By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
You know that feeling when you wake up in the morning feeling (and looking) worse than you did before you got in bed? The one where you feel like you haven’t slept at all?
Unfortunately, it’s a pretty common problem. When I was seeing patients, few of them told me they slept as well as they wanted to.
This issue in particular, though, is something I call “tension sleeping.” And it’s exactly what it feels like—you’re asleep, but you’re not truly resting. Here’s a little more detail on exactly what’s happening in the body when you tension sleep, as well as what you can do about it.
The Sleep Cycle and Sleep Stages
Getting a good night’s sleep depends on your body’s ability to cycle properly through the different sleep stages.
In the early stages of sleep, we become progressively more relaxed, which prepares us for deep sleep. That’s when the body really goes to work in terms of growth and repair—and it’s why getting enough good sleep is so important for long-term health.
Here’s a look at how you’re supposed to progress through each stage of the sleep cycle:
Stage N1 is the first stage of sleep, and it includes the gradual transition between waking and sleep, ending in light sleep. It’s also a non-rapid eye movement (NREM) phase. (NREM sleep stages make up about three-quarters of your total sleep time.)
Stage N2, which is also an NREM stage, is considered the actual onset of sleep. The brain becomes disengaged from its surroundings and body temperature drops.
Stage N3 is the deepest period of NREM sleep. During N3, your blood pressure drops, your breathing slows, and your muscles relax. It’s also when the body releases hormones essential for tissue growth, muscle development, and cell repair.
The fourth stage of the sleep cycle is the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage. During REM sleep, it’s actually your brain that’s being tended to. This phase is essential for maintaining good cognitive function, memory, and learning.
The REM sleep stage is also when we dream, so muscle activity is “turned off” to keep us relaxed and immobile. Sometimes, though, that doesn’t work as effectively as it should, and sleepwalking can occur. Or, if it’s a little too effective, you can experience “sleep paralysis”—the sensation of being wide awake, but unable to move a muscle.
Stress Can Keep Muscles Tense and Disrupt Your Sleep Cycle
We move through the whole sleep cycle—from stage N1 through REM—several times each night, with each complete cycle taking about 90 minutes. By morning you’re refreshed and ready to go.
Sometimes, though, this cycle becomes disrupted. The body can’t fully relax, and you wake up tense, tired, irritable, and feeling like you might have been better off not sleeping in the first place.
The most common reason for this, not surprisingly, is stress.
When you’re dealing with chronic stress and anxiety, worrisome, recurring thoughts can intrude on the early NREM sleep stages, making getting to sleep seem impossible. Stress overstimulates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to elevated cortisol levels and nonstop signals from the brain to increase muscle tension—even during sleep.
As a result your body never truly relaxes, and you’re prone to feel stiff and achy when you wake up. Neck and back pain are common. Tension sleeping can even affect your facial expression. Because muscle tension can cause you to frown while you sleep, you may develop lines at the corners of your mouth, or between the brows, known as frown lines. Overall, I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting enough sleep for health.
How to Eliminate Tension Sleeping
By definition, sleeping is an unconscious activity, so you may wonder how it’s even possible to stop the tensing of your muscles at night. The answer is by adopting effective stress management practices during the day, watching what you eat before bed, and making one very important change to your linens. Here’s more…
1. Sleep Grounded
Earthing, or “grounding,” is my top recommendation because it has a calming effect on the entire body. Specifically, it’s been proven to slow down the sympathetic nervous system and reduce cortisol levels, two major factors that drive muscle tension. But the best thing about Earthing is that you can actually do it while you sleep, so you get maximum benefits at the time you need them most. All it takes to get started is a specially designed bed sheet and an electrical outlet with a ground wire, and you’ll be connected to the Earth’s natural healing energy—and sleeping like a baby—in no time.
2. Watch Your Diet
A lot of people make the mistake of having a snack before bed in hope that it will help them nod off—especially one that includes milk. Don’t do this! While it’s true that milk does contain some of the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan, it also contains sugar, which can act as a stimulant and keep you wide awake longer than you want.
If you can’t fall asleep without a bedtime snack, I encourage you to check out this article about foods that can help you sleep. But more important than that, make sure you eat non-inflammatory, healthy vibrational foods like those in the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet during the rest of the day. Since PAMM emphasizes fresh, whole, organic foods, it eliminates all of the bad players, such as pesticides, processed ingredients, bad fats, and unhealthy carbs, that can upset our bodies’ natural cycles—including the sleep cycle.
3. Practice Relaxation
Meditating or practicing active relaxation exercises is good for you at any time of day. But when they’re done just before bed, these practices can help clear your mind of stress-producing thoughts and help release muscle tension. For best results, focus on areas where you feel tension and consciously relax those muscles as part of your bedtime routine.
4. Get a Massage
A gentle massage (including the face) before bedtime can also help muscles relax. Lightly massage the area between the brows to release tension that causes frowns, and around the mouth to eliminate tension lines. Treating yourself to a professional massage even earlier in the day can also help your body release chronic muscular tension and sleep soundly.
5. Work in Some Light Exercise
Exercise helps keep muscles flexible and reduces tension at the same time. Although intense exercise just before bedtime can be more stimulating than relaxing (I don’t recommend it), quieter routines like yoga and gentle stretching can help release muscle tightness in both the body and the face before sleep.
6. Take Melatonin
In an ideal world, we’d all have enough melatonin, a hormone our bodies produce to regulate our sleep cycles. But with age, modern technology use, and our love of late-night living can come less melatonin production, which leads to insomnia and disrupted sleep. If you’re considering a sleep aid, I recommend taking a melatonin supplement before bed. Not only is it a more natural alternative to pharmaceutical sleep aids, but melatonin is linked to health benefits like lower blood pressure.
7. Try Some Tape
If you’re specifically looking for a way to fend off the fine lines and wrinkles that nighttime frowns can bring on, try preventing the frown with a bit of tape. Butterfly-shaped patches made just for this purpose can be purchased at most beauty supply outlets, or you can make your own with a Band-Aid or other skin-friendly tape. Just be sure to watch for allergic reactions.
Don’t let stress and excess muscle tension ruin one more night’s sleep. Make a conscious effort to defuse your tension before bed, and you’ll wake up feeling good as new again.
- Anxiety Centre. Muscle tension, persistent tight muscles, pain anxiety symptoms. Accessed 20 Aug 2017.
- National Sleep Foundation. What happens when you sleep? Accessed August 21, 2017.
- O’Rourke D et al. Control of masseter muscle tension during sleep. Biol Psychol. 1987 Aug;25(1):11–22.
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