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Sleep and how to get it

April 22, 2011

Recently there was an excellent article in the NY Times about sleep and its impact on our lives. Most of us often turn to sleep as the thing we can eliminate when we are busy. The children are crying, the dogs just relieved themselves in the kitchen, emails have to be answered, and tv shows need to be watched. And the only way to make room for all these things is to give up some sleep. We commonly tell ourselves that we will make up the time on the weekend, or tomorrow, or perhaps you have convinced yourself that you exist just fine with less sleep and actually thrive on it.

It turns out that this is simply not true and now there is research to prove it.

According to research, getting just six hours of sleep a night, as compared to an ideal eight, can lead to the same effect on our brains as being intoxicated. The study, done by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, found that after six days, 25 percent of those who slept for six hours were falling asleep at the computer during the day during testing. Further, by the end of the study, two weeks later, those who were part of the six hours of sleep a night group had the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk (the same result for those who were sleep deprived for 25 hours straight).

The question that comes to my mind is would you go to work legally drunk? Of course not. Yet everyday about two-thirds, by some estimates, of us are sleep deprived. We still drive, work, and live our lives and, at times, may try to convince ourselves that our lack of sleep is a good thing because it allows us to be more productive. I know I have heard many clients voice these very sentiments.

And while some of us are choosing to stay awake, there are others who would love to sleep but can’t. While this was not a subject of the article in the Times, it is a significant issue. In my office, the inability to sleep is actually one of the biggest problems that clients struggle with. The struggle is actually so intense that at least half of the clients I see are on some sort of sleep medication.

But sleep, or lack of sleep, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When one goes without sleep for long enough, it is not just that person’s performance that suffers, but also that person’s mental health. There is a direct link between depression and sleep. Often times when a person feels down, hopeless, or full of anxiety, it is because they aren’t getting enough sleep.

So what can you do? Here are a list of the top 10 things you can do to get the best night of sleep:

  1. The first thing you can do is rethink the importance of sleep. The notion that sleep is unimportant or can be skipped on occasion is not helpful or accurate. Your body, brain, and mind need it. As shown above, most people are lacking in sleep and over time their cognitive ability is impaired. If this is the case, you will actually be working harder and not smarter. And not only will your brain be working harder, it will be less effective.
  2. What’s stress got to do with it? One of the reasons that people don’t sleep is a result of too much cortisol in their bodies. Cortisol, or the stress hormone, is responsible for the flight or fight response we have when we’re stressed or scared. And if we stop and think about it, fight or flight doesn’t lead to the desire to sleep. I mean, the last thing you would want to do is stop for a quick rest while being chased by a tiger. One way to rid your body of cortisol is to breath. By breathing out for twice as long as you breath in you will be sending messages to your brain that things are okay and that the tiger that was chasing you is now gone.
  3. Be regular. Most of us strive for regularity in other parts of our lives – job, mail, bathroom. And this is no different. Our bodies get used to rhythm and rely on it to know what to do. One way of helping sleep is to go to bed and wake up at the same times every day. While this might be hard to do for any number of reasons, the more regular your schedule, the more likely you are to go to sleep easily and stay asleep through the entire night.
  4. Get up and shake your tail feathers. There are two benefits, at least in terms of sleep, that moving and exercise have on the brain: cortisol depletion and serotonin building. Another way to release stress, or cortisol, is to move. Your body will “burn” off the excess and you will feel more relaxed. Exercise also builds serotonin levels, which is a sleep regulator, in addition to all the other wonderful benefits it has. Exercising vigorously for 30 minutes or more a day is ideal for promoting sleep. Make sure not to exercise too close to bed time, however. If you must exercise in the evening, opt for slow, non-vigorous exercise that doesn’t cause you to break a sweat. Things like stretching, yoga, or a walk around the block.
  5. Fizzy drinks. Caffeine is a the enemy of sleep. Most of us don’t really give it much thought. In fact, many people say to me that they don’t really drink things with caffeine. However, when we start to go through the list, we find that in fact they are getting far more then they thought. Caffeine is found in a variety of things, from sodas to coffee to tea to chocolate. And the reality is that it stays in your body for 7 hours. And while you may not be aware that it is in your body 7 hours later, you may be suffering its effects when you can’t sleep. What you can do is make sure you don’t have any caffeine 7 hours prior to sleeping. A good guide is not to have any after 3 p.m.
  6. Rays of light. Our bodies are meant to respond to light. We build vitamin D through sunlight, feel alive and happy as a result, and loose melatonin by exposure. Our brains also know when it’s light out that we’re supposed to be awake and chasing after our kids. But the converse is also true. When it’s dark out, our brains know that we’re supposed to be sleeping. And here’s the problem: the more light we have in our rooms at night, the more our brains think it’s time to not be sleeping. Light doesn’t just have to be from the sun, however. It can also come from your ipad, cell phone, t.v., or any other electronic device. The rule is that if you’re having trouble sleeping, turn off the devices and focus on sleep instead of the latest episode of The Office. If you want a relaxing pre-bed activity read a book with a low wattage bedside lamp or book light. Or better yet, try some meditation or deep breathing exercises.
  7. Just eat it. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat close to bed time. We’ve all heard that eating at bed will cause us to gain weight. We could discuss whether this is true or not, but the reality is that carbs create serotonin and since serotonin is a sleep regulator, building more helps. But what you eat and how much is very important. When choosing a bedtime snack, try a whole grain carbohydrate based snack such as 100% whole wheat bread or home made millet crackers (recipe below).
  8. Deja Vu. Our bodies respond to routine. Routine gives our brains signals that certain events are going to happen. Things like the sun shining is a signal it’s time to wake up, water boiling is time to make tea, and brushing your teeth means it’s time to go to sleep. The same way that light is a signal, so are any number of other events. The key is to be consistent and do the same things every night. If you normally brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, and get into bed, then this should be the thing you do every night. While it may not be possible to do this all the time, the more the better.
  9. Music to your ears. Music is a powerful tool. It makes us remember things, want to move, and can help set the mood to sleep. There are a number of different cds that can be utilized for relaxation, but the rule is make is light, make it soft, and make it soothing.
  10. Write it down. In the end, you may find that nothing works. You’ve tried all or most of these things and you still can’t sleep. If this is the case, the most important thing you can do for yourself is start a journal. Write down how you feel, what you ate, what you did, what the weather was like, or whether you were hot or cold. The more information you have, the more you may be able to start to see a pattern. Before you know it, you may learn that your room is just too hot or the dogs are tossing and turning at the foot of the bed. Once you know more about what is keeping you awake the quicker you can make changes to get you to sleep.

Millet Crackers

Adapted from Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron

These are a great snack, a breeze to make, and are usually devoured in hours. Be creative and add whatever you like: seeds, ground nuts, or spices.

2 1/2 tbsp olive oil

1 1/2 tsp honey

4 tbsp water

1/2 cup raw millet, ground to a powder in blender

3/4 cup super flour *

Mix the above. Add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until you have a good dough consistency. Knead for a few minutes and roll until 1/8 inch thick on a buttered baking sheet or one lined with silpat. Score with a knife in any shape you wish. Bake about 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool on rack.

* Super flour is a term Ruth Yaron uses in the book. She describes it as more nutritious. To make super flour, place 1 tbsp each soy flour, wheat germ, and brewer’s yeast in a a one-cup measuring cup. Top it with whole wheat flour. If you don’t like any of the ingredients, like soy for instance, you can always add more of another.

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