Until recently, science did not have a good explanation for why we sleep. It seemed like an evolutionary blunder that robbed mammals (including humans) of nearly a third of our waking life. It put us in danger from predators, weather events, or anything else that threatened our safety as we slipped into a state of unconsciousness every 24-hour cycle.
But in recent decades, researchers have identified a vast, complex network of benefits including an increased ability to learn, process, and remember information, make logical decisions, focus, maintain our emotional equilibrium, boost our immune systems and gut biome, regulate metabolism, and lower blood pressure, thereby preventing the risk of heart disease, cancer, the common cold, depression, anxiety, and weight gain, among other things.
Basically, sleep is nature's greatest balm, a soothing neurochemical bath that heals our bodies and makes our waking hours infinitely more pleasurable and productive. As my clients consider returning to in-person work, school, and travel in the coming months, I'm hearing a lot about sleep difficulties, along with worries about how they'll manage it going forward. So I wanted to pass along a resource that might be useful.
Last month, my mom gave me a book called Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by UC Berkeley neuroscientist and psychology professor, Matthew Walker, PhD. It should be noted that my mom also handed down a propensity for chronic insomnia, so I took the recommendation with a grain of salt. Reading about sleep and sleep problems before bed seemed like a trapdoor I didn't need to traverse. But apparently, sometimes, mom does know best.
The book is a fascinating dive into the mechanisms of sleep, the differences between wakefulness, NREM phases (deep, focused recovery) and REM ("a bizarre, highly associative carnival... that mollifies painful memories... a flagrantly psychotic virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge.") It explores the crossover of two forces that trigger sleep: circadian rhythms (regulated by genetics, temperature, and light exposure) and "sleep pressure," the product of a fatigue-inducing neurotransmitter called adenosine that builds up as a result of physical and psychological activities until we succumb.
The book covers melatonin, naps, travel, exercise, dreams, and all kinds of sleep disorders, too. It's well-worth reading if you're interested in learning more, but today I'll offer a few takeaways that stood out to me, 6 tools to help make sleep easier.
Turns out, our daily routines have a profound impact on the biological functions that shepherd us to sleep, and we have significant ways to impact that nightly process. You've probably heard some, if not all, of these themes before. The science is well-documented. It's easy to shrug them off, but if you're having issues with insomnia (or simply not prioritizing sleep), the extra effort to examine how these contributing factors might hurt (or help) could make a world of difference for your health, sanity, and productivity.
Light - Before the invention of the lightbulb, human beings went to sleep soon after the sun went down. Some naturally fell asleep later than others. (Night owls come by their rhythms naturally.) But people didn't have light pouring in through their corneas after dark like we do now, especially blue LED light. That light exposure pushes back the natural flow of melatonin and circadian rhythms that would otherwise send us off to sleep. You can make a huge impact by dimming or removing sources of light in the hours before bed. Choose warm, dimmable lightbulbs for bedside lamps, and stay away from screens if at all possible.
Temperature - In order to sleep well, your core body temperature needs to drop. Walker recommends a room temp of about 65 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal sleep. If your extremities get cold, wearing socks can help pull body heat away from your core and out through your feet.
Exercise - Sleep is recovery, and it's hard to sleep if there isn't anything to recover from. 30 minutes of exercise each day builds sleep pressure and can make a huge difference in your ability to drift off. Bonus points for exercising outside, where you'll have regular exposure to daylight to help regulate your circadian rhythm. He recommends avoiding exercise 2 or 3 hours before bed to prevent heating up your core temp.
Food - Being too full or too hungry can make sleep difficult. Severe calorie restriction makes it harder to fall asleep and reduces NREM sleep. Eating a large meal before bed can cause indigestion and reduce the same deep sleep, but small snacks can be fine if you're hungry. Caffeine and high sugar diets (especially late in the day) cause more awakenings and sleep interruptions. **A note for those interested in losing weight: One of the most impactful changes you can make to influence body mass is to get more sleep by utilizing the other methods in this list. I've seen this concept referred to as "the sleep diet." More sleep equals better decision-making, improved metabolism, and less emotional eating and late-night snacking.
Sleeping pills - Walker rips into the effects of sleeping pills like a Rottweiler into a steak. Bottom line? The effect of sleeping medication is more akin to anesthesia than sleep. The pills don't allow for natural brainwave activity to cement crucial learning and memories and to restore equilibrium overnight. They have also been shown to damage health and increase the onset of life-threatening diseases, infection, and even cancer. Alcohol also functions more like a sedative than a sleep aid and can cause wakefulness and reduced REM sleep similar to the effects of sugar. Melatonin occurs naturally for most of us. Small amounts can signal the brain it's time for sleep, but the other factors I mentioned above make the process of sleep actually kick in. Mostly, he says, melatonin has a lovely placebo effect and can be useful for traveling through time zones.
Routine - The most important thing researchers say will improve our sleep is to have a set routine: wake up and fall asleep at the same time each day. I wrote in The Habit Trip that I find this advice "mildly infuriating." As a bonafide night person with a child at home, my natural sleep cycle is not available to me, except on the weekends. Sticking with a weekday schedule on weekends would be a special kind of torture, but I can inch my weeknights earlier to bed without screens and my weekend mornings earlier to wake than I might naturally. According to Walker, adjusting by even a few minutes can have a profound biological impact. It allows for more complete sleep cycles throughout the night. Sticking with a ritualized routine before bed (like you would for a little kid) can also help signal your brain that it's time to shut down.
We are complex creatures with finely-attuned physiology. We respond to our surroundings, often without even knowing it. Sometimes this works to our favor, sometimes not. The good news is that there's a rhyme and reason for the sleep challenges we have and so many ways to improve them. As schedules shift in the coming months, we have a rare opportunity to create patterns that will support our health far more effectively than we ever did before the pandemic.
I hope this helps you get some zzzzzs!
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