I am interested – and not at all surprised – to see that epidemiological research published in the European heart journal indicates that poor sleep can lead to heart disease. Given that we spend over a third of our lives engaging in the mysterious process of sleep clearly it is vital for our health and wellbeing.
Having spent over 15 years working with sleep problems, which includes working at a psychiatric clinic with severe insomnia cases, I see first-hand the effects of poor sleep on physical and mental health but most importantly, I am passionate about helping people to find ways of overcoming their insomnia which is why I wrote ‘Tired But Wired’ (Souvenir Press Ltd, 2010).
It’s interesting that the article looks at the main sleep disruptors which include lifestyle factors such as poor sleep hygiene, caffeine and other stimulants, noisy environments and I agree that these can be significant factors. But while we’re talking about the heart let’s look at one of the main culprits that causes sleep problems – and it is to do with matters of the heart.
Many of my clients and patients have problems sleeping because they are literally heart broken. Just the other day I saw an elderly man who had been having problems sleeping for over 50yrs. In the process he had taken to abusing sleeping tablets and alcohol to get some sleep and neither were working. The week before that I saw 15yr old girl who was having problems sleeping which had worsened over the last year. What both of these clients had in common was that they were incredibly sad. In the case of the former – loneliness and the teenager – sadness and worry over her parents ongoing divorce battles.
In order to sleep well we need to feel safe – basic primitive need that every living organism has.
My work with both individuals involved teaching positive psychology exercises such as focusing on gratitude and optimism. And why? Research shows that such exercises can have heart-strengthening effects. Many of these effects are mediated by the hormone oxytocin which has been shown to be cardioprotective. In fact, a ground-breaking study in 2008 reported in the American Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism showed that oxytocin can protect against atherosclerosis. Since then a number of further studies have reinforced the message that oxytocin can play a vital role in preventing heart disease and many other diseases.
So the question is how do we produce oxytocin? Well women produce it naturally and in large quantities when they give birth but we can all – men included – stimulate our production of oxytocin by doing things that nourish our spirit – gratitude, kindness, optimism and love. In a 2009 study conducted by psychologists at the University of Manchester, 401 people filled out questionnaires about sleep quality and gratitude in their life. Those who scored highest on gratitude had better sleep quality, longer sleep duration, got to sleep more quickly and felt more energised throughout the day.
I encourage my patients at the clinic to write a gratitude journal before going to sleep. My teenage client has started doing this and guess what? Her sleep has improved.
Maybe there’s a case for taking the spotlight off the doom and gloom of what can go wrong if we don’t sleep and actually count our blessings when we go to bed at night.
A little bit of old fashioned advice that literally could mend a broken heart.