Have you ever thought of sleep as a wash cycle for the brain? Maybe you should.
A 2019 study in the journal Science used advanced imaging to show how deep sleep can set off a deep cleaning, with cerebrospinal fluid washing in and out in waves.
“Your brain is erupting in these incredible bursts of electrical activity going through all of these fantastic sleep stages. It’s an electrical ballet that takes place at night.”
That’s how Matthew Walker, director of the U.S. Centre for Human Sleep Science, describes a good snooze in a 2019 TED Talk. He’s one of many scientists on a mission to prove why we should prioritise quality shut-eye, investigating how a lack of it plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease, depression, obesity and diabetes.
Unfortunately, these days the audience may be too drowsy to pay attention. A 2021 meta-analysis of studies from 13 countries showed nearly 40% of people experienced sleep problems during the pandemic.
Luckily, for those of us looking to recharge, science can provide some useful insights. Read on for research-driven tips that can help you slumber soundly.
In recent years, we’ve seen big leaps in the understanding of our body clock, also known as circadian rhythm. In fact, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three U.S. scientists who identified the molecular mechanisms behind these rhythms.
These findings have sparked a renewed focus on light as an important external factor that can influence sleep patterns. To put this to use in your life, you can:
Start your day with a dose of natural sunlight. This will trigger your body’s wake cycle, researchers say. Exercising outdoors in the morning is also shown to help with sleep, a 2017 study in PLoS One concluded.
Beware blue glare before bedtime. Smartphones, laptops and other electronic devices emit blue-enriched light that can trick your brain into stopping the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. If you must use screens in the evening, consider an app for your device that filters blue light automatically after dark.
Keep the lights low if you must get up at night. Use illumination that’s easy on the eyes. Your sleeping quarters should also be as dark as possible – and if you can’t stop checking your phone, try to leave it outside your bedroom.
Respect your circadian rhythm on weekends. If you need recovery sleep, researchers recommend waking at your regular time and taking a short nap early in the day rather than snoozing until noon.
For those who have trouble switching off their mind, there are several strategies that can help, including guided meditation and visualisation techniques. You’ll have to experiment to see which ones help trigger your relaxation response.
“The ability to settle your mind and initiate sleep is a skill,” neurologist Chris Winter told NPR’s Life Kit. “It’s like hitting a curveball. The more you practice it, the better you’ll get at it and the more confident you become.” To discover new ways to evoke a chill state, you can:
Tune in to whispers and taps. Researchers at Dartmouth College and the University of Sheffield have documented the relaxing effects of autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a pleasant sensation some feel in response to gentle sounds such as tapping and whispering. ASMR videos have been a hit on YouTube for years, with millions of free ones available to try. There are also apps available.
Cue up app-based mindfulness. A 2021 study published in PLoS One found that subjects who used meditation apps for 10 minutes a day (e.g., Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer) experienced reduced fatigue and daytime drowsiness.
Go to your happy place. If an app isn’t your thing, you can use your own imagination to guide yourself to dreamland. Researchers from Oxford University discovered that people who imagined a relaxing scene, such as a walk along a beach, were able to speed up the onset of sleep.
Purge your worries and to-do items. Rumination is the enemy of rest, so keep pen and paper by your bed to write down what’s bothering you – then toss it in the trash. This is what’s called discharging your thoughts. If it’s a task, go ahead and add it to your calendar or to-do list to get it out of your head.
Take a time out. If you’ve tried everything and you’re still tossing and turning after 25 minutes or so, leave your bed and do a quiet activity, like reading a book in dim light, until you’re tired. Walker, the sleep scientist, explained it like this: “You’d never sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry, so why would you lie in bed waiting to get sleepy?”
All of us toss and turn from time to time. But if you’ve tried many strategies and still can’t get the rest you need, it might be time to call the doctor. You could have an underlying health issue that requires professional intervention.
Whatever you must do to get a ticket to the “electrical ballet” of sleep, whether it’s a sunlit morning walk or a stack of Post-it notes by the bedside, it will likely be worth it. We can’t control what happens to our bodies as they age, but we can give them a fighting chance to recharge. As scientists continue to advance our knowledge about what’s going on behind our eyelids, the dream of quality sleep comes into sharper focus.
Scientists recommend these sleep-inducing activities:
• Try white or gentle noise. Listen to relaxing music, audiobooks or podcasts.
• Keep it cool, temp-wise
• Focus on breathing (e.g., 4-7-8 technique)
• Read a physical book or magazine in dim light
• Write in a journal
• Limit stimulants like caffeine after 2pm
• Try gentle stretching