The Life-Changing Sleep Secret!
I was born a night owl, loving the quiet of the late evening hours, when all the chores are done, commitments completed, the house nicely buttoned up for the night, and I have time for myself. In my younger decades I could easily stay up until 12 midnight or 1 AM, and wake up at a reasonable hour, refreshed. In the last few years, a strange shift has occurred. Even if I got the needed number of hours of sleep, when I go to bed at midnight, or later, the next day I’m tired and lack my usual pep-a-de-do. I can no longer deny the change.
It began in my early fifties and has slowly, and truly, become my new reality. I fought it for years, but now at almost sixty-one I can no longer stay up late, night after night, and expect to fire on enough cylinders to get through my To-Do list, much less anything on my Want-To-Do list the next day.
Going to bed earlier changed my life. I never thought this would happen, but as a gerontologist, I know retiring earlier to feel more competent is a part of aging well; a fact I wanted to ignore.
While research tells us losing our protective armor of hormones at menopause can also play a part in sleep-related issues– from small to great on a sliding scale depending on the individual woman– that isn’t my issue. Drilling into the science, I find as we get older, we experience a shift in our various circadian rhythms. Our circadian rhythms works as our body’s twenty-four-hour internal clock. Quietly, under the radar, they carry out key functions and processes. It is my circadian rhythm governing my sleep-wake cycle that downshifted when I wasn’t looking.
Much of the more conventional research ties an imbalance with sleep to our light/dark exposure, but I still wake up at virtually the same time I always did; it’s the time I turn off the light that makes the difference.
A few years ago, Dr. Julia Shekleton and her team at the Division of Sleep Medicine, Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, in their ground-breaking article in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, identified why this phenomenon occurs. They called it the Wake Maintenance Zone.
We know the experience of the Wake Maintaince Zone more commonly as “getting a second wind.” Dr. Shekleton tells us the onset of our second wind usually occurs right before our body switches to “getting ready for sleep” mode by secreting melatonin—the hormone released by our brain that makes us feel sleepy. Looking at the circadian 24-hour clock, our brain begins releasing melatonin around 9 PM to our body’s clock even if you are traveling through several time zones. Additionally, in many women, but not all, melatonin declines more sharply at mid-life, which causes many women (and men) to struggle with getting enough restful sleep.
When our second wind kicks in, we get a seemingly “burst” of energy for two or three hours more, making sleep virtually impossible. By the time this second wind winds down, we are out of sync with our natural circadian sleep/wake rhythm, and so lose precious restorative sleep time. As Dr. Shekleton found, the next day our cognitive function suffers, and we feel tired, even if we slept in to try and make up for getting to sleep later the night before. And, if our stress level is high, our cortisol levels will take an uptick at night, just as we want to float off to slumber land, and further sabotage our ability to get restful sleep.
From my perspective as a gerontologist, what I find is working for me, and is helping my clients, is to turn off the light while we are still in the first phases of melatonin secretion—somewhere before 11 PM. Research tells us this is the magic hour of demarcation, after which our body begins other processes that seem to also feed a second wind. More research is needed, but I know going to bed earlier than my usual time, makes this night owl a much happier, more energetic, and definitely pleasanter person to be around.
Until next time…Be Vibrant!
The Life-Changing Sleep Secret!
Many of us are experiencing the dog days of summer, but before too long, flat gray clouds will cover the sky more days in many parts of the world, as autumn rolls in and the days grow shorter towards winter. During the depth of winter (yes it will happen, again!) I want to stay in bed, wait for tomorrow, and hope for sun. Being a Texas girl born and raised, I grew up with more sunny days than cloudy ones, and for decades now, I know my energy level and productivity are somehow linked to sunshine.
On gray winter days, I have little energy, care about nothing, and generally feel and act like Grumpy Cat until evening. Even though I know dark chocolate won’t shift my mood, I sometimes give that delicious treat a good try! If I am somewhere and experience a run of gray days, pretty soon I have sunk so low I must be scraped off the floor. This got me thinking about winter depression, SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder, and while I don’t think I suffer a full on case of SAD, I know friends who do. The sooner we start to add a few proven principles to the day, the more likely we are to avoid suffering from SAD once Old Man Winter settles in. This year, with all the sheltering in place we’re all doing, I will be adding these to the top of my to-do list!
Dr. Norman Rosenthal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown Medical School, and author of Winter Blues, Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, who first identified and coined the term in 1984, found we women suffer from seasonal depression or SAD four times as often as men do in our earlier years (ages 20-30), but the numbers become closer to equal as both sexes get older. Your science lesson for today: The research also tells us that the culprit is low serotonin—the chemical in our bodies responsible for our moods, appetite, sleep regulation, and libido. In folks with SAD, serotonin can’t function efficiently because the body produces a serotonin-blocking chemical called SERT. At this point, scientists aren’t exactly sure why this occurs in some people, and not in others. Stay tuned for more developments in this area. For those of us who have clear-cut cases of SAD every winter, there are some well-researched steps we can take to markedly reduce the symptoms until the sunshine and warmer temperatures return.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Low energy
- Sleeping too much or not wanting to get out of bed
- Craving refined carbs and sugar
- Weight gain (as a result of the above)
- Just feeling “blah” all the time
- Withdrawing from friends and family (feeling like hibernating)
Here are some of the best ways to counter the feelings of SAD and make winter your favorite season. Well, maybe… ????
Counter the Feelings of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Throw open those curtains.
As soon as you wake up, get up (as hard as that may be), and raise those shades as high as they will go to let in as much morning light as possible.
Put on those gym shoes.
A meta-review (a compilation and review of many studies) from the American College of Sports Medicine Journal found for some of us experiencing SAD, vigorous exercise, like HIIT—High Intensity Interval Training, might be as successful as therapy or anti-depressants at lowering our SERT levels, which help to elevate our serotonin levels, and alleviate the depression.
Keep up your Interests.
You may not feel like getting on yet another Zoom coffee hour, or social distance walking outside with your neighbor, but pushing yourself to be with friends, virtually or in person, is a great way to lift your spirits, to say nothing of strengthening your social connections—a strong choice toward staying vibrant as we get older. The same goes for indulging in your favorite hobby; that ship isn’t going to sail itself into that bottle!
Get a Light Box
This is probably the most often-cited and well-known tool available to fight SAD. Studies show light boxes are the magic bullet for up to fifty percent of SAD sufferers. If used correctly, the boxes cause mood shifts to occur in only a few days, giving blessed relief almost as fast a speeding bullet. Discuss with your doctor, and experiment with different types of light boxes, and see what might work for you.
My long-time readers will be nodding, (I hope), as I add another reason to drop sugar from your diet. In addition to the negative effects sugar has on our brains and bodies, people who consume the most sugar are more prone to depression. Scientists now think sugar lowers our bodies’ ability to cope with stress. Craving sweets and starchy foods in the winter is also an indicator and symptom of SAD.
Go Outside and Play
Your mother was right. Grab your earmuffs and your muffler and take a brisk walk outside in the morning after sunrise. Or, take up a wintertime-specific sport, like snowshoeing, outdoor ice-skating or curling (at a social distance 😉 Some of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Kelly Rohan (no relation) at the University of Vermont, and Dr. Ani Kalayjian at Columbia University, both endorse this plan, and Dr. Rohan notes getting that morning light into our retinas is especially beneficial; plus you get exercise as well. Home run in my book.
Hit the Mat
Dr. Kalayjian also recommends taking up yoga for relaxation and relief from depression. More and more studies are pointing to yoga as a good practice for stress reduction and anxiety. That’s one more reason to add a yoga class or two into your weekly regime.
The research points to starting early to fortifying our serotonin levels so we have reserves at the ready for when the days grow short and dark. This year, especially, I plan to get on the program long before I put out my pumpkins and pick out George’s Halloween costume.
Until next time…Be Vibrant!