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Thoughts on getting to sleep and a routine to try (1/3/06)
Sleep has got to be one of the subjects written about most often. Scientists are starting to understand it so I thought I'd take a crack at summarizing things. I've got the worse insomnia but I've had a lot of luck treating it after reading this:
Kräuchi, K., Cajochen, C., Werth, E. & Wirz-Justice A. (1999)
Basically it says the body dilates (widens) the blood vessels in the hands and feet before sleep, and that the people who can dilate their blood vessels the most fall asleep faster. They've tracked the reason for this down to a net loss of warmth from the core of the body, which the body interprets as a signal to fall asleep.
The doctors work at the Centre for Chronobiology at the Universitären Psychiatrischen Kliniken (UPK) in Basel, Switzerland. In addition to the vasodilation study above, they've also found the importance of a mess of other factors with "clueing in the body" that it is time to fall asleep. Some of them are:
A. Low light levels
Common wisdom also adds to the list:
D. Decreased activity levels
As is typical of a complex system, there are a lot of sleep-inducing strategies all of which work for some people but not everyone. However, most of them will directly address one or more of the factors above, even if they just shift a person's attention away from "Why can't I sleep? Is there something wrong with me?" to thoughts of how pleasant the person feels, or in the case of meditation, nothing at all. Some, like a hot toddy, actually work against one factor in favor of triggering others. I think these cause sleep, but a low quality sleep because alcohol, caffeine and nicotine constrict the blood vessels, which works against one of the prime factors above: vasodilatation.
The picture that emerges is that once most of these factors are tipped in the right direction, we fall asleep. So what is the optimal method for falling asleep? Can we come up with a routine that will address all of these factors?
Do this regularly and don't stray from the routine. In the same way that the body can be trained for a specific sport the body can be trained to sleep, but the cues to sleep need to be there regularly. This will be easier if you go to bed at the same time everyday, including weekends, as one of the cues your brain will pay attention to is how tired you are and how long ago the light levels went down.
Part of this process is about learning a new way to perceive sleeping and wakefulness, from two separate states to two parts of a spectrum, each on a different side. If you stress the body by shifting the timing too much there is hell to pay. A little bit is certainly okay but too much and the timing will be forced in one direction, one the body isn't used to and will need some time to catch up to, if it even can. That translates into a bad night's rest and a lousy day.
One important note: if this is consistently failing to give you a good night's rest and you can't figure out why, talk to your doctor about it. A lot of people have medical problems which can interfere with sleep, such as sleep apnea, and it is really worth getting these taken care of.
Sleep tight. 'night.
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