I have for years been interested in sleep research due
to my professional involvement in memory and learning. This article
attempts to produce a synthesis of what is known about sleep with a view
to practical applications, esp. in people who need top-quality sleep for
their learning or creative achievements. Neurophysiology of sleep is an
explosively growing branch of science. Many theories that are currently
contested will soon be forgotten as a result of new findings.
Consequently, this text is likely to grow old very quickly. Yet some basic
truths about sleep are well-established, and practical conclusions can be
drawn with the benefit to human creativity and intellectual
accomplishment. In this text, I provide some links to research papers and
popular-scientific articles that advocate disparate and contradictory
theories. Please consult other sources to be certain you do not to get a
one-sided view! This article includes some indications on how to
use free running sleep in the treatment of insomnia, hypersomnia, advanced
and delayed phase shift syndromes, and some other sleep disorders. If your
own experience can contribute to the ideas presented herein, I will gladly
hear from you (esp. in the context of learning and creativity)
I have for years been interested in sleep research due to my professional involvement in memory and learning. This article attempts to produce a synthesis of what is known about sleep with a view to practical applications, esp. in people who need top-quality sleep for their learning or creative achievements. Neurophysiology of sleep is an explosively growing branch of science. Many theories that are currently contested will soon be forgotten as a result of new findings. Consequently, this text is likely to grow old very quickly. Yet some basic truths about sleep are well-established, and practical conclusions can be drawn with the benefit to human creativity and intellectual accomplishment. In this text, I provide some links to research papers and popular-scientific articles that advocate disparate and contradictory theories. Please consult other sources to be certain you do not to get a one-sided view! This article includes some indications on how to use free running sleep in the treatment of insomnia, hypersomnia, advanced and delayed phase shift syndromes, and some other sleep disorders. If your own experience can contribute to the ideas presented herein, I will gladly hear from you (esp. in the context of learning and creativity)
Few people realize how important sleep is! The alarm clock is an often-used fixture in an overwhelming majority of homes of the modern world. By using the electric lighting, alarm clocks, sleeping pills, and shift-work, we have wreaked havoc on the process of sleep. Over the last hundred years of the twentieth century, we have intruded upon a delicate and finely regulated process perfected by several hundred million years of evolution. Yet only recently have we truly become aware that this intrusion may belong to the most important preventable factors that are slowing the societal growth in industrial nations! In a couple of years from now, we may look at alarm clocks and "sleep regulation", in the same way as we look today at other "great" human inventions in the league of cigarettes, asbestos materials or radioactive cosmetics
Check this list below and see which applies to you:
The chances are around 90% you could subscribe to one of the above. It is also highly likely you have already learned to accept the status quo, and you do not believe you can do much about it. This article may hint at some remedies; however, the bad news is that for a real solution you would probably need to change your family life, your work, your boss, or some of hard-to-change social rules!
Sleep isn't just a form of rest! Sleep plays a critical physiological function, and is indispensable for your intellectual development! Those who do not respect their sleep are not likely to live to their full mental potential!
Yet modern society has developed well-entrenched rules that keep sleep in utmost disregard. This has been driven to pathological levels in American society. Here are some bad rules that hurt sleep:
Cutting down on sleep does not make people die (at least not immediately). It does make them feel miserable but the ease with which we recover by getting just one good night of sleep seems to make sleep look cheap. Even the reports from the Guinness Record attempt at sleeplessness (Randy Gardner's awakathon in 1964 lasted 11 days ) trivialized the effects of sleeplessness. Many books on psychiatry and psychology still state that there aren't any significant side effects to prolonged sleeplessness! This is false!
In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, he proudly admitted that he went 48 hours without sleep because he really wanted to become the next president. Former Senator Bob Dole "improved" the record in 1996 presidential campaign: We have been going 78 hours. We've got to go 96. We have been going around the clock for America. Dole's feat was matched by Vice President Albert Gore jr. who kept campaigning for three days before the election of November 7, 2000. After the election, Gore still kept on his feet by going into extra hours of the concede-retract cycle of his cliffhanger contest against Governor George W. Bush of Texas.
The bad example of disrespect for sleep comes from the most important people in the nation!
Yet some dramatic facts related to sleep deprivation slowly come into light. Each year sleep disorders add $16 billion to national health-care costs (e.g. by contributing to high blood pressure and heart disease). That does not include accidents and lost productivity at work! For this, the National Commission on Sleep Disorders estimates that sleep deprivation costs $150 billion a year in higher stress and reduced workplace productivity (US, 1999). 40% of truck accidents are attributable to fatigue and drowsiness, and there is an 800% increase in single vehicle commercial truck accidents between midnight and 8 am. Major industrial disasters have been attributed to sleep deprivation (among these, at least in part, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the gas leak at Bhopal, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill).
It has been known since the 1920s that sleep improves recall in learning. However, only recently, research by Dr Robert Stickgold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts Mental Health Center, has made international headlines. Dr Stickgold demonstrated a fact that has long been known yet little appreciated: sleep is necessary for learning! Without sleep we reduce the retention of facts we have learned the previous day (and not only). Studying nights before an exam may be sufficient for passing the exam, yet it will leave few useful traces in long-term memory. The exam on its own replaces knowledge as the main purpose of studying!
A change in sleep patterns can spell a social revolution in learning, health, and productivity on a scale that few imagine! "Judging from history, it would seem that fundamental changes in the way we think about sleep will be required for policy changes that would protect society from sleepy people who make catastrophic errors in industry and transportation" (Merrill Mitler, PhD)
I have studied student personalities among users of SuperMemo for over ten years now. There are a couple of determinants that make a good, efficient and persistent student. Here are some characteristics of a person who is likely to be successful in learning:
Here are some unfortunate characteristics that do not correlate well with the ability to study effectively (esp. in the context of SuperMemo):
For long, the physiological function of sleep has not been clear. In most people's mind, sleep is associated with rest and time for mental regeneration. Restorative, protective and energy-conserving theories of sleep have been quite popular until quite recently when it became apparent that one long-lasting sleep episode with suppression of consciousness does not seem to be the right way for the evolution to tackle depleted resources, toxic wastes or energy conservation (e.g. your muscles do not shut off completely to get rest). The critical function of sleep is dramatically illustrated in experiments in which rats chronically deprived of sleep eventually die (usually within 2.5 weeks). See: Popular scientific review of theories about the role of sleep (New Scientist, 1997) and Is REM involved in memory formation?.
In evolutionary terms, sleep is a very old phenomenon and it clearly must play a role that is critical to survival. Only quite recently it has been proven beyond doubt that the function of sleep is consolidation of memory! Sleep is absolutely necessary for us to learn new things! ( not all scientists agree!)
Researchers have long known the particular importance of the hippocampus, a small brain organ, for memory formation. Yet it has always been difficult to find out what is special about the hippocampus that distinguishes it from other areas of the cerebral cortex that also show synaptic plasticity, i.e. the ability to store memories.
Ground-breaking theories of Dr György Buzsáki and his two-stage model of memory trace formation have inspired further research that sheds new light on what is actually happening during sleep [Buzsáki, 1989] (do not confuse this two-stage model with the two-component model of memory or with the two-component model of sleep regulation below). Using his knowledge of neural networks, ingenuous experiments on neuronal firing, and sophisticated mathematical analysis of spatiotemporal firing patterns, Buzsáki provided an good model explaining how the two components of sleep, REM and non-REM sleep, work together to consolidate memories. The hippocampus acts as the central switchboard for the brain that can easily store short-term memory patterns. However, these patterns have to be encoded in the neocortex to provide space for coding new short-term memories. This complex process of rebuilding the neural network of the brain takes place during sleep. Unlike rest or conservation of energy, this highest feat of evolutionary neural mathematics, requires the brain to be shut off entirely from environmental input! This automatic rewiring is the main reason for which we sleep and why there is no conscious processing involved! During sleep, the brain works as hard as during SAT or GRE exams. It rewires its circuits to make sure that all newly gained knowledge is optimally stored for future use. If you have some basic understanding of neurophysiology and neural networks, here is an article that makes an excellent reading about the neural functions of sleep: Slow wave sleep contribution to memory consolidation.
Electric lighting and stress are the two chief culprits that have converted the natural process of sleep into a daily struggle for millions. In the new millennium, we can rarely hope to get a good night sleep without understanding the science and the art of sleep. Currently, the societal understanding of sleep and its functions is as dismal as the understanding of the health risks of cigarettes in the 1920s. A majority of the population inflict pain, misery and mental torture on themselves and their children by trying to regulate their sleep with alarm clocks, irrational shift-work patterns, sleeping pills, alcohol, caffeine, etc.
For a chance to break out from unhealthy sleep habits, you need to understand the two-component model of sleep regulation:
There are two components of sleepiness that drive you to bed:
Only the superposition of these two components determines the optimum time for sleep. Most importantly, you should remember that even strong sleepiness resulting from the homeostatic component may not be sufficient to get good sleep if the timing goes against the sleep-high in the circadian component:
Circadian component - there are around hundred known body functions that oscillate between maximum and minimum values in a day-long cycle. Because these function take about a day's time to complete, the term circadian rhythm was coined by Dr Franz Halberg of Germany in 1959 (in Latin circadian means about a day). The overall tendency to maintain sleep is also subject to such a circadian rhythm. In an average case, the maximum sleepiness comes in the middle of the night, reaches the minimum at awakening, and again increases slightly at siesta time in the afternoon. However, the circadian sleepiness is often shifted in phase as compared with your desired sleep time. Consequently, if your maximum sleepiness comes in the morning, you may find it difficult to fall asleep late in the evening, even if you missed a lot of sleep on the preceding day. In other words, the optimum timing of your sleep should take into consideration your circadian rhythm.
Homeostatic component - homeostasis is the term that refers to maintaining equilibrium or balance in physiological and metabolic functions. If you drink liquids containing lots of calcium, homeostatic mechanisms will make sure that you excrete calcium with urine or deposit it in the bones. This is used to make sure your blood levels of calcium remain the same. Similar mechanisms are used to regulate overall sleepiness and its multiple subcomponents. The longer you stay awake, the more you learn, the more you think, the higher your tendency to fall asleep. On the other hand, caffeine, stress, exercise and other factors may temporarily reduce your sleepiness. The homeostatic mechanism prepares you for sleep after a long day of intellectual work. At the same time it prevents you from falling asleep in emergencies.
Let us now formulate the fundamental theorem of good sleep:
Later in the article, we will convert this theoretical formula into the more practical recommendations. Before that you may want to understand factors that greatly complicate the two-component model presented above.
Most of all, you may be surprised to find out that your internal circadian oscillation is based on a period that is closer to 25 hours than to 24 hours! To be exact, it varies between individuals, seasons, and other daily factors such as stress, timing of sleep, timing of the light period, intensity of light, exercise, and many more. Usually it falls into the range from 24.5 hours to 25.5 hours.
Most of us are able to entrain this 25 circadian rhythm into a 24-hour cycle by using factors that reset the oscillation. These factors include intense morning light, work, exercise, etc. German scientists have named these factors zeitgebers (i.e. factors that give time). As a result of the influence of zeitgebers, in a well-adjusted individual, the cycle can be set back by 30-60 minutes each day. However, the entrainment to the 24-hour cycle may come with difficulty to many individuals due to factors such as:
Important! A great deal of sleep disorders can be explained by entrainment failure (i.e. the failure to reset the 25-hour circadian rhythm to the 24-hour daylight cycle). In other words, in the interdependence between sleep disorders and entrainment failure, the cause-effect relationship will often be reversed!
Due to the physiological function of sleep, which is the rewiring of the neural network of the brain at the synapse level, we can naturally expect that the demand for sleep be associated with the amount of learning on the preceding days. This link may also explain a decreased demand for sleep in retirement due to a decrease in intellectual activity. This age-related drop in the demand for sleep is less likely to be observed in highly active individuals. For similar reasons, the entrainment failure can often be found among students during exams. It is not clear how much of this failure can be attributed to stress, or to the desire to do more on a given day, or to the actual increase in the demand for sleep.
To find out more about the circadian component see: Biological Clock Tutorial
There is a little-publicized formula that acts as a perfect cure for people who experience continual or seasonal problems with sleep entrainment. This formula is free running sleep!
Free running sleep is a sleep that comes naturally at the time when it is internally triggered by the combination of your homeostatic and circadian components. In other words, free running sleep occurs when you go to sleep only then when you are truly sleepy (independent of the relationship of this moment to the actual time of day).
The greatest shortcoming of free running sleep is that it will often result in cycles longer than 24 hours. This eliminates free running sleep from a wider use in society. However, if you would like to try free running sleep, you could hopefully do it on vacation. You may need a vacation that lasts longer than two weeks before you understand your circadian cycle. Even if you cannot afford free running sleep in non-vacation setting, trying it once will greatly increase your knowledge about natural sleep cycles and your own cycle in particular.
Free running sleep algorithm:
In free running conditions, it should not be difficult to record the actual hours of sleep. In conditions of entrainment failure, you may find it hard to fall asleep, or wake up slowly "in stages". In free running sleep, you should be able to quickly arrive to the point when you fall asleep in less than 10 minutes and wake up immediately (i.e. without a period of fading drowsiness). In other words, you can remember the hour you go to bed, add 10-15 minutes and record it as the hour you fell asleep. As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, you should record the waking hour. Usually you should not have any doubts if you have already awakened for good (as opposed to temporarily), and you should not fall asleep again (as it may be a frequent case in non-free running sleep). Fig. 1 shows an exemplary free running sleep log in a graphic form:
An exemplary 5-months free running sleep cycle graph in conditions of negligible
isolation from standard zeitgebers. In the picture, the average time of night
sleep is 7 h 5 min, time before the midday nap is 7 h 48 min, the average nap
takes 25 minutes and the time before the nap and the night sleep is 9 h 46 min.
The whole cycle adds up to 25 hours and 4 minutes. Note that the distance
between nap and sleep in the graph is less than 9 h 46 minutes due to the fact
that the blue retirement-line refers to the previous day sleep as compared with
the red nap-line. Consequently, the nap-to-sleep band is horizontally shortened
by 64 minutes, i.e. exactly as much as the daily time-shift in the cycle.
If you sleep against your natural rhythm you will often experience tiredness or drowsiness that can be resolved by adjusting your sleeping hours. In healthy individuals, the daytime alertness is primarily determined by:
Free-running sleep provides the best way to satisfy all above criteria
If you cannot free-run your sleep, it is very important to understand the relationship of your homeostatic and circadian sleep drive as compiled in the table below. In the course of the day, you should move in synch between the yellow areas of the table, i.e. from perfect alertness to maximum sleepiness, and then back to perfect alertness. The gray areas illustrate when your sleep falls out of synch:
Should we free run our sleep?
As it will be discussed later, free running sleep can be used to solve a number of sleep disorders except those where there is an underlying organic disorder that disrupts the natural sleeping mechanisms.
However, you will often hear two arguments against adopting the use of free running sleep:
Let us consider the validity of these two arguments:
Argument 1 - It is true that free running sleep will often run against the natural cycle of light-and-darkness. However, the departure from the natural rhythm is a direct consequence of electric lighting and modern lifestyle. Our ancestors could expect little but darkness and boredom past sunset. Darkness and boredom are quite efficient in lulling us to sleep. If we stubbornly refuse to use electric lighting beyond a certain hour, we will still find it difficult to run away from the excitement of modern lifestyle. To shut your brain to sleep efficiently in the early evening your would probably need to quit your current job and pick some uninspiring one, give up your intense family life, give up your hobbies and interests, give up the Internet, evening TV, etc. We live more exciting and more stressful lives than our grandparents. Turning the lights off in the early evening would probably only be wasteful. Additionally, shortsightedness, the ailment of the information age, makes us less sensitive to light zeitgebers and artificially prolongs the circadian cycle. There are a number of downsides to free running sleep. The worst shortcoming is a difficulty in establishing an activity cycle that could be well synchronized with the rest of the world. Later in the article we will discuss the positive aspects of free running sleep. Ultimately, everyone needs to balance pros and cons to make the ultimate decision: to free run or not to free run
Argument 2 - It is true that people who try to free run their sleep may find themselves sleeping outrageously long in the beginning. This, however, is not likely to last and may be a body's counter-reaction to prolonged sleep deprivation. Unlike in the case of foods, there does not seem to be any evolutionary advantage to getting extra sleep on days we can afford to sleep longer. In the course of evolution, we have developed a tendency to overeat. This is a protection against periods when food is scarce. Adipose tissue works as a survival kit for bad times. However, considering the function of sleep, the demand for sleep should be somewhat proportional to the amount of new learning received on preceding days. In ancient times, we did not have exam days as opposed to lazy days. Consequently, the link between learning and demand for sleep is quite weak. The body clock will still make us sleep 7-8 hours on nights following the days of total inaction. Secondly, every extra minute of sleep might improve the quality of neural wiring in the brain. Sleep would better be compared to drinking rather than eating. We do not have much capacity to survive without drinking due to our poor water storage ability. Similarly, we cannot sleep in advance in preparation for a double all-nighter before an exam or important deadline
On the other extreme of free running sleep debate is the argument for changing the way society works by ... introducing the 28-hour day. To read more about this concept see A New Clock for A New Age. Although a 28-hour day sounds today more like a legislative science fiction, the free running sleep argument actually significantly bolsters the proposition. It is not difficult to imagine that in the newly emerging cyber-society, people will find it easier to adopt 28-hour schedule. Even if the average free running circadian cycle lasts 25 hours, it seems physiologically easier and less damaging to prolong the cycle by three hours than to shorten it by one hour!
Few upwardly mobile people in the modern rat-race society can live without an alarm clock. Increasingly, time becomes the most precious commodity in society where achievement is often associated with speed and perfect time-management. However, alarm clocks introduce two harmful side effects: stress and sleep deprivation.
The art of time-management makes it possible to live at high speed with the alarm clock on your side and actually be free from stress. However, the societal damage inflicted by alarm clocks used to regulate sleep is unforgivable. An alarm clock that interrupts your sleep damages your memory, your ability to learn, your mood and temper, your relationships with other people, your ability to focus and your overall intellectual performance!
Dr Robert Stickgold has showed that people who learn a skill during the day, do not show significant improvement until they get a sound 7-8 hours of properly structured sleep. There was a noticeable correlation between the degree of improvement and the quantity of sleep received. Forgetting is so painless that we rarely notice its effects. In a natural way, forgetting will proceed even if you get as much sleep as you need, and it is difficult to point to specific memories lost as a result of not sleeping enough. Moreover, sleep deprivation may leave your memories intact while their storage will be sub-optimum. The difference may be impossible to spot without measurement. We are more likely to notice sleepiness, reduced mental agility or bad mood. Yet societal respect for sleep is dismal (esp. in America and other highly industrialized nations).
Men's Health's Dan Vergano writing for ABC News in "No More Rude Awakenings" suggests a seven-day system for fighting sleepiness: "The secret is to fuel that arousal system so it can beat the pants off the sleep system. By creating the kind of feel-good expectations that trigger hormones to wake the brain, you’ll override the need to sleep and be able to jump out of bed like a man on fire".
The article capitalizes on the fact that stress hormones help keep you alert. However, there is a simple and the only rational remedy for "rude awakenings": get enough sleep! Jumping like a man on fire is not likely to have a positive effect on your creative potential!
You may often notice that waking up with an alarm clock gives you a quick start into a day. You may then come to believe that using the alarm clock might help you keep alert later during the day. This is not the case. The alarm signal simply scares your brain into wakefulness disrupting the carefully planned system for memory consolidation. As a result, you get an immediate injection of adrenaline and your levels of ACTH and cortisol also increase. This is cortisol that peaks at awakening in natural sleeping rhythm that provides you with the fresh-mind impression. With passing time, this cheaply gained alertness will wear thin unless you continue abusing your physiology with more "remedies". You may use more scare tactics for keeping yourself alert, abuse caffeine, or even get a more profound effect with cocaine. Alertness should be achieved via sufficient sleep, not despite the lack of sleep! Apart from your reduced ability to learn new things, all unnatural anti-drowsiness methods will produce a great deal of side effects that can be pretty damaging to your health in the long run.
If your life without an alarm clock may seem like an impossibility, you will probably need to use all methods in the book to be sure you get enough sleep and minimize the damage. However, you can at least start from changing your mindset about the importance of sleep and ensure you do not impose wrong habits on your children. Perhaps the young ones will be lucky enough to work in a flex-time system that will make it possible to get sufficient amount of undisturbed sleep. At least, do not set a bad example! President Bill Clinton was woken up twice by telephone during the night of April 22, 2000 before the infamous I.N.S. raid on the home of Miami relatives of the young Cuban exile Elian Gonzales. In all likelihood, the memories the president had built from his previous day experience were affected! This could influence his performance on the next day and the quality of his decisions! Has anybody thought of a rule: Do not wake up the president? A rule that could only be revoked in national emergency?
Research shows that 15% of people would classify themselves as "morning type" or lark. Another 20% would call themselves "evening type" or owl. The remaining 65% are indifferent or "mid-range". What is your type? See: Lark-owl test
Few people know that they can easily adapt to a completely different schedule by means of chronotherapy (e.g. by shifting their sleeping hours by 30-45 minutes per day). If you ask a typical owl to go to sleep 30-45 minutes later each day, the owl will initially sleep during the day and soon will find itself going to sleep in the very early evening just to get up before the larks! Surprisingly, even the most committed owl can then comfortably stick to the early waking hours for quite long! There seems to be no natural preference as to the sleeping time of the day!
However, there is a factor that drives people into believing they are of a given sleep-time preference type. This is the length of the circadian cycle and their ability to entrain it to 24 hours. As mentioned earlier, typical circadian period lasts about 25 hours. Those who cycle is particularly long, tend to go to sleep later each day. They push the limit of morning hours up to the point when their compulsory wake-up time results in unbearable sleepiness. In other words, people will long cycles will tend to work during the night and sleep in the morning as long as it is only possible.
A smaller proportion of people, will experience short circadian periods and experience extreme sleepiness in early evening. This is the lark type. Life forces larks to go to sleep slightly later than their natural preference (family, work, light, etc.). This keeps larks in line with time and they will often claim that the quiet of the morning, the singing of birds or the beauty of the sunrise that keeps them getting up early. Yet it is still possible to forcibly push a lark to gradually shift sleeping hours and behave like an owl!
As for "indifferent type", these are people with a steady 24.5-25 hours circadian cycle and healthy sensitivity to zeitgebers, or, rarely, people with a nearly perfect 24 hour clock. Those people tend to sleep in "normal hours" and can also easily be shifted to getting up early or to going to bed late.
Unlike the "indifferent type", owls shifted to a morning schedule will gradually tend to advance to their standard late-night rhythm. Similarly, larks will quickly shift back to getting up with the birds.
Some correlation studies showed that owls (as defined by the timing of melatonin release) exhibit slightly higher IQs than larks.
When a tendency to go to sleep later each day is strongly pronounced, it may become a serious problem. People with particularly long circadian cycle or with insufficient sensitivity to zeitgebers are classified as suffering from Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS for short). The term non 24-hour sleep/wake syndrome or hypernychthemeral syndrome is occasionally used to refer to the most severe cases. Research shows that DSPS is very frequent in adolescence [Carskadon, 1995; Dahl & Carskadon, 1995]. Teenagers with DSPS will often find it difficult to adapt to normal school time. They will experience maximum daytime sleepiness at 10 am (in the middle of the school day) and a peak in alertness right after the school. For many teenagers with a natural tendency to go to sleep late, school becomes a torture and a true waste of time! Educators have already taken on this subject; however, students dozing off during classes are still a norm! Sleepy students learn little, and may naturally develop a strong negative feelings for the school in general. This is a problem of colossal proportions! If you are a parent of a teenager who finds it difficult to wake up for school, you will need to act now! Otherwise young man's school years will be a monumentally wasted time! It won't be enough to demand an early hour for going to bed. If you ban the late evening Internet surfing, you will just swap a dose of evening education for an idle tossing and turning in bed. Actually, there is only one simple solution, let the kids get up at their natural time but ... this may not be realistic in most cases. Your sleep therapist may not be able to help either. The whole school system might need to be changed to accommodate the prevalence of DSPS among adolescents. There have been positive results noted in schools that decided to start classes 1-2 hours later. However, long circadian cycles may result in students staying up yet later in the long-run. Researchers suggest schedule stabilization and gradual realignment. Those measures may still be largely ineffective.
50% of Americans have problems with falling asleep! Except for various underlying organic reasons, the overwhelming majority of these are problems resulting from entrainment failure. In other words:
Most of otherwise healthy people who cannot fall asleep in the evening suffer from the combination of two chief factors:
If the same people were allowed to sleep as much as they wanted and go to sleep only then when they are really tired (perhaps 2-5 hours later), the problem would likely not exist! Psychophysiological insomnia can often persist for years, and result in untold damage to a person's life. If this is your case, you might benefit by trying to increase the time you stay awake. Naturally this may collide with your work schedule as the net result will often be a sleep-wake cycle lasting longer than 24 hours.
There are tons of lengthy books written about sleep onset insomnia and there are a zillion tricks that people use to be sure they fall asleep "in time". The sad truth is that all those tricks only fight the inevitable: the natural sleep mechanism. They are based on slowing down the brain at the time when it simply does not want to slow down. Yet these tricks rather tend to blow the problem of insomnia out of proportion by adding to the sleeper's stress: so much effort, so many tricks in use, it still does not work ... I probably just have to live with this!
Some typical sleep expert's or grandma's unworkable advice (see example):
The real culprit in insomnia is the relationship of working hours to your circadian rhythm! This is magnified manifold by the associated stress factor. For many, insomnia produces an unsolvable vicious circle that just has to be lived with. However, everyone with a chance for a flex-time work system or telecommuting should realize that the greatest benefit of these may come from increased productivity as a result of better sleep that complies with natural body rhythms
A very specific degree of morning misery is needed to reset the clock sufficiently in people with DSPS. In the equilibrium state in which misery is sufficient to keep a regular schedule, the whole night sleep is cut substantially. Daily sleep deficit and daily struggle with tiredness results. In such circumstances, it is best to go to sleep right before the expected sleep hour! This way you can reduce stress, on one hand, and help your homeostatic component on the other (by making yourself tired for sleep).
If you cannot free run your sleep -- make your morning misery as regular as possible to reach the equilibrium state. Once you know the equilibrium, stick to your standard bedtime hour. Morning misery solution should only be used as a last resort!
There is yet a big question of weekends. Many people catch up on lost sleep during weekends. This naturally unbalances the system and results in the Monday Morning Blues. Sleeping it out on weekends, you should weigh up your pros and cons:
There is no simple answer to the weekend dilemma! If you want to maximize the effects of sleep on learning, skills and experience, you would need to quantify how much you lose as a result on never actually getting enough sleep (the losses could be dramatic!) and how much you lose as a result of departing from the misery equilibrium on weekends thus tripling sleep disturbances early in the week
Hypersomnia is excessive sleepiness in conditions of getting physiologically sufficient sleep. Hypersomnia may be related to serious health problems. If you suspect hypersomnia, consult your physician! There is a simple home-grown diagnostic method for the cause of your hypersomnia: try to free run your sleep for a week or so. Very often, the phase adjustment will resolve hypersomnia! Quite frequently, sleep initiated too early in reference to the circadian sleepiness will last very long and paradoxically result in the feeling of not being refreshed in the morning. If the circadian low comes in the middle of your day, you may experience overwhelming drowsiness, yet you will not be able to fall asleep for longer than 20-30 minutes and you will still wake up unrefreshed. Even buckets of coffee may not help in such circumstances. If you do not notice a significant improvement in the quality of sleep after 1-2 weeks of free running sleep, you may have a problem that will require a professional consultation. The most frequent cause of poor quality sleep is Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) which affects up to 10% of male population (it is about half less frequent in women). OSA involves a loss of muscle tone in the throat and tongue areas. These structures tend to collapse during sleep and block the flow of air. As a result, the patient will wake up temporarily (often a hundred times in a single night) without completing the natural NREM-REM cycle. Patients with OSA wake up feeling unrefreshed. The simplest way to check for OSA is to ask one's bed partner for signs of interrupted breathing during the night. You can also videotape yourself when sleeping. Most often, OSA affects obese and heavily-snoring males. There are multiple support sites for OSA on the web (including recordings of snoring patients and typical signs of interrupted breathing)
The natural sleep cycle makes you feel less alert in mid-day. This period can easily be visualized using EEG measurements. In tropical countries this is the time for siesta. The drop in alertness is magnified by a rich meal and a short nap is likely to quickly bring you back to full alertness. However, the industrial nations do not seem ready to adopt a healthy habit of postprandial nap. Just the opposite, when the Mexican parliament debated the law on statutory nap, politicians and comedians north of the border had a good laugh on "lazy Latin Americans". Even the self-improvement guru, Tony Robbins, blunders when providing his advice: replace a nap urge with press-ups. Press ups will improve circulation and raise the level of catecholamines, yet they won't budge the homeostatic sleepiness that can only be cleared effectively with a temporary transition to the sleep state!
There are few theories on the physiological purpose of the mid-day dip in alertness. Most people believe that humans, as all other highly developed tropical animals, have developed a siesta habit as a way of getting around the midday heat. This explanation has also some cultural background as napping is by far less popular in moderate and cold climate. However, the alertness dip can be resolved by a short nap in minutes. This can make us active again long before the mid-day heat is over.
Another explanation is that the alertness dip is an atavistic remainder of the polyphasic sleeping mode that might have characterized human ancestors. Many animals and young babies sleep many times during the day. This would seem quite advantageous considering the natural memory consolidation sequence. However, consolidating sleep into a single night rest period might have offered some evolutionary advantage. Early humans might be less efficient in hunting and gathering activities at nighttime. This is why it might be advantageous to spend that time on memory consolidation while being awake in daylight. However, the circadian control system needed new variables that would enable the consolidation of sleep phases into a single period. Possibly, the consolidation went gradually from polyphasic sleep, through biphasic sleep to monophasic sleep in modern humans. Actually, similar consolidation can be observed as we get older. By the time of adulthood we are more or less monophasic with a clear dip in alertness that may be resolved with a nap. However, giving up the afternoon nap has not been documented as detrimental to learning. In a healthy individual who is not sleep deprived, the nap will usually last from 10 to 30 minutes, which may not be sufficient for any advantage to memory consolidation. There is naturally a substantial alertness boost which by itself my increase your learning performance in the evening. As we near retirement, we again seem to tend to be biphasic. This may be a result of the fact that working people are forced to suppress their biphasic tendency (not much data exists to support this hypothesis). In other words, it is possible that we remain strongly biphasic throughout the lifetime, and the monophasic model has been imposed as an industrial habit.
Here is a short summary of pros and cons of afternoon napping:
Notable nappers include Winston Churchill, Napoleon, and J.F. Kennedy. Interestingly, this group also includes a famous long-sleeper, Albert Einstein and a famous short-sleeper Thomas Edison. Even Bill Gates admitted to taking naps under his desk in his creative programming years.
Dr. D.F. Dinges has spent many years investigating the problem of alertness at workplace and has shown substantial benefits, which napping can bring to professions where the alertness may be the difference between life and death. His research showed a substantial alertness boost coming from a nap [Dinges 1989]. He has also noticed relatively little impact of napping on the night-time sleep in regular nappers (see Fig 4):
Fig. 4. Sleep onset times among nappers an non-nappers (percentage)
More and more companies in the US have already decided to make a switch from a coffee break to a napping break with special cubicles designed for nappers. In the future, this trend is likely to become more prominent as caffeine is not a fraction as effective as a nap in combating fatigue. Coffee, doughnuts, press-ups, and other methods taken together will never prove as efficient in mental restoration as a nap. At the same time, our society drifts strongly towards information processing where alertness is the key to productivity. And when the productivity comes into the equation, US companies will definitely avail of the up-to-date research on napping.
You may have heard of sleep tapes that offer effortless learning during sleep. Your investment in such tapes will not be money well spent. Learning during sleep should be discouraged! It is possible to occasionally recall a fraction of the material presented during sleep (probably only then when it enters your brain during short periods of transition from REM to temporary waking). There is also ample evidence that some circuits in the brain can be conditioned during REM sleep; however, the connection between the senses and the brain in sleep is rather focused on awakening in danger rather than on processing complex information.
Whatever you might gain from your sleep tapes will by far be offset by damage to the quality of sleep. If the learning stimuli do not reach a certain threshold, they will simply be ignored. However, past a certain value they may prevent the progression of NREM sleep toward stages 3 and 4. They can also shorten REM sleep.
Interestingly, memories acquired minutes before falling asleep do not get consolidated! Even a few minutes of sleep leave a short window of waking time with a complete memory erasure. Luckily, we rarely learn mission-critical information shortly before dozing off.
Counter-recommendation for learning during sleep, does not imply that falling asleep with TV or radio turned on should be discouraged. If you would like to get a dose of education yet before falling asleep, be sure your tapes, TV or radio meet these conditions:
Moreover, if you find it difficult to fall asleep due to stresses of the day, subtle news channel may actually help you fall asleep by keeping your mind away from the thoughts that might trigger the release of ACTH, cortisol, catecholamines or other alertness transmitters.
TV, radio or tapes in the morning are OK too, on condition you turn them on manually (i.e. they should not work as an alarm clock substitute). If you wake up slightly ahead of your expected waking time, turn on the news and stay in bed. Test your brain for signs of sleepiness. Occasionally, you may still be able to fall asleep and go through one cycle of sleep that will be beneficial to your intellectual performance. Be sure that this does not become a routine, esp. if you are awakened early due to the pressure in the bladder. Unless your urologist recommends otherwise, you should avoid drinking water and other liquids 2-3 hours before going to sleep
Alcohol is a major enemy of a creative individual! In excess it is highly toxic to the brain! Even small doses can reduce the quality and the total length your REM sleep. Alcohol also suppresses deep sleep, produces sleep fragmentation, and relaxes the upper airway muscles, which worsens snoring and severity of obstructive sleep apnea.
Apart from its negative impact on sleep, alcohol reduces your intellectual performance, and should be avoided at times of highly creative effort!
On the other hand, lots of research indicates that small doses of alcohol may benefit your health. Actually, a drink a day may be the simplest known method of preventing arteriosclerosis, heart attack and cerebrovascular disease. There are reports that moderate beer drinking may reduce the incidence of Alzheimer's. Some physicians recommend daily alcohol in very small quantities (not more than a drink per day).
To a highly creative individual, alcohol poses a major health-vs-brain dilemma. Certainly it should be avoided 3-5 hours before sleep and should be avoided before intellectual work. This would leave place only for very moderate drinking at siesta time (assuming that this is the time you take a break from intellectual effort or take a nap).
If you drink yourself to sleep (e.g. after a stressful day), you should remember that alcohol is quickly metabolized, and will produce an acetaldehyde rebound effect that will greatly increase chances of waking up during the night. This effect keeps alcoholics up at nights, deprives them from REM sleep, and may actually be responsible for delirium tremens (and perhaps even Korsakhof psychosis).
Assuming that a nap taken at siesta time does not play any significant physiological function, and only serves you as a springboard to higher evening alertness, a small drink before a nap may actually appear beneficial by producing the rebound effect at the time when you get up from the nap.
Caffeine is the number one drug used against sleepiness! 90% of Americans use it in some form. It can be found in coffee and coke, as well as in smaller quantities in chocolate and tea. It is addictive and acts via similar channels as amphetamines and cocaine.
As it has a profound effect on the central nervous system by blocking adenosine receptors, caffeine is widely used to tackle drowsiness. However, majority of people little realize that it works well in your struggle with the adenosine-related homeostatic component of sleepiness, while it is quite inefficient in overcoming circadian sleepiness! Moreover, used against the latter, it can actually be harmful!
If you abuse caffeine or use it at the time when your body clock tells you bedtime, you will only experience the symptoms that gave caffeine all that bad rap. These include: heart arrhythmia, irritability, overwhelming tiredness, depression, and a typical coffee abuser's "sickness in the stomach". No wonder the popular belief says that coffee is bad for health and can contribute to a heart disease.
The research on the health effects of caffeine does not seem to confirm its harmfulness. The link between coffee and heart disorders is very weak and may be attributed to caffeine abuse. Recent research has even found that 3-5 cups of coffee per day may maximize your lifespan (the same research was criticized for failing to notice that coffee is more popular in well-to-do households that favor longevity). You can assume that caffeine is harmless in smaller quantities 200-400 mg/day (equivalent of 2-4 cups of coffee). Note that 50% of Americans take more than that. For caffeine to be truly harmless, it must be taken at the right time!
As an arousal drug, caffeine may induce insomnia. This is why it should never be taken later than 6-7 hours before sleep (caffeine half-life is about 6 hours)! Taken too late, caffeine will suppress REM sleep with detriment to memory consolidation. At the same time, when taken regularly early in the day, it may actually produce mild withdrawal effects and promote sleep!
You can use coffee to accelerate your transition from sleep to full mental alertness. Current knowledge about caffeine supports the recommendation for a cup of coffee in the morning in otherwise healthy individuals (as black coffee can be harmful to the stomach lining, coffee should rather be drank with milk or with cream).
In regular nappers, the circadian rhythm should yet permit drinking coffee immediately upon waking up from an afternoon nap. For this, the following conditions should be met:
Drinking coffee at times other than immediately upon awakening should be highly discouraged! Caffeine cannot serve as a weapon against sleep deprivation. Only sufficient night sleep can play that role. Caffeine should also not be used against the circadian sleep component. As argued throughout this article, circadian rhythm should best be left alone to run its course!
Caffeine tends to drive many people into a vicious circle: you drink it, you get a boost in adrenaline, you feel more energetic, you get a boost in dopamine, you feel better, you feel you can stay up late, you sleep less, you are more sleepy on the next day, so you need more caffeine, due to down-regulation you get less boost per cup, you increase the dosage, etc. etc.
Coffee drinkers may occasionally experience migraine-like headaches. These are caused by an increased activity of adenosine receptors on days when the supply of caffeine is less. This results in the dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Vasodilation or activation of purine receptors on sensory neurons produce the headaches. Half a normal dose of caffeine should help. Conclusion: if you want to go straight on coffee, do not go cold turkey. Allow of 3-4 days for your body to gradually fight off the addiction.
A rational approach to caffeine is: use it as a circadian enhancer! Small dose in the morning will shoot your alertness slope up and the regular intake will produce mild addiction that should help you fall asleep in the evening through mild withdrawal effect. This approach should be neutral to your health and positive to your alertness. Never use caffeine to cover up for insufficient sleep!
Sex before sleep is highly recommended! Sex works as a powerful hypnotic. If you practice sex without procreative intentions, positive influence of sex on sleep may be your number one excuse for sticking faithfully to your conjugal duties. Here is also a recommendation to stick with a single partner. Longevity studies show that healthy stable monogamous sex life is one of powerful life expectancy determinants. On the other hand, sex with your new great love is likely to disrupt sleep. Apart from a healthy dose of endorphins, it will also raise your catecholamines that may fragment sleep cycles. For the same reasons, promiscuous sex may also not play the expected hypnotic role
Do you know that only 4% of users of SuperMemo are smokers (source)? Additionally, users who smoke spend much less time on learning with SuperMemo (an average of about 10 minutes per day as compared with the usual average of around 30 minutes). This is more related to the hormonal balance in the brain of a smoker than to smoking itself. Smokers simply do not have patience for SuperMemo and are less likely to be in-depth learners. Yet there are strong indications that those who quit smoking show improvement in their perseverance in repetitions! Yet one more reason to take a quitting step!
If you still cannot live without nicotine, Nicorette chewing gum may be the simplest over-the-counter way to tackle the addiction without the carcinogenic action of cigarettes. Still Nicorette may even be more addictive than cigarettes, and the short half-time of nicotine may result in overnight craving that disrupts sleep! (see: QuitNet.org)
Aerobic exercise is a blessing for sleep. The only downside of sports may come if these are overly exhaustive. Dehydration, stress, exhaustion, contusions and the like may reduce the quality of sleep. You must also remember to exercise no later than 30-60 minutes before siesta time and 3-4 hours before the night sleep. Exercise increases the level of catecholamines which makes you more alert and may keep you up at bedtime. Later on, though, it will make your metabolism and body temperature drop below the baseline. This will promote sleep.
Exercise may be used as a strong zeitgeber. If you find it difficult to fall asleep in the evening, try early morning exercise in bright light (esp. sunshine). In ASPS, exercise in the evening may bring some relief too.
Exercise is known to enhance deep sleep and promote the nocturnal release of growth hormone, which has been found to stimulate memory consolidation via its impact on protein synthesis.
Exercise is likely to help you relieve snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (not only by promoting weight loss).
20 minutes of physical effort per day is considered a healthy minimum for everyone who wants to keep fit, sleep well, and show good long-term learning results.
Optimizing the timing of brainwork with respect to the circadian cycle.
This exemplary graph was generated on the basis of 3-year-long daily
measurements of a free-running sleep rhythm. The horizontal axis expresses the
number of hours from awakening (note that the free running rhythm period is
often longer than 24 hours). Homeostatic sleepiness can roughly be
expressed as the ability to initiate sleep. Percent of initiated sleep blocks is
painted as a thick blue line (right-side calibrations of the vertical axis).
Circadian sleepiness can roughly be expressed as the ability to maintain
sleep. Average length of initiated sleep blocks in painted as a thick red line
(left-side calibrations of the vertical axis).
Adenosine-related homeostatic sleep propensity increases in proportion to
mental effort and can be partially cleared by caffeine, stress, etc..
Circadian component correlates (1) negatively with temperature, ACTH,
cortisol, and catecholamines, and (2) positively with melatonin and NREM
propensity. Optimum timing of brainwork requires both low homeostatic and
circadian sleepiness. There are two quality alertness blocks during the day:
first after the awakening and second after the siesta. Both are marked yellow in
the graph. For best learning and best creative results use these yellow blocks.
Caffeine can only be used to enhance alertness early in this optimum window
(brown color). Later use will affect sleep (caffeine half-life is about six
hours). Optimum timing of exercise is not marked as it may
vary depending on the optimum timing of zeitgebers (e.g. early morning for DSPS
people and evening for ASPS people). Gray dots are actual sleep block
measurements with timing on the horizontal, and the length on the vertical axis.