You are getting very sleepy…

I’m struggling. It’s 3 AM and I’m awake again. This is the third morning in a row that I’ve woken up and can’t drift back into slumber. This is a big deal. Sleep is so important. Chronic loss of sleep has been linked to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, poor memory retrieval, lower cognitive function, and lower academic-job-athletic performance.

Why does this happen? Well, let’s start out with, the question, “How do you know you’re awake?” Your thoughts. Your thoughts show up to work or school three hours early-they’re eager-chomping at the bit to get stuff done. Yet, you’re screaming, “no, not yet, it’s not time!” What happens next? Your judgments and processing: “If I fall asleep now, I can still get…”, “why am I not…”, “how will I…”, “what if…”, “I should be…”, and “if only…”

What’s happening? Not always, but most commonly, your limbic system is in full-effect. It’s been hijacked by your thoughts. What’s your limbic system you ask? The limbic system is a collection of brain structures that work together as the center for emotional responsiveness, motivation, memory formation and integration, olfaction (smell), and how we sense danger. The amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus are considered the main structures of the limbic structure. This system is buried deep in the cerebral cortex which is involved in attention, planning, and decision making.

When the amygdala gets aroused (we experience fear) it overpowers the frontal lobes to allow for our animal instincts to kick in. Fight. Flight. Freeze. Our heart rate increases, and our senses become hyperaware. We smell better, hear better, see better, and taste better, but we don’t reason better… at all, actually.

What does this have to do with sleep? Good question. When we experience an emotional event (however large or small) our ability to soothe and calm makes all the difference. Sleep loss further alters the preemptive neural anticipation of impending emotional experiences (what’s going to happen next), which in turn actually drives us to be reward driven in an awakened state (most commonly food driven, but also monetary) and we may place higher importance on these rewards. On the other hand, our losses or punishment are undervalued. In layman’s terms-we are driven to engage in higher risk behavior (over eating, gambling, drinking, shopping, etc). Lack of sleep is a hallmark of addiction and has been linked to higher chance of relapse, predicts chances of substance abuse in children, and is predictive of mood disorders and anxiety. Sleep has also been demonstrated to play an influential role in modulating conditioned fear!

 So-how do we break this habit? My sleuthing skills fully activated, I embarked on the task of solving the case of the stolen sleep. My memory served me in noticing these behaviors I engaged in almost every day this week.

 

1)     Diet. I ate chocolate, coffee, and high carbohydrate meals each day I suffered the sleep loss

2)     Exercise. I hadn’t actually stepped foot into the gym in a few weeks-until the last two days

3)     Stress. Graduate School. Need I say more?

4)     Sleep. Yup-my sleep patterns have been way off-my schedule changed and I have’t been consistent

5)     Digital media. I’ve been staring at my phone right before turning off the light.

6)     Light. My curtains have been letting light peek in.

7)     Meditation. I was meditating in the mornings instead of at night before bed.

8)     Alcohol. I’d had a glass of wine almost every night.

 

I’m pretty sure I engaged in all of the behaviors that affect sleep. Here are some tips for better sleep:

1)     Eat plenty of veggies, protein, and fat

2)     Exercise. Get your ass to the gym, yoga studio, or just walk your halls at work.

3)     De-stress. Practice mindfulness, meditation, journaling, therapy, massage.

4)     Sleep. Get yourself on a sleep schedule.

5)     Unplug. Studies show that use of electronics before bed provide too much cognitive stimulation, the blue light from electronics causes your brain to believe that it is daylight not night time, sleeping next to your device creates the subconscious desire to check email, texts, the time.

6)     Darken your hibernation quarters (use blackout curtains)

7)     Meditate-see #4

8)     Alcohol. Try not having so many drinks-or limiting your consumption to the weekends.

 Here are some tips and tricks to stop those thoughts from racing: 

  1. write it down… write down everything you have to do the next day, that week. Write down whatever comes to mind
  2. read a book.. this always helps me
  3. listen to a podcast… the daily, criminal, even some that are bedtime stories
  4. forward bends.. yup, touch your toes
  5. name  the states in alphabetical order, count backwards from 100