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Sleep and the Spa

by Dr. Michael Breus, PhD

There is no true wellness without great sleep, and wellness practices are the ideal place to start addressing sleep issues. Wellness interventions incorporating movement, nutrition, natural supplements, meditation and stress management reduce the need to turn to medication to resolve sleep problems. 

Sleeping well is an integral factor in longevity and in protecting mental and physical health across our lifespan. A routine of plentiful, restful sleep helps to keep in check many of the forces that accelerate the biological aging process. 

When we sleep, the body undertakes significant cellular repair and rejuvenation. Our glymphatic system—a waste clearance system in the body—goes into high gear, specifically during the sleep phase, to flush harmful waste and toxins from the brain. Our nervous system moves into low resting gear, stress hormones drop to their lowest levels and our immune system reboots. Cognitive and psychological health rely on the sleep phase for memory processing, hormone production and regulation, and the cellular renewal that takes place during sleep. 

When we don’t get enough consistent high-quality sleep, we miss out on the full impact of sleep’s deeply restorative powers. Poor sleep increases inflammation, which is a driver of biological aging and a significant factor in age-related disease, from heart disease to cancer to neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s. Poor sleep—even a single night of it—directly affects the aging of our cells and increases the activity of genes that drive cellular aging. 

Insomnia and other forms of disrupted sleep already existed at epidemic levels before the Covid-19 pandemic began. The pandemic has brought a new, disturbing surge in sleep problems. Multistudy, multination research analyses have found that more than a third to more than a half of the global population is experiencing problems with sleep. Research also indicates there’s been a significant rise in the use of sleep medication during the pandemic. One recent study found an increase of 20% in consumption of sleep medications since the onset of the pandemic. And another recent study identified a significant rise in prescriptions for z-hypnotics, benzodiazepines and serotonergic medications that are prescribed for insomnia as well as anxiety and depression. 

Not surprisingly, research has found the escalation of sleep troubles in the pandemic is associated with higher levels of psychological distress. 

Disrupted sleep often takes on a life of its own and persists even after the factors that trigger its onset have been resolved. The sleep difficulties unleashed and exacerbated by the pandemic will not disappear, even after Covid-19 has been controlled. There is—and will continue to be—an urgent unmet need to provide education and guidance to address sleep problems. 

How spas can help transform your sleep 

The wellness community has a tremendous opportunity to educate people about sleep and help them make lasting changes to their sleep routines, for the benefit of their emotional and physical health, their longevity, their quality of life. Sleep education in spas is at its best when it combines knowledge and experience and puts sleep at the center of the wellness journey. I work regularly with organizations in the wellness industry to create sleep programs, and these are three questions I use as a starting point, when talking with spa professionals about their approach to sleep education. 

Is it comprehensive? The science of sleep is constantly evolving, and spas must keep pace with the latest research to stay current and provide guests with best practices fully informed by the latest science. The public remains undereducated about sleep—how sleep works, the factors that undermine healthy sleep, how to make lasting changes to sleep. A sleep education program developed in collaboration with sleep specialists (preferably someone who is board-certified) provides spa-goers an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of sleeping well. 

Comprehensive sleep education means not only helping spa-goers learn how to sleep better but also helping them identify specific problem areas in their sleep, and offering guidance for follow-up consultations with board-certified sleep practitioners. 

Bottom Line: Is the program developed with good sleep science in mind, from an actual sleep doctor? Does it screen for sleep disorders? (If a spa-goer has undiagnosed apnea, for example, no spa treatment will be nearly as effective as clinical therapy.) 

Is it integrated? Healthy sleep is a 24-hour process. Our nightly rest is deeply influenced by every aspect of our waking lives, from the time we rise in the morning. Spas have a unique platform with which to incorporate sleep into the guests’ experience. Movement and exercise programs, dining and nutrition education, mind-body and psychological wellness programs, can and should be actively sleep-informed. 

There are countless ways to do this, from highlighting sleep-friendly food and drink on evening and room-service menus, to offering movement classes optimized for pre-sleep exercise and guided sleep meditations as an in-room amenity. By giving spa-goers the opportunity to interact with sleep information throughout the day, they learn new ways to tend to their nightly rest and begin the process of assimilating those skills into long-term routines. 

Bottom Line: Many spa-goers never think about sleep until the end of the day. Use wellness treatments earlier in the day to educate and inform them about how daytime choices can help nighttime sleep. 

Is it personalized? Sleep is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Our sleep is affected by our environment, our mental and physical health, our habits and routines, and, fundamentally, by our genetics. Individual biology has a profound impact on how each of us experiences sleep. 

Some of the most interesting and exciting work happening in wellness today personalizes sleep education. Depending on an individual’s travel and their biology, they’ll have different needs for adjusting their circadian sleep-wake rhythms to align with your destination. (Beyond jet lag, most will be sleep-deprived and out-of-sync with their sleep rhythms before they begin their journey.) Personalized recommendations for eating, napping, activity and light exposure will set them up for optimal sleep throughout their stay. 

Bottom Line: Know the potential issues and know what the solutions are. 

Here are a few examples of how to help create a personalized sleep experience: 

• Provide adjustable mattresses and customizable mattress toppers to help meet individual preferences for firmness, comfort and support. A “pillow, topper and duvet menu” enables guests to select the equipment that suits their sleep posture, sleep position and individual needs for head and neck support. 

• Offer sleep tracking and analysis to help guests identify sleep issues, with customized sleep solutions to address them. 

• Incorporate an understanding of chronobiology and individual chronotype—which captures our unique, genetically determined biological rhythms and preferences for sleep and nearly every aspect of waking life. Working with guests’ chronotypes opens up a world of personalization, for optimizing daily routines for sleep, sex, movement, eating, light exposure, creativity, self-reflection, and deep-work productivity. www.chronoquiz.com 

There’s a deep natural alignment between sleep education and the wellness experience that is needed now, more
than ever. 

Michael Breus, PhD, is a double board-certified sleep specialist, founder of TheSleepDoctor.com, author of three books on sleep, including the latest, Energize! with Stacey Griffith, and has been in practice for 23 years. 

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