What You Don’t Know About Sleep
October 28th, 2013
How to Put Your Head to Bed
A reader sent in the following question:
“During times of stress, I find it very hard to fall asleep. It seems as though my mind is working overtime; going over the things that are bothering me. Are there any techniques or ways to stop this from happening? I notice that some people can fall asleep no matter how much stress they are under. They seem to be able to turn it off like a light switch.”
Imagine that falling asleep is something like trying to land an airplane. In your case, being unable to fall asleep when your mind is “working overtime”, is comparable to a pilot being unable to land their plane as it is coming in too fast. As any pilot knows, under this condition you need to pull up, circle back around and attempt another landing at a slower speed.
As you’ve probably experienced, the longer you lay there trying to fall asleep the less likely it is that you actually will. There will come a time when you must realize that your mind has no intention of slowing down and that, unless you have access to a powerful tranquilizer, there is little to nothing you will be able to do about it. Telling yourself to stop worrying about your problems is something like telling yourself to not think about a blue horse (I know that all of you are right now thinking about a blue horse. You get the point). And attempting to follow the age old tradition of counting sheep will inevitably be just as useless (By the way, has counting sheep ever worked for anyone over the age of five? What’s more, why sheep?).
So, to complete the analogy, there will come a point when you will just have to give up trying to land and will figuratively have to pull up and try again. Literally, this means that you will have to get up out of bed and go through a routine that will allow you to return to bed with your mind moving at speed more amenable to falling asleep.
There is no rule of thumb as to how long you should wait before you give up trying and get out of bed. My general recommendation is not to stay in bed any longer than 20 to 30 minutes if you are unable to fall asleep.
Once you get up, you will have to go through a routine that will have the effect of shifting your mind away from your worries onto something more calming. Everyone will have to develop his or her own unique routine. But here are some ideas that you might consider
If you have not already done this, I recommend that the first thing you do is to take a dose of melatonin. This will in most cases, give your brain the signals it needs to begin the slowing down process. I will address the value of melatonin in a later blog.
You might consider eating something soothing. This does not, unfortunately, include chocolate cake or ice cream. Sugar has a stimulating effect– the opposite of what you need. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, can have a very sedating effect. If you are not sure about what foods are made up of complex carbohydrates look this up on the Internet. Some examples are potatoes, whole wheat bread, and fruit. You could also consider having a nice glass of wine, but only if you promise not to tell anyone that you heard this from me.
Next, get out some paper and a pencil and write down all of your worries. (Do not, however, use a computer. As you will understand in my future melatonin blog, light has an adverse effect on being able to fall asleep). The purpose of this exercise is to dump your worries from your head onto the page. For this exercise to work you not use this as an attempt to solve your problems. This will only serve to continue keeping your mind at work. Which is the opposite of where you want it to be. Also, it is very important that, you do not leave anything out. You can always burn it in the morning.
The next step, is to find a quiet place and do something that you find calming and relaxing. It is best to avoid anything that requires a significant amount of light. If you prefer reading or watching TV I recommend that you do this on a dimly lit iPad or Kindle device. And, for this strategy to work, you need to choose something to watch or read that is not overly stimulating; e.g. an action movie or a book you find so interesting that you’ve had a hard time putting down.
If however, you sleep with one of those “fall asleep like a light switch” people, continuing to read or watch TV once you get back into bed can lead to serious problems in your relationship.
My recommendation, is to try meditation or listening to soothing music. Meditation is a skill that may take some time to learn. But, it is well worth the effort. Not only will you be able to use it in you’re falling asleep routine; you can also use it to reduce your stress level at any point during the day.
Currently, this skill is known as “Mindfulness Meditation”. My friend and colleague Eric Dutton, our expert on meditation and stress management, tells me that the simplest way to understand mindfulness meditation is that “it’s about choosing to pay attention to something, and then noticing when you’re not doing it”. I hate to tell you this Eric, but I have no idea what that means. If you want to find out more about mindfulness meditation read my next blog entitled “Eric explains what in the heck he is talking about”.
Personally, I prefer listening to music. In order to successfully use this strategy, you need to be very careful about which music you choose to listen to. As you can easily understand, Metallica is definitely out. The music should typically have no words, be slow and continuous (e.g. no commercials). You can easily find music like this by going to You Tube and doing a search for something such as “music for sleep”. Once you get back into bed, you will need to use some type of earphones and have some way of setting a timer for the music to shut off. This can easily be achieved with any smart phone.
If, after going through this entire routine, you can still not slow your mind down, you might want to consider Plan B. Take a powerful tranquilizer and put your plane into autopilot.
Good luck and may the sheep be with you.
Send us your questions for Dr. J.
October 11th, 2013
Question(s): Is anyone working on a substance or brain wave treatment that would enable us to sleep like the dolphin (half of the brain in a sleep state, while the
other half functions as normal?
Also, if dreams have meaning, would using the psychedelic DMT (what your brain releases in small doses in REM sleep) be considered a therapeutic treatment, for things such as you stated, standing up to people or overcoming insecurities?
“Dolphins do that?” “Do fish sleep?” “What is DMT?”, and “What?”.
My thoughts as I read your questions.
Actually, I love these questions. They are really weird and way outside the box. And way outside the box is one of my favorite places to go. And here is what I found when I went there.
If dolphins can sleep with half a brain at a time, why can’t we?
First off, you are absolutely correct. The bottleneck dolphin, (e.g. Flipper) does in fact, sleep with literally “one eye open”. One side of their brain sleeps while the other side is on watch. What an amazing survival strategy!
It turns out, however, that bottleneck dolphins are the only marine mammals that can do this. Thus confirming the widely held belief that bottlenecks are the smartest fish in the sea. This explains why Sea World job postings clearly state that, “only bottlenecks need apply”.
Your question is whether it would be possible for humans to do the same thing. The answer is yes. In fact, many humans can already do this. They are the ones you meet (or run into) who always appear to be half-asleep. I’m not sure that, for humans, walking around using half your brain at a time is such a good idea.
Do fish sleep?
I know you didn’t ask this; but your questions led me to wonder whether this is true. So I looked it up. And the answer is,,, it depends what you mean by “sleep”
Almost every creature in the animal kingdom uses energy during part of the day and then replenishes it during another part of the day. The most active portion of the day is “catabolic” (energy using) and the least active part of the day is “anabolic” (energy generating). Every member of the animal kingdom has a catabolic and anabolic phase (Except for insects that get only one shot at it. They are born, do whatever it is they need to do, have sex, then die).
Fish don’t actually sleep. They just have periods during which they are more active and periods during which they are less active. If you have a goldfish, and you have nothing better to do, observe their behavior over a 24-hour period. will notice that there are periods during which they will sink to the bottom of their bowl and appear to be doing nothing at all. This is their anabolic or energy restoring state.
Researchers have actually studied what happens when you prevent fish from going into these energy-restoring states. As you can imagine, they begin to behave very erratically and use very poor judgment. Among humans, you can observe the same phenomenon by walking through a Las Vegas casino at three in the morning.
About your last two questions. I initially thought they were so strange that you must have been using DMT when you came up with them. After doing a little research, however, I discovered that these are actually quite interesting and very thought provoking. So much so that I will devote my next blog entry entirely to answering them.
Until then, do your best to sleep with both sides of your brain. And if you don’t, let us know when and where you are driving to give us a chance to literally steer clear.
Send us your questions for Dr. J.
March 1st, 2013
Question: Why do some people need more sleep than others?
The long and the short of it
Our sleep question of the month comes from Penny who asks “Why do some people need more sleep than others?”
Well Penny, that is a great question. First of all, you have astutely discounted the common fallacy (propagated by grandmothers everywhere), that everyone should get 8 hours of sleep per night.
In truth, sleep need is distributed along a bell curve. On the extremes are people who need as few as 3 or as many as 11 hours of sleep each night. Eight hours (actually 7.5) is only what the average person needs.
Scientists who study this type of thing call those who need 6 hours or less “short sleepers” while “long sleepers” are defined as those who need 10 hours or more.
Thomas Edison was a famous short sleeper. He described sleep as a “waste of time”.
On the other hand, Albert Einstein reported that he did his best thinking after 10 hours of sleep.
So what do we know about these long and short sleepers? Why do some people need 10 hours and some only 5?
The answer may be in their genes.
Sleep researchers studied one family consisting of 5 “normal sleepers” and two who only needed 6 hours per night. The two short sleepers (both ladies) routinely went to bed at 10 and were up and going at 4AM. Scientists found that the two early risers had a genetic mutation not shared by the other family members. The involved mutation was on one of a family of “clock” genes that regulate our bodies’ timing mechanisms.
Actually, to call this a “mutation” is somewhat misleading. It would be more accurately referred to as an infrequent genetic “variant” that results in a “short sleeper/early riser” temperament or personality.
So, to rephrase the original question, “What is the purpose of having some people needing to sleep less and others needing to sleep more?”.
As a rule of thumb, genetic variations, such as the one between short and long sleepers, must serve some Evolutionary purpose. While no one knows what that is, here is what I like to think.
Imagine yourself as one of those ancient cave people on whom Evolution conducted its cruel survival experiments.
You wake up one morning with your eyes frozen shut and you are literally freezing to death. But, just as your life is about to slip away, the cave begins to warm and a wonderful aroma drifts by. When your eyelids finally unfreeze, you see that those two nice early riser ladies have a fire going and are cooking up a delicious rack of cave bear bacon.
So you survive one more day thanks to those two early rising ladies who share what I like to call, “the breakfast maker mutation”.
In contrast to the short sleepers, scientists have yet to identify a genetic mutation specific to those of you who can’t get by without 10 or more hours of sleep. And it is difficult to imagine that the rest of your cave family would appreciate having you snoozing in while everyone else does all the hard work of survival.
But, in fact, long sleepers have some pretty good qualities. Einstein was a long sleeper. And he turned out to be pretty useful. In fact, High School and college students who sleep longer get better grades than their short-sleeping classmates.
Another good thing about the long-sleepers is that they tend to be relatively jolly and pleasant to be around. In contrast, some groups of short sleepers have been found to be more “neurotic”—crankier, grumpier, and definitely more irritating. You know the type. Out collecting the firewood and complaining that they are the ones doing all the work (which they probably are).
I’m sure that scientists will eventually discover the “long sleeper/late-riser” gene. Until then, I think I’ll just call it “The Happy Albert” mutation.
Send us your questions for Dr. J.
November 14th, 2012
Why does coffee keep you awake?
Your brain is powered by an enormous rechargeable battery. It is spent during the day and recharged while you sleep at night. After a good night of sleep we awaken feeling rested with our brain battery fully recharged.
Most of us, however, do not, in fact, wake up with such a well-charged battery. Rather ours is charged to the measly 50% we earned by staying up late doing nothing we are particularly proud of come morning. We are the coffee pot people. We are the ones who, after hitting snooze as long as we dare, finally begin the long bleary-eyed stagger towards the coffee pot. Because we know that, without this miraculous drug, we are doomed to stumble through the day like brainless zombies.
So, how does coffee work this magic?
Coffee can’t give us a fully charged battery. But it can trick our brain into thinking we have one. So when your brain takes a look at it’s battery meter, it sees 100% and so, turns off all the signals telling you to get back to bed right now.
But more than waking you up, coffee wakes you UP. After one cup of Joe your IQ shoots up 20 points and you suddenly you have the energy you used to have 10 years ago when Disneyworld was something you actually looked forward to.
You feel as if adrenaline is rushing wildly through your veins. Actually, that is because adrenaline IS rushing wildly through your veins. Coffee is not only a waker-upper. Coffee is an upper. An Adderall-like, pharmaceutical grade stimulant.
So, after that first cup(s) of java, you put the pedal to the metal and launch into your day. Whenever your energy begins to flag, you head back to the coffee (pit stop) and you are back in the race.
But somewhere down deep, you know this can’t go on forever. Eventually the truth comes out. As the coffee magic wears off, your mind realizes that it has been fooled (again). And, suddenly seeing that its battery is in fact, heading into the red, your brain simply slams on the brakes. The result of which is the inevitable end of the day, coffee crash.
Most of us accept that the game is up and head sluggishly back home where we lay down on the couch and once again watch mindless television shows until 1AM just like we did the night before.
There are always some of us, however, who, out of desperation or simple self-denial, refuse to go quietly into that good night.
I myself have been one of those people. I can vividly recall how absolutely confident I felt that, on the day before it was due, I could easily knock out that 20 page paper that I had been preparing to start for the past 8 weeks. (note: the positive impact of coffee on writing productivity was first recognized by the 19th century philosopher Balzac who wrote: “As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move…similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle”).
With that first cup of adrenaline coursing through my veins, I would write like a man possessed. Hour after hour, I would pound away; filling that computer with all the inspired ideas I had amassed over weeks of daydreaming about the brilliant paper that was now unfolding in front of my now wide awake eyes.
That is, until, about 8 pages in, the thoughts weren’t flowing quite so quickly. And each additional cup of coffee would result in less writing and more pacing.
And so it would go. The, oh so predictable, descent from 8AM “Superman” into 2AM ”Wired man”. And that brilliant paper I had imagined would begin to sound as if it was being written by someone for whom English was a second language.
So that is how coffee works. At least until it doesn’t.
WARNING. THIS NEXT SECTION IS ONLY FOR SCIENCE NERDS LIKE MYSELF. FOR ALL ELSE, NO AMOUNT OF COFFEE WILL SAVE YOU
Caffeine has three important effects: (1) wake you up, (2) help you focus, (3) get you moving.
The first effect is the result of caffeine’s ability to block adenosine receptors. You may recall that molecular processes throughout the body are primarily powered by ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate). ATP has been referred to as the body’s “molecular unit of currency”. Energy is transferred by the transformation of ATP into ADP (adenosine di-phosphate). The end product of this process is adenosine.
In one of the body’s many clever feedback loops, rising levels of adenosine informs the brain that ATP stores are running low and that it is time to sleep in order to build them back up. The more energy you burn during the day, the higher your levels of adenosine get, and the deeper your sleep. (side note, this is why we sleep better at night if we exercise during the day).
The second effect of improving attention and focus is the result of caffeine’s ability to stimulate the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Not coincidentally, this is the same mechanism by which stimulants treat the symptoms of attention deficit disorder. (side note: my personal observation is that people who drink the most coffee are the most likely to have ADD).
Finally, caffeine “amps up the energy” by literally stimulating the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. How much does it release? A medium cup of Starbucks coffee will triple your adrenaline level.
Send us your questions for Dr. J.
October 24, 2012
What do dreams mean?
Let me start by answering the question “Why do we dream?”. Who better to answer this question than the famous scientist William Shakespeare?
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care. The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath. Balm of hurt minds”(Macbeth, act 2, scene 1).
Of course Shakespeare isn’t really a scientist. A real scientist’s explanation would be even more incomprehensible. Shakespeare, being who he is, has to makes the same point three times, in three different ways. Essentially what he is saying is that sleep helps us to get over all the bad stuff we’ve been through. What Shakespeare doesn’t say, is that all this knitting, bathing, and balming happens when we dream.
My dreams often involve me being chased —a lot. And I am always running away from an endless assortment of angry people who want to kill me in every horrifying way my brain can come up with. But the funny thing is…. they never do. The bullets always miss. I always get away.
So the next night, I might have a dream in which I stand up to them (for some reason, this usually involves a sword). I don’t always win, but I never lose.
And over the years, I have won more often than not. And I have found more and better ways of evading the bad guys (last night it involved grabbing a rope hanging from a hot air balloon…or possibly a helicopter. I don’t remember.
So now in my real life, when bad things happen, I’m less inclined to run from them in my dreams. And when someone really……..upsets me, I am more likely to stand up to them (although, at this point, I rarely need a sword).
So, in short, dreams make all the bad things better. Heal our old wounds. Make it easier to handle the ……… stuff thrown at us each day.
So, getting back to the question of “what do dreams mean?” First off, all dreams have meaning—no matter how bizarre or difficult to understand. The meaning of some dreams can be pretty obvious. A 5 year old dreams about eating a piece of chocolate cake. No mystery there.
Most of my wife’s dreams, at least the ones she tells me about, are often quite straightforward as well. If she is having trouble at work, she dreams about what is happening at work. Others are more complex. In some of her dreams, I am either having an affair with another woman or I’m leaving her. I am usually in big trouble when she has one of these dreams.
How about the really complex, weird dreams? They all have meaning too, but the more complicated the dream, the more difficult it is to figure out what it is about.
The most confusing aspect of dreams is that they include elements of both the past and the present, mixed together to create experiences you’ve never had. For example, you could find yourself working at a job you had 9 years ago, and your boss is someone you knew when you were 10 (e.g. 1967).
That is, in part, because there is an area of your brain (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for you neuroanatomy junkies) that organizes your experiences by time—letting you tell the difference between what happened in the past and what is happening in the present. When you are dreaming, however, this particular area of the brain, simply turns off.
People and events in your dreams are connected not by the time they happened, but by the emotions you felt when they happened. It is likely, then, that the events of the dream are connected to other people or situations that have made you feel the same way.
So, in the example above, the guy that bullied you when you were ten, could be representing a previous boss who made you made you feel the same way, even if the boss at the job you had nine could have been a very nice, woman. But the appearance of this guy in your dream last night, probably means that the dream elements are connected by other experiences you’ve had that caused you to feel the same way. And furthermore, it is likely that you’ve recently been feeling bullied.
Although the current bully may not even be a specific person and may not even be connected to your work.
If you are confused by this and annoyed with me for confusing you, someone who is annoyingly confusing may be the star of your next dream.
You are welcome.
Send us your questions for Dr. J.
———-September 17, 2012
Why do some people sleep so soundly that it is difficult to rouse them, and why do others sleep so lightly?
The sound sleepers are the lucky ones. They usually marry one of the unlucky ones.
There are several reasons that some people are light sleepers. The first reason is that light sleeping can be written into your genes. Consider the sleep habits of newborns and young children. There have always been the “good sleepers” and the dreaded “bad sleepers”. This difference is easily apparent the first night they get home from the hospital. And then becomes increasingly apparent for the next 6,570 nights.
If it is genetic, there must be some adaptive purpose to having a group of light sleepers among the heavy ones. Imagine, for example, a tribe with nothing but sound sleepers; who are sound asleep while a bear is consuming their neighbor. Our survival is truly dependent on the light sleepers. Thank you light sleepers. And I’m sorry.
Under certain conditions, a sound sleeper can change into a light sleeper. I’m sure that foxholes were filled with light sleepers. Who wakes up when the baby cries? Mom. How many marriages have been strained when Mom believes that Dad is just pretending to be asleep when the baby cries? The truth: women are wired differently than men. Studies of brain activity when hearing a baby cry: Mom: entire brain suddenly lights up like a one hundred thousand watt flood lamps. Dad: 20 watt light bulb
Interestingly, once you have become a light sleeper for an extended period of time, you may never be able to go back. Many mothers can attest to this. Research has found that formerly sound sleeping women, become permanently light sleepers once the kids arrive.