How did you start the year?
Maybe you bounded into 2016 full of hopes and dreams. Maybe you stumbled into it full of cynicism and sarcasm.
Maybe you’re past the wish and hope New Year’s resolution phase and the year is stretching out ahead of you and you’re wondering what will be different this year.
We want to talk about making little changes. Actually just one small change to lead to greater changes, for a better 2016.
It’s simple, if a little painful, but then you’ll know that few worthwhile goals are achieved without any effort and within your comfort zone.
Here goes… make sure you keep reading.
Get up at the same time every day.
Yes, every day, regardless of the day.
If you regularly sleep in, I appreciate this can be difficult, but it’s worth the effort.
Even after late nights and parties.
If you have a partner or family, do it together.
We all have a natural bodily rhythm over the course of a day and night, known as our circadian rhythm. (Circadian means ‘about a day’, and your circadian clock is managed in the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN which is a little group of cells in your hypothalamus.)
So imagine a 7am start. We get up and our internal alerting drive helps us focus in the morning while our sleep drive decreases. Most of the morning is a really productive, high functioning period. Early after lunch our body temperature drops and we experience a lower, more tired period (siesta time, also called the post-prandial dip) before our alerting drive rises again through to mid-evening after which it drops in anticipation of sleep.
Some of us are larks who naturally get up early. Some are owls who get up late. Most of us are in the middle somewhere. Your tendency to get up early or late is called your chronotype. Regardless of chronotype, all of us follow the same daily pattern, just earlier or later.
Overnight, as you dream of a better 2016, your brain is busy keeping you asleep, consolidating memories and cleaning itself and, as you near morning, it starts the complicated process of waking you up.
Your body chemistry alters and you produce chemicals such as cortisol which help you wake and feel alert, while your body temperature rises in preparation for wakefulness.
Between your circadian clock, and sleep wake homeostasis, your body manages the need for sleep versus time awake. It’s a very complex balancing act which is extremely sensitive to change, and why shift workers have such a hard time getting good rest.
It’s very helpful to your brain if this happens at the same time every day, because your brain loves routine and efficiency.
Here’s how we mess up…
You start Monday getting up at 6.45m, aided by the snooze on your smartphone which started sounding at 6.15am. You know you can afford until 6.45 so you hit snooze, snoozing away the final 30 minutes your brain could have used productively.
Your brain learns that 6.15 is the time you get up so begins to work to that schedule. It will take two to two and a half weeks for this to be well established.
Then Saturday comes and you get up late.
Aaaaah, your brain thinks to itself. I made a mistake with the whole 6.15am thing. My person actually wants to get up at 9am!
So it starts to work on this time. Maybe you sleep in on Sunday too. By Monday morning, it’s now learned that 9am is your preferred rising time and, consequently, will not increase your cortisol or raise your body temperature, or prepare you for waking at all, in time for 6.15am. After all, you told your brain 6.15am was wrong, and that 9am is right.
Monday morning is hard, no? You feel groggier, and your brain doesn’t function as well as it could. It was expecting another few hours sleep, which you deprived it of. To compensate, you amp up the coffee to jumpstart your nervous system, and find yourself craving sweet, sugary foods, especially in the afternoon.
Fortunately for you, it takes only a couple of days to begin to adjust. And just as it’s starting to get the hang of 6.15am again, BOOM, it’s Saturday, and you’re about to sleep in again!
Your brain would love it if you stuck with the same time.
Why this is a fantastic goal?
- Your brain has more resources to dedicate to other things.
- A regular routine makes daily functioning easier.
- This really is a habit that can take hold within 30 days. Sleep patterns can be settled within 14-17 days.
- There’s good evidence that succeeding in a small habit will lead to success in other habits. Try listing habits of increasing significance next.
- We are better at cognitive tasks, which flows into problem solving, decision making and emotional regulation.
- We perform better across mental and physical tasks with better routine
- Shortchanging your sleep leaves you with a sleep debt. One way or another, your brain will make you pay the debt back.
- Sleep is when we consolidate memories. Not enough sleep equals poorer memories and learning.
- If we run our rhythm late by sleeping in on the weekend, then force it to work before it’s ready, or if we snooze for more than 20 minutes, we risk interrupting sleep during the deeper stages of sleep. The brain isn’t designed for this, and it causes significant shock. We are supposed to wake after the brain enters light sleep first. Most heart attacks happen around the time we get up.
- Too little sleep decreases the hormone leptin, and increases the hormone ghrelin. Leptin suppresses appetite, while ghrelin initiates eating. If we’re tired, we want to eat more. Less, and poor, sleep is correlated with greater body weight and body mass index and implicated in obesity and diabetes.
- Short sleep deprives the brain of opportunity to self-clean. During the day, we create waste in the brain which is cleared with good sleep. This waste is made of the same protein that accumulates in Alzheimer’s Disease. People with diabetes are up to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and insulin has promise as a treatment for Alzheimer’s. Note the link between lifestyle factors and Alzheimer’s.
- When we lack sleep, our brain chemistry alters to resemble that of someone with a head injury.
What to do if you’re tired
If you’re tired, the solution is to go to bed earlier, rather than sleep in. If you prefer, a nap in the early afternoon is good too, when your body temperature naturally drops. Because we sleep in cycles of 90 minutes try, where possible, for naps of about 90 minutes. If this is unrealistic, look for naps of 15-20 minutes, which is how long most of us spend in the first stage of sleep, after which you won’t feel too groggy.
Note: If you’re really tired, get whatever sleep and naps you can; any sleep is better than no sleep, and all sleep grogginess wears off sooner or later.
So here’s the take home bit
It’s a great, achievable goal with multiple benefits.
Are you up for it?
What do you think?
Circadian rhythm, suprachiasmatic nucleus, hypothalamus, sleep debt
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