An authority on sleep and sleeping, US specialist Dr Matthew Edlund has written a new book explaining that for those who have trouble getting enough sleep, simply resting can be just as energising and equally good for health.
Edlund became interested in the restorative power of sleep when, as a medical student, he faced working gruelling 110-hour weeks.In the years since, he has educated many people on the crucial role of sleep in maintaining health, from cell renewal to maintaining a healthy weight to safeguarding mental health.
However, over the years, he observed that even when he was able to help insomniac patients overcome sleeping problems and get more sleep, their health would sometimes remain compromised. Looking into the matter, he established that simple rest also plays a key part in restoring and rejuvenating the body.
In The Power Of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough he explains why he believes rest is as powerful as sleep in maintaining health. “Many of us are so busy that we see rest as a weakness” he says. “But rest is in fact a biological need. All the science shows we need rest to live, just like we need food.”
This will ring true for many busy people who sleep adequately but still find themselves tired or in poor health.
Robin, 36, is a Systems Manager for a large US book company. “I sleep pretty well” he says cheerfully “but only because every working day is an exhausting battle and I get home, eat, watch TV for an hour or so and then basically pass out till I get up and go back into work. My work is great, the pay is good, but there are constant deadlines and always too much work to be done. I’m always in over-drive. Last autumn and winter I kept getting minor illnesses and I just felt like it was my immune system yelling for more rest.”
Melanie, 59, knows what he means. “I retired early, two years ago” she says. “I was a head teacher and the pressure was constant even though it was a good school in a small town, not a huge inner-city school. I’ve always slept well but in the last few years at work it felt like I was either under pressure, working, or asleep. Eat, work, sleep – eat, work, sleep. It was like running on a hamster wheel. I felt like I had no time to enjoy life. Worse, I kept falling ill with niggly ailments. I never seemed to feel really well. Once I quit work I took time to rest and relax properly, to see friends, to read books I really got lost in, to walk and stretch my muscles every day and to meditate, which is something I used to do years ago. The result is I feel really well again as if my resistance to illness is high. And just as important – I’m full of energy and happy!”
Edlund defines rest in particular ways though. Resting is not about slumping in an armchair in front of the television. That variety of resting he defines as “passive”. Though passive resting will facilitate cellular renewal in the body, it’s quite capable of leaving the brain active or over-active. Instead, Edlund says, we should aim to get “active” rest. This is rest which leaves us more alert and less tense.
The four types of active rest he describes are: Social, Mental, Physical and Spiritual.
There’s no prescription for how long to rest each day but he advises that we all try to find at least a little time for these four types of rest each day, no matter how frenetic daily life may be.
This means spending time with friends, relatives or colleagues whose company you find agreeable. People who take adequate social rest have a lower risk of heart disease and other serious illnesses than those who don’t. Recent studies have confirmed Edlund’s observations, showing that social support also increases positive outcomes in cancer patients, increases resistance to infectious illness and alleviates depression. The medical explanation is that enjoyable and supportive social contact friends reduces levels of stress hormones. Edlund includes sex as social rest (providing of course that it’s consensual and enjoyable).
Mental rest is about becoming so mentally absorbed that outside pressures don’t bother you for the moment. Some people refer to this state as ‘flow’ or being ‘in the moment’. This type of rest calms the nervous system and can lower blood pressure, body temperature and heart rate.
One exercise for getting mental rest involves looking directly ahead of you, then rolling your eyes up to the top of your head as if looking up at the sky. Once you’re looking up, slowly close your eyes. Take a deep breath. As you exhale, focus on the feeling of relaxation which is now moving down from the back of your neck to your body, legs, arms and toes. Next, visualise a beautiful scene – a tropical beach or a sunlit forest perhaps – and picture yourself walking there. Imagine the sights you would see. When you want to finish, keep your eyes rolled upwards, breathe in deeply, then open your eyes.
Physical rest uses physical processes such as breathing to calm the mind and body. Use this technique to really fill your lungs with oxygen which will be carried rapidly to your body tissues. Stand up straight with your feet a litle apart. Looking straight ahead, imagine your ankles, knees, hips and shoulders are all in alignment, as if resting against a wall. Roll your shoulders back and breathe in deeply for a count of four, feeling the air filling your lungs. Then breathe out slowly, aware of the air you’re exhaling. Focus entirely on keeping your body’s alignment and breathing out.
Edlund also recommends sleeping for 15 to 30 minutes if you’re weary and you’re one of those lucky people who can catnap.
Remarkably, brain scans have established that shown that people who meditate effectively develop larger frontal brain lobes over time. The frontal lobe controls our ability to pay attention, allowing us to analyse and solve problems. Meditation can also develop the midbrain – which deals with physical functions including breathing and blood circulation – and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which aids memory and muscle co-ordination. Interestingly, it has been found that religious people who pray regularly experience similar physical health benefits to those who meditate. Scans have shown that the brain at prayer behaves rather like a meditating brain.
The Power Of Rest: Why Sleep Alone Is Not Enough is by Dr Matthew Edlund, published by HarperOne (2010).