THE NEED FOR SLEEP
While we are asleep, our brains are wide awake and actively processing the day’s information, rebooting and repairing.
The active, alert and energetic things we do in daylight generate many new connections between brain cells.
However, the brain can only tolerate so much activity in a 24-hour period before it becomes ‘toxic’ and starts killing brain cells.
When we sleep, we are under the influence of more inhibitory brain chemicals that turn down the rate of signals moving between brain cells.
Other brain cells prune back unnecessary brain connections, creating space for the next day’s new activities. Brain processes, including memories and thoughts, shift from working and active centres to storage in less active parts of the brain.
You can do this effectively only by turning off to the outside world and letting the brain focus its attention, and energy use, on these critical back-room activities.
When we sleep, we are actively resetting our brains so we will be able to function tomorrow, both emotionally and cognitively.
START UP YOUR BRAIN
Like our teeth and our knees, our body clock ages and deteriorates, and by around age 30 it has pretty much lost its capacity to set itself without reference to the external day-night, light-dark cycle.
That means to reset our body clock, we have to start our brains up manually every day. Soon after we wake up, we have to manually signal to our brain that the day has begun and it is time to get going. We do that in three ways:
Exposure to Light
Exposure to light sends our brain a strong signal that the day has begun. Once we register light, our body turns off the sleep hormone melatonin. That’s why, when we wake up, we should get quickly into natural light. Go outside, or look out a window.
In Australia, we have plenty of sunlight and exposure to it is much better than artificial light. Sunlight is much more intense than any artificial light and sets the clock much more effectively, but if you cannot get natural light, at least get some bright artificial light.
This is why looking at screens just before bedtime is also a bad idea. The brain gets the light signal, which tells it that it is time to get up and get going, when actually it should be winding down in preparation for sleep.
Movement also sends a signal to the brain that the day has begun. To really get going, we should move soon after we wake up. Don’t sit there and watch breakfast TV.
While the kettle boils, walk a few laps of your living room. Walk to the shop, the cafe or around the block (that will sort out the light exposure, too).
Take your dog down the street and listen to a podcast. Do some stretches or push-ups. Go to the park, walk with friends, read a paper on a bench out in the street, then on the way to work walk past the nearest bus stop to the one after it, or even the one beyond that.
Set Daily Patterns
The body clock likes regularity – going to sleep at the same time, waking up at the same time. Parents often set fixed bedtimes for kids, but adults can be far less disciplined.
“I was going to go to sleep at 10.30, but the show I was watching was so good I had to watch another two episodes.” Sound familiar?
Sticking to a fixed bedtime does take some self-discipline, but in return you will experience all the health benefits that flow from taking care of your body clock. And your favourite shows can still be savoured, just over a longer period.