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Your Brain Decides it’s an Owl – Five Ways to Make Your Nights Effective

What is Pink Noise? How can candlelight affect our nights? And why should be avoid looking at the time in the middle of the night? Here are five unique techniques that ca help you fall asleep faster and enjoy a deeper slumber, even if we wake up in the middle

Boaz Mizrahi April 13, 2020

There is so much we can write on the importance of quality sleep. It is critical for our cognitive activity, important for our mental wellbeing, and even impacts the way we look. But, for those of us who are deprived of sleep, there’s no need to explain the significance of a good night’s slumber. Insomniacs probably already know full well how sleep plays a major role in life, and they crave it in every fiber of their being. For them, there’s a more practical aspect they’d like to delve into: how to fall asleep more easily, and how to sleep more deeply.

If you belong to the segment of the population that falls asleep easily, don’t skip this article yet, but read on – we all have nights where a little encouragement is needed to enter into the kingdom of dreams. Maybe there’s a big day ahead of us tomorrow and we are stressing towards it, or perhaps we just ended a really charged day and now find ourselves fretting over it in a mindboggling loop. Maybe it’s just one of those nights when our eyes and mind have joined forces in a pact to torment us, by making darkness the perfect time to ponder about the true meaning of life.

On the seventh, or maybe eighth sheep that you count, you are already feeling silly and realize it’s not only a myth for making you fall asleep, but also an annoying ruse that’s actually poking fun at your misery. So, what to do? You’ve probably come across a number of techniques, from drinking herbal infusions to downloading apps that fill the air with some soothing sounds from nature, which are supposed to induce sleepiness. Unlike these popular methods, we’ve tried to bring you some of the lesser known techniques, often even surprising ones, which may prove very effective in helping you drift off into slumber, or go back to dreamtime if you’ve woken up suddenly in the middle of the night, and even prolong your deep sleep phase.

1. Pink dreams

Noise can be a real distraction for someone who is about to fall asleep, but it can also induce sleep. The sound of running water and the sounds of the forest can get you there, but we’ve found another category of sounds that has a positive effect on the brain that finds sleep challenging, and can even improve its quality. We hereby introduce you to: Pink Noise. Its soundwaves are synchronized with the brainwaves in deep sleep.

This sound is called Pink Noise, because its wavelength can be equated with that of the color pink in the visual spectrum. An article by Lindsay Abrams in the Atlantic presents a research out of Germany, which studied the impact of pink noise on both sleep and the next day’s cognitive performance. It found that playing these sounds at nigh extended the time in which the research subjects had slept more deeply. On the day that followed, their memory retention was much higher.

According to the Berkeley Wellness magazine published by Berkeley University, California, these findings are supported by additional research, which also shows that pink noise is highly effective for midday naps. It should be made clear that pink noise is effective once we are already wrapped in deep sleep, because it is congruent with the brainwaves that are typical to this phase. That is why, if you were to want to try it out, the best time to play pink noise is during the night. You can do this by searching for it on different apps, or by playing clips such as this one below.

2. A good night actually starts in the morning

For those who suffer from sleep disorders, experts recommend staying away from digital screens in the evenings and at nighttime. The reason for this, is that these emit a type of blue light known to slow down the production of melatonin – the sleep hormone, to the point it disrupts the synchronization between our biological clock and the natural cyclical rhythm of the day.

In an in-depth article published by BBC Future, Linda Geddes describes a little experiment she conducted at home, to check how exposure to natural light will affect her sleep. For three weeks she and her family minimized their exposure to blue light, avoiding screens and even using candlelight in the evenings. She shares her research, which does in fact point at a low correlation between exposure to blue light and improved sleeping habits, but the changes she recorded during the experiment were statistically insignificant.

What was more conclusive, and her biggest takeaway from the experiment, was the change that occurred in the second half of the day. During the experiment period, she tried to be exposed to as much natural sunlight as she could, and the biggest realization was that on these days she could go to sleep earlier, wake up later, and sleep more deeply. Her homespun reports are not enough to draw major scientific conclusions, but her research does support her personal insight: being exposed to natural sunlight synchronizes and even restarts your biological clock. So, after a day bathed in sunlight, come nighttime and the biological mechanisms are in check, naturally functioning, enabling the growing darkness to slowly soothe us into slumber.

3. The 4-7-8 breathing technique

Dr. Andrew Weil is one of those doctors who believe in blending ancient wisdom to maintain our health and wellbeing. He is considered the guru of alternative medicine, which often ignites much criticism against him and his methods, but has also given rise to a devoted following around him of millions of people worldwide. He shares a breathing technique that can aid us in many ways, including coping with cravings, nerves, and sleep issues – either when we are trying to fall asleep, or going back to sleep if we awoke in the middle of the night.

The technique is very simple: place your tongue on the top ridge of your mouth, just behind the front teeth, breath-in through your mouth to the count of four, hold for 7, and then breath out forcefully through the mouth to the count of 8. Repeat up to four times, and do this up to twice a day. That’s it. Weil suggests slowing down the count as you practice more and more, which will prolog your breathing, and once we are comfortable with the four repetitions of 4-7-8, move on to eight repetitions, but that is the recommended maximum.

The 4-7-8 breathing technique is in fact a version of the pranayama exercise, an ancient yoga technique. Although there is no concrete scientific proof, Weil claims that after two months this technique will lower your heartbeat and blood pressure, while improving digestion and lowering depression. But even if you are an avid believer in solid scientific research alone, this technique cannot cause damage if you do it, and it also requires no effort. After all, we have to breath anyway, so why not do it in this recommended way, especially during those nights when we find ourselves with nothing better to do. Maybe it will surprise us, and whisk us away to sleep.

4. What bothers you more – today or the tomorrow?

Just as sound may hinder or induce sleep, thoughts about the day that passed or fretting over the day that is yet to come can disrupt your slumber, too. Nagging thoughts can be a real culprit. Researches at Baylor University in Texas, as published by Christina Jarrett on Research Digest of The British Psychological Society, designed an experiment that checks what type of thoughts will disrupt sleep, and what is more effective – worrying about what we had accomplished in the day that passed, or being anxious about the things we must do tomorrow.

To reach a conclusion, the researchers divided a team of volunteers in two. Before going to bed in the sleep lab, volunteers of the first group were asked to take five minutes each, and write down all of the things they had accomplished during the day that passed, plus several days before it. The other group was asked to take this time to make a to-do list of tomorrow’s tasks, and those of the next couple of days. Intuitively, you would think that worrying about tomorrow is more distracting, but the experiment shows otherwise: the volunteers who spent their time before sleeping planning their tomorrow’s to-do list, had scored an advantage of falling asleep ten minutes faster, on average.

Jarrett even pointed out that “the more thorough and specific their list, the more quickly they fell asleep”. The researchers assume that unloading the burden of future tasks onto a list helps people calm down. Perhaps writing down the things we need to do puts our mind at ease, as if these tasks are already being taken care of in some way, and we can let ourselves relax a little by falling asleep.

5. Refrain from the catch of countdown

One major thought about tomorrow that will never unload itself onto any to-do list, is how exhausted we will be, physically and mentally, if we don’t fall asleep already. The trouble with this type of dread, as Cari Romm writes in The Cut, is that it is “the anxiety that ramps up as you watch the hours tick by, knowing with each one that passes that you’re going to be that much worse off in the morning.” In this vicious cycle, the fear of tomorrow just pushes sleep further and further away.

The solution for this nerve-wracking thought pattern, as Australian researchers recommend, is a mindfulness technique that can calm you down. Romm explains that the idea at the core of this technique is to stop your thoughts from envisioning your tired tomorrow, and instead helps you be present in the moment, and simply accepting the situation. “Telling yourself to fall asleep is a useless exercise”, she writes. “Instead, tell yourself that it’s okay not to”. Coming to terms with the fact that we are about to spend another night awake, can actually slow down and eventually even stop the whirlwind of worrisome thoughts, ultimately letting sleep slip through to carry us away.

And you can’t stop now: if this was successful, and calming down has in fact helped us fall asleep, we won. If not, it makes no real difference, since we have already accepted the fact that we won’t sleep tonight, and as for tomorrow – we’ll cross that bridge it when it comes.

Bobby Bradley / shutterstock