from your grasp and clatter against the tray, waking you up.
When that happens, check your watch to see how much time has passed:
- Less than 5 minutes means you are severely sleep-deprived.
- Within 5 to 10 minutes, it is considered “troublesome”.
- More than 15 minutes means you’re probably fine.
Another more practical-yet-boring way to do this is to set an alarm for fifteen minutes and see if you fall asleep before it rings.
Regardless of the method you use, if you realize you’re in dire need of revitalizing sleep, you’re not alone.
Around 68% of Americans have reported they have sleep-related problems.
In March 2020, I woke up every day at 2 am.
My heart beat so fast I couldn’t go back to sleep.
After a month, I felt as though I was permanently drunk. I couldn’t focus. Couldn’t think.
A quick Google search led me to study after study exposing the negative consequences of little-to-no sleep:
- Limits fat loss.
- Elevates heart disease risk.
- Hijacks learning.
- Increases risk of obesity and diabetes.
- Worsens bad moods and depression.
- Doubles car crash risk.
- Increases risk of Alzheimer’s.
- Triggers viral loneliness and social rejection.
- Lowers testosterone.
- Makes our skin age faster.
Desperate, I read Dr. Mosley’s book plus other research on how to get better sleep.
Beyond the typical tips we’ve all read a thousand times, I found others that have proven invaluable.
Hopefully, the following weird-yet-proven ways to improve your sleep will help you as well. But first… the basics.
The Tried and True Methods
Though you’ve probably read the following methods a thousand times, they’re worth summarizing. Time and again, they’ve proven helpful to countless people struggling with sleep.
That said, if you’ve already gone through the basics and they haven’t worked for you, skip to the next section.
For those who still want to recap the most common methods to improve your sleep, here they are:
1. Discard sleeping disorders or chronic health conditions
None of the other methods will work if you have a condition that needs medical attention.
Some people have sleeping disorders like Sleep Apnea, Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), and many more, while others have chronic health conditions that make it harder to sleep.
For example, thanks to going to the doctor, I discovered I have a genetic heart problem that makes me feel palpitations throughout the day.
The doctor then suggested I avoid caffeine at all times to help my heart wind down.
2. Stick to a regular sleep window
Making sleep a habit by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day will make drifting off easier and will improve the quality of your sleep.
Our bodies are smart.
Creating a reliable pattern will help you squeeze the most out of every sleeping minute.
However, remember that the average adult needs between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per day, so ensure your sleeping and waking time give you what you need.
Moreover, if you want to know exactly how much, go to bed at the same time for at least a week and let your body decide when to wake up.
Afterward, register the average.
3. Take a morning walk
Studies show that sunlight exposure early in the morning can improve your sleep.
An easy way to do this is to take a morning walk since it can also help you get some exercise in the day, which also benefits your sleep quality.
If you don’t have time to go out, though, look out the window or try a lightbox, one of the weird-yet-proven methods I’ll explain below.
4. Avoid blue light before bedtime
Thus, watching TV late in the evening or using our phones right before dozing off can lead to insomnia or disrupted nights.
Instead, Dr. Mosley recommends disconnecting from our devices 90 minutes before we go to bed.
5. Darken your bedroom
Our bodies were designed to wind down in darkness.
That’s why Dr. Mosley recommends we dim our home’s lights 90 minutes before bedtime and that we ensure our rooms are as dark as possible when sleeping.
One way to do this is to use curtains.
Another — and cheaper — way is to buy sleeping masks.
Plus, they’re great for traveling.
I take mine everywhere, and it’s helped me get restful sleep wherever I go.
6. Cool down your room’s temperature
According to the Sleep Foundation, “the best bedroom temperature for sleep is approximately 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 degrees Celsius).
This may vary by a few degrees from person to person.
Still, most doctors recommend keeping the thermostat set between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit (15.6 to 19.4 degrees Celsius) for the most comfortable sleep.”
7. Take a relaxing bath
Research cited in Dr. Mosley’s book states that “having a warm bath or shower an hour before bedtime can help you fall and stay asleep.”
Moreover, for it to have an effect, you have to be in the bath for around 10 minutes.
This ritual will increase the blood circulation to your skin, hands, and feet.
In time, this cools down your core temperature.
This is why it’s key to ensure it happens at least an hour before you go to sleep.
8. Avoid excessive exercise before bed
Doing a HIIT workout or running before bed will make it harder to fall asleep since it boosts your metabolism and accelerates your pulse.
Instead, leave intense exercises for the morning or early afternoon and do yoga or stretching before calling it a night.
This will help relax your muscles.
Moreover, if you have a heart condition like mine, you might consider not exercising every day.
For example, I only do intense cardio three times per week.
If I ever do more, I find it impossible to stay asleep for longer than 2 am.
Instead, I try to go out on relaxing walks.
9. Minimize noise
Like with darkness, our bodies need peace and quiet to rest, so close windows and doors and unplug devices that might cause annoying sounds.
If you have pets, try keeping them outside your bedroom since they tend to move and explore during the night.
If you sleep with a partner that snores or breathes heavily, opt for earplugs.
Though they’re annoying at first, if you find ones your size, you’ll get used to them.
And, like the sleeping masks, you can take them anywhere.
10. Avoid food, alcohol, and caffeine before sleep
Based on research cited in his book, Dr. Mosley recommends we:
- Finish dinner at least 3 hours before bedtime. Otherwise, digestion will make it harder to fall asleep. Note: Opt for light meals.
- Limit our liquid intake at least an hour before going to bed to avoid midnight bathroom visits.
- Avoid alcohol altogether (it makes us feel drowsy but keeps us from deep, restorative sleep) or stop drinking several hours before bedtime.
- Stop drinking caffeinated drinks 5 to 8 hours before going to bed (the half-life of caffeine).
The Less-Known Ways To Improve Your Sleep
Now that we’ve covered the basics, it’s time to get into “weird” territory.
Though unconventional, the following science-backed tips can help improve the quality of your sleep:
1. Invest in a lightbox
Initially created as a therapy to combat SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) — or winter blues — a light box is a device that emits a blast of light that mimics outdoor light.
This helps you sleep better because it boosts your mood, makes your body realize it’s daytime, and positively affects the production of melatonin.
Dr. Mosley recommends light boxes for people who wake up before sunrise or those who can’t leave their house and don’t have much sunlight coming in during the mornings.
However, don’t use a lightbox if you want to start waking up later in the day.
In that case, “shun the early light as much as possible” and “aim to get a good blast of light in the late afternoon, thereby delaying the release of melatonin.”
2. Try the 4–2–4 breathing technique
Stress is one of the leading causes of Chronic Insomnia.
That’s why Dr. Mosley suggests we practice the 4–2–4 breathing technique if we find ourselves unable to sleep.
By taking deep, measured breaths, you’ll slow your pulse and relax.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose while mentally counting to four. To know if you’re doing it correctly, put a hand on your belly. If it’s inflating, perfect.
- Hold your breath for a count of two.
- Breath out through your mouth to a count of four.
3. Listen to binaural beats
According to research cited on Psychology Today, when we listen to binaural beats such as this, we can create shifts in our brainwaves, “generating slower frequency brainwaves that promote deeper states of relaxation.”
These brainwaves are called Delta.
They are slow and characteristic of deep, restorative sleep.
Moreover, a small study has shown that exposure to slow-wave binaural beats causes positive changes in our DHEA, Cortisol, and Melatonin levels.
These three hormones have a direct impact on the quality of our sleep.
In short, listening to delta-inducing binaural beats improves the quality of our sleep, priming us to go deep. Just remember to use headphones as the idea is to listen to different frequencies at the same time.
Note: Listening to relaxing music like jazz or classical music can also improve your sleep.
4. Use supplements
Nowadays, people use sleeping pills to help them fall and stay asleep. However, Dr. Mosley warns us of two potential problems:
- You could get addicted.
- Most of these over-the-counter pills are like alcohol. They help you reach light sleep, but they stop you from going deep, making you feel tired the following day.
Instead, Dr. Mosley recommends we take supplements like:
- Melatonin. Taking 2mg of melatonin one or two hours before bedtime is safe and effective for adults. It can even be taken for up to 13 weeks.
- Magnesium. Small studies cited in Dr. Mosley’s book suggest that taking magnesium can help people fall asleep faster. That said, better to ensure your diet is rich in magnesium instead of purchasing a supplement. Some good sources are avocados, leafy green vegetables, legumes, and nuts.
- Tryptophan. In moderate doses, this supplement helps you relax. However, it interacts with other medicines such as antidepressants, so be careful.
- Valerian. Taking 300–900 mg of valerian before bedtime can improve your sleep quality.
5. Warm your feet
According to research, wearing socks or warming your feet with a hot water bottle helps you fall asleep faster.
The dilation of your extremities’ blood vessels aids in heat loss, which also sends a signal to your brain saying it’s time to sleep.
6. Try to stay awake
If you try to stay awake instead of worrying about falling asleep, you can feel less anxious, giving you enough time to relax.
In his words: “It sounds counterintuitive, but for those who find it difficult to sleep because they keep worrying about not falling asleep, do the opposite.”
7. Follow the 20-minute rule
In his book, Dr. Mosley recommends we apply the 20-minute rule for anything related to sleep.
- If you’re trying to fall asleep and more than 20 minutes have passed, go to another room and do something relaxing until you feel drowsy.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night (like me) and more than 20 minutes have passed without regaining unconsciousness, like before, do something relaxing until you feel calmer.
- If you want to take a nap, keep it in the 20-minute range. Otherwise, you can disrupt your sleep cycle.
8. Blow some bubbles
Apparently, this activity mimics a deep breathing exercise, and it can take your mind off any pre-bedtime anxiety, helping you relax and fall asleep.
9. Keep a “To-do” journal on your bedside table
A small study cited in Dr. Mosley’s book found that “those who spend five minutes writing about the day ahead went to sleep an average of nine minutes faster.”
Nine minutes doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is similar to the impact of taking a sleeping pill.
Note: This has been one of the most helpful tips to me.
10. Smell lavender
A University of Pennsylvania study found that the scent of lavender can help you improve your sleep quality, so why not buy a candle or put the real thing in your bedroom to see if it works.
11. Try the Mediterranean Diet
Research cited in Dr. Mosley’s book concluded that the Mediterranean Diet can help you sleep faster and better because:
- The foods — like olive oil, nuts, oily fish, legumes, and vegetables — contain anti-inflammatory compounds, which help us sleep better.
- This diet boosts the “good” bacteria in your microbiome, which then produce anti-inflammatory compounds and “feel good” chemicals that help reduce anxiety.
12. Purify your air
A recent 2017 study concluded that air pollution can disrupt sleep.
Bad air quality causes upper airway irritation, swelling, and congestion, and may also affect the central nervous system and brain areas that control breathing patterns and sleep.
Therefore, if you live in a city with high levels of air pollution, consider purchasing an air purifier.
13. Work on your optimism
A University of Illinois study found that optimistic people sleep better and longer.
According to professor Rosalba Hernandez, “optimists are more likely to engage in active problem-focused coping and to interpret stressful events in more positive ways, reducing worry and ruminative thoughts when they’re falling asleep and throughout their sleep cycle.”
To become more optimistic, Psychology Today offers the following three tips:
- Choose your version of optimism. In other words, try to look at the silver lining more than before, but don’t overdo it. Go for what feels natural.
- Question pessimistic thoughts. Ask yourself if your negative thoughts are true. You’ll be surprised how often you’ll answer no. Remember: Thoughts aren’t facts; they’re just thoughts.
- Hang out with other optimists. If we are the average of the five people we spend more time with, try to start meeting up with optimists. Some of their positive energy will rub off on you.
As you can see, there are more — and weirder — ways to improve your sleep than creating a sleeping routine, darkening your room, etc.
So why not give one of these a shot?
Why not take the time to experiment until you find the methods that work for you?
At worst, you’ll have a funny anecdote to share.
At best, you’ll consistently experience rejuvenating nights.
Today, I hope you will have another inspired day,
that you will dream boldly and dangerously,
that you will make some progress that didn’t exist before you took action,
that you will love and be loved in return, and that you will find the strength to accept and grow from the troubles you can’t change.
And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and wisdom in this crazy world),
that you will,
when you must,
be wise with your decisions,
and that you will always be extra kind to yourself and others.
When You Can’t Shake Your Fatigue, This Is for You
Being told it’s ‘normal’ doesn’t help
“I’m just so tired,” the man said.
“I can’t shake it.
This feels like the most exhausting year ever.”
In various forms, it’s the catch cry of nearly every person I work with at the moment.
Exhaustion, mental, physical, right-down-to-the bones-fatigue, is everywhere.
And, despite our best efforts to freshen up, it’s as stubborn as the pandemic that led us here.
Typically one of the signs of depression has been when people report they’re no longer enjoying the things they used to enjoy.
But that’s been hard to gauge when so many of our “fun” or leisure activities have been ruled out of bounds.
What can we do?
Knowing it’s normal doesn’t help.
Aren’t you tired of hearing that? Extreme fatigue in a global pandemic is Normal.
Sigh. It’s embedded in our language now, along with other things we never talked about two years ago, like lockdowns and R-values and testing stations.
But knowing you’re as weary as everyone else is one thing.
It doesn’t stop you from feeling 20 years older than you are, from desperately wanting a nap slap in the middle of a sunny day.
Or any day. It doesn’t suddenly fill you with energy.
Deep (unexplained) fatigue is the first presenting symptom in many mental health problems — especially burnout, depression, and anxiety.
It’s a red light that tells you you’ve hit psychological overload, that your adrenal gland is wound up off the dial as it tries to cope with stress.
After nearly two years navigating a pandemic, there are red lights flashing everywhere.
From bleary-eyed front line health workers to people with safe jobs and warm houses who feel guilty about their struggles.
Even those who are on the other side — who can travel and socialise again — are saying they don’t feel as upbeat at they thought they would.
As one fatigued client said: “I haven’t lost anyone.
I still have a job.
My marriage is pretty good.
I feel like I have no right to complain.
It’s way worse for a lot of others.”
He’s right but his struggle is still real.
Rumbling anxiety — stress, uncertainty, and constant change — is exhausting.
So are the daily Covid stats, the rolling updates on your phone, and expert forecasts of the worst possible scenarios.
So is trying to live with a handbrake on your life and a mask in every pocket and every bag you own.
So quit thinking about whether you should be tired and accept that you are.
Here are some other tips to help.
When You Can’t Shake Your Fatigue, This Is for You
“Fatigue makes fools of us all. It robs you of your skills and your judgment, and it blinds you to creative solutions. It’s the best-conditioned athlete, not the most talented, who generally wins when the going gets tough.” — Harvey Mackay
* Don’t look over the fence.
Struggle is not a competition; don’t rank your troubles against others.
Look, I’m not advocating for a lack of empathy for people who have it tougher than you.
But, in the broader sweep of life, that’s always the case; there will always be people with greater, or lesser, problems than you.
There will be people with better houses, cooler cars, and a bigger stash of bitcoin. It doesn’t pay to look over the fence.
If you’re struggling, you’re struggling.
Give yourself a break.
* Make your goals smashable.
Fact: Very few people write novels or learn new languages during global pandemics.
And if they did they probably weren’t trying to put food on the table and homeschool kids at the same time.
You don’t have to let go of your big, bold goals but shrink them so you can achieve — smash — them. Aim to cultivate a feeling of success by achieving one small thing every day.
Succeeding small often is better psychologically than constantly feeling like you’re failing.
* Drink lots more water.
I know, this sounds patronising, but good hydration is a guaranteed way of at least reducing fatigue. It’s the simplest strategy to take up — and it’s dumb not to use it.
If you’re drinking lots of water and still feel tired then you have a leave pass to complain.
If not, you don’t.
* Don’t sleep whenever you feel like it.
In other words, watch your nap quota.
Power naps can be a helpful way to recharge.
But, as much as possible, keep routine around your sleeping habits.
And if you must nap, keep it short.
Long daytime naps just make you feel groggy.
And older than your nana.
So keep a bleary eye on it.
* Do what fascinates you.
Those living with restrictions have more time than they once did.
Socialising without limits would be nice but, if you have a beat of public responsibility in your bones, it’s not gonna happen.
So allow your mind to roam and go down some rabbit holes you wouldn’t normally bother with.
Read some weird stuff or learn an odd skill or make some dumb, non-useful things.
I spent an hour yesterday drawing random faces without taking my pen off the page just because someone I don’t know suggested it.
My drawings were wickedly bad.
Then I coloured them in.
I might even paint them.
Complete waste of time?
But slightly rejuvenating.
And definitely better than staring at a wall.
The one helpful thing the pandemic has done is lower the bar on how we spend our time.
Do whatever you like with it.
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