The Nap After Thanksgiving Dinner

dinner
Image by Julie Rothe from Pixabay

Are you already prepping for Thanksgiving dinner? That might mean food prep or it might mean sleep prep.

This has always been my wife’s favorite holiday – no gifts, no cards, no religious affiliations, just food and family and friends and a time to count your blessings. In years past, we had quite a crowd with our parents, some bachelor(ette) aunts and friends who didn’t have family and our own two boys. This year the parents and aunts have passed on. Our boys are off with their in-laws, so it will be a quiet holiday.

Thanksgiving is also a day when Americans – who already eat too much – will make and eat too much to an even larger degree. And that often leads to the after-dinner nap on the couch. Sleep after a big meal is never a good idea for digestion, but you cant’ help it after that turkey and fixings. Right?

Did you see the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George force a lot of turkey on a woman so that she will fall asleep and they can play with her classic toy collection? It has long been thought that because turkey has the amino acid L-tryptophan, that it causes that after-dinner hangover. But is the turkey really what makes you so tired?  Maybe not.

Fact: L-tryptophan is an amino acid responsible for producing serotonin in our brains and serotonin is a hormone that affects mood. It makes us feel happy and relaxed and plays a role in helping us sleep and also aids with digestion. And turkey has L-tryptophan. But some research shows that the amino acids and protein in turkey have the opposite effect. They can inhibit L-tryptophan’s ability to produce serotonin which means it would keep you awake.

And yet the after-dinner turkey day snooze is real. What is causing it? It’s carbohydrates. The bread, rolls, stuffing, potatoes, cake and pie, when eaten with high protein foods like turkey will lead to feeling sleepy and sluggish.

How can we beat that sleepy effect? Don’t starve before the main meal because you’ll eat too fast and too much. (I know that you said that you didn’t eat all morning in order to “save room” for dinner.) Eat smaller portions of those carbs. Fight off the habit or urge to nap by getting outside for a little walk or some touch football.

So, now that I have taken some of the pleasure out of the holiday meal, is there any good coming out of traditional Thanksgiving foods? I searched and yes, there is some good news.

I have never met a potato I didn’t like and mashed potatoes are high on my list. Potatoes are full of potassium which lowers blood pressure and nourishes muscles and they have a lot of vitamin B6 which helps metabolism. Note that adding a lot of salt, gravy or butter can cancel out any benefits.

Fresh vegetables have fiber, Vitamins A, B1, B2 and B6 and calcium. The green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and the crunchy onions is not so great for your health.

I love stuffing. I will have a stuffing sandwich the day after Thanksgiving. I know, it’s bread on bread. But stuffing can be made healthier with the addition of whole wheat bread with the crusts and nuts, seeds, meat or vegan protein and carrots, celery and other veggies so that you get more fiber, antioxidants and nutrients. My wife’s recipe has all that and it is delicious.

How about pumpkin pie? I just read that many pumpkin products are actually made from other squashes and they can legally be labeled as pumpkin. Bummer. Pumpkin pie with real pumpkin contains potassium, vitamin C and beta-carotene, which can help lower the risk of cancer. Again, what else you add to the pie (sugars, whipped cream etc.) might tip the scale from beneficial to harmful.

I wish you moderation and gratitude on your Thanksgiving day. Eat well. And after the meal, maybe toss a football around before you watch other people toss one around on a screen from your comfy couch.

To Sleep, Perchance, To Sleep

woman sleeping
Image by Claudio_Scott

“To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream –
ay, there’s the rub, for in this sleep of death
what dreams may come…”

– Hamlet

There’s a lot going on in those lines spoken by Hamlet.  Sleep and death are often connected – which was something that scared me as a child. The nuns taught us a prayer with the line “If I should die before I wake..” which terrified me for years.

Maybe some of that fear still remains on my insomnia nights. But I prefer this idea that sleep may bring dreams. Not dreams of death, of course, but the pleasant and mysterious kind.

Followers of this blog know that I have written often about sleep and about dreams. I have read a lot about both topics and still find myself attracted to research on both topics.

I have done a number of my own experiments around sleep. Recently I tracked the Moon’s possible influence on my sleep. (I found no correlation.) I have kept track for a month of how exercising might affect my sleep. (No correlation.) And I have recorded (via my Fitbit) my sleep hours, deep sleep, and REM and how it changes when I take something before bedtime. That ranges from prescription sleeping pills to antihistamines, melatonin, magnesium, kava, valerian and other supposed aids, and also the negative effects of things like caffeine or alcohol. (Results vary widely by substance and person.)

You have probably noticed that one day of travel to other time zones, jet-lag and also daylight saving times can throw off your internal clock and sleep for several days.

Still, I read the suggestions about how to improve my sleep. Over the years, I have found certain basic good health suggestions repeated.  Here is a list of things that are not only good for your health in general but may help you have a better night’s sleep.

Go to bed at the same time every night.
Early to bed generally helps. When I go to bed at 1 am, I still tend to wake up at the same time which means my actual amount and quality of sleep is less.
Have your bedroom as quiet, cool and dark as possible.
Stay away from screens.
Meditate.
Exercise during the day and be active (but not in the hours before sleep).

Don’t engage in heavy mental activity before going to bed. Most reading seems to be okay, in fact, many people fall asleep while reading. People also fall asleep watching TV and I read that our brain waves watching “mindless” TV (comedies, some dramas) are similar to the waves during sleep. That lighter mental activity is different than reading serious non-fiction, academic texts or more engaging programs. Some game shows (Jeopardy?) and news or documentaries have a heavier cognitive load.

It is clear that many Americans lack sleep (less than 7 hours) and research on sleep deprivation is pretty clear. Research beginning in the 1940s, (sometimes done on prisoners of war) found that sleep deprivation would lead to hallucinations and even a kind of insanity. Depriving people of their REM dream time is even worse.

We seem to be clear now that your brain clears out toxins during the night. Sleep is the mind-body’s primary biorhythm, regulating every other biorhythm. Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are linked to low-grade inflammation that occurred years before symptoms appear, and the markers for inflammation increase in people who suffer from insomnia or who don’t get a full night’s sleep.

Poor sleepers often report a lack of energy, headaches, irritability and lack of focus.

One piece of research that I have seen validated in my own little experiments is that dreams (REM sleep) can occur even during a brief nap. It had been believed that REM sleep occurs only in longer nightly sleep.

You can’t fully compensate for lost sleep by sleeping longer the next night but there are some benefits to catching up on lost sleep.

I was pleased to read that waking up with an alarm clock is a bad idea. I never liked alarms. Our sleep progresses in waves and in a good night’s sleep we move from deep sleep to waking through transitions. In a full sleep night, your brain secretes chemicals needed to be awake bit by bit through those waves or cycles. If you interrupt at the wrong time, you may be awake but it won’t feel that way to you.

Polls show that the average U.S. adult feels tired during the day at least three out of seven days each week. 25% of us feel tired five to seven days a week. Some of this can be attributed to not getting enough sleep, but some is from poor sleep quality. I suffer from moderate sleep apnea. I can sleep for 8 hours and still wake up feeling tired.

For adults (18 to 64) it is still recommended that you get 7-9 hours per night. After age 65, 7-8 hours seem to suffice.

Hamlet’s “what dreams may come” has been used in novels and films, and despite my not-so-unusual fear of death in sleep, many people talking about death will say “I just hope I die quietly in my sleep.”  In ancient Greek mythology, Sleep was the twin brother of Death. They were the children of the personified gods of Darkness and Night.

I’m sorry Hamlet but I am not ready to “shuffle off this mortal coil” but it does “give us pause.”

The Moon and Sleep

moon meadow bed
Image by Myriams-Fotos from Pixabay

A new study found people get less rest in the days leading up to a full moon. have you noticed that yourself?

Researchers looked at the sleep patterns of hundreds of people over a lunar cycle and what they found was that people had later bedtimes and got the least amount of sleep during the three to five days before a full moon.

I’m monitoring my sleep every night anyway, so I’m going to look at my sleep from last night through the Full Moon on Saturday.

If my sleep or sleep matches those in the sleep study, it will take about 30 minutes longer to fall asleep. You may also find that you slept for about 50 minutes less than usual.

As of now, we don’t know the reason behind the trend. Does it sound like some old Moon lore? Modern studies have shown that menstrual cycles seem to temporarily synchronize with moon cycles.

Throughout history, we have made connections from the changing faces of the moon to our lives though some lore about the moon’s phases, such as a Full Moon inciting werewolves, is easy to dismiss.

More about the newest study at “It’s not just the pandemic. The moon may be messing with your sleep, too” What’s different about this study is that it wasn’t done in sleep labs but in real life. To track sleep, participants were outfitted with wrist monitors not so different from the one I wear on my wrist day and night.

Let’s see what I find this week before the Full Moon.

Yes, Androids Dream of Electric Sheep

neural brain

Our imperfect brains sometimes link events that have little or no causal connection. Superstitions work that way. Every time I wash the car, it rains. You might think that artificial brains don’t have that little flaw – but they do. Computer folks call it overfitting. That means that these non-human “brains” also sometimes use an irrelevant detail in constructing a model.

All those scary stories about artificial intelligence, smart machines, robots, androids and neural networks tell us that they are much smarter than humans.

The title of this essay comes from Philip K. Dick‘s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was the inspiration for the films Blade Runner and the sequel Blade Runner 2049.

Those neural network machines and creatures are definitely very good at learning relevant details and making connections but they also learn irrelevances.

How do humans deal with overfitting? How do we generalize from our many daily experiences to other similar situations? We dream.

That conclusion comes from research by Erik Hoel who says dreaming evolved specifically to deal with this problem. If he is correct, then it might solve a longtime problem in neuroscience of trying to figure out why we dream at all.

Sigmund Freud thought we dream to deal with taboos, but that isn’t accepted as correct these days.  Another theory is that dreams are the way the brain sifts through memories of the recent past selectively discarding unwanted or unneeded ones. But the dreams we recall aren’t very realistic and they don’t really seem to deal with the day’s memories.

Computer science is not my field but from what I’ve read one of the ways of dealing with overfitting in computer networks includes adding “noise” to the learning process so that it’s difficult for the network to focus on irrelevant detail. They call this dropout. It seems counterintuitive. Noise to improve focus?

But perhaps that’s what dreams do – insert “noise.” An example that is given is that we can trigger dreams by playing simple repetitive games such as Tetris for an extended time so that the brain becomes overfitted.

The theory also suggests that there can be dream substitutes. Books, plays, films, and the arts, in general, might perform a similar role to dreams since they are also an injection of false information.

I’ve read in numerous places that you can deprive people of sleep (in experiments and in torture) and they can survive longer than if you deprive them of dreaming. Experiments found that waking people up whenever they began REM sleep but allowing them to go back to sleep didn’t make them tired but it did make them a bit crazy. Studies have connected poor quality of sleep to a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, and even Alzheimer’s Disease, so there is that connection to dreaming. If you don’t sleep, you won’t dream. And though people often say “I never dream,” they do dream – but they don’t remember them when they wake up.

Ironically, most antidepressant medications significantly suppress REM/dreaming. (SSRIs suppress REM sleep by about a third, tricyclics reduce it by half, and older monoamine oxidase inhibitors cut out nearly all REM sleep.) Also, sleep deprivation can lead to more intense dreaming.

Returning to Philip K. Dick’s book, I was curious about the inspiration for his story. It actually began when he was doing research for another book, The Man in the High Castle. (That novel has also been adapted for a continuing TV series on Amazon Prime.) He was reading seized WWII Nazi diaries. It led him to believe that those beings were monsters who pretended to be human.

In one of the journals, a Nazi officer complains about not being able to sleep because he was “kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Instead of empathizing with their suffering, the officer only saw them as a nuisance that disturbed his sleep. That one line had a deep impact on Dick who thought, “It is not human to complain in your diary that starving children are keeping you awake.”

And so it started him thinking about a new book with “androids” who lacked any empathy.  Empathy is the main theme of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The protagonist in that book, Deckard, is human but realizes that some of the machine androids seem capable of empathy while some humans appear to be devoid of it.

It seems that he may be correct. Androids do dream. Whether they dream of electric sheep is questionable. I have never dreamed of any kind of sheep at all.

 

Take a Deep Breath

deep breath
Image by Jill Wellington from Pixabay

Humans take about 25,000 breaths per day. Think about that. No, I mean really think about that. Most of us, most of the time, give no thought to breathing. You would think about it if you were having difficulty breathing. That’s a panic situation. On the other extreme, you would think about breathing if you were meditating. That’s the opposite of panic.

I heard an interview with author James Nestor on Fresh Air about his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. A journalist, not a scientist or doctor,  James Nestor became interested in breathing when his doctor recommended he take a breathing class to help his recurring pneumonia and bronchitis.

I have done meditation and some yoga and fitness activities that ask you to focus on your breath. I know that breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is associated with a relaxation response and that when the diaphragm lowers, more air moves into your lungs and your body switches to a more relaxed state.

The nose breathing seems to be the key takeaway. Nestor participated in a study while working on the book in which his nose was completely plugged for 10 days, forcing him to breathe solely through his mouth. Not a way to feel better.

What’s so much better about nose breathing? Air taken in through the nose is filtered and warmed and it can trigger different hormones to flood our bodies, lower our blood pressure and even help store memories.

I didn’t know that the nose is more closely connected to our genitals than any other organ. It has the same tissue and when your genitals are stimulated, your nose will become stimulated as well. Some people even sneeze when stimulated (“honeymoon rhinitis).

It sounds like Nestor was also inspired to study breathing while working on his previous book, Deep, which was about the science of freediving where holding your breath for long periods is key.

It was also news to me that scientists believe that breathing is one way that our bodies maintain balance. When we breathe through our right nostril, circulation speeds up, so we get hotter, cortisol levels increase, and blood pressure increases. But breathing through the left nostril will reverse that – lower blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety. You don’t need to think about this as it occurs naturally, but you can think about it. I’ve had meditation breathing sessions where we try to breathe in through our left nostril – without holding our right one closed.

When you breathe through your mouth, you lose that balancing.

And exhaling relaxes the body. A deep breath in lowers the diaphragm and sends a lot of blood into the thoracic cavity, and when you exhale, that blood shoots back out through the body.

The really new thing I learned about is about “mouth taping” when you sleep to train yourself to breathe through your nose. There are commercial products for this, but Nestor said a small piece of micropore surgical tape will work. I have now tried it for a week. Besides my occasional problems falling asleep, I have been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. I have a mouthguard that helps but before I was diagnosed, everyone (especially my wife) was bothered by my snoring. It’s too early to report results on the taping but, according to my Fitbit. I have slept better this past week.

Nestor mentions an experiment that had participants use the Sanskrit mantra Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ which I learned in a class on Buddhism to work on their breathing.

Another video Nestor links to is with Dr. Andrew Weil demonstrating the 4-7-8 breathing technique which can help you get to sleep. I’ve tried it and sometimes it does seem to work.

Videos about breathing linked on Nestor’s website

Listen to Nestor read an excerpt from Breath)

Tick Tock Your Internal Clock

Phones and computers are good about adjusting to turning back the clocks. People don’t adjust as easily. Our internal clocks have no settings that can be reprogrammed.

Hey, it’s only an hour difference. “But it turns out that the master clock in our brain is pretty hard-wired, ” says Fred Turek, director of the Center for Sleep & Circadian Biology at Northwestern University.

Our internal clock is synchronized to the 24 hour light/dark cycle and daylight is a primary cue to reset the body’s clock each day.

It should only take a few days for your body and brain to catch up, but that the shift to daylight saving time in the spring, when we lose an hour of sleep, is linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and traffic accidents according to a new study which found an increase in the number of patients admitted to the hospital for a atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat) in the days following the spring time change.

One of the newer findings has been that the internal clock in our brains that we often refer to is supplemented by a time-keeping mechanism in every cell. Our bodies seem to like routine and when we disrupt those with clock changes or changes to our sleep or eating routines, it can increase the risk of metabolic disease.

Add to this the decrease in daylight also throws off routines, socialization and our emotional rhythm.

Okay, enough bad news. What can we do to compensate?

  • Go to bed an hour or so earlier.
  • Maximize your exposure to daylight in the morning hours.
  • Use foods that nourish – add protein sources like fish, nuts and other plant-based proteins such as tofu are good if you’re trying to cut back on meat.
  • Salmon and tuna are good for getting omega-3 fatty acids which regulate mood by quieting down the body’s response to inflammation.
  • Eat dinner early and keep it light or even make midday your main meal.
clocks
Illustration Credit: “Tic Toc” by Katherine Streeter for npr.org