Yoga Therapy for Sleep

“How did you sleep?” It’s a seemingly innocuous question you might hear from a child or partner at the breakfast table.  But what happens when pleasant morning conversation turns into an irritating account of nightly sleep interruptions and complaints?  It isn’t just a grouchy way to start the day, but a sign of a real problem that may have serious health implications.  Someone suffering from poor sleep or insomnia may indeed feel grouchy in the morning and throughout the day.  They may also start to notice “brain fog” or unusual food cravings at inconvenient times. Some people have difficulty making decisions, getting motivated and staying on task for daily activities.

These feelings are not simply moods, but symptoms that could indicate or precede a serious health condition.  People suffering from chronic sleep deficits are at greater risk of anxiety, depression, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and premature death.  

While some people are more likely to suffer from poor sleep quality based on age, health diagnoses and life circumstances, we see individuals of all ages and walks of life facing the challenge of getting proper sleep. A recent study showed 27% of people reported disordered sleeping. This rate, coupled with the known risks of insufficient sleep, has caused the CDC to classify it a public health epidemic.

Like anything with our health, knowledge is power and you are rarely alone. There are many tools available to help get sleep back on track and reduce the risk factors associated with poor sleep. Some of the most effective methods for improving sleep are widely accessible, allowing individuals to take an active role in improving their sleep, sense of well-being and overall health. 

Extensive research has been conducted on the best ways to improve sleep quality. While cognitive behavioral therapy remains the first line behavior change therapy for insomnia, data is showing the efficacy of mind-body practices including several limbs of yoga. Postures (asana), breath work (pranayama) and meditation (dhyana) have all shown to improve sleep quality in populations across the globe and in different age groups.  Yoga can reduce time to fall asleep and sleep disturbances, while improving perception of sleep quality and wakefulness during the day. In regular yoga practitioners, we see better sleep quality, cortisol (“stress hormone”) regulation and cognitive function into old age. In those who begin a yoga practice to manage a sleep condition, improvements are seen immediately and carry on months afterward.  In those same studies, lower incidences of anxiety and depression are also reported.

World renowned doctors at the Mayo Clinic recommend behavior change therapy for long term insomnia over pharmacological intervention. While over-the-counter or prescription drugs may be used for particularly stressful periods, both carry risks of side effects, drug interactions and dependency. 

As the prevalence of insufficient sleep grows and the risks become more widely understood, so do the causes and solutions. Embracing a therapeutic yoga practice can work to rebalance the systems of the body to improve quality of sleep and life.  A yoga therapist can tailor a program to suit individual needs and abilities, combining yoga, mindfulness practices and sleep hygiene strategies.  Studies show that working with a professional aids in greater rates of program adherence through accountability. A personalized approach is likely to be the most effective way to address disordered sleep without risk of adverse events. 

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