Thursday, 9 September 2010

Ten Things about Sleep

Here is yet another set of notes from a BBC iPlayer programme.  I seem to go through stages where I sleep very well and others when it doesn't go so well, so I'm always interested in ideas about how to improve on this.  Cousin Sharon and I used to swap emails between England and Australia during our sleepless nights, so it wasn't all bad, but I'd bet both of us would first choose a good night's sleep!

1.  Warm bath.  Turns out that the key isn't just to raise your core body temperature; it's actually the drop in temperature after you leave the bath that tells your body it is time to sleep.  Apparently during sleep our temperature drops even further.  They suggested taking a warm bath about an hour before bedtime.

2.  Sleep restriction.  A journalist with chronic insomnia was featured and apparently he is either Mr. Fun or Grouchy Old Bear depending upon his sleep success.  He said he'd tried a million things, but the professor in this scenario gave him two rules:  a) the bedroom is absolutely out of bounds except to sleep; b) don't go to bed until 2am and get up at 8am; c) get up at the same time every day, regardless of how well or badly he slept.    The journalist was sent away to practice these principles for a month and he reported a wonderful new relationship with bedtime.

3.  Naps.  British culture - and perhaps US as well - sort of frowns on taking naps, as though they are a sign of laziness or perhaps of getting old.  The person featured in this segment was the first woman to sail solo around the world.  Apparently sleep deprivation goes hand in hand with this job and she was averaging only 3 hours a day.  The professional she consulted said she needed 5 hours to maintain her physical and mental performance even if it meant taking 8 to 10 short naps per day.  She reported this added two hours made a huge difference for her.  For normal people, the takeaway message was that our body clocks strongly discourage us from napping between 7 and 12 in the morning or between 6 and 8 in the evening.  The optimal time to nap is between 2 and 5pm and for no more that around 30 minutes.  I confess that during some of my latter years at work when I had to read very long, technical documents, I would find myself nodding off around 3pm.  When it got impossible to bear, I would go out to my car, set a timer for 20 minutes, recline the seat back and have a snooze.  When the timer went off, I went back to my office with a nice cup of coffee and my brain fizzed effectively for the rest of the day. 

4.  Snoring.  They said 15 million people in Britain snore (about 25% of the population) and that snoring has a negative effect on 1 in 5 relationships (hand up here).  Apparently the tissues in the nose and throat relax when we are asleep and this allows them to vibrate.  I'm not convinced that either of their solutions was wonderful.  One was an over the counter moistening strip that the man put on the roof of his mouth and they seemed to think it made the snoring less if not ceased altogether.  The other man used some sort of mouth guard to keep his tongue in position but it caused him to gag.  It was recommended he practice wearing it during the day to get used to it and he was going to, so he said.  Somehow I don't see this happening.  The more useful message was perhaps that snoring in people who are very overweight and where people find themselves dropping off to sleep during the day can be a sign of other serious health problems and this should be discussed with one's doctor. 

5.   Sleep Cycles, Coffee and Alcohol.  There are five stages of sleep:  one - drowsiness; two - light sleep; three and four - deep sleep; five - dream stage / Rapid Eye Movement.  We should have four to six of these cycles during a healthy night's sleep.  Drinking coffee too close to bedtime makes it harder to drop off to sleep (duh).  Once asleep, a person stays only in light sleep for more time and doesn't get enough deep sleep.  Drinking alcohol helps a person drop off to sleep faster but they take longer to reach deep/REM sleep.  Also, in the second half of the night they are likely to wake and have difficulty dropping back off.  The recommendation is to not drink alcohol or coffee in the four hours prior to bedtime.

6.  Daylight.  In has only been since 2002 that it has been known how daylight makes us wake up.  Apparently there are cells in the retina at the back of the eye that are light sensitive, even through closed eyelids, to a form of blue light.  When these cells perceive daylight they signal to the pineal gland to stop manufacturing melatonin, a sleep hormone.  The obvious information here is to keep one's bedroom as dark as possible.  They sell blackout plastic here to line window curtains.  The person who was narrating the programme was a woman who worked as a presenter on morning TV and had to report to work at 3am.  For her there was the additional advice to purchase a special blue light that mimics daylight to those cells.  She said it helped a lot (that and the coffee).

7.  Food.  A restaurant chef fed two different meals to identical twins whose pre-meal response times had been measured.  One meal was gnocchi - very high in carbohydrates; the other was cod - a protein meal.  Carbohydrates release insulin which triggers the production of tryptophan which in turn causes us to produce seratonin, associated with sleep.  Protein food releases amino acids which lower tryptophan levels and so is less sleep-inducing.  Their advice was to eat a carbohydrate rich meal four hours prior to bedtime (contrary to all that diet advice...).  I should have been eating protein at lunch instead of carbs.

8.  Jetlag.  This was supposedly a piece of research, but call me a skeptic.  That said, I wouldn't dismiss this advice out of hand.  Some researcher from Harvard hypothesised that food can reset our body clock.  The subjects were two British race car drivers who race in the US and spend their lives jetting between the two countries.  The researcher believes that the food clock is located in the hypothalamus and, in most humans, is largely dormant.  He believes that food restriction can help trigger that food clock.  The race car drivers were tested for response times as a marker for alertness, then sent on a plane back to the UK.  One driver ate anything he wished; the other had nothing but water for 16 hours.  On his return home he ate breakfast and went about his usual day's routine.  He reported a slight amount of tiredness that afternoon, but otherwise a huge improvement over his usual jetlag experience.  The other driver who'd eaten (in truth probably eaten more than usual to tease his colleague) had the usual backwards feeling and weariness associated with jetlag.  Their follow up response time tests showed that food restriction was a success.  The narrator reported this technique helped her on her trans-Atlantic journey when she was only foodless for nine hours.   I think for me to go without food for 16 hours all of these sleep tips would have to work so wonderfully well that I managed to be unconscious most of the time.  Call me weird, but I actually like most airline food.

9.  Stress / relaxation.  The punter in this segment was a hyperactive stand up comic / DJ.   His main problem, aside from having quite adrenalin producing work, was that his schedule was so erratic he needed to be able to virtually sleep on demand.  They sent him to a physiotherapist who taught him progressive muscle relaxation.  You know, where you tense your feet, then relax them; tense your calves, then relax them, and so on up the body.   Of course it showed him dropping off right there on the table in front of the camera...  This would be something to do about 15 minutes before bedtime.  I recall my mom playing 'rag doll' with me to help me get to sleep.  She would pick up my hands or feet and let them drop and my job was to be as limp as a ragdoll.  I loved the game and didn't want it to end, but in order to play I had to relax...and it worked.

10.  Herbal potions.  The last scenario had two gardeners brewing up lavender tea or tincture of valerian.  The guy doing the lavender went further and gave himself a lavender foot bath.  They traded brews and each reported the next day having slept marvelously.  I'd no idea one could make tea from lavender and I gather a true tincture takes quite a bit of time to make.  Valerian plant isn't that commonly cultivated these days.  I can report having taken valerian pills purchased at a health food store and the did seem to work, but I wouldn't swear by it.

I always took good sleep for granted when I was younger, but no more.  I wanted to share this in case it was helpful for anyone else, but also to tuck these notes away where I'd be sure to find them again.


Boywilli said...

Nobody I know snores. Who were you thinking about. Now coughing, there's a different story, that and hot flushes

Struggler said...

Wow, so much great info here. I love to nap, but find it takes me a little while to drop off, so a 20 minute timer always leaves me feeling cheated.
Daylight certainly is very powerful (when it's time to wake up) - I've really noticed that when travelling and dealing with jetlag.
My biggest sleep challenge is waking up around 2/3 am and then my mind starts to get active. But I'm not sure I'm ready to try the 2am-8am sleep rule!! (Work might have a problem with that, too) :)

Rick Stone said...

A big thing in the last few years is the "power nap". Instead of going to the break room for coffee it is recommended you close the door and take a 15 minute nap. These short naps during the work day are supposed to keep you alert. With retirement I find I can nap anytime I want so don't really have a need for "power naps".