Stress Less and Sleep More

The dishes aren’t done. The car needs an oil change. The office is moving into a new building next week and packing hasn’t even started. Oh, and a coworker is sick, so the workload is about to quintuple. This long to-do list can cause anxiety and stress, which can in turn make it difficult to fall asleep.

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What’s a busy person to do when she’s trying to go bed but her brain is overwhelmed and wired? Can a person tell her brain to stop worrying? Is there a way to decrease anxiety without taking a pill? How can a person de-stress before bed so they can get quality sleep?

“Meditation is really helpful,” says Amy Landolt, a Chicago-area acupuncturist who specializes in sleep disorders at the Northshore Acupuncture Center. “I also recommend yoga and breathing exercises,” she says. “Just changing your breathing can help. Breathe from your belly, not from your chest.”

Landolt, like many sleep experts, recommends eating right, getting exercise and going outside for at least 10 minutes a day.

Clinical psychologist Jori Reijonen, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and is certified in behavioral sleep medicine. She recommends writing down what stresses you out, and getting out of bed if a racing mind keeps you awake.

“Insomnia is much more common than people realize,” she says. “There’s a relationship between diagnosable anxiety disorders and sleep problems. Anxiety can cause sleep problems but long term sleep deprivation can cause symptoms of anxiety as well. It can sometimes be difficult to see where it began.”

Calm the Mind

Try these tips to relax and get to sleep.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation and meditation can help relieve a stressed mind, says Reijonen, who recommends such therapies for her patients. This is a system where a person tenses certain muscles, such as the neck and shoulders, and then releases the tension, according to AnxietyBC, a Canadian non-profit that focuses on anxiety treatments. . That tense and release then is used on various parts of the body until the entire body is relaxed.
  • Change the narrative. Instead of saying “I’ll never fall asleep tonight,” think positively. Say, “I’ll fall asleep shortly and wake up rested.” It might take a few nights for this to work. If it doesn’t, that may signal a need for a sleep therapist or doctor appointment.
  • Consider a lavender sachet or lavender lotion. Certain smells such as lavender can help a person calm down and relax, says Landolt. Lavender-scented items include sachets, lotions and oils.
  • Try a meditation app. These apps might offer guided mediation to help calm your mind, akin to attending a class but without having to leave your house. Landolt likes Headspace because the voice that tells you to relax, and to breathe in and to breathe out is so soothing.

Sleep and the 5 Senses: Taste

Foods and beverages can impact the quality and quantity of our sleep. And when it comes to the sense of taste, the flavors we crave can also be indicators of other health issues and whether or not we’re banking enough quality shut-eye.

Our exploration of sleep and the five senses has examined ways to think about each sense so we can get to sleep and stay there. Taste, the final stop on this sensory tour, is a little different.

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Junk Sleep, Junk Food

Do your junk food cravings seem out-of-control? You may be sleep-deprived. A study conducted by researchers at University of California Berkeley evaluated levels of food desirability among a group of participants who were kept up all night and a control group that was allowed to sleep. The sleep-deprived participants expressed a stronger desire for high-calorie foods like potato chips and doughnuts than those who were well-rested.

According to the researchers, these findings, coupled with brain scans of the participants, show that a lack of sleep can lead to a taste for unhealthy snacks, poor food choices, and, ultimately, unwanted weight gain.

No Sleep ‘Til Cookies

Many doctors and sleep experts say that a light snack an hour or so before bed is generally okay. However, if your taste buds are demanding cupcakes and ice cream in the wee hours of the night, that could indicate a bigger issue.

“If you’re wanting to taste something sugary before you go to bed, that’s a really bad sign because that means your blood sugar levels are very upset, either rising or falling quickly. And when they fall you crave more sugar,” explains Dr. Mark Burhenne, author of The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox and the blog Ask the Dentist. Indulging will only encourage the sleep-sabotaging cycle.

“You’re not going to sleep well because your blood sugar levels will continue to do the same thing in the middle of the night,” he says.

Burhenne recommends reigning in sugar cravings by reducing the amount of refined carbohydrates in your diet and incorporating more natural foods with high fat content.

While Burhenne recommends eating light protein before sleep to help curb those sugar cravings—foods like turkey rolls or walnuts—Sleep Number sleep expert Pete Bils says protein takes more effort to digest, and may not be the best option if the issue is sleep and hunger as opposed to sugar cravings.

“Our advice is simply that you shouldn’t go to bed hungry, so a light snack is in order,” Bils says. In that case, oatmeal cookies, a bowl of cereal or toast are options.

Save Caffeine and Cocktails for Daylight

Cabernet and cappuccinos may appeal to your taste buds at all hours, but it’s best to allow a substantial caffeine and alcohol-free window before bed.

Less obvious caffeinated culprits like soda, chocolate and even some coffee-flavored ice creams can impact sleep. Sensitivity to caffeine varies, but one study published by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggests tasting your last caffeinated treat at least six hours before bedtime.

Depending on the rate of your metabolism, that glass of wine with dinner may also keep you up. The findings of one 2015 study conducted among college-age students linked pre-sleep drinking with brain activity associated with disturbed sleep.

Your last drink, depending on how quickly you metabolize alcohol, should be four to six hours before bed, says Burhenne. “If you feel tipsy or you feel the effects of alcohol and you’re trying to go to sleep, that’s going to be a bad night’s sleep,” he says.

Goodnight, Taste Buds

Our sense of taste and what we eat and drink needs to be an integrated part of sleep hygiene. Just like we dim the lights and the lower the thermostat before climbing into bed, we need to tell our taste buds goodnight too.

Why You Get All the Best Ideas as You’re Falling Asleep

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Just as you’re sinking into sleep, a slew of the greatest ideas you’ve ever had pop into your head.

Why does this happen?

Letting go of control

All of the thoughts that lead you astray from your tasks during the day are finally freed, unfiltered, when you lie down to rest.

Barry Gordon, a professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells Scientific American that we are only aware of a tiny fraction of our thoughts. The vast majority of our ideas enter our subconscious minds. While those thoughts might pop into awareness before bedtime, says Gordon, many times they’ve been simmering for a while.

The random thoughts you have throughout the day often aren’t connected until you let your brain wander freely. This is what happens during the “Aha!” moment when connections are made and insight comes. When people fall asleep, brain cells that weren’t connected before are able to link up, allowing for more creative thinking, Tara Swart, a lecturer at MIT Sloan Executive Education, says in Fast Company.

“There [are] a lot of famous stories of people, just as they were falling asleep or just as they were waking up, having this moment of insight … something that you’ve been thinking about anyways,” says Swart. “But it’s only when you’re in a close sleep stage that you get a really good idea about it.”

If the average person spends one-third of their life sleeping, as neuroscientist Russell Foster notes in this Ted Talk, (that’s 32 years if you live to be 90), a lot of ideas get lost because they’re never recorded. Let’s face it—good ideas are nothing if not recorded, shared and implemented.

Recording those “Aha!” moments

The next time those great ideas hit, you have two choices: You can either get up and write down your ideas or tell yourself you’ll do it later when you wake up. You’ll likely forget those thoughts if you decide on the latter. Consider having a notebook or a recording device nearby to jot down those sleepy ideas.

How to Snack Smarter When You’re Sleepy

snacksmarterExhaustion makes the brain’s hunger and fullness hormones go haywire, which explains why you might find yourself mindlessly raiding the fridge late at night.

According to a study published in SLEEP, a scientific and medical journal from the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, sleep deprivation also boosts levels of the brain chemicals that make eating more enjoyable—so not only do you feel hungrier when you’re tired, you may be more likely to reach for guilty-pleasure snacks.

“The less sleep you get, the more your body starts signaling your brain that it’s hungry,” says Ashvini Mashru, a registered dietitian and owner of Wellness Nutrition Concepts in Malvern, Pennsylvania. “This spells trouble, because a sleep-starved brain is less equipped to make complex decisions or tell your body to chill out.” When you’re short on sleep, these tips can help you make healthier choices.

1. Have a glass of water.

Thirst can be mistaken for hunger because the same part of the brain, the hypothalamus, controls both sensations. Hydrating after a rough night’s sleep can help keep cravings at bay. “Most of us wake up dehydrated, which adds to our feelings of fatigue, yet few of us remember to drink a glass of water upon rising,” Mashru says. “Staying hydrated will keep you from eating when you are actually thirsty.”

2. Don’t skip breakfast.

Research has shown that eating breakfast not only provides a pick-me-up when you’re exhausted, it’s also linked to healthier food choices throughout the day. “Steel-cut oatmeal is one of your best bets, thanks to complex carbs, which give a slow, steady dose of energy,” Mashru says.

3. Rethink your craving.

According to a review in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, lack of sleep can lessen self-control, which makes mindful eating more difficult. “Ask yourself, ‘Why am I craving this particular food?” Mashru says. You may realize you’re actually eating out of habit rather than hunger — like grabbing an afternoon macchiato or eating a bowl of ice cream before bed.

4. Occupy your time.

Sleep is essential, and when you don’t get enough, your body looks for other fuel sources. “It’s all about the carbs and calories—that’s what our sleep-deprived brains want,” Mashru says. But sugary snacks can cause your energy to spike and crash. Instead, go for a walk (the American Council on Exercise notes that exercise is a natural energy booster) or take a nap to recharge your batteries.

5. Make healthy swaps.

When you’re jonesing for junk food, try to find nutrient-rich alternatives. Sweet cravings may be satisfied with a frozen banana or a glass of chocolate milk. Or if you want a salty and crunchy snack, reach for kale chips or cucumbers dipped in pico de gallo. Still can’t stave off the craving? “Give in … but just a little,” Mashru says. “Eat a small piece, savor it and enjoy.”

Do Trees Sleep? The Surprising Answer

Dogs and cats do it. Chimps and insects do it.

Even trees may slumber.

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In a study published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, scientists from Austria, Finland and Hungary observed trees drooping their leaves and branches at night — a possible equivalent to falling asleep in humans and animals.

“Our results show that the whole tree droops during night, which can be seen as position change in leaves and branches,” study co-author Eetu Puttonen, of the Finnish Geospatial Research Institute said in a statement. Though these changes were not too large — only up to 4 inches for branches in trees with a height of about 16 feet — they were systematic, Puttonen said.

To spy on trees’ sleeping habits, the researchers looked at two birches in Finland and Austria. Using laser scanners, the scientists examined how the trees’ leaves and branches drooped gradually at night, reaching their lowest position a couple of hours before sunrise. In the morning, the leaves and branches returned to their usual positions within just a few hours.

The researchers don’t know for sure if the trees changed their positions because they were “woken up” by the sun, or because they might have an internal clock that signals that it is time to wake up. But the fact that some branches began to return to their daytime position even before sunrise suggests that the latter might be the case, the researchers wrote in their study.

Trees are not the only plants that seem to adapt their behavior to the day-and-night cycle. If you have ever taken a late-night walk through a garden, you may have noticed that some flowers, like tulips, close up at night. The famous biologist Carl Linnaeus noted that flowers in a dark cellar continued to open and close, according to Scientific American. And the naturalist Charles Darwin, in his book The Power of Movement in Plants, recorded overnight movement of plant leaves and stalks, also calling it “sleep.”

Five Ways Athletes Pay the Price for Poor Sleep

There’s no shortage of obstacles blocking a good night’s sleep for elite athletes. They must contend with packed schedules, hours traveling and pain from injuries, plus any effects of caffeine or prescription medications that interfere with sleep.

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Many pro sports teams have begun tracking players’ sleeping patterns, according to Daron Roberts, a former assistant NFL coach for the the Kansas City Chiefs, the Detroit Lions and the Cleveland Browns, in an effort to mitigate those effects.

“It’s like 1984 meets Moneyball,” he joked. “Football is sort of the final frontier in analytics. It started in baseball and migrated to basketball and is finally gaining traction in the NFL.”

Some effects from insufficient sleep are obvious, such as greater fatigue. But other effects may surprise athletes and their fans, demonstrating not only that adequate, efficient sleep is a necessity but also that these athletes must work even harder if they’re going for the gold.

“Sleep allows the body to recover from the previous day and prepare for the upcoming day,” says Dr. Brian Schulz, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. “Lack of sleep has been shown to affect glucose metabolism, impair cognitive performance and mood, and interfere with appetite regulation and immune function.”

If the body is having to work twice as hard just to do its normal job, that leaves little extra energy for scoring goals or points.

“The ability of humans to cope with physiological and psychological stressors is critical to athletic performance outcomes,” says Hugh Fullagar, a sport science coordinator at the University of Oregon, whose work focuses on the effects of adjusting soccer players’ bed times.

Here are five ways athletes suffer without enough quality sleep.

  1. It’s harder to keep your head in the game. It takes brains as much as brawn to compete with the best. Focus, concentration and quick decision-making mean just as much as strength, speed and agility, but a 2015 research review from the Sports Medicine journal found those abilities and reaction times suffer without enough shut-eye. “Lack of quality sleep can lead to cognitive deficits such as poor attention, concentration, decreased skills, poor memory and diminished executive functions,” says Dr. Said Soubra, a pulmonologist at Seton Hospital in Austin, Texas. “Sleep deprivation can cause changes in pain perception too,” he says, making pain seem to feel worse—which then makes it harder to sleep.
  2. It’s harder to keep your heart in the game. Attitude is just as important as focus and concentration in sports, and attitude is directly influenced by an athlete’s mood. Research has shown “psychological mood and fatigue states are more affected by sleep disruption than both cognitive and motor performance,” Fullagar says.
  3. It’s harder for your metabolism to function properly. Food is the fuel that powers athletes. But if an athlete’s body isn’t extracting and distributing those nutrients effectively, they will suffer, no matter how tip-top their mind and attitude are. A 2014 research review in the Sports Medicine journal found “changes in glucose metabolism and neuroendocrine function as a result of chronic, partial sleep deprivation may result in alterations in carbohydrate metabolism, appetite, food intake and protein synthesis.” Basically, you’re probably not eating what you need to, and your body has to work harder to turn that food into energy.
  4. It takes longer to recover from intense exercise. Your body converts glucose into glycogen to store energy in your muscles. As the muscles burn off this glycogen, they also sustain millions of tiny tears. The body rebuilds its glycogen stores and repairs all those tears during rest. But muscle damage in sleep-deprived athletes is greater, according to research published in Sports Medicine, either because exercise causes more damage without sleep or the body doesn’t repair it as quickly. Either way, a slow recovery is bad news.
  5. It’s harder to stay healthy with injury. If the body doesn’t have sufficient rest to repair muscles, they’re not in top shape for the next competition. Multiple studies show a higher risk of injury with sleep deprivation, though it’s unclear whether it comes from decreased alertness, inattention, slower speed or poor execution of a specific skill. Inadequate sleep also increases inflammation, which can hinder the immune system and make it harder for the body to fight off infections.
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