Paul McCartney dreamed the composition of his hit song “Yesterday; ” he awoke and the lyrics poured out of him like water out of a pitcher. Similarly, it’s said that Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed the construction of the periodic table of elements. Director Christopher Nolan famously keeps a dream journal; one especially lucid dream became the inspiration for his 2010 psychological thriller Inception. Edgar Allen Poe’s constant nightmares inspired his most famous short stories.
Last week, I wrote about how dreaming is an important neurobiological response that fuels our creative lives and helps us maintain emotional balance. And deep sleep is just as crucial for our physical health as our mental health. In deep sleep, the body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure plummet to conserve energy. Then, the body releases growth hormones that repair all the cellular damage we did while awake. People who regularly get less than 6 hours of sleep each night have a 50% increased chance of viral infections, heart disease, and stroke. They aren’t getting enough deep sleep to build new, healthy cells. The average adult needs seven to eight hours of sleep per night, but studies indicate that over 40% of Americans get less than that.
But what about those times when we simply cannot fall – or stay – asleep? Everyone is metabolically different, so what works for some will not work for all. It might take some work to find your perfect sleep equation, but here are some suggestions to get you started down the path to the Land of Nod.
Make Your Bedroom a Device-Free Zone
Your bedroom is for sleeping, sexing, and resting. I define resting as reading or practicing restorative yoga. Watching TV is not resting. Nor is playing games on your ipad. Ditto to scrolling social media on your phone. Studies indicate that nighttime exposure to the blue light from these devices interrupts the production of melatonin.
Deep in the brain is a gland called the pineal, which is connected to our optic nerve. This gland is only about as large as a grain of rice, but for such a tiny thing it plays an incredibly important role in how rested we are. The pineal releases melatonin, which controls our wakefulness cycles by telling our bodies to go (and stay) asleep. When the eyes register full spectrum light, the brain is signaled to slow or stop the production of melatonin. When the sun sets, nerve impulses via the sympathetic nervous system travel to the pineal, which then slowly releases melatonin until we fall asleep. But if the rods and cones in your eyes see a screen late at night, the pineal gland thinks it is still daytime and tells the brain not to release melatonin, preventing you from falling asleep.
Chill Out During the Day for a More Restful Night
If dropping off is hard due to a racing mind, adopting a daily mindfulness meditation practice helps. Trying to sleep with racing thoughts is like trying to power down your brain with too many tabs open. Meditation upgrades the operating system to your executive functioning and clears your mental cache. Upgraded programs allow everything to power down and start up more efficiently.
If you’re unsure where to start, the Headspace app has a 30-day meditation series specifically for sleep. You practice it during the day, when you are alert and awake. Over time, it trains the nervous system to deregulate (or power down), so that falling and staying asleep is easier. It also includes guided meditations for falling asleep at night. Mindfulness meditation improves and equalizes melatonin to help balance our circadian rhythms.
Keep to a Sleep Schedule
Turn off the light and rise about the same time each day to keep your circadian rhythms happy. You may sleep one extra hour on the weekends, but more than that disrupts your body’s rhythm. You can’t bank sleep for later. Maintaining a regular sleep/wake schedule helps you sleep well over time. How much sleep you need to feel your best is about 80% genetic – we are each unique in this regard.
The perfect amount for you will ultimately mean that you will awaken naturally, without the need for an alarm. Remember that REM sleep happens later in the night. Routinely waking up with an alarm clock repeatedly shears off the endings of our longest dreaming periods. It’s like throwing away a book one chapter before you finish.
Enjoy that Nightcap Earlier in the Day
Bedtime alcohol induces sleep during the first half of the night, but wrecks it during the second half of the night, preventing REM sleep. Drinking too much late at night causes competing brain activity during the second half of the night, resulting in poor sleep. Give your body plenty of time to absorb any alcohol before turning in.
Try Sleeping Supplements
Consider trying a natural sleep-promoting supplement such as magnesium, melatonin, lavender, valerian root, or CBD oil. Talk to your doctor about what might work best for you.