You Can Train Yourself to Sleep Better, Here's How
We're more switched on, more connected and more stressed than ever before. Our days are no longer than they were a century ago, but still we try and cram as much into those 24 hours than is humanly possible, because "seize the day" and all those #inspo quotes that induce severe self-loathing to anyone that dares sit on their ass for longer than thirty minutes.
Not surprisingly, we're the most sleep-deprived generation of all. You might think it a matter of feeling tired and cranky, but it turns out sleep is more important for our brains than we'd care to acknowledge.
Sleep serves a number of functions. REM sleep is thought to be important for emotional memories or procedural memory, while slow-wave sleep is thought to reflect the storing of so-called "declarative" memories that are the conscious record of your experiences and what you know (e.g. what you had for breakfast).
Sleep also performs a bit of brain "housekeeping". A recent study in mice found sleep cleanses the brain of toxins that accumulate during waking hours, some of which are linked to neurodegenerative diseases. During sleep, the space between brain cells increases, allowing toxic proteins to be flushed out. It's possible that by removing these toxins from the brain, sleep may stave off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
As Dr. Sigrid Veasey, a doctor at Penn's Centre for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology suggests, the effect of this is basically that your brain ages faster. "It would be like an 80-year-old brain in a 60-year-old, or a 60-year-old brain in a 40-year-old. Which would be a bummer," says Veasey.
For self-proclaimed night owls who struggle to get their head to the pillow, Dr. Veasey suggests examining the leading causes of such late-night restlessness. According to Dr. Veasey these include using your devices before bed, not giving yourself downtime to process the day's stresses, and getting in bed with a sense of dread at having to fall asleep instead of an excitement to go to sleep.
"You need to not get into bed until you're dying to go to sleep so that you're kind of like, 'Oh, I'd kill to get into that bed," says Dr. Veasey.
The good news is that it's possible to transform your Circadian rhythm with a little bit of training and dedication. Night owls are sensitive to light, so Dr. Veasey suggests turning off the electronic devices in the late afternoons and evening, which, we'll admit, is a hard thing to do. This will give your body a chance to wind down. By reframing our approach towards sleep like someone approaching exercise - i.e., that sleep is something we can train to improve and which, when improved, will enhance the overall quality of life.
As Dr. Veasey assures us, "You train to learn to love sleeping. And that's something that can be extraordinarily helpful for people because once you train to sleep well, you'll sleep well for the rest of your life because you know the general principles."