Sleep deprivation: Try bedtime yoga, weighted blankets, or simply counting breaths

With sleep disorders on the rise in Ireland, a new weekend programme using holistic, physical and cognitive behavioural therapies could be the answer.

Brain scans carried out by American sleep scientists revealed a 60 per cent amplification in the activity of the amygdala – a key area for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.

Here’s how I know I’m not getting nearly enough sleep: I asked a five-year-old this week what she was getting from Santa Claus for her birthday, which is in September. I’ve drawn blanks on the names of close friends to their faces. In the supermarket, I’ve accidentally chucked a loaf of bread into a pram, as opposed to the trolley. I’ve left the house wearing different shoes. I’ve spent a whole minute wondering why my phone wasn’t working, only to realise it was the remote control of the television.

For holistic sleep therapist Deirdre O’Connor, such brain fogs sound like par for the course after a bout of sleep deprivation.

Yet fiddling with the remote is merely an iceberg tip. There are also links to lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, weight-gain, stroke and cancers of the breast, prostate and bowel. In the case of the former, the deposits of toxin proteins don’t get “cleared out” from the brain when a person becomes sleep-deprived.

Certain studies show that short sleep can affect our cancer-fighting immune cells. Elsewhere, brain scans carried out by American sleep scientists revealed a 60 per cent amplification in the activity of the amygdala – a key area for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.


And, after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, our natural killer cells – the ones that attack the cancer cells that appear in your body every day – drop by 70 per cent.

“It’s said that being sleep-deprived for one night is like going into work after drinking two pints of beer – the effect is that huge,” O’Connor reveals. “Do that night after night, and you’ll pretty much be in a state of inebriation, on top of a ‘hangover’.”

Among her most memorable clients was a woman who hadn’t slept more than a few hours a night in more than 30 years, following the birth of her children.

“She didn’t do anything about it, but then became very ill with it, with Addison’s disease [primary adrenal insufficiency]. I thought it would be a complex case, but it wasn’t. After five or six sessions, she reported that she’d slept 8½ hours the night before. It was a bit of a miracle case.”

In 1942, less than 8 per cent of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people was. Children and teenagers of all ages are sleeping two hours and 10 minutes less a night, on average, than they did a century ago.

Night is electrified

Anxiety around modern life and current affairs plays its part; likewise, the blurring between work and home life. A world in which the night is electrified with LED lights and screens contributes too.

It’s thought that up to a fifth of the Irish population experiences insomnia, although snoring, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea are just some of the malaises that affect sleep quality and impact on our ability to get a prescribed eight hours’ sleep.

For O’Connor, anxiety comes top of the list of a number of other triggers, among them hormonal disturbance or sleep hygiene.

“It’s the main thing I see in most [clients],” she reveals. It’s an underlying, almost pervasive anxiety that you can’t pin on one thing. What happens is that people can become very easily triggered by something you’re usually able to deal with. What happens is that sleep then becomes associated not with pleasure, but anxiety and panic.

“All of the sleep physiologists talk about this – when we’re not feeling safe in ourselves, whether it’s an uncomfortable situation in work or not being able to manage every day, the nervous system picks that up as a threat,” she continues. “You’re not sure what’s wrong, but you know you need to be ‘aware’. The interesting thing is that the brain and nervous system can’t distinguish between real and perceived threats, and simply thinks, ‘I’d better stay awake’.”

O’Connor approaches her clients holistically, albeit with a multitude of trainings and disciplines. Among them are cognitive behavioural therapy, yoga and Pilates, deep muscle unwinding, mindfulness and psychotherapy. Her programme is, as best she knows, the only sleep programme that draws on the holistic and the cognitive. Clients not only address the emotional, but also the practical, including decluttering sleeping spaces and resetting circadian rhythms.

The aim, such as it is, is to invite clients to “drop” down into the “alpha” stage of sleep, which is a deeper, better quality form of sleep than beta.

O’Connor herself experienced sleep problems after a number of issues “threw her life into overwhelm”. Until then, she had slept like a log.

The menopause caused a hormonal disruption; around the same time, she married, changed jobs, moved house and lost her father in a short space of time.

“I thought yoga and mindfulness would get me through everything, but it was too much in too short a space of time to assimilate. I ended up training in other modalities. I trained as a psychotherapist to address the emotional underpinnings of sleep, and it was a very deep exploration.”

Irish people have certainly become more conversant with concepts like “good sleep hygiene” – limiting daytime naps, avoiding stimulants close to bedtime, shutting off electronic devices, exercise, and unwinding sufficiently before bed. We may know more about it but are we practising it?

“I think we’ve become so entrained by using devices we don’t realise we’re using them anymore,” notes O’Connor. “Even when I had a power cut and all my devices were off, I found myself reaching for my phone. So many people will say, ‘I don’t have time to [work on getting more sleep], but how much time are they spending on Facebook or emails in what they think of as their downtime?

“If every single piece of information going into the brain has to be processed, you essentially need to stay awake to take all of this information in. If the brain stays in ‘high beta’ and doesn’t drop into ‘alpha’, it can be why some people wake at 2am.”

2am wake-up call

As for practical ways to tackle the dreaded 2am wake-up call, O’Connor suggests that people try a full-body scan (where one focuses intently on each body part, from toe to top), sleep hypnosis or simply counting their breaths.

Weighted blankets, too, can help with sleep quality: “It’s like giving a message to the nervous system to switch off,” she explains.

O’Connor has devised an immersive two-night “Sleep Coach Package” in conjunction with Killarney’s Cahernane House. The package plans to incorporate somatic movement, restful yoga, deep-muscle unwinding and mindfulness. Five-course dinners will consist of foods rich in tryptophan, an enzyme that promotes sleep. Attendees learn bedtime yoga and yoga nidra, a relaxation technique that releases bodily stress. Both routines, says O’Connor, are easily learned and incorporated into everyday life.

“Bedtime is the one time where you really don’t feel like doing any yoga – I’m really lazy so if you said to me that I had to do yoga, I’d usually be like ‘forget it’,” smiles O’Connor. “But it’s the sort of yoga, without standing poses, where you don’t feel like you’re really doing anything.”

Ultimately, people need to take ownership of their sleep disruption, and not blithely hope or expect issues to go away of their own accord.

“I love that our systems are pretty much hard-wired for sleep,” notes O’Connor. “It’s just that so many of are just doing the wrong things.”

The Sleep Coach Package is available on November 15th-17th at Cahernane House Hotel in Killarney. For more information see