S2E45. Home Again, Home Again!

Greece, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Venice, West Chester, Pennsylvania!

As wonderful as the accommodations were on our trip, it was great to sleep in our own bed last night, especially after having woken up at 4am in Venice to begin the journey home.

4am in Venice. That’s 10pm in West Chester. It’s just mind-boggling that I had to get up at exactly the same time that I would normally be going to bed. 

The flights home were quite the challenge. Did you know that Venice airport is a ‘silent’ airport? No announcements over the public address system until you get to your gate. It was borderline serene walking through the terminal.

Our first flight was a 2½ hour hop to Heathrow Airport in London. We arrived on time, but due to a labor shortage, there was no one to connect the walkway to our plane, so we sat on the tarmac for half an hour…which resulted in our missing our connecting flight to Philadelphia.

Heathrow is a sprawling city. Once we got into the terminal, we had to take a bus, a tram, an elevator, 2 escalators and then walk about a quarter mile to get to our gate. The security lines were long and the technology to move through the various passport and boarding pass checkpoints confusing. Fortunately, though, signage was clear and we muddled our way through in our sleep-addled state.

Once aloft, I decided to sleep as much as possible on the 8-hour flight while Sally decided to stay awake the whole time. We arrived in Philly around 5pm and we both went to bed at 9pm. It will probably take us 2-3 days to get back into our normal routine.

Reflecting back, the journey was both a feast and an assault on our senses, cognitive abilities and biological rhythms. Just the thing the doctor ordered for dementia prevention!

The sights and vistas were breathtaking across the 5 countries we sampled, topped off by the 27-hairpin turn climb to the 3,000 foot view from a mountain top in Montenegro back down to our ship in the turquoise harbor below.

We discovered that sunrises and sunsets don’t get old, no matter where or how often they are viewed.

The various on-board lectures and tour guide narratives filled our heads with new information about the last 4,000 years of history across the region. By the time we did the tour of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, I just couldn’t absorb another byte of information. Fortunately, it was our last day.

Food was a ceaseless adventure. Between the on-board options (ranging from buffet to gourmet with paired wines) and the tastes of local cuisines on land excursions, our taste buds joyously put in a lot of overtime. 

Music was everywhere, from the guitarist in the nightclub to the Beatles songbook in the theater to the violin and cello duo in the atrium to the pianist in the lounge to the string septet concert in a 15th century church on the lagoon in Venice.

I’ve already described in depth the assault on our circadian rhythms as we adjusted to time zone changes. Add to that the assault on my gut biome that I believe was precipitated by my drinking caffeinated coffee every morning. After a few days, I was able to restore a bit of routine to my diet by replacing my usual breakfast granola with muesli and a plate of fruit. On the other hand, I continued to consume more sugar, flour, butter and bread than I had in months.

We didn’t have to worry about performing a lot of mental arithmetic to convert currencies as the euro and dollar are at parity right now. I was surprised, though, at the wide varieties of credit card readers that I confronted. Sometimes it took me a while to figure out whether to tap, swipe, scan or slide and where on the device to do it. Cashiers, though, were more than willing to guide me through it.

All in all, it was quite the adventure. We didn’t get lost during any of our free time (which surprised us) and we managed to muddle our way through every situation we confronted, even if it took us 2 or 3 passes to get it right.

To be honest, I’ve had enough neural stimulation in the last two weeks to last me for a while. I’m definitely looking forward to re-establishing my hum-drum routine and sticking with it…until the next time!

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S2E44. Greece!

We made it! We’ve spent the last several days island-hopping around Greece and as I write this we’re docking in Dubrovnik. I’ll be honest: I haven’t focused much (if at all) on brain health. I’ll assume you can understand why. Nonetheless, I’ll try to put together a few thoughts before heading out on our next excursion.

I felt I was prepared for the flight last Friday, having adjusted my sleeping and eating rhythms to accommodate 5 of the 7 hours we would cross during the flight. Serendipitously, Greece set its clocks back by one hour for daylight savings time the night we arrived, so I was gifted one more hour of transition time. What was left to absorb, then, was minimal: just 1 hour, or the equivalent of flying from Chicago to New York.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get much sleep on the plane. I used a neck pillow, lavender oil, loose-fitting clothes, and I ate a banana, but all to no avail. The engine noise, fellow passengers conversing loudly, and the impossible task of getting comfortable all conspired against me. Consequently, I was not a happy camper the next morning when we landed in Athens.

The good news, though, is that I don’t think I felt any effect of the time zone changes. Once I caught up on my sleep, I was fine.

Sally, on the other hand—having not made any effort at all to prepare for the time-shift—was…fine!

It seems that for both of us, the quality of the previous night’s sleep was far more impactful than the 7 time zones we had crossed.

Traveling is a brain-healthy activity because it presents a variety of unique cognitive challenges. Going on a cruise provides those opportunities in spades.

First off, there’s getting oriented on the ship. It took me several days to figure out how to find the important locations: our room, the different restaurants, and the theater. Oh, you could find your way around by reading the signage, but I wanted to be able to do it on my own.

First, I figured out that the various restaurants, although they were on different decks, were all at the back of the boat while the theater and the main lounge were at the front. These landmarks replaced north (theater) and south (restaurants) in my personal navigation system. Then I noticed that the even numbered rooms were ‘west’ and they got higher as you traveled from ‘north’ to ‘south.’ So as long as I could keep an image in my head of where the theater was (‘north’), I could figure out where anything else was whenever I emerged from an elevator.

Conversely, after only 2 days, Sally just knew which way to turn to get to where we were going.

Then there are the excursions with guides who present volumes of information along the way, on-board lectures, adjusting to at least a dozen different accents spoken by members of the crew, and absorbing the sights and vistas themselves. Add to that sampling new foods and meeting new people and you’ve created an intense synapse-stimulating environment.

On the other hand, maintaining a brain-healthy diet just ain’t gonna happen! I’ve been like a kid in the proverbial candy store pigging out at the buffets on sweets, pastries, carbs, meat and more alcohol than I’d consumed in a very long time. Leafy green vegetables? Nope. On the positive side, I am eating a boatload of fish and I’m making an effort to dose myself with fruits every morning at breakfast. I’m not at all looking forward to stepping on the scale when we get home.

We walk a lot on our daily excursions. Even though I don’t find myself breathing hard, I’ll assume that I’m getting my 30-minutes of cardio every day. There is a ¼-mile jogging track around the boat and a fitness center with treadmills and resistance machines, but I’m tired enough at the end of the day without pushing my limits with intentional exercise.

So I hope you’ll excuse me if I leave it at that for now and get back to the task of thoroughly enjoying this trip. I know…it’s a tough job…but somebody has to do it!

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S2E43: Three…Two…One…Liftoff!

Undaunted, I stumbled forward with a mild case of sleep deprivation into my 3rd week of attempting to reset my circadian rhythm to accommodate the 7-hour time difference I will experience when the plane lands in Athens tomorrow.

I took a closer look at our flight itinerary and saw that the flight leaves at 5:50pm eastern on Friday and arrives at 10:10am Saturday morning (9 hours in flight plus 7 time zones). It occurred to me that it would be wonderful if I could fall asleep right after boarding and get a full 8 hours of sleep during the flight, but, as we all know, sleeping on an airplane is spotty at best. What to do?

It turns out that Sally has a prescription for medical marijuana to help her sleep at night and so I thought it might work for me, too. The idea was that I would take one of her gummies as the plane was taking off and, hopefully, it would knock me out for the next 7-8 hours.

But what if it didn’t work? I was terrified at the thought of being seat-bound at 39,000 feet for 9 hours while high! My god, it would feel like all eternity before we landed!

So I decided to give it a test run this past Saturday night. Since it takes about an hour to kick in, I took it at 6pm and got in bed at 7pm, hoping to sleep through to 3am. 

Wow…was that ever a mistake! Oh, I fell asleep quickly enough, but it was a nightmare the rest of the way. Every time I started to dream I would be shocked into awareness by the intensity of the dream. Sometimes it was just the vibrancy of the colors; sometimes it was the emotional content. Once awake, I became hyper-aware of my body which seemed to be making a lot of noise. I have no idea what that was about, but the bottom line was that it was keeping me awake. To make matters worse, I would check the clock after I thought I had gotten some sleep only to discover that not even half an hour had passed.

It was a long night, indeed.

I got out of bed at 3:30am feeling exhausted and a little wobbly on my feet. I bailed out on exercising and then slogged my way through the day.

Remind me never to do pot before going to bed!

So although taking a little something to help me sleep on the plane was a good thought, it definitely wasn’t going to work for me. As miserable as I was, I was thankful that I had done the experiment now rather than trying it for the first time on the flight.

I googled ‘sleeping on a plane’ to see if there were any helpful hints and, indeed, I found several in a nicely researched article (https://casper.com/blog/how-to-sleep-on-a-plane/). I’m pretty sure I’ll go with its recommendations to wear socks, dress in light layers, eat a banana, keep my legs uncrossed and wear a dab of lavender oil. I’ll also forego my morning green tea that is caffeinated. 

My experience on Sunday night could not have been more profoundly different…or more welcome! I got in bed at 7pm and slept straight through until half-past three. More than 8 hours of sleep…it was glorious! I woke up bright and alert and couldn’t wait to hit the hall for my half-hour walk and then go down to the fitness center for another half-hour on the resistance machines.

I was a little surprised to find another resident in the fitness center at 4:30am, but then again, people work all kinds of schedules. Another resident showed up at 5am and headed for the treadmill. He lives on the same floor as I do and I had passed him every day I walked the halls as he made his way down to the fitness center.

I couldn’t wait to tell Sally about my sleeping triumph, but drowsiness overtook me a little while after she woke up. I unexpectedly found myself napping at 8am. What was up with that?

Doing the math, I realized that 8am eastern was 3pm in Athens. Knowing that my natural napping window was between 1pm-3pm gave me cause for celebration: although I still had 4 more nights to complete my adjustment, my napping schedule had already made the transition. This was certainly a good sign, no?

On Tuesday night, I went to bed while it was still light out (6pm) and got up at 2am the next morning. In case you were wondering, no, there was no one else working out in the fitness center at 2:30.

On Wednesday, the roll-on lavender oil I ordered arrived and I applied it to my temples before getting in bed. It smelled ok and I fell asleep without any trouble and I slept well. There’s no way to tell if it actually helped, though, but since nothing bad happened, I’ll use it on the plane today.

Reflecting back, making that first 2-hour time shift was brutal and my circadian rhythm fought me every minute of the day for several days, but the shift from going to bed at 8pm to 6pm was a breeze. Is it possible that my suprachiasmatic nucleus (which controls the circadian rhythm) has learned a new trick?

So that’s it. I’ve transitioned 5 hours out of the 7-hour time difference. I’m ready. I’ve trained hard. I can do this. 

Look out, Athens, here I come!

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S2E42. Time Zones: Week 2

I’m sorry to foist this on you, but my experiment in preparing for a 7-hour time zone shift prior to our cruise is pretty much consuming my waking hours. And my sleeping hours, too, come to think of it.

This week was really rough on me. The good news is that I got into a rhythm of waking up at 4am as opposed to my normal 7:30am routine. But that was leaving me sluggish and pretty much wiped out during the day, even when I took a nap around noon.

It really had me perplexed because it was only 12 years ago that, following my first wife’s passing, I was on a regular schedule that had me getting up at 4:30am, working out on a treadmill and weight machine in my basement for an hour before showering and going to work. And I would feel physically fine and cognitively alert the whole morning (I had to be as I was a clinical psychologist on an acute care inpatient unit). Then I would take a nap in my office at noon and finish out the day, even putting in an extra hour or two at times.

So why was this so difficult? It appears that our circadian rhythms get a little cranky and less flexible as we age, but I didn’t think the difference between being 59 and 71 would have such a dramatic effect. Apparently, it does on me.

My new routine has me waking up at 4am and immediately walking for half an hour at a brisk pace. I moved my workout to first thing after waking up because I found I was too tired later on in the day to convince myself to do it.

Luckily for me, the new management company for our apartment building is renovating. They are painting the hallways a lighter color and changing the lighting so that it is like daylight out there…and early morning light is exactly what is called for when trying to fool your sleep-wake system into re-setting itself.

So my morning exercise of walking the halls (where 1 lap around is about 200 yards) is serving a dual purpose. If the hallways weren’t so fortuitously bright, I’d probably have to buy a light box and sit in front of it for a while after waking up. Thank goodness I lucked out and avoided that fate!

After my walk, I sit down with my computer, turn the brightness up full, and do The New York Times crossword puzzle, Spelling Bee, Wordle and Nerdle. It’s about then that Sally wakes up and I make her coffee and my tea to initiate our normal morning ritual. By then, the sky is starting to brighten and it feels like things are almost back to normal.

Sally is not all that enthusiastic about my attempt to prepare my body for Athens. Her natural rhythms would have her going to sleep around midnight, but she also likes to go to bed when I do, so my new hours have thrown a major monkey wrench into her routine. She reminds me that we went to Paris a few years back (6-hour time difference) and really didn’t do anything to fend off jet lag and neither of us can recall any severe effects. She has a point.

By 11am, I’m getting groggy and thinking about taking a nap. It takes me a while to appreciate the fact that I’ve already been up for 7 hours and I’ve worked out, so napping at 11am isn’t such an off-the-wall idea.

I’m eating dinner a little earlier than before (around 5:00pm instead of 6:30pm. After all, it’s not just your sleep but your hunger/digestive rhythms that need to adjust, as well.

Bedtime is the biggest problem. Early to bed means I can’t watch most of the Phillies games in the playoffs. Bummer! My compromise has been to get in bed around 9ish so I could at least watch a few innings. But that only left me the potential for 7 hours of sleep and, with the usual time it takes to fall asleep and the usual number of nighttime awakenings, I was only getting about 6 hours of actual sleep…and that just wasn’t enough for me, even with a mid-day nap.

So on Wednesday of this week, I moved my bedtime back to 8pm…and it worked like a charm! I got a good 7 hours of sleep and I felt fine the rest of the day. Now I know that I need to lock-in 8 hours in bed, no ifs, ands or buts!

As of today (Friday), I’ve got just 7 more days available to adjust. I’ve picked up half of the 7-hour transition I’ll be making, leaving a 3½-hour difference. I know I won’t be able to get all the way there, but I think I’d like to transition 1 more hour before we board the plane. That would be a 7pm bedtime and 3am awakening. Somehow, doing that never made it onto my bucket list!

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S2E41. Time (Zone) Travel

No sooner had I finished writing last week’s blog about sleep than it dawned on me that I had to start preparing for our upcoming Mediterranean cruise. We fly to Athens on October 29th which means that we have 3 weeks to adjust our sleep patterns to compensate for the 7 hours we’ll lose on the flight.

We booked the cruise months ago and I have been eagerly looking forward to it, but now all of a sudden it is imminent, and now, also, I am acutely aware that having my circadian rhythm out-of-joint for a week while I adjusted 1 hour per day was not the best way to get the most out of the trip. So I began the transition this week.

The task before me is pretty daunting. I normally go to bed around 11:30pm and get up at 7:30am. But in Greek time, that would be like going to sleep at 6:30am after pulling an all-nighter. Not good.

It’s my understanding that the kinder-and-gentler way to prepare for a trip like this is to start several weeks before the flight by going to bed 15 minutes earlier every night and waking up 15 minutes earlier until you are on schedule in your destination’s time zone. Compensating for the 7-hour difference, then, would take about 28 days using this system. I only had 21 days left until departure, though, so I figured I had to accelerate the pace a little.

The first night, I got in bed at 10:30pm and got up at 6:30am. Unfortunately, I had a lousy night’s sleep and was miserable most of the day. The good news here, though, is that since I’m retired, I can just take it easy and nap when the spirit moves me, which is what I did.

Then we went to the Jersey shore for two days. We picked the time to coincide with the October full moon. We thought it would be fun to watch it rise over the ocean, so we got a beachfront hotel room with a balcony on the 3rd floor with a pristine view of the ocean.

The sky was cloudless and the view of the red moon hurdling over the horizon at about 6:30pm was spectacular. It was shortly thereafter that I realized, “Hey…we can watch the sunrise tomorrow morning, too!”

Which is what we did. I only needed to get up by 6:00am to see it, but I happened to wake up at 4:30am and decided not to go back to sleep. Bundled up and sitting on our balcony, I was treated to the full spectrum of the sunrise. It began around 5:30am with a deep red-violet glow at the horizon that gradually brightened to a red-orange wash as the sky above it lightened to turquoise. The light show went on for an hour before the sun finally crested onto an already day-lit sky. Just beautiful!

And I did it again on Tuesday morning, going to bed at 9:30pm that night, and getting up at 4:30am on Wednesday. 

We were back home in the apartment by then, so I turned on all the lights in an attempt to fool my body clock into believing that it was time to get up. I turned the brightness on my computer screen up as high as it would go and did crossword puzzles while waiting for the sun to rise. The view isn’t nearly as spectacular from the apartment balcony as it was from the shore, but the colors are just as rich and they provide a modicum of reward for the abuse to which I’m subjecting my body.

Getting up at 4:30am isn’t really agreeing with me…yet. I have to believe though, that it will get better with each passing day. I’ve made up nearly 3 of the 7 hours I’ll lose, so at least there’s that. I’ll admit, though, that I can’t really imagine myself going to sleep at 4pm (11pm in Greece) by the end of the month and feeling good about it. 

And then there is the issue of food. I also have to change the times that I’m eating so that I’ll want breakfast and dinner at the right times while on the cruise. 

For now, I’m feeling ok for about 4 hours after I get up, but then I fade fast. I’m eating whenever I get hungry, which now seems to be most of the time. I have no energy to exercise, but I at least try to take a walk every day. The fitness center in our apartment building is open 24/7, so maybe I can try to work out in the wee hours. It might be worth a shot. Bottom line: once your sleep rhythm is out of wack, it’s really hard to maintain a brain-healthy daily schedule.

Playing with all of my bio-rhythms at the same time is a strange experiment. I suppose it’s better to get all of this discomfort out of the way now rather than to find myself walking around in a fog as we visit the ancient empires of the eastern Mediterranean. 

Lord, I hope so!

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S2E40. Going Back To Sleep

It was just 9 weeks ago that I posted a blog about sleep (S2E31. Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This) in which I described my lifetime relationship with sleeping and napping.

I thought I had said all I needed to say about sleep’s importance as one of the five pillars of preserving brain health, but The Universe seemed to have a different idea. All of a sudden my inbox and social media feeds were full of articles about sleep and sleep hygiene…and it wasn’t even National Sleep Awareness Week!

So I played along and watched a webcast of an interview with Matt Walker, Ph.D., a sleep scientist at the University of California-Berkeley (you can watch the 1-hour event here: youtube.com/watch?v=ZaxGiYyUcyI).

A lot of the information he presented was new to me, so I read his book Why We Sleep.

WOW…was I ever impressed! It was a real page-turner! He keeps his use of jargon and scientific terminology to a bare minimum and has a knack for selecting just the right analogies to make the research he details come to life. But it’s the content he covers that is truly mind-boggling. It was humbling to discover how little I knew about sleep.

Did you know that all creatures who live more than a day sleep? Including insects and worms?

Did you know that only one side of a dolphin’s brain sleeps at a time because it has to stay awake to surface and breathe?

Did you know that just one hour of lost sleep can significantly impair your cognitive abilities and possibly even kill you? Apart from all the laboratory studies that demonstrate this, we have an unintended real-life experiment that is run every year. It turns out that the day after daylight savings time goes into effect (and we lose an hour of sleep by turning our clocks forward), there is a spike in the number of fatal heart attacks and car accidents. Conversely, when we turn our clocks back in the fall (and gain an hour of sleep), there is a corresponding drop in heart attacks and traffic accidents. 

Fascinating!

Apart from fun facts to know-and-tell, the research he described was simply amazing. He would begin by asking what happens when we sleep, then progress to how it happens, and end up answering the ultimate question: why does it happen?

For the purposes of this blog, though, the meaty part of the book involves sleep’s effects on memory.

Dr. Walker explains that the hippocampus maintains traces of your experiences each day and then, during sleep, it empties itself by sending important information out to a variety of cortical areas where it is permanently stored in the form of memories. It’s kind of like downloading the contents of a thumb drive onto your hard drive and then erasing it from the thumb drive so it has its full capacity available for the next day. One stage of sleep is responsible for transmitting the data and a different stage of sleep takes on the task of cementing it in place by strengthening the synapses where the information is stored.

If your early sleep is disturbed enough, the information won’t be transmitted and you won’t remember much the next day. If your sleep later in the night is disturbed, the newly planted memory won’t be consolidated and you won’t remember much, either.

So if you want to be able to remember more about what happened today, you’ll need a good 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep tonight…and for the next couple of days, as well.

If you don’t get good early sleep, the hippocampus won’t empty out and it will have limited storage space available the next day. That’s part of the dullness you feel when you haven’t slept well and accounts for some of the difficulty you have learning new information that day.

Unfortunately, once we get into our 60s, our sleep patterns begin to change…and not for the better. We tend to sleep fewer hours and the quality of that sleep is compromised by more awakenings…all of which wreaks havoc on our memory, immune system, emotional reactivity and judgement. 

It also compromises the nightly cleansing of the day’s chemical detritus which includes beta amyloid and tau particles, the accumulation of which are associated with Alzheimer’s pathology.

The take-home message here is that it’s not true that we need less sleep as we age. We need the same amount of sleep that we needed when we were younger to allow all of these crucial processes to be executed every night. The problem is that we don’t get the sleep we need as often as we should.

Putting all this together, it’s no surprise that getting fewer than the recommended number of hours of sleep on a regular basis is a risk factor for dementia. The relationship is so strong that researchers are now exploring whether sleep patterns can be used to predict whether or not you will develop a dementia a few years down the road.

Dr. Walker ends the book with a listing of things you can do to maximize your chances of getting the sleep you need (spoiler alert: taking sleep medication is not one of them). Here’s a link where you can review them: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/sleep/healthysleepfs.pdf

The one change I made after reading the book had to do with my computer usage. 

I’m usually on the computer right up until bedtime, but it turns out that that’s a terrible thing to do. You see, the LED screen of a computer emits strong light waves at the blue end of the spectrum. It is this wavelength of light that triggers your circadian rhythm which tells you when to wake up and when to go to sleep. 

By bathing myself in blue light late at night, I was telling my brain that it was still daytime and so it delayed sending out the signal to initiate the sleep cycle until after I turned off the computer and went to bed.

I thought about changing my end-of-day routine, but realized I’m pretty much addicted to my computer use. Fortunately, the people at Apple have provided a solution. There is a program built into their computers and phones that will change the color emitted by their screens in the evening, going from blue-white to a soft yellow-amber. Problem solved! The program is called ‘Night Shift’ and you can find it by clicking on the ‘Display’ icon in System Preferences or Settings.

Alternatively, you can buy glasses that block the harmful wavelengths.

I’ll close with one more snippet from the book:

So, you ask, why is it that our circadian rhythm is triggered by blue light and not by full-spectrum sunlight?

You might recall that we are descended from fish and their aquatic predecessors. The circadian rhythm was an adaptation that evolved while we were living in water. But water filters out the other wavelengths of natural light leaving only the blues and greens. Eons ago, then, our evolutionary ancestors lived in a world that oscillated from darkness to blue and back again. And that’s the light pattern that controls your circadian rhythm to this very day!

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S2E31. Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This

When I was growing up, my mother valued her children’s sleep above all other bodily functions. When I was 12, I used that to my advantage when I wanted to play hooky from Hebrew school by staying up late the night before and then pretending not to wake up the next morning when she called me.

In college, a had a fierce bout of depression and found myself sleeping 12-16 hours every day. My therapist told me it was a defense mechanism whereby I tried to escape from reality. It sounded plausible at the time.

I used to wake up most nights at 3am. My best guess was that it was a little bit of residual trauma from when I was 6 or 7 and I was startled awake by the phone ringing. It was the hospital calling to tell us that my grandmother had died. My mother jumped out of her bed, wailing and crying hysterically. I glanced at the clock in my room and saw that it was 3am. Just recently, I learned that about 35% of us habitually wake up at 3am…and a related trauma is not a prerequisite at all.

In my early 30s, when I was the executive director of a performing arts center, I used to doze off in my office every afternoon. I fought it for a long time in the belief that I shouldn’t  be sleeping on the job, but then I decided, screw it! As soon as I’d start to get drowsy, I would buzz my secretary and ask her to hold my calls, lean back in my chair and nod off.

My afternoon napping habit never left me. When my first wife and I ran a B&B in northeastern Pennsylvania, I would retreat to the rope hammock hung between a pair of birch trees or lie down on the porch swing on most days in the late spring, summer and early fall. Those were the best naps of my life!

Fifteen years later, as the staff psychologist on an inpatient behavioral health unit, I took my nap a little earlier to coincide with my lunch break. Without my asking, our director sent out a notice that staff should not disturb Dr. Braffman during lunch unless there was an emergency and a patient was in crisis. Now that’s how you value nap time!

In graduate school, I learned about the 4 phases of sleep. Later studies revealed that you cycle through these phases 4-6 times every night, and that you can dream at any time, not just during REM sleep. 

New research published last month reported that there is a noradrenaline cycle that wakes you up as many as 100 times during the night. The awakenings are measured in milliseconds, so you are unaware of the vast majority of them.

Although we appear quiescent while we sleep, there’s actually a lot of important business going on under the hood. It’s the time when we consolidate memories and new learning and replenish our available stores of vital neurotransmitters. If you don’t sleep well or long enough, you’re going to have cognitive problems the next day, e.g., brain fog and you’ll be prone to making a lot of mistakes.

Another critical function of sleep is to clean up the chemical detritus left over from your brain’s daily activities. There is a whole separate network in your head that performs this task, running in parallel with the neural networks with which we are all so familiar. It’s called the brain’s glymphatic system.

It’s hypothesized that your brain’s ability to clean up the daily messes that it makes plays a critical role in preventing dementia. One way this might work would be by removing beta amyloid that is created as part of an immune response like a fever. 

What I haven’t been able to find anywhere in the literature, though, is a description of the magnitude of this cleaning power. Can your brain completely clean house every day? Is there enough residual power to clean up festering messes that overwhelmed the system on earlier occasions? In other words, is it destiny that our brains eventually be overrun with chemical garbage? Or can we chip away at accumulations of waste products until all our neural pathways are functioning again? Or is breaking even on a daily basis the most we can hope for?

We don’t know the answer to those questions yet, but we do know that somewhere between 7-9 hours of restful sleep on a regular basis helps tremendously. And naps are good for you, too (thank you, lord!), so long as you don’t overdo it to the point where they start to affect your nighttime slumber.

The impact of consistently high-quality sleep on your brain’s health can not be overstated. If you aren’t sleeping well (i.e., less than 6 hours each night), you might want to consider implementing some behavioral changes now that will reduce your risk of dementia by 30-50% later on.

To sleep better, lay off the alcohol in the evening and no more caffeine after 12 noon. Set a fixed schedule for going to bed and waking up. Stow your electronic devices about an hour before bedtime. Make a list of all the things you want to do the next day so you don’t lie awake thinking about them. You might want to do a meditation/relaxation/deep breathing exercise just before bedtime. Make sure your bedroom is dark and the temperature is somewhere in the 60s.

If you do all of these things and still have trouble sleeping, it will be well worth your while to get evaluated. There are a range of products out there—both natural and pharmaceutical—that can offer you support, if you need it.

Pleasant dreams!

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