It starts with having babies. Somewhere in those years of waking up at random hours at night and early mornings when you can’t believe your wee one wants to play or nurse, a pattern of sleep deprivation sets in. Our sleep gets disrupted and never returns to normal even after our kids sleep through the night. In your mid ‘40’s, you start to wake up in the middle of the night for no good reason at all and can’t fall back to sleep. Then comes fewer hours of sleep as we hit our 60’s and we wonder, why can’t we sleep those nice 8 hours that we got when we were younger?
You know you’ve had a good night’s sleep when you wake up feeling like your sleep has been deep. The brain feels refreshed. There’s a quality of sleep that nothing beats. How to achieve it? I’ve struggled with this pattern of less and less restorative sleep over the years even though I’m caffeine free and take melatonin to prolong the number of hours I sleep. Now I’ve discovered something that promotes really deep, restful sleep and I’d like to share it with you!
First, you should understand that the reason your body doesn’t sleep deeply enough is because too much cortisol is being produced by your adrenal glands at the wrong time of the day. Cortisol is our wake-up hormone and we want plenty of it between 6 to 8AM when it is time to get up. Coffee drinkers spike their cortisol with caffeine, which is why many grumpy people are standing in line at Starbucks before they go to work. Their adrenals aren’t performing well without that habitual caffeine jolt and thus they’re irritable until they get it.
Controlling cortisol levels and not having it interfere with sleep is the goal. Thus the advice is typically to avoid caffeine after 3PM. Unfortunately, many of us are more sensitive to caffeine than that and even a morning cup of coffee can still be affecting our sleep 18 hours later. Those people who can drink coffee after dinner and still go right to sleep probably aren’t reaching that stage 4 deep sleep where our bodies and our brains are truly restored. Thus they reach for a cup of coffee as soon as they wake up.
The average 50 year old has nighttime cortisol levels more than 30 times higher than the average 30 year old. As the body ages, high levels of cortisol production increases as DHEA, our rebuild and repair hormone, decreases. Think of cortisol and DHEA on opposite ends of a seesaw in our adrenal glands. At midlife, we first feel our aging bodies start to complain as DHEA production falls, cortisol rises, and suddenly, we no longer have the same energy or endurance we once took for granted.
When we experience enough stage 4 sleep, it feels so delicious! We are calm and feel an equanimity that gives us the ability to face whatever the day brings.
I’ve been searching for a way to get that deep sleep every night. Supplements like melatonin, calcium and magnesium help because they override the cortisol. But often they work for awhile and then their effect wears off as our bodies become accustomed to them. The key is not to counteract cortisol, but to figure out how to stop it from being produced at the wrong time of the day!
I’m sure you’ve probably heard that meditation helps restore our inner peace and calmness. Many of us envy the disciplined daily meditators and wish we could keep our resolve to mediate daily. However, life gets in the way and our busy thoughts don’t help either when we finally do sit still to empty our minds. In the middle of the night, it’s those thoughts about what we didn’t get done during the day or our worries for the future that keep us from relaxing back into sleep.
For the last 6 months, I’ve been listening to Open Focus Attention Training exercises (OFAT) by Dr. Les Fehmi when I wake up in the middle of the night. His system, as detailed in his easy-to-read book, The Open Focus Brain, is designed to increase alpha brain wave production by the whole brain. His book includes a CD with two OFAT exercises.
In a calm voice, Dr. Fehmi asks you to imagine space. That’s right, space, between your eyes or your fingers. Space as it surrounds your body and permeates your cells. It’s this imagination of space that relaxes our brains from the narrow, object-oriented attention that we maintain throughout our days. Our society demands left brain attention for most of our tasks and this narrow focus stresses the brain. Stressed brains lead to higher cortisol production.
According to Dr. Fehmi, our brains are designed to spend more time in a relaxed attention state where our awareness is diffused and immersed in our surroundings. Studies of long-time meditators show that their brains easily achieve this synchronized alpha brain wave state. Now my own experience has shown me that if I can put my brain in an alpha state, I sleep deeply and profoundly. I wake up not only refreshed, but I have that inner calm that makes my day function much better.
Here’s how to do it: If you’re a reader, buy and read The Open Focus Brain and start the exercises at the back of the book. If you aren’t a reader, download the OFAT exercises on Dr. Fehmi’s website. His Level One is the place to start. It includes a lecture that gives a great overview of his theory. Even if you buy the book, I recommend getting all the exercises in Level One because you’ll find working through all of them, progressing over a number of weeks from one to the next, helps you achieve the alpha state.
I loaded all the exercises into my Mac’s itunes and then put them on my ipod. At night, if I wake up, I just listen to one of the exercises with my earphones so as to not awaken my husband. They run for about a half hour. Dr. Fehmi actually recommends you do the exercises during the day, but I find it perfect at night when I slip right back to sleep after I finish one. My sleep is deep, profound and restful. My day is calmer and smoother. I hope yours will be too!