Cognition and Healthy Brain Aging Video – Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Rest and Sleep
How I overcame my negative attitude toward napping and became a fan of Not Doing
By Andrew Weil, MD
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My study of the literature on sleep and my discussions with sleep experts have convinced me of the value of napping. People who nap generally enjoy better mental health and mental efficiency than people who do not. The quality of their nighttime sleep tends to be better as well. The timing and duration of naps are important: too much, too often, or at the wrong time of day can be counterproductive, but, generally, napping is a good thing. What was my problem?
I think it was interference from my thinking mind, which had developed a negative attitude about daytime sleeping, probably the result of incorporating the work ethic I got from family, schools, and society. Because I fought my body's desire for afternoon naps, my experience of them was unpleasant. I am happy to report that has changed. My schedule does not permit me to nap every day, but if I feel a pull toward afternoon sleep, I now take the time to lie down and enjoy it. Usually I wake in ten to twenty minutes feeling refreshed, without any of the strange dreams or hallucinations of the past. Also, I am delighted that I can take productive naps sitting up in cars, trains, and airplanes. I do especially well on airplanes, almost always falling asleep during taxiing for take-off and waking up once airborne. It makes the airplane experience less unpleasant.
Napping is just one way of taking care of the body's need for rest. You can also lie in a hammock or just stare into space. The essence of rest is Not Doing — that is, being passive on both the physical and mental levels. Many women I know get their rest by lounging in warm baths. How do you rest, if you do? Try to understand that our culture works actively against the whole concept. It bombards us with stimulation in more and more places and times. When I'm waiting for a flight to board in an airport, I often can't get away from television monitors broadcasting the news, and in more and more hotel elevators these days I find that I am forced to listen to commercial announcements or yet more news. Finding opportunities to rest in our society is not so easy.
Anthropologists note that in "primitive" cultures, such as the few hunter-gatherer societies left on earth, people have much more leisure time than we do. How can that be? You would think that with all of our labor-saving devices and modern conveniences we would be way ahead of them on that score. My own experiences with Indian tribes in the Amazon are in accordance with the anthropologists' reports. When I lived with the Cubeos, a tribe on the Río Cuduyarí in the Vaupés Territory of eastern Colombia in the 1970s, I found that they devoted a great deal of time every day to leisure and rest. Of course, they tended their crops in cleared areas of the rainforest, fished the river, hunted, and took care of domestic chores, but most afternoons they spent considerable time in their hammocks, sat around chewing coca leaves and chatting with each other, and often enjoyed making music with flutes and drums. They took time to watch the beauty of Amazonian sunsets and contemplate the spectacular night skies and appeared to feel no guilt or conflict about any of this. We may have made progress in other areas of life but not in this one.
The body needs rest, both to balance physical activity and to recharge the mind. Being passive, taking in your surroundings without reacting, and simply Not Doing are valuable and necessary for optimum health and healthy aging If you are not now satisfying that need, think about how you can.
In the not-distant past, day and night were much more sharply demarcated, and nights without mass electric lighting were darker. The coming of night brought dangers and terrors, but it also forced people to shift into a different mode of consciousness. Today the distinction is blurred, and we can carry on daytime awareness and behavior in brightly-lit homes and offices well into the night. (You can experience an extreme of this new pattern in Las Vegas, Nevada, where huge, windowless casinos, blazing with light, noise, and other stimulation completely insulate people from the natural cycle of light and dark, activity and sleep.)
So here is my advice about rest and sleep for healthy aging:
- Rest is important. Think about how you get it. Make time for it: daily periods where you can be passive, without stimulation, doing nothing. Rest is as important as physical activity for general health.
- Naps are good. Try to get into the habit of napping: ten to twenty minutes in the afternoon, preferably lying down in a darkened room.
- Spend some time outdoors as often as you can to get exposure to bright, natural light. If you are concerned about harmful effects of solar radiation, do it before ten in the morning or after three in the afternoon or use sunscreen.
- Try to give yourself some time — up to an hour — in dim light before you go to sleep at night. Lower the lighting in your house and bedroom or wear sunglasses if other members of the household object.
- Pay attention to sleep hygiene — all the details of lifestyle, including intake of caffeine and bedroom design, that affect the quality of sleep. When you are ready to go to sleep, try to keep your bedroom completely dark.
- To minimize early waking, try to postpone the evening meal until dusk or later and schedule some kind of stimulating activity in the early evening.
- If your mind is too active when you get into bed, you will not be able to fall asleep no matter how tired you are. It is good to know one or more relaxation techniques that can help you disengage from thoughts; see the next chapter for suggestions.
- The two best natural sleep aids are valerian and melatonin. Valerian is a sedative herb, used for centuries. You can find standardized extracts in health food stores and pharmacies. Take one to two capsules a half hour before bedtime. Valerian is nontoxic and nonaddictive but may leave some people with a fuzzy feeling in the morning. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates the wake/sleep cycle and other daily biorhythms. Only recently has synthetic melatonin become available as an over-the-counter supplement. I prefer sublingual tablets (to be placed under the tongue and allowed to dissolve); take 2.5 milligrams at bedtime, making sure that your bedroom is completely dark.
- Do not use either of these remedies every night. Melatonin causes an increase in dreaming in most people; a few people can't tolerate it because they get nightmares. Otherwise, it has no known side effects and even enhances immune function. (High doses — up to 20 milligrams every night at bedtime — can extend survival in people with metastatic cancer.)
- If you are unaware of your dream life, try melatonin Writing down dreams or telling them to your bedmate or a recording device can also help you develop this awareness. Try keeping a notepad or voice recorder by your pillow.
- People vary in their need for sleep, from as little as four hours a night to as much as ten. Most require seven to eight hours, but needs tend to change over time. Generally, the amount of sleep you need decreases as you get older.
- If you do wake early, try to use the time productively. Read or write for an hour, then try to go back to sleep until morning. Thinkyin-yang— a period of nighttime wakefulness complements your daytime nap.
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