two times of day when you CAN’T sleep

Did you know there are two windows of time during the day when it’s impossible or nearly impossible to fall asleep?

Let’s walk through the sleep day:

If you wake up naturally, without an alarm, when your body is genuinely ready, you enter your first wake maintenance zone; you couldn’t fall asleep if you tried. Your sleep debt’s paid off (ideally) and your hormones are at a circadian peak, keeping your body alert and ready.

In the afternoon, your sleep debt has accumulated some and you experience a circadian dip, which generates a secondary sleep propensity (*in about 60% of people). Many people are familiar with this mid-day dip in energy. This is an ideal time for a nap!

And then in the evening you’ll have another period of alertness when you couldn’t fall asleep if you wanted to — the second wake maintenance zone or the “forbidden zone” for sleep. This second circadian peak could come anywhere between 4pm and midnight, depending on your biorhythms. (College age humans are “phase delayed,” so their forbidden zone is likely to come later, rather than sooner.) Whenever it is, this is an excellent time to do homework, have a deep conversation with a friend, or be creative.

Two hours after this, the “sleep gate” opens and you become increasingly inclined to sleep. Within 4 hours, sleep becomes hard to resist. This is your primary sleep propensity phase.

Then you wake up in the morning and start all over!

10 Ideas to Start the Year Right

Hey, it’s a new academic year, full of promise and possibility! Now is the time to establish a realistic plan for making sure the year goes well. In terms of overall wellness, let’s take a minute to think about a few simple things you can do to improve your semester and your year. You don’t haveto do things PERFECTLY to make them better!

(1) Prioritize sleep. Students who get adequate sleep (7-10 hours per night, depending on the individual) have HIGHER GPAs! All nighters result in lower quality work and lower GPAs – along with greater stress, weakened immune system (more cold and flu!), appetite problems, low energy, moodiness, and anxiety. Sleep is important. Make it a priority.

(2) Eat more foods that look the way they grew and less of the stuff that could never exist in nature. I.e., more “whole foods” (which just means food where you eat the whole plant, instead of some refined part of it) and fewer processed foods. This is an easy rule to follow. Just ask yourself: did it grow that way? Spinach? Yes. Donuts? No. More spinach, fewer donuts. Corn? Yes. Pasta? No. You don’t need to eliminate any foods, just change the proportions, so that MOST of the food you eat is whole and less of it is processed.

(3) MOVE. YOUR. BODY. Exercise is the single most efficient strategy for reducing and managing stress. Some people are natural exercisers, who need to move their body in order to feel good. Your brain will work better if you allow yourself the exercise you need! Others are not natural exercisers; for you, know that you don’t need an intense gym workout to make a difference. A 20 minute walk downtown or around campus will do it. Just go.

(4) Alcohol: limit yourself to beer and wine. Basically no one is ever transported to the hospital because they were drinking beer or wine, only when they’re drinking liquor – it’s just much harder to drink more than you intended when you don’t have to be so careful about measuring. If you’re going to drink liquor, MEASURE CAREFULLY. (*PS – Obviously this tip is just for the 21+ folks in the crowd.)

(5) Another alcohol tip: limit yourself to 2 or 3 drinks – 4, at the absolute max. Students who don’t have more than 4 drinks have higher GPAs than students who have more.

(6) Spend two minutes per day paying attention to your breath. Two minutes. You’ve got two minutes, right? Spend two minutes a day paying attention to the movement of breath into and out of your body, and notice when your mind wanders – which it will. One reason our brains are so amazingly powerful is that they easily connect ideas together, so your mind SHOULD wander. The trick is to NOTICE that your mind has wandered, let those thoughts go, and gently return your attention to your breath. This practice of noticing when your mind has wandered and returning it to what you WANT to attend to trains you to be in control of your brain, so your brain isn’t in control of you.

(7) Be selective about what TV you watch. Recent research has suggested that every hour of TV you watch takes 22 minutes off your lifespan. Ask yourself, “How many minutes off my lifespan would I trade to watch this show?” For example, I would TOTALLY give about 10 minutes to watch an episode of “The IT Crowd,” because it’s AWESOME. But I wouldn’t give anything to watch “The Bachelor.” It’s just not my thing. (Clearly I’m a nerd.) How many minutes of your life is a show worth?

(8) Cultivate a “loving presence.” You know how there are some people who, when they walk into a room, everyone just feels better? You just love spending time with them because they have this warm, positive energy. And then there are people who walk into a room and everyone feels uncomfortable. To be one of the people everyone is glad to see, practice thinking of something positive about each person you meet, when you meet them. Allow yourself to relax with them, give them your full, undivided attention, and make genuine eye contact.

(9) Beat self-critical thoughts by contradicting them! When you notice yourself thinking anything like, “Ugh, I’m a failure,” contradict it right away with a thought like, “Actually I’ve got a lot going for me!” The more you contradict that negative self-talk, the less you’ll believe it! (Which will improve your mood and your GPA!)

(10) Keep your mood positive and stable by avoiding the “exhaustion funnel.” When we start to get burnt out, often we’ll begin trying to simplify our lives by eliminating the “optional” things – which are often the things that GIVE us energy. Instead, when you notice yourself feeling worn out, cranky, or sad, take time away from the things that drain your energy and engage with the things that make you feel alive and whole. You’ll work more efficiently afterward, more than making up for the time spent away from work stuff.

You don’t have to do all of these – heck, you can just do one or two and your whole semester can change!

why do people snore when they’re drunk?

Here’s a question I got asked recently:

How come my roommate snores when she goes to bed after she’s been drinking, when she never snores otherwise?”

So, we know that alcohol is a central nervous system depressant – which has nothing to do with mood and everything to do with slowing things down in your brain and spine.

The more you drink, the more things get slowed down, starting with your pre-frontal cortex, where decision-making, judgment, and reasoning happen, and moving backward and deeper into your brain. Eventually the parts of your brain that make your muscle work get affected.

Which is where snoring comes in.

Snoring due to drinking happens when alcohol affects the parts of your brain that keep your mouth, nose, and throat muscles open. Everyone’s reaction to alcohol is different, so exactly how much alcohol it takes to do this will vary from individual to individual, but there will be a point for most people when the muscles of the mouth, nose and throat are sufficiently relaxed that some part of the required anatomy lacks sufficient muscle tone to allow in noiselessly.

Solution?

Well, alas, the only way to prevent this from happening is do drink less or else stay awake until you’re sober enough not to snore. Sorry.

Solution for the roommate? Earplugs.

Waking up too early?

Your Question: I seem to have developed an internal alarm clock that wakes me up at 4 o’clock in the morning. It’s really starting to negatively affect my life. Is there any way that I can change this? I’ve tried every single trick in my book to sleep but they don’t work once I wake up.

The too-early internal alarm clock is often the byproduct of stress. Heightened levels of adrenaline and cortisol make it more difficult for your body to stay asleep as you get to the shallow end of the sleep cycle.

The fact that you’re writing this right at the START of the semester (rather than at the end, when people are likely to be way more stressed) could mean that missing the routine of the semester messed up your biological clock. If that’s the case, then your sleep should sort itself out now that it has a routine to tell it what to do.

It sounds like there’s really two things you need to work on: (1) falling back asleep when you wake up too early and (2) not waking up too early in the first place.

First, when you wake up at 4am, you’re almost certainly not fully rested, so it WANTS to go back to sleep. The worst thing you can do is go, “CRAP I’M AWAKE ALREADY!” and get frustrated.

The best thing you can do is to be calm and relaxed so you don’t knock yourself out of the sleepy zone, and then allow yourself to fall back asleep. Waking up doesn’t actually disrupt the quality of your asleep until you stay awake for longer than about 30 minutes, so there’s no need to panic.

So when you wake up, just notice that you’re awake and welcome this opportunity to practice falling asleep. Breathe slowly and deeply, paying close attention to your breathing. The breathing itself will relax you, and paying attention to your breath means you’re NOT paying attention to stuff that worries you. Your mind will wander – that’s normal and natural – so you’re job is to notice that your mind wandered, tell yourself “I can think about that another time,” and gently return your attention to your breath. This is called “mindfulness,” paying attention to what your brain is paying attention to.

Or: As you’re lying there, think about what it feels like to be really sleepy. What kinds of things does your body do? Do your eyelids feel heavy? Do your muscles feel warm and relaxed? Does your face sort of droop and sag? If you were sitting in class and trying NOT to fall asleep, what kinds of things would you be fighting. Try to reproduce those things you would be fighting. You’d be surprised how well this works.

Or: Imagine yourself in the most relaxing and peaceful place you’ve ever been. It might be a sandy beach or a forest or your bed at home or anywhere. Really notice all the beautiful, comforting things about this place, and notice how comfortable and peaceful you feel there. Heck, even if you don’t fall asleep, you’ll still feel good!

If it’s been half an hour and you still can’t get to sleep, what you need to do is transition your brain out of wakeful, activated state to the calm, quiet pre-sleep state. There are lots of things that can help with this:

  • Get up and do something relaxing like reading or listening to music. Avoid stuff that involves bright light (TV, computer) or work.
  • Take a very warm shower, which will artificially raise your core body temperature. As your temp drops, your body will be triggered to sleep.
  • If you’re worried about things you need to do tomorrow/later today, get up and write a list. Writing things down means the piece of paper can hold your to-list, so your brain doesn’t have to.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation, so you learn how to shut off your brain (see breathing exercise above).

Again, the WORST thing you can do it get frustrated about not being asleep. Waking up is not in itself a problem; it’s STAYING awake that becomes a problem, and a primary cause of staying awake is getting frustrated about the fact that you’re awake. Which is an annoying catch-22, but at least it’s simple to fix!

As for preventing the too-early wake up, the approach is to keep everything else about your sleep routine consistent. Don’t get out of bed until the time when you WANT your internal alarm to go off. This helps teach your body when it’s SUPPOSED to wake up. Keep your bedtime the same. For now, avoid napping. Usually napping is excellent, but until you get your sleep at night on track, it’s better to save sleep for nighttime.

Physical activity before noon often helps to stabilize your body clock, and eating meals at regular times helps too (at least this one will be pretty easy).

If this keeps going for more than a month and none of the above helps, check in with health services. Let them know everything you’ve tried. There might be a medical issue that you haven’t noticed. Waking up too early is actually a pretty common sleep problem among college students, and it’s generally very responsive to the behavioral approach I’ve described here. But occasionally medical intervention is necessary.