By Deepak Chopra, MD and Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD
Not getting enough sleep bothers many people, but it can’t be addressed alone. As a society, we’ve created a situation with sleep that works against the biorhythms governing the whole bodymind system. The sleep cycle is our most important biorhythm, yet it fits into the larger scheme of rest and activity that operates throughout the day. If you sit all day and get no significant exercise, you can wind up “too tired to go to sleep,” because the rhythm of sleep is connected with what you do during your waking hours. Research has shown how interlocked our need for rest and activity actually is. To keep your biorhythms synchronized, four elements must be present:
Standing: Simple as it sounds, the human physiology depends on gravity. Seminal research in the 1930s showed that college athletes, when confined to bed for two weeks, lost months’ worth of muscle tone in their training. Standing up for only a few minutes a day keeps muscle tone intact. It also appears to aid in recovery from surgery, which is why patients are no longer advised to get constant bed rest in the hospital but encouraged instead to stand up and walk if they are able.
Walking: Although exercise delivers more benefit the harder and more frequently you exercise, the baseline for activity is walking. Research has shown that the widest gap in levels of physical activity, medically speaking, occurs between those who take zero exercise and those who get up off the sofa and do something, no matter how meager. Walking is now a regular practice in recovery from serious illnesses and surgery.
Rest: After heavy physical exertion, rest is necessary to replenish your muscles and restore internal balance—most people have no difficulty with this because they feel exhausted after heavy work or exercise. But the need for mental rest has only recently been taken seriously. If you equate mental rest with lethargy and dullness, that image is misleading. People who practice meditation, which among other things rests the mind, emerge with sharper alertness. Meditation doesn’t dull the mind or put the brain to sleep—there is actually increased brain activity (in alpha waves, for example, which are associated with creativity), resulting in a state previously unknown to neuroscience: restful alertness.
Sleep: Researchers still don’t know why we need to sleep at all, except that undeniably we do. The most recent theory is that sleep allows the brain to rid itself of built-up toxins during the day. These include, during the deepest stage of sleep, the removal of senile plaques that can cause Alzheimer’s disease. It is also during deep sleep that we consolidate what we have learned all day as short-term memories into long-term memories. Without these activities, our brain (as well as the rest of our body) can undergo damage done by lack of sleep and poor sleep.
The first thing everyone notices when they spend a sleepless night is feeling tired and groggy in the morning, sometimes throughout the day. This becomes a constant complaint for chronic insomniacs, yet even when someone says, “I didn’t sleep a wink last night,” in fact, controlled studies reveal that intermittent episodes of sleep do occur, even though they may be fitful and shallow. If someone is forced to literally stay awake the entire night in a sleep clinic laboratory, serious deficits begin to show up, such as lack of motor coordination and attention—these are common causes of motor vehicle accidents. Chemical imbalances start to show up, particularly in the flow of hormones, which are precisely balanced according to our circadian (daily) clock. Not getting enough sleep can disturb your appetite because the balance of leptin and ghrelin, the two hormones that govern hunger and satiation, has been throw off.
Our other biorhythms haven’t risen to the same importance, because something like not standing enough doesn’t lead to immediate deficits the way sleep deprivation does. In our new book, The Healing Self, we dive deep into the linkage between standing walking, resting and sleeping. Here’s a list we came up with for positive changes in your biorhythms, consisting of things to do and things to stop doing.
Our advice is to adopt only one item from either list, let it settle into your routine, and then add another item.
Stand up and move around once an hour if you are working at the computer or at a desk job.
Walk 5 minutes for every hour you work.
Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Park your car far away in the lot when you shop or go to work.
Be regular in your sleep routine.
Make your bedroom an optimal sleeping environment that’s as silent and dark as possible.
Walk for 20 to 30 minutes in the evening.
Take 10 minutes of quiet alone time, preferably in meditation, twice today.
Spend more time with a physically active friend or family member.
Replace 10 minutes of sofa time in front of the TV with a walk instead.
Break the habit of waiting until the weekend to catch up on lost sleep.
If you drink alcohol, do it early in the evening—go to bed without alcohol in your bloodstream.
Replace the midmorning coffee-and-doughnut break with a walk.
Walk to one place close by that you usually drive to.
Examine your excuses for not being more active.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are The Healing Self co-authored with Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com
Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D. is the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and Vice Chair of Neurology at Mass. General Hospital. Dr. Tanzi is the co-author with Deepak Chopra of the New York Times bestsellers, Super Brain, Super Genes and The Healing Self. He is also an internationally acclaimed expert on Alzheimer’s disease and brain health with over 500 research publications. He was included in TIME Magazine’s “TIME 100 Most Influential People in the World.”