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Maybe it is because I taught in a public school for many years, but I still find myself feeling really tired and ready for a nap around 3 pm. What is going on with my body clock?

Sleepiness generally hits all of us 7-9 hours after we wake up from a night’s sleep. That’s not very convenient for anyone who works a normal day. If you wake up at 7 am, it will hit you somewhere from 2-4 pm.

Generally, we fight off the urge to sleep, but our alertness drops. Now that i am in unretired mode, I don’t fight off the feeling much. I take a nap, but for most of you that is not an option.

The fatigue can also be attributed to adenosine, a chemical that accumulates during the day and causes sleepiness. But don’t go out trying to find some adenosine to help you sleep at night. It is used for treating certain types of irregular heartbeat and during a stress test of the heart.

When this sleepiness hits, your internal body temperature also drops starts dipping, I do like a blanket for nap time and a drop in body temperature signals your brain to conserve energy and prepare for sleep.

So what can you do when a nap is not an option? Many people chug down some caffeine or crave a sugary snack. These are not very healthy relief. I love my morning coffee kick, but I can’t do caffeine in the afternoon without wrecking my sleep that night. My wife can have a strong cup of caffeine before she goes to sleep.

What are alternatives?

Dehydration can cause sleepiness, so a glass or two of water can also help. I try to log 64 ounces every day on my Fitbit app.

Get outside and get some sunlight. Twenty minutes of sunlight (through clouds counts too) sends a signal to that brain clock to turn on some energy to wake up and be more alert.

I love to walk and there is evidence that even a 10-minute walk that is brisk can energize you again. You can do it inside, but a walk outdoors adds that sunlight boost.

Want to add more to that walk? Make it social. Some research shows that talking with someone and social interaction can help give your mind a break and gets you to focus outside yourself. Get a walk buddy. Have a walking meeting. Even a phone call (not a text!) might help.

Lots of websites, like the Fitbit blog, will tell you that nap time isn’t just for pre-schoolers. Tell your boss that data shows that a brief, 20-minute nap can be enough to boost mental and physical performance.

Giorgione - Sleeping Venus

Giorgione – Sleeping Venus

I’m reading more frequently that our current tendency to be staring at screens and living in our unnatural always-lit environment is really messing up our internal circadian clocks. In a natural world, the human circadian cycle adapts to seasonal changes in the light-dark cycle. But staring at screens (TV, computer, phone), especially in the hours prior to trying to sleep, is harmful to our internal clock’s synchronization and the way our brain prepares for sleep. And sleeping in for an extra hour doesn’t really help.

You’re finally relaxing on a winter night after a tough day spent in artificial light when you barely made it outside. You walked to your car or the mass transit in early morning darkness. You left work and it was already getting dark. At home, you were bathed in a brightly lit home. You watch your big screen TV and have your tablet on your lap.

You’re really messing up your internal clock.

Can we reset our internal clock by avoiding artificial lights at night for a few days and turning off those screens? That is tough to do in most modern settings. No screens and no artificial lighting? You can’t even do that on most vacations.

Some people try using meditation or other techniques to control stress ot to “defrag” your brain. Scientists have known for quite a while now that light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the time of the circadian clock. They have been cautioning against using light-emitting devices before bedtime because they emit “short-wavelength-enriched” light – light with a higher concentration of blue light than natural light contains. Blue light affects levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin more than any other wavelength.

In a study published in Current Biology, the authors describe a series of experiments where people were sent out camping to reset their biological clocks. The paper is titled “Circadian Entrainment to the Natural Light-Dark Cycle across Seasons and the Weekend” but in simpler terms it tested campers who spent a week and some who spent a weekend in a tech-free and only natural lighting setting. This study compared them with a control group that stayed at home to live their normal life. The scientists tracked sleep and circadian rhythms by measuring their levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates wakefulness and sleep.

Melatonin levels are key. We know that melatonin is present at low levels during the day, begins being released a few hours before bedtime, and peaking in the middle of the night. Those levels fall and then we wake up. Unfortunately, in our current living environment, melatonin levels don’t fall back down for  a few hours after we wake up. To your brain, you should still be sleeping for several hours. It’s like jet lag.

But that week-long camping trip seems to have reset the participants’ internal clock. Living in a world lit by light bulbs and screens is very different from one of sunlight and moonlight.

I try year round to get out to at least my backyard as soon as I make my morning coffee to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight. Of course, sometimes there is not much sunlight and in winter here it’s not as pleasant to step out in your pajamas when it’s 20 degrees and there’s snow on the deck. Natural light, particularly morning sunshine, which is enriched with blue light, has a very powerful influence on setting internal clocks to daytime and waking up.

Of course, a week of real camping (not a spa week or vacation at a resort) is not possible or even desirable to everyone. Can you create a natural light-dark cycle for a weekend? It means turning off the screens and turning off all of the artificial lights.

The study found that over 60% of the shift can happen over a weekend. Assuming the weekend is Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, that would give you a 20% recovery per night. Add 2 more nights to get 100% recovery? Five nights to reset your clock.

Of course, we’d like an easier path.

One alternate path reminds me of other “detox cures” that are quite popular. For example, I read an article on how to reverse some liver damage. In brief, it suggests that you avoid alcohol and processed foods, exercise more, lose 10% of your weight, take some milk thistle and maybe some Vitamin E. That sounds like good general health advice, but other than taking some supplements, it also sounds like a tough regimen for most of us to follow.

That is why a lot of people have decided to try taking melatonin supplements. It’s easy, and it sounds logical. You lack the melatonin to induce sleep, so you add some artificially. I tried resrtting my circadian rhythms using melatonin about a year ago. I read about what the levels are supposed to be. I made a schedule of when I would take the melatonin and when I would go to sleep. I adhered to the schedule – for two weeks.

The experiment did seem to work. I felt like I was falling asleep faster and staying asleep better. I didn’t do anything with light. I suspect that part of the improvement came from sticking to a regular sleep schedule. I was going to bed at 11 pm and waking up at 7 am for a solid 8 hours. But I just couldn’t keep to the schedule. I continued taking the melatonin until the bottle was empty, but I was going to bed at 1 or 2 am some nights and waking up at 6, 8 or even 9 am. That’s not how to do it.

People also try using artificial lights that mimic the spectrum and the intensity of natural light, but that can be costly. It is one of the therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that hits people as the “winter blues.”

I’ll be taking a week away from the winter blues soon and I will try, as best I can, to break from the screens and live by the sunlight and moonlight.

camping-pixa

dolphin-pixabay image

Dolphin stuck in the desert

Did you know that you have a chronotype? Did you know that there was such a thing as a chronotype? This weekend I’m thinking, like many of you, about the new year. I’m not making any new resolutions because I have plenty of past ones that were never resolved to keep me busy for a lifetime.

But today I am considering that part of my problem might be not knowing the best time to do things. I mean from the best time to have my coffee, to the best time to go for my exercise walk, to the best time to have sex. The answers vary according to your body’s chronotype.

You can find lots of self-help advice out there about WHAT to do and HOW to do it, but not much about WHEN to do it.

The when part has to do with your biology, hormones and the circadian rhythms of your body clock.

In the book, The Power of When by Michael Breus, you can “Discover Your Chronotype–and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More.”

I’m not sure you can confirm all those times so easily, but it is certainly interesting to take his quick online quiz and see what chronotype you are supposed to be.

Are you a Bear, Lion, Dolphin or Wolf? Once you know, you can do some lifehacking on when to do different activities. I came out as a Dolphin.

Your chronotype is your biological clock. It is when your body naturally wants to do things like sleep, eat, exercise and work. Most of us fight our body’s internal clock because we follow the unnatural clocks and schedules that tell us it’s time for breakfast, time to go to work, time to get to sleep.

Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour timekeeper. It regulates not only sleep but also body temperature, hormone levels, blood flow, and gut bacteria. It also ebbs and flows, so certain tasks done at certain hours will yield better results.

I have a habit of taking my prescription drugs in the morning, but it may be better to do it before I go to sleep.  I don’t take any cholesterol drugs but they work better before bed because that’s when the liver also starts breaking down cholesterol, and the drugs can work in tandem with the body. It seems that blood pressure pills may have more impact at night because some people with hypertension don’t experience a natural dip in blood pressure when they sleep.

Your chronotype can shift as you age. No chronotype is “better” than any other and some things are shared across types. For example, when it comes to romance, for all chronotypes, 11 am to 2 pm is when bonding hormones are at their lowest. Forget that lunch date. Go for the dinner hours.

According to a study Breus cites, most people have sex between 11 pm and 1 am and that is the worst possible time. Late at night, levels of sleep-inducing melatonin rise and testosterone is at its lowest. When you wake up, testosterone levels are at their peak. Breus says, “I’d love for everyone to make a point of having Saturday-morning sex.”  Set a reminder for next weekend.

Some of his advice I have heard before. For a long time I had heard that because we are more insulin-resistant after 3 pm,we don’t efficiently convert sugar to energy, and instead store it as fat. So, you should eat your big meal earlier as often as you can. Of course, that doesn’t fit in well with most working folks.

Of the four chronotypes (Dolphin, Lion, Bear, and Wolf), most people fit into the “Bear” category.

I haven’t tested the chronotypes theories out yet (New Year?) but you can take a start by taking Breus’s quick chronotype quiz to find out which one you are.

For Dolphin me I’m going to think about whether or not:

  • My most creative time of day is between 10:00am and noon.
  • My 4 key personality traits are: cautiousness, introversion, neuroticism, intelligence
  • and my 4 key behaviors are: avoiding risky situations, striving for perfection, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, fixating on details.
  • I already know that my “Sleep/Alertness Pattern” is that I usually wake up feeling unrefreshed (sleep apnea too) and I get an energy boost late in the evening.
  • I’m supposed to be most productive: in spurts throughout the day.
  • I agree that when it comes to naps, I try to catch up on sleep but can’t quite make it happen.
  • My fellow dolphins are unihemispheric sleepers – one half of the brain shuts down while the other half stays alert. Not a bad thing if you want to prevent drowning and being eaten by predators, but a drag for those of us who are land dwellers in houses. Dolphins lie awake thinking about mistakes they’ve made. Sometimes we don’t know whether or not we actually slept at all.

I like those watery dolphins, but I’m not thrilled about being one. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

 

sleeping-pixa

I have always wanted to be a nap person. I never attended pre-school and if we had naptime in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. In my adult life, I always experienced a dulling of my senses after taking a daytime nap. As a longtime insomniac, I also found that a nap during the day ruined my chances of falling asleep at a reasonable time that night.

I have had sleep problems for most of my life and did a sleep study which showed that I have sleep apnea, so it is no surprise that I often write about sleep. Sleep is related to weight loss.  It has been shown to solidify our day’s learning, so that when you say “let me sleep on it,” you probably are doing a good thing.

But almost all the talk about napping lately is about  short “power naps.” You can find lots of articles, books and even accessories to help you nap at your work desk (though you are bound to catch the boss’ eye if you use the Ostrich Pillow) and pillows for napping on airplanes or at home. There are at least a dozen phone apps to monitor and time your naps. In New York City, MetroNaps is a business that provides darkened cot-like redoubts for folks who don’t want to fall asleep at their desks. U.S. Marine commanders in Iraq mandated a power nap before patrols.

I did some searching recently for books on naps and information on power napping and there are plenty of  choices out there with titles like Take a Nap! Change Your Life., The Art of Napping and Power Sleep.

Of course, there are also the more serious books books on sleeping, like The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, that include chapters on napping pros and cons.

In The Practical Napper, “lapsed engineer” and mommy blogger Jennifer Eyre White wraps napping and sex up in a fuzzy blanket (or satin sheets, if that’s your preference).

An interviewer asked her “If sleep is the new sex, is your book like a kama sutra for nappers?” She replied that “…in The Practical Napper I explain – among other things – that if  ‘sleeping together’ is a euphemism for having sex, then napping together is essentially foreplay. As you and I both know, ‘foreplay’ can bring a whole new level of intimacy to a fledgling romance and add zing to mature relationships, even after many years of marriage. So when people ask you and your spouse what you did over the weekend, feel free to answer, “Well, you know, nothing productive, mostly just foreplay.”

The latest research on napping very much promotes the idea of short power naps which are usually described as being under 20 minutes. Why that very short time? Your first thought might be that 20 minutes can’t have much of a positive effect.

The book, The First 20 Minutes, focuses on just that kind of research and its subtitle gives you an indication of the supposed benefits of these short nap breaks: “Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.” It is targeted at athletic types.

Medically, sleeping benefits heart functioning, hormonal maintenance, and cell repair. A power nap, if done correctly,  is said to have those effects too.

The shortness of the nap is based on years of sleep studies that have shown our sleep comes in five stages. In a typical full night of sleep, these stages recur cyclically. Power naps keep you in the first two stages and that is important.

Stage one when you are slipping into sleep is when your electrical brain activity, eye and jaw-muscle movement, and respiration all slow down.

In the second stage, our temperature lowers which relaxes muscles further. These two stages prepare us for the deeper but dreamless slow-wave sleep of stages three and four.

You don’t want to drop into stage three because waking at that point will leave you feeling less relaxed and more groggy. Stage five is when the rapid eye movement of REM sleep occurs with your eyes twitching and your dreaming intensifying.

The timing of these stages vary from person to person and based on the physical space of your nap or sleep, but after years pf monitoring sleepers, scientist can generalize on the time of the stages.

The five stages repeat every 90 to 120 minutes. Stage one can last up to 10 minutes and stage two until the 20th minute.

That means that less than 10 minutes of sleep is not really helpful. It is stage two that seems to have restorative benefits. Those benefits are listed as improving alertness, stamina and a perceived solidification of the connection between neurons involved in muscle memory. That’s why the benefits are not just brain function but muscles. Current research seems to indicate that there is a mind-body connection because neurons perform the same function as before, but now faster and with more accuracy.

An article in Mens Journal points to research by Dr. Sara Mednick, a scientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies who focuses on sleep and napping research. Mednick’s research shows that power naps can lift productivity and mood, lower stress, and improve memory and learning.

After being a public school teacher for several decades, I still find I hit a wall and get sleepy around 3 p.m.  I blamed this on conditioning all those years to the end of the school day. Mednick looked at MRIs of nappers and found that brain activity stays high throughout the day with a nap, and without a nap it declines as the day wears on.

Is there any downside? As far as I can tell, the only danger is falling into that stage 3 and beyond sleep.

Taking a nap but waking up in slow-wave sleep seems to produce what’s known as sleep inertia. Your limbs feel heavy, eyes can’t focus, speech is a bit slurred and you generally feel sluggish. You would actually be better off napping to the 50-minute mark or going through a full 90-120 minute sleep cycle if it is sleep that you really need.

My own recent napping research hasn’t worked out too well because of that timing. If I set my alarm to buzz at 20 minutes, I never get 20 minutes because it take me 5, 10 or even 15 minutes (if at all) to fall asleep. I end up being awakened after 7 minutes of nap time. I need a nap tool that starts when I fall asleep and then started the 20 minute countdown. Do you know of one?

That Mens Journal article has a series of tips for napping. Here are a few I like:

Recognize that you’re not being lazy and that napping will make you more productive and more alert after you wake up.

Try to nap in the morning or just after lunch. Our circadian rhythms make late afternoons a more likely time to fall into deep (slow-wave) sleep, which will leave you groggy.

As a migraine sufferer, I recommend darkening your ” nap zone” and wear an sleep eyeshade. Darkness stimulates melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone.

One reason we like a blanket is that body temperature drops when you fall asleep, but I’ve read several times that having cool feet actually improves sleep.

rewired-brainWe keep hearing that technology has rewired our brains. I’m not sure it has rewired mine, although I spend more time with tech than most people. But I am pretty convinced that my sons’ brains are wired differently.

Sure, I accept the idea that neuroplasticity means our brains can change because of new experiences – even at my advanced age. But is tech (mostly the Internet and interactive technologies).

Not all the changes are positive. Some are praiseworthy. Some can go either way.

It’s possible that tech is helping our brain’s ability to organize. It is said that it frees our minds for deeper thinking. I feel even more disorganized lately. Tech makes my mind even busier.

Some researchers think all this tech is wrecking our attention spans and making us less creative.

But the part of an article by Rebecca Hiscott that caught my attention was pointing out that people who grew up with the tech (call them Millennials, the Internet Generation or whatever) had their brains wired early on.

Rewiring – like all rehab work – is harder and less effective.  For example, these younger and very plastic brains  are much more impatient when it comes to anything analog.

The general thing I hear is that young people are much more visual than their parents’ generation.  Of course, being that I was the “TV Generation,” I always heard that television was doing bad things to my brain. A study found that adults over the age of 55 who had grown up in a household with a black and white television set were more likely to dream in black and white, but younger participants, nearly always experienced their dreams in color. The American Psychological Association seconded these findings in 2011.

One study found that first-person shooter video games (Halo, Call of Duty) can boost decision-making and visual skills because they force players to make snap decisions based on visual cues. Better visuospatial attention skills. Strategy-based games seem to improve the brain’s “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to switch between tasks. Younger people were supposed to be better at multitasking, but newer studies seem to show that none of at any age is really good at multitasking. Something always suffers.

Of course, I have been watching color film and color TV for a long time too, but my dreams are pretty much in b&w.  I have read a lot about dreams and it seems more likely that we dream in b&w but include some colors when we describe them – and that those few colors signal important elements.

Did tech do something to our brains to encourage FOMO (fear of missing out)? That is this maybe-anxiety that might be brought on by social media use. Does skimming through all those Facebook, Instagram and other pages, pictures and posts of “friends'” lives make you feel like you’re missing out?

I’m not sure I am buying into the evidence that looking at pictures of friends’ meals online makes your own meal taste bland by comparison.

Along with the fascination for dreams is my issues with sleep.  I am guilty of falling asleep with my laptop on my lap or reading something on my iPad.

All the electronic light in the house at night (even the seemingly minor glowing of LEDs on a clock, microwave, cable box, router etc.) seem to impact our body’s internal light cues and maybe even that melatonin that we need to fall asleep and that comes on with the reduced light of night. Unless all the tech around us (including that big TV screen – that blue light from screens is the worst) is fooling our brains into thinking it’s still daytime. So much for our circadian rhythms (your internal sleep clock).

My memory has degraded. I blame age, but lots of research shows that because we have Google and Siri and electronic contact lists and files, we don’t work our memory as much.

A 2007 study found that the younger respondents were less likely to remember standard personal information like birthdays or phone numbers. I was hearing 40 years ago that calculators were decreasing basic mathematical skills. True?  Or did they allow for more complex math?

Can you navigate when you drive without the help of GPS?

And what is to blame for shortening attention spans and the rise of attention-deficits? Television got the blame for that back in the 1950s and 60s and social media and the Internet are being blamed now.

Is that why people of all ages (but especially younger people) find it hard to focus long enough to read a book? “Surfing” the Internet really does mean skimming along the top and edges of that massive wave of information.

Many of the studies have mixed results. The tech improves our “cognitive surplus” and the study also shows that it inhibits our ability to rein in impulsive or aggressive behavior. Those games that force fast decision-making also inhibited “proactive executive control” over fast reactions and impulses.

Apple-think-different

Remember these Apple ads that asked us to Think Different? Do you feel that your brain has been rewired to think differently because of tech the past few decades?

My sons bought me a Fitbit activity wristband for Christmas. They know I like tech toys, but they bought it because they are unhappy with my [lack of] health lately.

I have gained a lot of weight. I don’t do any real exercise. I hate gyms. I used to be a major walker, but even that has become less as I work more and seem to have less free time.

All of these new activity trackers are connected to the cloud and/or your smartphone or computer and are constantly monitoring you. My wristband counts my steps, converts them to miles, keeps track of flights of stairs climbed and the calories in and out.

A friend saw my Fitbit and said, “I have two friends that have those and they are quite obsessed with them.”  I don’t want that degree of intensity. I think my wife is already a bit annoyed at my sitting down to meals and inputting my food items.  “Oh boy, 256 calories left tonight.”

The idea of being mindful of what you are eating and how much you are walking, running or hiking is probably the most important aspect of this endeavor.

Gautama Buddha apparently did not need an activity tracker to keep track or mindful.  He said, “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

He is no Buddha, but a lot of people follow Dr. Andrew Weil’s advice about health.  He has five pillars of health and you can’t really argue with them because they are just sensible. Sensible and hard to follow.

pillars health“Neutralize stress.” Easier said than done. “Spiritual well-being.” Show me the five easy steps. You do what you can, and eating right, having some physical activity and social connectivity seem within reach.

It’s only been two weeks for my new health practice, so there is no point in saying it is working or not, but I am hopeful that this new daily practice can continue for the year the way last year’s daily poetry practice made it through the year. Of course, counting words on a line is a lot easier and more pleasant than counting how many almonds I’m snacking on.

My Fitbit Charge also keeps track of my sleep. Being that I have sleep apnea, I was interested to see what it could tell me.  The tracker bases its data on activity/movement. It is very accurate at sensing when I fall asleep based on my change in activity to no movement from my non-dominant arm.

IMG_4584When I did overnight sleep study at a hospital years ago, they recorded me awakening 81 times during a night’s sleep.  People with untreated sleep apnea stop breathing repeatedly during their sleep, sometimes hundreds of times.

Not only does this mean that the brain  and the rest of my body might not be getting enough oxygen., but explains why I can sleep for 8 hours and feel tired.

The Fitbit doesn’t measure those oxygen levels or my heart rate but on a typical night (as shown here in a screenshot from my Fitbit iPhone app) of 8 hours asleep, I am “restless” for more than 3 of those hours in separate instances during the night. That also means that I jumping out of the REM cycles that lead to dreams – and restful sleep.

It will take more than a tracker band on your wrist to improve your health, but it might help.

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