The Relaxation Response
Episode #6 of the course Sleep hacks: Using science to improve your sleep by John Robin
Welcome to our sixth hack toward better sleep and better productivity!
In the lesson so far, we’ve gained quite a perspective: Much goes on in our body, especially our brain, when we get all the sleep we need. Much also goes wrong when we don’t, but it becomes invisible to us, conveniently buried under rationalizations we’ve adopted socially, including habits like using caffeine to cover up fatigue.
In the first half of the course, I’ve shown you the ideal to strive for and why science tells us we should. For the rest of the course, we’re going to explore the other half of this problem: the science behind how we justify and remain entrenched in unhealthy sleep habits and how to hack our way out of them.
We’re going to begin today by picking up on yesterday’s end question: Why can’t we shut down to begin with?
An Evolution Lesson on Sleep
Science teaches us that life evolved over hundreds of millions of years. According to the fossil record and inferences from other fields, it began with unicellular life. Millions of years passed, and this unicellular life made little experimental changes each time it replicated, eventually giving rise to multicellular variants. Whole systems came together, cells working to make tissues, then organs, and soon the major components of most multicellular organisms. And one thing they always did: Rest and repair to keep living.
But somewhere in this narrative of how life evolved, organisms developed ways to compete, because resources were limited and only the fittest could survive.
Life continued to evolve over hundreds of millions of years. Here we are today, human beings, in our teched-up world, able for the first time in the long history of life to contemplate what it’s like to live without having to rely only on survival.
Can you see where the orexin-producing neuron system comes in? Sleeping is important, but not when your entire family is being pursued by lions. Survival kicks in, and our brain has developed survival mechanisms because good health is secondary when you might get chomped to bits.
The manifestation of these dual goals can be seen in the two kinds of nervous systems in our body:
• The sympathetic, or “fight or flight” system, is involved in raising adrenaline and sending blood to the muscles of the limbs, keeping us stimulated.
• The parasympathetic, or “rest and digest” system, is involved in relaxing muscles and sending blood to the gut for digestion, allowing us to grow and repair.
The orexin-producing system is an aggravator of the sympathetic nervous system. You can think of it as the part of the brain that invokes our survival roots.
You can’t just shut this down by going to bed and forcing yourself to sleep eight to nine hours a night. Raised adrenaline in the blood and stress-associated thinking patterns will also set off the orexin-producing neurons.
If you want to truly shut this down, the hack here is to invoke the parasympathetic system. Look for opportunities to train yourself each day to cultivate the relaxation response.
You can do this through:
• Taking deep, full-belly, full-chest breaths, especially focusing on full exhales. You don’t need to meditate or sit a certain way to do this. You can do it while you’re working. I just did several as I typed this paragraph. The key is to actively do this and think about doing it as you do it, and do it as often as you can.
• Completely unplugging from all technology for at least one hour before bed. This reduces artificial light stimulation and allows our shoulder and arm muscles to relax from the unhealthy postures we adopt to hold phones or tablets in front of us and tap, type, or swipe. Put your phone to bed, out of reach, and instead read a magazine or book, spend time with your child, partner, or pet, or just sit and meditate. Learn to enjoy what it feels like to just be present, and you’ll tap into immense relaxation response power!
• Avoiding reaction mode when you start your day. Complement your one-hour-before-bed time with 20-30 minutes of no-tech as you learn what it feels like to wake up, enjoy breakfast, and spend time with your own thoughts. Guaranteed, if you cultivate this, you will go into each day grounded in your parasympathetic system.
Think of the above three habits as touchstone habits. From this place, you can cultivate further relaxation, and this shuts down the orexin system, which helps you sleep, giving you more REM and boosting your mental superpowers.
But now that you can see the way to totally unplugging, you might also be wondering: When exactly is the best time to go to bed to get the best sleep?
That will be tomorrow’s hack!
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