Whereas yesterday’s post dealt with getting back to sleep in the middle of the night, today’s topic is Getting to Sleep in the First Place. Brace yourselves. I am going to fly in the face of New Age holistic medicine here, and share the wisdom gleaned from years of Continuing Education seminars presented by molecular biologists. As they say in the UK, I’m going to “blind you with science.” [That’s not what happened to Lili. She’s posing as an insomniac.]
First, of course, we need an animal metaphor. Let’s go with twin ferrets. These well-meaning creatures inhabit our Autonomic Nervous System [a kind of auto-pilot, formerly believed to be unconscious and involuntary, which regulates stuff like heart rate, breathing, and speed of digestion]. One ferret, with the clunky name of Parasympathetic, just wants us to chillax, already, so he uses that ever-so-trendy neurotransmitter, serotonin, to slow down the beating of our heart. His [please don’t think of him as evil] twin, Sympathetic, is there to prevent us from flat-lining, and uses the much-maligned norepinephrine to jolt our heart back up to a life-sustaining rate [like a furry little pacemaker]. Though seeming to work at cross-purposes, they both want the same thing: homeostasis. Like Goldielocks, they want the rate of everything in the body to be Just Right.
So, now, have you ever noticed that on the nights when you are utterly shattered, whacked, whipped to the bone, and you figure it should be easy to fall asleep, what happens instead is a series of short dreams, in which you are falling, and from which you jerk awake, often with an audible gasp? Yeah, that’s the Twin Ferrets, just trying to keep you alive, man. “Paras” knows you need the rest, so he slows your heart rate way down [whence, the falling sensation]. Then “Sym” wigs out, for fear that your heart will stop altogether, and zaps you “back to life.” [The jerk.] [That’s what your body does. I’m not dissing “Sym,” here.] Eventually, these guys find a homeostatic heart rate and let you go to sleep; but the more fatigued you are, the more jactitation [jerking awake] you have to go through, to get there.
Back to Sleep Hygiene for a moment. Sleep is more easily initiated when the body’s core temperature is warm, but the room temperature is cool. One traditional way to warm your core is a hot bath; but who, other than little kids, has time for that at night? An even older strategy is a warming beverage. But which one? The traditional “nightcap” of high-proof alcohol doesn’t actually warm your body’s core [only the cockles of your heart], unless you go to the trouble of heating the liquid, itself, in which case, as long as you’re in the kitchen anyway, you might as well make the gold standard of soporific drinks, beloved by Europeans since the Explorers brought the main ingredient back from the New World: a cup of hot chocolate.
“No way!” I hear you object. “Chocolate has caffeine in it! That’ll just keep me up!” Obviously, you are only thinking about the agenda of “Paras.” “Sym” has a horse in this race, too, ya know. Here’s what the molecular biologists say. The milk and sugar contain tryptophan, which turns into serotonin [the sleepytime molecule] in the body, thus satisfying “Paras.” Also, the heat of the drink warms your core. But here’s the Beauty Part! The small amount of caffeine in the chocolate speeds up the heart just enough to mollify “Sym,” who can then hold off on delivering that jolting dose of norepinephrine.
Frequently Asked Questions: “How ’bout sugarfree cocoa mix?” That works, but add more milk, as your source of tryptophan. “How ’bout a glass of cold Nesquik?” Did you miss the part about warming the core? Now you’ll need to take a bath, just like a kid. “What if I can’t stand/am allergic to chocolate?” You can try a cuppa [hot tea with milk], but don’t try coffee, unless you make it weak and add lots of milk.
Final observation: Europeans consume far fewer pharmaceutical sleep-aids [per capita] than we do in the US; and they manage to get through their days & nights fairly well, non? There is a British watchdog of correct English usage who deplores the current fad of prefacing remarks with, “At the end of the day…” She declares, “The only correct use of that phrase is, ‘At the end of the day I drink a cup of hot chocolate.'” Nar’mean?