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A Better You | Super Powers of Sleep



Want to improve your day? Make sure your nights are spent slumbering.

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Missing a little sleep? Well, think twice about doing that, if you can. As someone who travels frequently across both national and international time zones on business, I can attest to the mental and physical challenges of sleep disruption. And judging from the plethora of commercials for sleep medication on television and in magazines, sleep—or more important, insomnia—is a national concern.

Freud made sleep important in 1900 with The Interpretation of Dreams, which maintained that dreams reveal one’s motivations. When I took an abnormal psychology course, one of my favorite parts of it was recording my dreams. (The best one involved marrying Michael Jackson!) Oddly enough, sleep wasn’t considered essential for physiological health until the 1950s, when it was discovered that sleep was an active mental state, not a passive suspension-of-life one as theorized by the scientists of Freud’s time.

Types of sleep
Neuroscientists now know that the sleep–wake cycle is a part of normal physiology and progresses through life from the frequent sleep periods of an infant, to the twice-a-day pattern of a napping child, to the adult’s circadian cycle of one sleep period and one awake period.

Technically sleep includes several phases of deep non-REM (rapid eye movements) sleep and the lighter REM sleep. Non-REM sleep is characterized by a very heavy, still period during which the sleeper is hard to awaken. The lighter, almost hyperactive REM phases are what we see in dogs when they twitch and imitate running while snoozing.

Sleep deprivation
Although sleep has been well studied, its exact physiological mechanisms remain elusive. However, numerous studies cite the effects of deprivation, even though we still don’t know exactly how it works. Of particular interest to dancers is the effect of sleep deprivation on muscles, metabolism, and mental function.

Not only is a sleep-deprived person unlikely to have the energy needed to get through a week; in addition, sugar may be deposited in the fat stores too quickly, causing weight gain.

Deprivation tends to lead to problems with blood sugar regulation. There are several possible reasons for this. One is that without adequate sleep, your body fails to store carbohydrates in the muscles as sugar (called glycogen, which is the major form of energy that dancers use). Because muscle sugar tends to become depleted over consecutive days of exercise, further depletion caused by sleep deprivation poses a problem for dancers, who often dance six days a week. So not only is a sleep-deprived person unlikely to have the muscle energy needed to get through a week, in addition, sugar may be deposited in the fat stores too quickly, causing weight gain. Sleep deprivation can also lead to an oversupply of circulating blood sugar, which is a big problem for diabetics, who must pay critical attention to their blood sugar levels.

What’s the big deal?
It’s easy to recognize that staying up all night, or losing sleep due to working the swing shift, or moonlighting due to the recession could be hard on a person’s health. Yet many of us justify losing a bit of sleep every night, thinking those small losses couldn’t possibly add up to much. Winding down after night classes and late rehearsals is a particular problem for many in the dance and theater set.

A study involving driving looked at the scenario of losing one hour of sleep per night (in a typical eight-hour night) over many nights. Expected effects were seen on cognitive functions such as judgment, impulse control, attention, and visual acuity. The frightening thing was that the study’s subjects weren’t aware of these deficits.

It gets even worse: In other studies, in which even more sleep was deprived over a week, the subjects’ thinking ability became comparable to that of stroke patients. The most common point between a little lack of sleep and severe lack of sleep was that the subjects were unable to recognize the deficits. This is proof that if you want to be in charge and perform at your best, then you have to take charge of your sleep habits.

SleepTaking charge
Here are some tips to make the most of your sleeping hours:

  1. Watch your alcohol intake. Dancers often use a “painkiller” to wind down at night and to ease aching legs and back. While one glass of wine may help you nod off initially, it actually disrupts the sleep stages, causing you to linger in the non-deep stages and making you awaken before you’d like to. Instead, try an Epsom salts bath (about ¾ cup in a tub of warm water) and a warm, calming tea like chamomile to slow down the churning wheels of body and mental activity.
  2. Do some aerobics. Nothing is better than oxygen. Getting cardio by walking, running, or biking about three times per week can aid sleep as long as you exercise at least 3 to 4 hours before bedtime. (Exercising too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep.) Dancers may be resistant to other forms of exercise or feel so tired at the end of the workday that more activity seems impossible. Remember that even 10 minutes done at several separate times of the day can count. Walk to the store or take the stairs—anything to get in more oxygen. Dancers use “spurt” energy instead of the aerobic type of metabolism marathon runners use. So it’s important for dancers to get aerobic exercise; the oxygen is a natural sleep aid.
  3. Work on your stress level. For busy studio owners, this is easier said than done. Try forming a habit of journaling, meditating, praying, or any other form of internal concentration. It will take discipline to get started, but you’ll succeed in setting the behavior if you persist for 21 days. Even if you feel you can’t devote an actual sit-down time to stress defense, try self-talk. Take a tip from principal dancers, many of whom help themselves succeed through self-talk. Encourage yourself during the day as you find yourself feeling frustrated or starting to fade. Reassure yourself that you only have so much time until the end of class or whatever task you have to do. It works. That way, at the end of the day you don’t have to process all the little (or big) annoyances and frustrations that happen in a normal business day.
  4. Create a bedroom sanctuary, a designated space for sleeping. Remove stimulating things like TVs and computers. Stereos are fine if you avoid loud, stimulating music; soft music can help produce that sanctuary feeling. And “white noise” (a low, static sound, like that of a fan) can help calm you.
  5. Allow yourself a wind-down period of about 15 minutes before you want to go to sleep. Light reading is the trick; don’t try to absorb detailed technical material. And save the whodunnits and bodice-rippers for daytime. Getting so involved with a novel or movie that you can’t bear to put it down or turn it off could give you double eye bags in the morning.

A positive approach
Another interesting finding in sleep-deprivation studies is that people who were not satisfied with their sleep actually may have slept a full eight hours and not recognized it. So just getting yourself to stay in bed is a good discipline. A common mistake is to get up and read or do work when sleep is interrupted, which only reinforces the insomniac pattern.

A better approach is to soothe yourself, with self-talk and pleasant sensations, just as you would an infant. Remember, we have an evolutionary hindbrain, a low-level primitive brain, as part of our total makeup. Rub your hands on your bedding and notice the texture; tell yourself how pleasant the sensations are. Listen to your breathing. Tell yourself, “All is well,” because at that moment, chances are that you really are OK. You can train yourself to focus on pleasant rather than unpleasant stimuli, a skill often used by patients who suffer chronic pain.

You spent all that time training yourself in meticulous dance skills. Getting your sleep patterns under control may seem like a daunting task, but with a little knowledge and effort, you can sleep well. And a good night’s sleep can make daily life an enjoyable event.

I have faith in you.


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