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The Power of Sleep

Updated: Mar 28, 2023

I’m finding that people come up with the most interesting responses when I tell them that sleep is one of three core components of the Daily Essentials Matrix of brain health and dementia prevention. (The two others are Eat and Move). Most understand intuitively that sleep is important for brain function, yet we somehow still struggle to find the time for sleep.

And it’s not surprising, because our modern society has programmed us to value work and social engagement, leaving little enough personal time for us to do what we love. So why would we “waste time” sleeping, when we could be productive or having fun instead? I get it.

When I was an internal medicine resident, I remember being so envious of my female attending, who told us that she only slept 4 hours a night. She was also an incredibly successful scientist, who had published all the articles in an entire issue of the prestigious medical journal JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) during her maternity leave. The message was clear: Needing sleep was a weakness, and so we could only be successful if we were strong enough to overcome such trivial needs.

Sleep supervillains

Decades later, I know better and consider myself to be a sleep evangelist. I’m always praising and preaching the virtues of sleep to anyone who will listen. But I’m also human, and subject to social programming. Worse, I’m prone to being hijacked by my sleep supervillain gang, whose job it is to rob me of my sleep, while pretending to be important,

We understand the importance of sleep, yet we struggle to find the time for it

One of my major supervillains when it comes to sleep is my inner drill sergeant Milly. She is always telling me how I’m not enough, and how the only way I can be good enough and gain approval is by staying up late to get more done. More productivity, more emails, more exercise, even more art. Of course I know that it’s never going to be enough by design, but that doesn’t stop me from sometimes still slipping into the old habit of working late.

Another supervillain is my inner toddler, whom I’ll call Pei. She is always whiny when it comes to bedtime, because she’d rather stay up and have fun. She likes being rebellious by staying up past my bedtime, watching TV, snacking, scrolling on social media, or reading late into the night. Pei’s always complaining that we work too much, and deserve to enjoy a little more “me time.” And the problem is that I often agree with her.

Sleep supervillains. ©East West Integrative Medicine Ltd 2023

The third supervillain is actually called Demon or DMN, which stands for Default Mode Network. DMN actually refers to a collection of brain areas that are activated when our brains are not focused on a particular task, but rather in a “mind-wandering” state. Most of us identify this way of thinking as our “monkey brain.”

For me, Demon typically visits when I’m trying to get to sleep, or when I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, and I’m trying to go back to sleep. As I’m lying in bed trying to focus on my breathing, Demon’s jumping around and distracting me with her monkey energy. My thoughts ping pong from worrying about all the stuff that didn’t get done, or that needs to get done tomorrow. I may ruminate about something that happened earlier in the day, or perhaps stress out about how tired I’ll be in the morning, when I haven’t been able to sleep.

These supervillains may sound familiar to you, or you may have your own. I’d encourage you to name them and even to befriend them if you can. While it’s frustrating to not be able to sleep, these supervillains are all just parts of your mind that evolved to help you survive.

Sleep superheroes

So how exactly does getting more sleep help us? Turns out that Mother Nature has designed sleep to serve a number of critical health functions, such that sleep really serves as a group of superheroes. These aren’t exactly the kind of superheroes that swoop in to save the day, but more like everyday superheroes that make our days so much better.

Everyday Superheroes. ©East West Integrative Medicine Ltd 2023

Sleep activates a team of house cleaners, street sweepers and gardeners that come in every night to flush the toilets, and to clear away the trees and branches that litter the streets after a storm. Our brain’s glymphatic system gets rid of the waste and debris that collects in the brain every day, but it can only get to work after you fall asleep.

You may count on your morning coffee to help get your attention and focus sharpened in the morning. So think of Sleep as being like your personal barista. Sleep also serves as a personal trainer for your immune cells, fix-it person for healing injuries and physical therapist for rebuilding muscle. Sleep can even help you work through relationship problems and like a coach or therapist, which in turn impacts your mood.

Turns out that sleep is also when our brain gets to archive our personal wikipedia of facts and figures. And sleep also gives our brain the time it needs to consolidate and store long-term memories and stories, like a personal historian or archivist.

Sleep serves critical health functions that are like everyday superheroes

So while people can and “do just fine” on 6, 5, or even 4 hours of sleep, it’s likely that their bodies and brains may just be operating at a survival level. And they’ve probably gotten used to that level of function over the years. Our supervillains whisper the false narrative: “Sleep is just a waste of time.” But actually sleep’s superpowers boost our energy, productivity, resiliency and efficiency, so that we are thriving and not just surviving.

Momming my brain

Our habits are predictably resistant to change, even when we supposedly know better. In other words, me telling you that sleep is the most powerful medicine for your brain doesn’t necessarily get you motivated to change your habits.

The truth is that it doesn’t even consistently get ME to change my habits. Yes, it’s true. I’m an imperfect human whose supervillains often get the better of me. But I am learning to pay attention when I find myself not going to bed on time at night.

Sleep’s superpowers boost our productivity and efficiency, so that we can thrive and not just survive

I’ve found that it’s not so much about willpower or discipline to do what I know is good for me, but rather what I call the “won’t power” of the supervillains. Like when Pei is having a tantrum and wants to stay up - she just won’t let me go to bed, insisting on reading the next chapter or watching that next show. So I have to ask myself what unmet needs are being expressed by Pei? Usually the answer is that I’ve been neglecting my self care and so it would be helpful to engage in fun, and even indulgent activities. For me, that would look like doing more art.

When Demon is active, I may be getting anxious or feeling overwhelmed about work obligations, so it’s time to get back to doing some journaling, prioritizing, and organizing. Not that I mean I actually get up out of bed to do those things, in that moment.

What happens on a practical level is that I first have to become aware that Demon is doing her monkey brain thing. And then I take a few deep cleansing breaths and turn my attention to the muscles in my neck and shoulders, where I typically carry tension. I scan my body to see if I’m too hot or cold, or if I’m feeling discomfort.

This practice of shifting my focus to sensations in my body sometimes works to shift me out of the DMN state. But if those intrusive worries and thoughts keep coming, I will often make use of a technique called the Worry Tree to set them aside. Having a place to put the worries or ToDos often helps me to let go of them, at least for now.

I’ve also found that usually the only time I have for meditation is when I’m awake in bed. So now when Demon shows up, I welcome the opportunity to practice my meditation, noticing her monkey antics nonjudgmentally, and teaching my brain to allow random thoughts to drift away on a cloud.

Dr Em coaching tips

Who are your supervillains when it comes to sleep? What do they look like and what do they say? Can you describe them in your journal, or even draw them?

What’s a 2% tweak you are willing to make in your routine? Choose one small, easily doable shift in your landing sequence (e.g. dimming the lights 30 mins before bedtime). Set yourself a SMART goal and see how you’ve done at the end of the week! Taking consistent action, no matter how small, focuses your brain’s attention. And tiny shifts lead to big changes over time.

Mochi’s snooze. Dr Em’s personal archives

I like to think of sleep as being a performance sport, and for me, meditation is the practice drill that gets me to perform at my best. Consider checking out one of the many sleep apps or guided sleep meditations.

If you are a data-driven person like me, using a sleep tracking device may also be helpful in terms of giving feedback about sleep parameters. I have found that it’s helpful to calibrate my subjective energy scale, with the objective data reported on my app.


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