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What is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) + How it Impacts Performance
While scheduling regular fitness sessions is crucial, it’s equally important to build rest days into your exercise routine and make the most of strategies designed to facilitate rest and recovery. Recovery is especially valuable to your muscles. Demanding workouts place significant stress on the musculoskeletal system, resulting in microscopic tears in muscle tissue and a depletion of energy from the muscles in the form of diminished glycogen stores. During periods of rest, the body will naturally begin recovery efforts. Fibroblasts repair tears in the muscle tissues, promoting healing and growth that will translate to gains in muscle mass and strength over time. Glycogen stores can be rebuilt through the intake of carbohydrates, providing a fuel reservoir for future workouts. Rest also offers muscles a break from experiencing the demand and stress associated with exercise, reducing the chance of injuries from repetition and overuse. While rest and recovery centers around giving the muscles and body a break, it doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing. Some strategies are more beneficial than simply napping or getting a good night’s sleep. One of these is non-sleep deep rest. Discover more about this strategy and how it can unlock the full potential in your physical performance by promoting optimal functioning of both the body and mind.
What is Non-Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR)?
Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a deep relaxation technique named by neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, but it is based on the guided meditation practice yoga nidra, which originated many centuries ago in ancient India. NSDR aims to transport an individual to the relaxed state of mind typically experienced right before falling asleep — without actually sleeping. NSDR uses classic relaxation techniques like focused breathing and body scanning to promote calmness, allowing the mind to rest in between sleep and active wakefulness. It gives you control over awareness, perception, and above all, rest. Referencing non-sleep deep rest during a WHOOP podcast episode, Dr. Andrew Huberman stated, “This is a relaxation exercise. It’s not meditation; it actually just teaches your nervous system how to relax when you’ve woken up, or you need to replenish your nervous system.” NSDR isn’t just a passive meditation practice. It’s a multipurpose activity for how to relax your mind and experience a state of healing restoration. As a result, NSDR can be used in several different situations. It can be performed before bed to make falling asleep easier, first thing in the morning to start your day in a relaxed state, or anytime during the day when you want to actively focus on calming your body and allowing your mind to rest. One key goal of NSDR is to calm the mind by slowing down cognitive processes like thinking. In fact, NSDR aims to reduce the brain’s operational frequency to a rate of only 1-3 thoughts per minute compared to the average of 35 during everyday wakefulness. This lower frequency range is consistent with delta brain waves, which typically only occur during the deepest stages of sleep and are associated with restorative and relaxed brain function. Once these delta brainwave patterns are tapped into, the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest-and-digest system, is activated. This is the opposing branch to the sympathetic nervous system, which puts the body in a fight-or-flight state. When the parasympathetic branch is activated, the body is calmer, the heart rate and respiration rate decrease, the pupils constrict, and digestive processes proceed normally. Studies have found that yoga nidra can improve blood glucose levels, red blood cell counts, and hormone levels. There is also research into the practice’s effect on the nervous system. Researchers have used neuroimaging to discover that yoga nidra is associated with alterations in the rate of endogenous dopamine release and blood flow through brain tissue. Additionally, it has been shown to benefit symptoms related to mild depression and anxiety.
How to Practice NSDR
NSDR is a broad term encompassing many different strategies for getting the mind into a relaxed state. While there isn’t a single formula for practicing NSDR, a few key components are essential to an effective session. Here are some key tips from pros to use as a basic guide and get started:
- Find a Guide: Following a guided NSDR session is the best way to start the practice. There are many YouTube videos and apps that feature NSDR sessions led by experienced coaches. Finding one that includes techniques that work for you is an important first step to benefitting from non-sleep deep rest.
- Stay Present: Many meditation and relaxation techniques focus on teaching to be more present, and NSDR is no exception. Placing your attention on the present moment will help you get into the relaxed and restorative state that is the goal of NSDR.
- Relax Fully: NSDR sessions are most effective when done in a comfortable, stress-free environment. First, lay down in a dark, quiet room free of distractions. Then, begin by reaching a deeply relaxed state, which can be achieved through breathing techniques, including slow, deep breaths, extending exhalations, and counting.
- Try Self-Hypnosis: Alternatively, self-hypnosis can also be used to help you reach a state of deep relaxation. Self-hypnosis works by promoting intense internal awareness, guiding your attention inside, and visualizing in a highly focused manner.
- Body Scanning: Body scanning is another classic meditation technique that leads to deep relaxation by systematically focusing on individual parts of the body, one by one, and promoting control over bodily awareness and sensations, releasing all tension bit by bit.
Benefits of NSDR
NSDR promotes the optimal performance of the brain and the body. It does this by kickstarting wide-ranging restorative processes that greatly impact everyday life. Key benefits of NSDR include:
Enhanced Cognitive Function
NSDR supports improvements in cognition through neuroplasticity, which is when the nervous system's neurons rewire their connections. Neuroplasticity is the central process underlying learning and memory. This process naturally occurs during deep sleep but can also occur during NSDR when brain waves fall to a sleep-like frequency. Enhanced neuroplasticity through NSDR improves cognitive function, boosts learning, and promotes memory retention.
Promotes Stress Relief
The relaxation techniques that make up NSDR promote an intense state of calm which helps relieve stress. The activation of the parasympathetic nervous system resulting from NSDR helps keep the body in relaxed homeostasis where rest and recovery can easily occur.
Improved Sleep Quality
According to Dr. Huberman, “We generally have a hard time falling asleep because we think we have to turn off our thoughts completely like a switch. [During] the transition to sleep, our thoughts become fragmented, we become relaxed, and the brain enters the state where space and time are very fluid and not under our conscious control.” NSDR helps combat difficulties in falling asleep by improving control over your ability to rest. Through NSDR, you develop the skill of slowing down your thoughts to achieve a relaxed state, making restful sleep easier. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system also contributes to this ability by stimulating bodily processes related to rest.
Dr. Huberman also states that NSDR has “neurochemical replenishing effects” and can ensure there are optimal levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine present in the brain. Dopamine plays a significant role in vital cognitive processes, including motivation, focus and attention. Increased dopamine levels can help you stay focused on your goals and get inspired to meet them, as well as maintain sharp mental clarity.
Supports Pain Management
Many classic meditation strategies have been linked to pain management by allowing individuals to control their focus and move it away from or by identifying and accepting areas of pain. These strategies include breathwork and body scanning, both of which can be a part of NSDR. As a result, NSDR has the potential to support pain management.
Benefits Fitness Performance
Non-sleep deep rest can also help support optimal fitness performance. In an episode of his podcast, Dr. Huberman explains that he will sometimes skip workout sessions if he is stressed or hasn’t slept well the night before — but that NSDR helps him overcome this issue. As little as 10 minutes of non-sleep deep rest or a maximum of 60 minutes is sufficient to provide the rest and energy needed for a successful workout. Huberman states NSDR “will restore your ability to perform mental and physical work.”
Track NSDR With WHOOP
WHOOP provides insight into your body’s current ability to adapt to stress and your readiness to take on any given day or workout. Higher levels of recovery mean greater potential performance. Use WHOOP to understand the true impact of NSDR on your Recovery, including its effect on RHR, HRV, and even sleep. Use ‘Start Activity’ to log a Recovery Activity in the moment, or ‘Add Activity’ to log that you already finished yoga nidra earlier. Tap into that activity on your home screen and drag your finger across the stress and heart rate charts for minute-by-minute data, so you can understand how effective your Recovery activities were and make even better choices for your well-being.