“Sweet dreams are made of these. Who am I to disagree?”-Annie Lennox
Sleep is one of the most mysterious functions of the human body. Many of us have a kind of love-hate relationship with it. We know we need it. We get cranky without it. And when the demands of life get too high we try to get by with less of it, usually failing miserably in the process.
So what is sleep, why do we need to do it, what happens when we skimp on it, and how do we improve it? For centuries there was no scientific proof that sleep was even needed. All science knew was what happened when we didn’t sleep. It wasn’t until 2013 when the University of Rochester released a study on why sleep is needed that we had our answer. We now know that our brain needs sleep to survive. It seems that during sleep our brain cleans up the accumulated brain junk that builds up during our waking hours. Sleep eliminates these waste products, tidies things up, and allows for better functioning the next day. It seems that all human cells produce waste products as part of normal functioning. The rest of the body has the lymphatic system to clean cells, but the brain is separated from that so sleep aids the process. Cerebrospinal fluid carries these waste products straight down to your liver for elimination. During sleep this fluid moves twice as fast as normal, because your neurons shrink by half, making the pathways to the liver wider and more efficient.
We are all too familiar with how we feel when sleep deprived. No need to get into that here. In addition to what you already know, it’s important to realize that there is no mental illness or emotional disorder that a lack of sleep will not imitate. Sleep deprivation creates a type of faux mental illness that symptomatically is identical to the real thing. This means that in order to function at your optimum you must be getting sufficient sleep. Lack of sleep makes a proper mental health diagnosis difficult, if not impossible.
Here’s an interesting example of what happens with sleep deprivation or deficient sleep. In the former Soviet Union sleep deprivation was used as a type of subtle political torture. If a dissident was arrested, he would be evaluated to see if he was mentally fit to stand trial. He would be brought to a psychiatric “hospital” to be evaluated. While there, the accused would be kept away from the outside world, living in windowless rooms without clocks while under constant observation. Every time the suspect laid down to sleep and dosed off he would be awakened within a matter of minutes and duped into thinking that long periods of time had passed. What he was told was a few hours was actually only a few minutes. Within a week the lack of sleep and erratic eating cycle would create psychotic symptoms. The suspect, now a full-blown psychotic episode induced by lack of sleep, was now incapable of standing trial. He would then be sent to a long term “psychiatric hospital” for further “treatment.” The suspect would be held there indefinitely. An incredibly sadistic, yet brilliant solution to political dissent.
There are many ways to improve and optimize our sleep. If you sleep fairly well now and would like to improve the process the simplest thing to do is to retire an hour earlier. Some studies have shown that in hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight. If you struggle with sleep you may need to be a little more systematic about improving the process. Here are some potential solutions that you may find helpful:
1. Eliminate caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco from your daily routine as much as possible. Most people underestimate the impact of these on their system, especially caffeine. “I can drink coffee and fall right to sleep,” may be true in some instances, but it tends to lead to poor quality sleep. Alcohol, and especially tobacco elimination prior to sleep is a no-brainer. Alcohol may induce sleep, but it disturbs REM sleep and the brain’s clean up process.
2. Turn your bedroom into a sensory deprivation chamber as much as possible. Eliminate as much light and some as possible. Eliminate the outside noises by using earplugs or white noise appliances. Heavy shades over windows help eliminate sleep disrupting light. There is a reason that bats sleep in caves!
3. Establish an evening pre-sleep routine that begins approximately an hour before bed. A warm bath, light reading, gentle stretching, warm milk, or a soothing bedtime tea, are useful ways to slow the body down. Meditation or journaling can be helpful in slowing the mind down. Simply venting on paper about your previous day or writing a to do list for the next can clear your mind, slow it down, and facilitate slumber.
4. Go to sleep only when tired. Remember, you can’t force yourself to sleep! This is the antithesis of what you are trying to accomplish. Think of it as a gentle process where you “slip” into a blissful state of rest.
5. Don’t be a clock watcher. Staring at the clock while struggling to sleep creates a negative internal dialogue, puts pressure on you, and disrupts the process. Remember, you can’t force yourself into a restful state.
6. Routine, routine, routine! Set one and stick to it! Your brain and body are incredible machines and function better when used in a predictable manner.
7. Use modern technology if you are tempted to stay awake to watch something on TV, or use the Internet. Record the damned thing for later and go to bed!
It may take up to 21 days to establish an efficient, effective sleep routine that works for you. Try combinations of these suggestions until you find what works for you.
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