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Not every sleep is planned

Over the past few years I’ve written many brain blogs that touch upon the vital importance of getting 7-8 hrs sleep per night when it comes to keeping our brains in good nick. I’ve also reviewed some excellent books on the topic.

The reason this topic comes up again and again is: while we sleep our brains do the lion’s share of their repair and maintenance work, look back through the previous day’s events to work out which memories are worth keeping and also when it flushes out the toxins that accumulate each day.

Perhaps most importantly, in light of rocketing rates of anxiety in the world at large since the Covid-19 pandemic has been followed by a cost of living crisis: it even helps to de-fang emotionally-unpleasant memories, enabling you to think back and learn from those events without feelings of regret or anxiety getting in the way.

I’ve banged on about the importance of sleep for our brain’s health over the years, but while I give practical tips on how to get a good night’s sleep in my book Sort Your Brain Out, I’ve yet to describe them here in my monthly blog. I gave a talk for Honda UK at Twickenham recently, where some of the delegates specifically asked for these tips, so here we are…

When we sleep blood vessels in our hands dilate into reduce brain temperature

This month’s blog is a fairly comprehensive list of practical tips on how to organise your sleeping arrangements to maximise your chances of getting enough sleep to get your brain firing on all cylinders. If you’re not currently getting 7-8 hours of good sleep each and every night, please try to increase your Sleep Opportunity by 15 mins each month and follow these tips.

NB “sleep opportunity” is the time between putting your head on the pillow and whenever your alarm is set to go off. If you go to bed at 11pm and your alarm will go off at 7am, you will be giving yourself a Sleep Opportunity of 8hrs. You might not be asleep for this whole time, but at least you’re giving yourself the chance to. And that’s an achievement all by itself.

Create the right environment for sleep

Make sure your sleeping environment is fit for purpose. If it is, you have good sleep hygiene.

Regularity

Try to go to bed at the same time every night and aim to be in bed for 8 hours. Train your brain when bedtime starts and finishes. Train it like you would a toddler. Once this becomes a routine, a regular pattern, the brain will become receptive to drifting into sleep at that time.

Create the right environment

Comfortable, cool, dark, uncluttered with some fresh air

Carefully curate your sleeping environment. Make sure it’s comfortable – no springs digging into your back (if so, buy a new high quality mattress). No dodgy pillow that make your neck ache. Make sure the room is dark – consider black out blinds or sleeping with a blindfold. Make sure the room is quiet, or sleep with ear plugs in. Ensure that the room is slightly cool, as your brain needs to cool by 1 degree C before you can get off to sleep, so maybe allow a little fresh air into the room.

Eliminate light, noise and movement during the night during the night

The brain will sense light, noise and movement when you are asleep and nudge you out of sleep mode so reduce these to a minimum to avoid unnecessary sleep disturbances.

No food or drink after 7pm.

No nibbling at night. If your stomach is not full, your brain can focus on sleeping.

Eating and drinking late in the evening distracts your body from sleep and obviously increases bathroom visits.

Also, eating sugary food and carbs in the two hours before bed will cause a sugar spike resulting in sleep disturbances a few hours later reducing deep sleep. Stop eating and drinking by 7pm.

Have a wind-down period

Best not to use screens from 1hr before bedtime. Mirror is okay.

For one hour before bedtime have a wind-down procedure where you switch off the TV, phone, iPad etc , stop reading troubling news, having stressful conversations etc. instead, listen to soothing classical music, meditate, doodle, do something that’s not too stimulating, read a book but not something that troubles your mind. If this doesn’t work there are loads of YouTube sleep meditation clips you can listen to that will help you wind-down and settle your mind to put you in the best state of mind for a good nights sleep and over 2 hours deep sleep. This is your target.

Do not ‘try’ to sleep – just let go and allow it to happen.

Relax, close your eyes, focus on your breath only. Let thoughts come and go – don’t focus on any thoughts. Just observe them and let them float away. Keep bringing your attention back to your breath.

Use breathing techniques to aid sleep.

You don’t need to know how your breathe but you might find it interesting.

If you don’t go to sleep within a few minutes breath in for 4 seconds and out more slowly for 6 seconds. As you do this check every muscle in your body to make sure they are all relaxed and not holding tension – slowly continue this process starting from your feet and gradually moving up to your head. Be sure to relax your forehead, eyes, jaw and tongue. Then return your attention back to your breathing.

Park big issues.

If you still cannot sleep because of troubling thoughts then write down what the problems are and tell your brain these problem are now ‘parked’ for the night as it is time to sleep and you will deal with these unresolved problems in the morning when you are refreshed.

Listen to your circadian rhythm.

Circadian rhythm is controlled by hormones. Hormone production is influenced by the presence or absence of light. Sunlight. Screen light. Doesn’t matter which.

Align your sleep regime with your particular circadian rhythm

Your circadian rhythm – a biological clock in the middle of your brain – controls many regions of your brain and in a 24 hour cycle ratchets down or up wakefulness. Independently of this, the sleep hormone adenosine builds up in your brain throughout the day peaking at bedtime. As these two powerful sleep-inducing forces converge in late evening you should go to sleep even if you try to stay awake. It’s the brains way to force sleep as sleep is necessary to maintain life. The brain is brilliant at helping you to get the sleep you need – you just have to help it a bit by not doing things that prevent the sleep hormones doing their job! So, what stops you sleeping?

It’s quite easy to do this. All you have to do is nod off in the evening for 20 minutes. This will substantially reduce the level of active sleep hormones in your brain and substantially reduce the sleep pressure. It can take many hours for the sleep hormones to build up again so at bedtime you will not be tired enough to sleep. You can’t sleep if you are not tired. So, no napping after early afternoon or you will not be tired enough to sleep until the early hours.

Seniors commonly experience a regression in their circadian rhythm.

If they can catch some zzzz’s in a tube tunnel, then we should find it much easier to get some sleep in an actual bed.

This results in the need to start sleep earlier in the evening. If they ignore this change and stay up later the circadian rhythm will wake them much earlier in the morning 5am because you can’t change this rhythm. It will still trigger wakefulness after a specific time period irrespective of when you went to bed. To make matters worse, in trying to stay up later these seniors often nod off in the evening which then dissipates the sleep pressure that has built up. This then results in difficulty getting off to sleep when you want to sleep. They also wake up prematurely around 4 or 5am when the circadian rhythm starts kicking in wakefulness. Result – looks like insomnia but is actually the senior not sleeping at the right time. The health consequences are very serious. You cannot change the timing of your circadian rhythm so you have to align your bedtime with this rhythm or suffer the health consequences.

No caffeine after midday.

No coffee after midday please. No black tea after 2pm. No green tea after 4pm.

Another good way to prevent sleep is to put caffeine into your blood stream. Caffeine blocks the sleep hormone receptors in your brain. Caffeine has a half life of 5 to 7 hours. An enzyme in the liver breaks down caffeine and the effectiveness of this enzyme varies between people so even a small coffee in the morning keeps some people awake and seriously affects quality of sleep thereafter. Others think they are superhuman and have a cup of coffee before they go to be, confidently informing everyone that it doesn’t stop them getting off to sleep. Little do they realise that the caffeine swimming around their body at high levels for the next 6 hours is precisely what is waking them up many hours later.

Limit alcohol at night if you want quality sleep.

We sleep much better with no alcohol in our body and make better memories.

Alcohol does not stop you getting off to sleep but it does dramatically reduce ‘deep’ sleep. This effect varies from person to person depending on how much you drink and the size and efficiency of your liver. As with caffeine, the bodies ability to rid itself of the affects of alcohol vary significantly from person to person. For some it will destroy sleep quality. For everyone it compromises the processes that convert temporary memories into permanent ones.

Deal with unresolved issues.

Worrying thoughts can often come to mind as we sleep.
Here’s how to manage them better.

The brain evolved various mechanisms to help keep you alive, so any ‘perceived threat’ will cause the brain to trigger the production of adrenaline. Adrenaline over-rides the effects of the sleep hormone and causes you to wake up, as the brain assumes there is an imminent threat to your survival that you need to be awake for. The brain does not know the difference between a real threat and an imagined threat so either way you wake up. As dreaming about upsetting things, can interrupt your sleep, it makes sense to try to mull those things over during the daytime. Sadly smartphones can really get in the way of this. We no longer get time to stare into space and mull things over because we’re forever fiddling with our phones. If you’re not sleeping well, this needs to stop. For the following reasons…

The brain regards ‘unresolved issues’ stored in the subconscious as a current threat so they will wake you up as your brain takes a peek at them in your sleep. The brain switches multiple resources from sleep mode to wake mode in an effort to come up with a solution to the unresolved problem, particularly if you’ve been putting off thinking about it.

Sometimes professional therapy is the only way to deal with unresolved issues that cause you to wake up repeatedly on a regular basis. However, one DIY method that has been used successfully is to identify the unresolved issue and consciously allocate time every day to do mental work on the problem that aims to resolve it. When doing this notice any feelings this brings up. Stay with the discomfort and then, after a few minutes, park the problem until the next day. Doing this every day for 10 minutes per day for 10 days seems to lessen the intensity of the issue and you may find you stop waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason. Why this works is unclear, but one hypothesis is that it’s probably because a point has been reached where the brain thinks the problem is now not a big enough threat to trigger the production of adrenaline. So , if you keep waking up in the night, why not give it a try!

All mammals need to sleep. Lions spend 16 hours per day either resting or sleeping. If you’re not getting enough sleep, be more lion.

Thanks for reading and if you enjoyed this then you’ll love Sort Your Brain Out. The second edition hit the bookshops in late 2021 and it’s teeming with advice on how you can get more out of your brain. In addition to these monthly brain blogs I do a weekly VR blog at www.brainmanvr.co.uk. I also tweet regularly at www.twitter.com/drjacklewis.

If you are interested in how Virtual Reality can help you look after your brain better then please drop me a line over at Brain Man VR and we can set up a demo.

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Dr Jack
drjacklewis@gmail.com