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Sleep: Restoring The Mind

If rest is the conscious form of restoration, sleep is the uncounscious form. In sleep, the mind is restoring itself by letting go of rational thought. Though the sleeping person is not aware of it, studies show that sleep is an essential part of the process of enhancing your learning and memory. Various sleep stages are involved in the consolidation of separate types of memories, and being sleep deprived reduces a person's ability to learn. all most of us know is that when we skimp on sleep, we don't function as well. And you can cover that up only so long.

From the safe haven of your apartment, or even from the bedroom, you might think: Who will know if I don't sleep tonight? If you live alone, no problem: no one will know. But if you live with someone or you're married, like my patient Suzanne, it's a lot harder. Suzanne was on the fast track to make partner at her law firm. Her work was piling up. Even after she brought work home to do when the kids were asleep, the pile kept getting bigger and her stress increased. Her husband, Jack, was growing impatient. She knew he wanted some of her time, too, so when Jack suggested they retire for the evening, Suzanne dutifully followed him up to bed. But when Jack was asleep, she padded downstairs and into the den to do just "one more hour" of work. That hour turned into four, and although she returned to the bedroom, she was never quite able to fall back into a healthy sleep. After several nights of this, she was so sleep deprived that she nodded off in her office. And on the bus. And at an opera she'd been looking forward to for months. She drank three cups of coffee to stay awake through the law firms's annual meeting, but she was clearly lackluster and unable to participate on an intelligent level. Not exactly partner material.

Nature's Sleep Cycles

Sleep has much to do with our biological rhythms, sometimes called circadian rhythms--a roughly twenty-four-hour cycle of the biochemical, physiological, or behavioral processes. Patterns in nature have developed by trial and error over millennia, and today's scientific tools are confirming their validity in relation to human sleep. We now know that the moon affects the movement of water and nutrients within different parts of plants and that there are direct correlations between plant growth and lunar phases. In addition to the lunar cycle, plants have internal thythms that let them tell time and judge the optimal periods for flowering and germination, as well as when to expect bad weather.

Animals have similar cycles--and so do human beings. For example, our cortisol levels rise in the morning and peak at 9:00 A.M., which is why heart attacks are 30 to 40 percent more likely to occur between 6:00 in the morning and noon. Our blood pressure follows the same pattern, reaching its highest level in the morning and falling at night, when we get ready to go to sleep. But today, when so many of us are literally stewing in stress harmones, our cortisol levels are higher at al times of the day.

Some Insomnia-Fighting Strategies

Few situations are more frustrating than lying in bed wondering whe you're going to fall asleep. But if you're one of the 20 million Americans who suffer from insomnia, you probably know by now that the direct route to a good night's sleep is to relax before bed. Toward that end, here are a few foolproof ways to ease the stress you have accumulated throughout the day and start to relax so that you might drift easily into a restorative sleep.

Tune out the day. You've likely spent all day working your brain, so let it rest before turning in for the night. Try some activities taht involve low mental effort, such as stretching or listening to calm music.

Don't bring work home, but if you must, don't bring it into your bedroom, and if you must bring it into your bedroom, do not bring it into your bed. Working in bed sparks an accumulation of the stress harmone cortisol, which in turn makes falling asleep difficult.

Make sleep a priority. Staying out late on more than the rare occasion can stress the body by interrupting the restoration it requires. Think about yourself and your sleep when making evening plans.

Stay cool. When your body temperature is elevated, it's harder to stay asleep. Falling asleep is easier when your body temperature is at its lowest. The redistribution of heat from your core to your arms and legs induces relaxation and rapidly lowers the heart rate, prepping the body for sleep.

Relax to the beat. I've been intrigued by recent research on binaural beats, a therapy that has been shown to reduce anxiety and promote sleep. Binaural beats are tones heard through earphones. Each earphone emits a tone that is slightly different from the other with the result of two slightly different wavelengths reaching the brain. The change is imperceptible to the ear but the effect of these sounds is to change and entrain brain waves to facilitate relaxation and other health benefits. One study suggest the benefits of regular listening to binaural beats include reduced stress and anxiety, and increased focus, concentration, motivation, confidence, and depth in meditation.

Roberta Lee, M.D., author of The SuperStress Solution, is vice chair of the Department of Integrative Medicine, director of Continuing Medical Education, and co-director of the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel's Continuum Center for Health and Healing at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. Dr. Lee attended George Washington University Medical School and is one of the four graduates in the first class from the Program of Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona conducted by Andrew Weil, M.D.

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