Gardening: Antidote to Stress and Insomnia

Gardening is a real stress buster for me. I’m actually convinced it makes me less susceptible to insomnia.

I said the same thing on Facebook last May, posted this same photo, and got a ton of “likes.” Who knew so many people found gardening to be relaxing the way I do?

The truth is, it’s really only spring gardening that has this calming effect. Summer weeding and fall cleanup can feel a lot like chores. But the spring planting season: that’s when gardening helps relieve tension and puts me in a contemplative frame of mind.

gardeningGardening is a real stress buster for me. I’m actually convinced it makes me less susceptible to insomnia.

I said the same thing on Facebook last May, posted this same photo, and got a ton of “likes.” Who knew so many people found gardening to be relaxing the way I do?

The truth is, it’s really only spring gardening that has this calming effect. Summer weeding and fall cleanup can feel a lot like chores. But the spring planting season: that’s when gardening helps relieve tension and puts me in a contemplative state of mind.

A Relaxing Effect

There’s scientific support for the stress-reducing, mood-improving effects of gardening. Gardening decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also reduces anxiety and alleviates depression. One theory about why this occurs is that in digging in the dirt we’re exposed to bacteria called Mycobacterium Vaccae, stimulating the immune system and promoting the release and metabolism of serotonin.

Yet when I think about why it is that spring gardening helps me relax, what comes to mind first is that it involves activity, both mental and physical. Planting requires thought at the beginning of the season. Except for perennials poking their shafts above ground, the earth is a dark, blank canvas waiting to be filled in. Nature’s palette is as varied as any a painter might choose, yet the decisions about what to plant and where to plant are mine. It’s absorbing work.

Then as the season gets under way, I’m constantly changing my mind based on what I see. Do these lilies look good beside the hostas? Yes. Or no, they just don’t work. Dig them up and try planting them somewhere else. All this attention to the aesthetics of the garden takes my mind off troubles that otherwise might be nattering away inside my head.

The physical labor of planting a garden can be relaxing as well. The repetitive work needed to fill the annual beds and replenish perennials is conducive to meditation. Trowel in hand, I scoop enough earth out to create the right size hole, take hold of a seedling, position the root ball so it’s neither too low nor too high, fill in the rest of the hole with dirt, and tamp the soil down firmly on all sides. This I do again and again until I’ve got an entire bed full of pansies or pachysandra. The labor is not aerobic—the type of exercise said to be most effective for stress relief—but somehow it has a calming effect.

Last but not least, there’s the thrill of sitting back on my heels and admiring the sight.

Sleep Benefits—Really?

Any activity that reduces stress will help to hold my insomnia at bay, and gardening is no exception. But the season itself is also conducive to better sleep. Being outdoors and exposed to sunlight enables the body to produce more vitamin D, which is beneficial to sleep. And the days are lengthening in the springtime, which boosts my alertness and helps me postpone sleep until I’m really ready to conk out. Also, more sunlight and fewer gray days improve my mood, which in turn makes it easier to sleep at night.

Spring gardening works for me on many levels. If it’s not your cup of tea, find some other activity that involves mental engagement and physical activity. This is a good combination for stress reduction and sounder sleep.

If you find gardening to be relaxing, what about the activity do you think is most helpful to you?

 

The ADHD-Insomnia Connection

Got ADHD? Chances are you’ve got insomnia symptoms, too. About 92 percent of the subjects in a recent study of adults with ADHD reported going to bed late because they were “not tired” or “too keyed up to sleep.”

The sleep problems of adults with ADHD may be due to delayed (and possibly less stable) circadian rhythms. If you’ve got ADHD-related insomnia, treatments aimed at advancing circadian phase may help.

too-much-to-doGot ADHD? Chances are you’ve got insomnia symptoms, too. About 92 percent of the subjects in a recent study of adults with ADHD reported going to bed late because they were “not tired” or “too keyed up to sleep.”

Results of this study, from University of Alabama at Birmingham, show that the sleep problems of adults with ADHD are due to delayed (and possibly less stable) circadian rhythms. (Circadian rhythms are controlled by the body clock.) And, say UAB researchers, delays in sleep timing—and daytime sleepiness—correlate with more severe hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive ADHD symptoms. If you’ve got ADHD-related insomnia, treatments aimed at advancing circadian phase may help.

The Larger Picture

The new findings are in line with the results of other work. Investigators have found, for instance, that ADHD is associated with differences in type or expression of these circadian genes: CLOCK, BMAL1, and PER2.

The body’s production of sleep- and wake-friendly hormones is correspondingly delayed. Investigators in The Netherlands reported in a 2010 study that secretion of melatonin—which helps with sleep at night—began an average of 83 minutes later in adult subjects with ADHD than in adults without. Production of cortisol, which helps with waking up in the morning, is also delayed in people with ADHD.

Across the board, ADHD subjects tend to fall asleep later and wake up later than subjects without ADHD. The medical diagnosis for this delay in falling asleep, when uncomplicated by ADHD, is Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder. Treatments that work for people with DSPD may work for you if you’ve got ADHD.

Better Sleep, Less Sleepiness

  • Bright Light Therapy: A two-hour exposure to bright light (sunlight, or light from a light box) immediately upon waking up every morning is the most effective way to shift sleep to an earlier hour. But this may not jibe with your morning routine. In the winter you wake up to darkness, and continuous use of a light box may not be an option if you have to care for children or get ready for work. Do the best you can by turning up lights in your home full force, and spend as much time as possible by a light box in the first few hours of the day.
  • Melatonin Supplements: Over-the-counter melatonin supplements may also help shift your sleep forward when used every day. But melatonin is not a sleeping pill. It’s effective only when taken well before your internal melatonin secretion begins. For best results, take a tablet 5 to 7 hours before your normal bedtime (rather than right before bedtime, as advised on the label).
  • Rozerem: Ask your doctor about Rozerem (or ramelteon) if you’re interested in going the prescription drug route. Rozerem, approved by the FDA in 2005 for people with trouble falling asleep, purportedly behaves like a super-melatonin. Unlike most sleeping pills on the market today, it’s not known to have many side effects. Take it half an hour before you go to bed.

Shifting circadian rhythms forward may improve your sleep, cut down on daytime sleepiness, and—possibly—help control your ADHD symptoms.

If you’ve got ADHD, how often do you find yourself too keyed up to sleep?

Too Aroused for Sleep? Try Yoga

Sat Bir Khalsa, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that among alternative treatments for insomnia, yoga may also be a viable solution for people who feel too aroused to sleep.

I attended Khalsa’s presentation at a conference a while back. Here’s the gist of what he said.

Insomnia sufferers may want to try yoga to prepare for sleepAn acquaintance of mine said she’s often “just too wound up, too hyped up” to sleep.

I know the feeling. It‘s like my body’s stuck in overdrive, and I can’t find the brakes. The best solution for me is physical exercise.

But Sat Bir Khalsa, a professor and researcher at Harvard Medical School, thinks that among alternative treatments for insomnia, yoga may also be a viable solution for people who feel too aroused to sleep. I attended Khalsa’s presentation at a conference a while back, and later I contacted him for more information.

“Yoga works on inducing the relaxation response,” Khalsa said, producing “a reduction in stress system activation. Yoga and meditation practice also changes the perception of stress … creating a positive change in stress tolerance.”

Sounds good to me. But is there proof?

A small number of studies attest to the benefits of yoga as a strategy for managing insomnia, and some of them are randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In RCTs, the results of subjects who undergo a treatment are compared to the results of control subjects who do not, a protocol considered by scientists to meet the highest standard of proof.

  • An RCT conducted in an Indian home for the aged produced spectacular results: subjects who practiced an hour of yoga six days a week for six months increased their total sleep time by a whopping 60 minutes a night! They also reported greater ease in falling asleep and feeling more rested in the morning.*
  • In an RCT published last year, postmenopausal women in Brazil experienced a significant reduction of insomnia symptoms and increased stress resistance following four months of yoga practice.**
  • Khalsa’s RCT, which he discussed at the conference, showed that the sleep of subjects who practiced 45 minutes of yoga before bedtime every day for eight weeks improved substantially more than the sleep of control subjects, who received information about sleep hygiene. Yoga subjects reported increases in total sleep time that were two and three times as great as the increases made by controls. (Again, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 60 minutes’ more sleep a night.)

Yoga may achieve its calming effects in a paradoxical way, Khalsa told me, by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol while at the same time improving stress tolerance. The overall effect is to decrease feelings of arousal.

This is why insomniacs – particularly those who tend to feel wound up at night – may want to try it out.

*   Influence of Yoga & Ayurveda on self-rated sleep

** Yoga decreases insomnia in postmenopausal women