Were you all prepared to “Fall Back” last weekend? Whether you like it or not, it’s that time of year again when we return to Standard Time by setting our clocks back by one hour. As it begins to get dark outside earlier in the evenings, our bodies will respond naturally to the Fall and Winter months with physical, emotional, and even behavioral changes. This is because our circadian rhythms are typically set by a 24-hour cycle that is strongly influenced by sunlight and our brain’s production of a sleep-inducing hormone called melatonin. Indeed, people who are extremely sensitive to this reduction in sunlight can suffer episodes of clinical depression (called Seasonal Affective Disorder) during these months. SAD may cause you to feel tired, sluggish, and drained of energy. It may also cause you to oversleep or, conversely, to experience bouts of insomnia.
So how many hours of sleep do we need and does it really matter that much? The answer to the first part of the question is: It depends. The answer to the second half is: YES. So let me expand on that first part a bit. The amount of sleep that we need is based primarily on age due to the stages of development that our brain undergoes during our lifespan. Specifically, babies, children, and teenagers require more sleep than adults, while there seems to be little difference between the amount of sleep needed for young adults, middle-aged adults, and seniors. Then, as always, there is some wiggle-room to account for individual variability. A longitudinal research study published in January of 2015 by the National Sleep Foundation, and conducted by the nation’s top sleep specialists and leading medical organizations, concluded that adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. And this is important. Like really important. If you think that humans require sleep because it gives your brain a chance to rest (an assumption that most people make), then you’d be wrong. The truth of the matter is that our brains are even MORE active when we are sleeping!
Sleep is a surprisingly complex subject that has intrigued doctors and scientists since the beginning of time. However, recent technological advances have allowed us to learn more and more each year about what is happening in our brains while we sleep. One such finding is that our brain goes through a sort of cleansing process. When we fall asleep, the flow of our cerebrospinal fluid significantly increases in order to wash away the build-up of toxins and waste products that have accumulated in our brain during the day. This natural disposal system helps to preserve our healthy brain cells and ensure that our cognitive abilities remain functional. It may explain that mental fuzziness we feel, such as trouble concentrating and remembering things, the day after getting a poor night of sleep. In fact, sleep deprivation has immediate adverse effects on our level of alertness, productivity, mood, and immune system. Don’t believe me? Try sleeping only 2 hours a night for a full week and see what happens!
When people come to my office complaining of memory loss, trouble paying attention, moodiness, and difficulty sleeping, it can be difficult to determine which came first: the chicken or the egg. While my ultimate goal is to reduce all of these symptoms, I will initially attempt to stop a potential (or already existent) snowball effect by breaking one of the links in this cycle right away. Fortunately, there are effective cognitive-behavioral treatment methods that can treat insomnia- and other sleep disorders- in just a few short weeks. One problem that is commonly associated with insomnia is something called anticipatory anxiety. And, trust me, we’ve all experienced anticipatory anxiety for one reason or another. This is when we begin to feel anxious or unsettled about an event before it even occurs based on past experience and our prediction of a negative outcome. The thing is, humans are notoriously bad at fortune-telling! Despite this fact, we sometimes think and behave in a manner that is consistent with a faulty belief system. Anticipatory anxiety is counterproductive to sleep because it excites our body’s physiological responding by creating muscle tension, an elevated heart rate and blood pressure, and a surge in cortisol, which is in direct opposition to the relaxed state that you wanted to accomplish. So the moral of this story? In order to get a good night’s sleep, you must first put away your crystal ball. And, while you’re at it, lock up your electronic devices too…