Imagine a roller coaster climbing the tracks. Click by click it gets higher and higher as the stress and fear build. This is an apt description of our last 6 months. Stress and fear building day by day with little relief in sight. But get ready. It’s about to get worse. This political season will bring unrest unseen in our lifetimes. Peaceful protests are erupting into violent and sometimes deadly confrontations. And the pandemic we’ve been patiently dealing with is about to be exacerbated by the onset of flu season. All of this creates a perilous economic environment, translating into fear for our livelihoods and homes.
The pandemic we’ve been patiently dealing with is about to be exacerbated by the onset of flu season.
The challenges are immense. And with that in mind, let’s get ready. Let’s work on our resilience, immunity and emotional regulation so we do more than just weather this tsunami. We can become strong enough to help our families and our ‘bubbles’ do the same.
I’m launching a series of blogs about handling stress in more productive ways. We’ll break down the aspects of stress, the mechanisms to process it and give you productive tools to use in your daily life. We can build mental and emotional muscle in these times and use this turmoil as fuel in our drive to be stronger and healthier.
Lately, more people approach me with questions about sleep. It’s a great place to start our conversation, because if your sleep is not right, everything else we talk about will be a struggle.
Sleep is what rewires your brain. Slow wave sleep in particular leads to very deep recovery, recharging our nervous system. Sleep also improves all of the metabolic functions in the body including wound healing, inflammatory response, glucose regulation and neuroplasticity. How important is this? Our nervous system is what controls and instructs our immune system. All the vitamins in the world can’t compensate for an impaired nervous system sending weak signals to our immune system. This is critical as we head into Fall.
We’re often told to improve our sleep, and our “sleep hygiene” (the environment and habits effecting our sleep). But what does this mean?
Sleep is a 24-Hour Activity:
First of all, biology is a process, not an event. Therefore, sleep cannot be considered a standalone task, but must be considered within all of the events of the day. This begins with waking in the morning. It is critical to get morning light. Go outside right away if possible. This morning sunlight, even if it is cloudy or overcast, will stimulate the pineal gland. Not only does this help awaken us, but it sets in motion brain reactions that will help us to relax 16 hours afterwards.
Biology is a process, not an event.
Morning sunlight also sets up an awakening response for cortisol. My patients know that cortisol is critical for activating themselves in the morning. Only about 10 to 15 minutes of morning light is required. From a brain standpoint there is an increase in the intensity of yellow light and a reduction in the deep blue light of nighttime. The cones in the lower part of the retina pick up this bright light and send activation signals to your brain. This awakens your cortisol response and activates the pineal gland, creating changes in your brainwave activity.
Coincident with this is movement – any type of movement that you control during the day like walking, running, or bike riding. Look for movement that involves scanning the horizon. These horizontal eye movements – called “optic flow” – actually suppress signals coming from the amygdala, typically a stress area.
Make time during the day for a nap. This can be a struggle for some of you. But consider it a 20 minute “Half Time” or intermission in your day. A 20-minute nap will implant the experiences of the day into your memory, helping you learn and preparing you for your next activities.
You won’t sleep your best at night unless you learn to regulate your nervous system all day long. Critical in this is activating our dopamine. If we focus on small daily achievements connected to tangible goals, dopamine will be triggered. Dopamine release rewards you for your efforts, not just your big achievements. Neuroscience proves this out. When we give gratitude for the things we have or have done, and stop to appreciate our own efforts, we ‘self-generate’ a dopamine reward. This encourages us to even more productivity for even greater physiological reward. Over the course of a day, this adds up significantly to create a sense of satisfaction when we reach bedtime. So yes – stop and smell the roses along your path. Pat yourself on the back a few times each day. You’ll sleep better for it.
When it comes to the evening, I believe that blue light has been overemphasized. Yes blue light has important alertness-producing effects during the day. But at night, any bright light whatsoever, not just blue, can cause a serious wakening response. In fact, if we look at bright light in the middle of the night it will actually trigger the pancreas to secrete extra insulin and can cause, over time, insulin resistance. Dim the lighting from all sources before 9pm to allow your system to wind down.
What You Eat is How You Sleep:
You already know that alcohol can have a negative impact on sleep. A glass of wine or cocktail earlier in the evening is fine, but more or later will damage the consistency and quality of your sleep. Know this when you’re considering that ‘nightcap’ and choose wisely.
You can actually plan your meals to support better sleep. It is important to finish eating fairly early, prior to 7 PM if possible. Have the majority of your protein during the day, with slightly more low glycemic carbohydrates at the end of the day. These low glycemic carbs (sweet potatoes, green vegetables, raw carrots, lentils, bran cereal and some fruits and beans) will be turned into tryptophan and serotonin helping with sleep.
Your morning coffee is fine, but know that caffeine has a 4 hour ½ life and a 12 hour ¼ life – so 25% of the caffeine you drink at lunch will still be in your system at bedtime. That is enough to interfere with your deep sleep, even if it doesn’t keep you awake at night.
While I counsel my patients to avoid sleep medications if at all possible, there are helpful supplements to support falling and staying asleep. Magnesium Threonate works very well, particularly if it is combined with L-Thea One and for some, CBD. We’ll work with you to create the right formula for your unique needs.
Get Out of Your Head When You Get Into Bed:
When it is time for bed, we want to focus outside of our brain. Start by making a task list for tomorrow, so you release those thoughts from your mind. Let go of all your ‘To Dos’ and ‘Should Haves’. Letting go can also take the physical form, focusing on relaxing the body with Yoga Nidra. This 10-minute exercise can bring us to a deep state of relaxation prior to sleep. YouTube has several great Yoga Nidra videos to help get you started. The idea is to divert your focus from your thoughts to your body. Or simply put, to get your mind off your mind!
And finally, we come to the most important part. Breath. We can calm our nervous system down powerfully when we learn how to breathe in the correct way. Breath, along with light, are the most important keys to mental state regulation.
The method is relatively simple. With your mouth closed and your tongue at the top or roof of your mouth take a long slow inhale to the count of five through your nose. Be sure to breathe ONLY into your diaphragm and not your chest. This will activate both your phrenic nerve as well as your vagus nerve. These two nerves travel directly to your brain and activate the calming center of your brain. This will take some practice. We are accustomed to breathing frequently and using our chest, and often our mouths. It sometimes helps to put a hand on your chest and try to keep your hand from moving as you inhale. It may be a bit frustrating at first, but with practice you’ll quickly master this effective technique.
Breath, along with light, are the most important keys to mental state regulation.
Once you are able to inhale in this way, then simply exhale by relaxing your diaphragm. The air will go back out through your nose. Control it to a slightly longer count than your inhale. Your goal is about 8 to 10 breaths per minute. You will feel your body instantly relax once you have gotten it right. When combined with Yoga Nidra, it is an extremely powerful neurological regulator.
When we follow the neuroscience, we can begin to learn how to toggle back-and-forth between states of activation during the day and restfulness at bedtime. You can actually achieve mastery over your alertness and your sleep quality – exciting stuff! We’ll dive deeper into this next time. As always, we’re here for you.