Get Energized for Good
Get Better Sleep
As difficult as it is to think calm thoughts while you're awake, it's sleep that really does you in. "Ideally, sleep is like beautiful music, where every note comes at the right time and creates this architecture of sleep that is restorative," says Ana Krieger, MD, medical director for the Center for Sleep Medicine at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. She is referring to the four stages of sleep that the brain cycles through every 90 minutes. "We don't have much input into creating the symphony. But we can disrupt it."
At Dr. Krieger's center, people with sleep disorders spend the night in bed hooked up to intensely wired monitoring equipment while technicians record variables that could be contributing to the patients' problems. I arrive at the center with hopes of discovering what's causing mine. Though I aim for a solid eight hours, for years I've woken up throughout the night with racing thoughts. Once I settle into my overnight accommodation, I'm visited by Karen, the sleep tech, who appears with a thick tangle of candy-colored wires and sensors cascading like party streamers from her hands. "We're going to put these electrodes on you; don't worry, it's not painful," she says, seeing the look of concern on my face.
Thirty minutes later I'm fully strapped -- two belts around my chest and belly to monitor respiration, sensors on each calf to check for restless leg syndrome, nine additional sensors plastered to my head to monitor brain waves. Now the worst part: Two prongs go up my nostrils and one hangs over my lips to keep track of breathing, and a probe on my finger monitors my oxygen levels. "This part is what people complain about most," she says. No kidding. As I wriggle about in bed and adjust the tickly nose prongs, I worry I'll be up all night...until I'm dreaming. It's not my best night of slumber, but it's enlightening.
As is typical, I awaken around 2 a.m., look at the clock, start thinking about the 10,000 things I have to do and begin counting backward from 50 in an attempt to squelch the mind racing. It works the first time. The 3 a.m. awakening is tougher to shake; at 4 a.m. I toss and turn, hoping to get some final shut-eye before the long day ahead.
Sitting in Dr. Krieger's office, wires and tubes removed, I delve further with her into the factors affecting my sleep. I mention the racing thoughts. "It's common to run through your worries at night, especially right as you lie down," she assures me. In fact, the key to not waking up at 3 a.m. is to get all the stressing out right when you hit the sack so you can put a plug in that stream of consciousness and the brain can move on to more important matters, like REM. Dr. Krieger suggests a bedside worry journal. "Write your concerns in bullet-point form and assign a time the next day to address them," she says. That way you're not pretending your problems don't exist; you're simply scheduling a more appropriate time to work through them.
A bigger culprit robbing me of sleep, Dr. Krieger says as we discuss my daily routine, is probably a little habit I have with caffeine. How many espressos had I had the day before? Um, one, two, three, four...could it be six? I tell her I'm not caffeine sensitive. She tells me otherwise: Every time I use caffeine, it binds to my brain's nerve receptors, speeding them up. All this neuron activity shoots an emergency signal to my pituitary gland, and I get a shot of adrenaline; hence the buzz. The half-life of caffeine is about six hours, so even if your last java is at 4 p.m., it can leave caffeine flowing through your system at 10 p.m., messing up your sleep.
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