Ah, Thanksgiving: a time for family, friends, football, food…and sleep. People have long associated tryptophan from turkey with the need for a good nap or early night’s sleep after Thanksgiving dinner. But, it’s probably not the turkey that’s making you pine for your pillow.
While tryptophan is an essential amino acid that triggers melatonin, an important hormone for regulating sleep, its effect is likely more long term than an after-dinner nap. Many other foods provide tryptophan, like chicken, fish, milk, cottage cheese, eggs and nuts – in fact, chicken out-delivers turkey. Tryptophan requires a piggyback from carbohydrates to cross the blood-brain barrier into the brain where it boosts serotonin and then triggers melatonin. So sleepiness could result simply from the holiday’s focus on food; overeating taxes our digestive system and makes us tired. And having a day off of work with family and friends may help us feel more relaxed.
Sleep > Food
In any case, the importance of sleep is undeniable. An early experiment in the relatively young field of sleep science demonstrated that sleep deprivation produced worse outcomes in rats than an equal duration of being deprived of food. Scientists at the University of Chicago found that despite every physical need except sleep being met, the experimental rats lost weight rapidly, their sympathetic nervous systems went into overdrive and they lost their ability to regulate their body temperatures before dying. More positively, the documented benefits of sleep are many.
Sleep & Insight
Many artists claim to have insights upon waking and some even have whole passages of music or text completed in their minds, just waiting to be written down. Golfer Jack Nicklaus improved a flagging swing after a dream. In the weeks before the British Open at St. Andrews in 1964, Nicklaus had been puzzling over what might be wrong with his golf swing that was putting him into a slump. Just days before his departure, he dreamed he was swinging effortlessly down the fairway and regaining his form. He awoke to a realization that a slight shift in his grip and a repositioning of his arms would help. Sure enough, it was the fix he needed. Such a flash of intuition may seem miraculous, but more and more studies show that various stages of sleep are spent processing experience, pruning irrelevant or unnecessary details and making new connections.
Given that sleep is more important than food for survival, and is critical for learning, memory and even insight, we provide below some tips for improving both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
Daytime Activities that Support Sleep:
- Be exposed to sunlight early in the day. This helps to set your circadian rhythms.
- Exercise regularly during the morning or afternoon (ideally, at least 2-3 hours before sleep).
- Avoid (or carefully time) ingredients that harm sleep. These can include: caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and some prescription (and OTC) medicine.
- Eat on a regular schedule to keep appetite hormones in check and time your dinner so that you are not going to bed full or hungry.
- Keep your bedroom a quiet, peaceful sanctuary free of television, computers, phones, bright lights and even clutter. While a comfortable bed and soft sheets can be an investment, it pays off in better sleep, health, memory and mood.
- Try some relaxation techniques – meditation, focused breathing or yoga can help you to rest and relax even if they don’t immediately make you fall asleep.
- Avoid looking at the clock; doing so adds to stress and creates a downward spiral of worrying and delaying sleep.
Amount and Timing of Sleep:
- According to the CDC and the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need 8-9.25 hours and adults need 7-9 hours on average per night.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day (that’s weekends too!).
- Have a consistent bedtime routine. This comes as a natural instinct to do with our children though we don’t seem to take the same care for ourselves. Create calming rituals to help wind down and signal to your body and mind that it is time to sleep.
- Prioritize sleep; it’s as important as work, friends and family. In fact, Winston Churchill summarized this by saying, “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep…that’s a foolish notion…you will be able to accomplish more.”
How iLs can help:
The DreampadTM delivers music through gentle, calming vibration that only you can hear. It stimulates the body’s relaxation response and helps you to fall asleep easier. Originally developed to help children who experience anxiety and sleep difficulties, parents reported equally positive results after using the Dreampad. The Dreampad comes in four options for ultimate comfort. See www.dreampadsleep.com for more information.
National Sleep Foundation
Healthy Sleep at Harvard.edu
Community Wellness at MIT Medical – Sleep Cheat Sheet
David K. Randall, Dreamland : Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, 2012, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.