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There are more than 13 million ASMR videos on YouTube, with hundreds of millions of views. Most of the videos are designed to help people get into a super-relaxed state so that they can relieve stress and sleep better. There are also many popular audio-only ASMR recordings available for download on streaming services. Just what is this trending phenomenon and how does it work?
ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. Basically, it is a response to a gentle stimulus that is felt both physically and emotionally and has been found to produce physiological benefits. The sensations vary amongst those who experience it but most report that the effect is a sense of calm and relaxation. The physical sensations usually begin in the head, and move into the neck and shoulders, even down to the base of the spine. Some say that they also experience the sensations in their limbs. It can feel like tingles, chills or gentle waves. The pleasing emotional effects are what cause people to seek out ASMR, and are often described as calming, happy, euphoric, relaxing, or sleepy. One study showed a reduction in heart rate and an increase in positive emotions for those who experienced ASMR. Some participants even reported a reduction in chronic pain.
What is surprising is that these effects are the result of a stimulus that is quite gentle, and subtle. It could be as simple and mundane as the tapping or a finger. Or it could be intricate and complex, such as the reenactment of a typical visit to the hair salon.
ASMR can be experienced in two ways. The first, and most common, is through using external stimuli. This is where the YouTube videos come in handy. Yet it’s easy to create your own external triggers once you know what they are. The other way to experience ASMR is through internal stimuli, such as creative visualization, or meditation techniques.
“Triggers” fall into three different categories. Auditory stimuli could be the sound of a whisper, reported as the most popular ASMR trigger. You don’t even need to hear the actual words, just the soft vocal tones can set off ASMR. Other auditory triggers include a monotone voice, soft tapping, scratching, crinkling paper, or blowing. It could be the sound of slowly clicking through the teeth of a comb, or the sound of hair being cut, or brushed.
Visual stimuli may be experienced either internally or externally. Taking yourself back to a restful place, or looking at the ocean, for example, can trigger ASMR. Writing is another common trigger, as is eye contact, and page flipping. Some say that flowing hand movements sets off ASMR in them.
Tactile stimuli can also evoke ASMR, such as touching soft fabrics like velvet, or stroking a pet. It’s no surprise that a massage can be very relaxing, and for some this may be ASMR at play. A light touch, such as a gentle caress of the face, can also trigger ASMR.
All of these stimuli are comforting, gentle, repetitive and non-threatening. They are performed slowly, steadily, and predictably. Researchers say that the most effective types of stimuli for ASMR include the person receiving attention in some way, through grooming or other care. You’ll notice that many ASMR recordings include a combination of stimuli for greater effect. The presenter speaks to the viewer personally – slowly and quietly, in a pleasant and reassuring tone. This helps the viewer feel relaxed and cared for, a state of mind that contributes to the desired response.
Research suggests that the same brain chemicals that are produced in the process of bonding, which also creates a sense of comfort and calm, are responsible for ASMR. Endorphins, sometimes called our “happy” chemicals, can bring on a tingling sensation and sense of euphoria. Endorphins also stimulate the release of dopamine. Dopamine is what drives us to look for stimuli that triggers the release of endorphins. Then there’s oxytocin, also called the “bonding hormone” that produces feelings of contentment and trust. Oxytocin increases our sensitivity to endorphins, and also stimulates the release of another brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin helps to give us that feeling of well-being and sense of satisfaction, and also gets us feeling happier in general.
Each of us produces these brain chemicals that are said to be the cause of ASMR. And yet, the ASMR experience varies widely from person to person. It may be that we just need to find the right trigger for ourselves, or it may be a difference within our own genes. Just as some people taste spice differently, some preferring lots of heat and others more sensitive to even the smallest bit, our need for a stronger or weaker ASMR stimulus could be genetic. However, we can train ourselves to be more sensitive to stimuli, and thereby more likely to experience ASMR. First, experiment with a few of the more common ASMR triggers to see which appeals to and works for you. Then, just as you would before meditation, find a safe and comfortable environment where you can relax. Since this is meant to be used as a sleep aid, feel free to lie down. If it’s bedtime, tuck yourself into bed. Clear your mind and focus on the stimulus and check in with your body and emotions to better understand where and how you may feel a response.
ASMR recordings are most frequently used to help people get into a relaxed state so that they can fall sleep more easily and sleep more soundly. These recordings are similar to the guided meditations that have been used for many years to help with sleep problems. Listening to a recording, or watching a video, helps to focus our attention and keep us from being distracted by all the unresolved problems of the day. It helps to relax the body, releasing muscle tension, and allowing for deeper, slower breathing. This is a great way to self-soothe, with no negative side-effects, and no financial investment.
There’s a phrase that’s often used when we feel tired – the need to “rest our weary bones.” An interesting bone density study shows us that we should take this phrase literally! Researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin found that sleep actually helps to build up our bones.
In the study, done with lab rats, scientists found that a lack of sleep resulted in the interruption of new bone formation. In addition to this, the bones the rats already had continued as usual to decrease in density. When it came to bone marrow, they found a decrease in the fat, and an increase in platelet-generating cell. What all this means is that the rats in the study experienced greatly diminished flexibility, and more fragile bones.
Another study from China looked at the association between a reduction in sleep and lower bone density in middle-aged and older women, and found a correlation. A study in Norway found that there was a 52% increased risk of osteoporosis, a condition where the bones become weak and brittle, for those suffering from insomnia.
We can learn from this that in order to have healthy bones, the body must be able to go through this bone remodeling cycle. The process is also vital to keep the body flexible so that we can avoid fractures. With our usual activities, we recover from normal bone wear quickly. However, when sleep deprivation negatively influences bone remodeling, bone density may decrease. So, we can become less flexible, more prone to fractures, and more susceptible to osteoporosis. There’s no doubt about it – sleep is essential for bone health.
But here’s the problem: Osteoporosis is associated with aging. And as we get older, it can be more difficult to get that good night’s sleep that we need. One reason for this is that melatonin, also known as the “sleep hormone” because it impacts sleep, decreases with age. The body produces melatonin based on the amount of light that we are exposed to. Getting some sunlight in the daytime helps the body to produce melatonin at night when it is dark. The combination of lower melatonin levels that come with age, with a loss of sleep puts us in a downward spiral that accelerates bone loss.
We can’t avoid aging, and we can’t control some of the other risk factors for osteoporosis such as:
– Women are more likely to get osteoporosis, particularly after menopause.
– White folks and Asian folks have a higher risk for osteoporosis than other ethnic groups.
– Tall people, those 5 feet 7 inches or taller, and those who weigh less than 125 pounds have an increased risk.
– Those with a family history of osteoporosis or a diagnosis of a hip fracture, are more at risk.
– Those over the age of 50, who have had previous fractures from low-level injuries, are more likely to be diagnosed with osteoporosis.
Fortunately, there are many things that can control to fend off osteoporosis, including staying active and mobile. And there are steps we can take to make sure we get the good sleep that our bones require to remain healthy.
1) Increase melatonin. Besides helping with sleep, melatonin also functions as an antioxidant, reducing damage caused to bones from activity and free radicals in the environment. It can help us to heal from fractures and surgeries. While melatonin supplements can cause us to become dependent on them, there are many other natural options to help amp up our melatonin production. Get some sunlight every day, and sleep in a dark, or dimly lit room. Add melatonin-rich foods to your diet: Sunflower seeds, alfalfa sprouts, almonds, eggs, goji berries, and tart cherries are a few examples.
2) Get daily exercise. Even just 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can help you sleep better at night. Be sure to exercise during daylight hours, not too close to bedtime. You need time to recover and relax after exercise. Weight-bearing exercise has been shown to be beneficial for bone health. Weighted vests for walking have become a popular and safe way to exercise without overdoing it. Yoga helps to increase flexibility and balance, reducing the risk of falls and fractures.
3) Minerals and Vitamin D. Magnesium has been hailed as a sleep-helper, and it is also great for building strong bones. Calcium, iron, and zinc are also known to help protect against osteoporosis. Vitamin D helps the body to absorb calcium, so it plays a key role in fighting osteoporosis. You can get Vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, and also from saltwater fish, liver, or Vitamin D fortified foods.
4) Avoid alcohol and tobacco. We know that alcohol at night interferes with sleep, but did you know that alcohol is also linked to lower bone density? Tobacco is also a culprit. Avoid these substances as much as possible.
5) Maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity is associated with sleep apnea, which disturbs sleep.
6) Get screened. Talk with your doctor about getting an osteoporosis screening. Osteoporosis comes on slowly, you might not be aware that you have it until you actually break a bone. When identified early on, osteoporosis can be treated effectively before it causes bone fractures.
And lastly, make sure you are sleeping on a comfortable and supportive mattress. No two bodies are alike, we all have unique bones! When shopping for a mattress feel free to “test rest” each one by stretching out as you normally would while sleeping. Your mattress is an important ally in helping you to get the sleep you need to protect your bones.
FOR MORE SLEEP TIPS VISIT THE BETTER SLEEP COUNCIL’S WEBSITE: www.BetterSleep.org
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