The decision to embark on a New Year’s Detox is a frothy mix of nonsense and lunacy. I discuss why that is – at length – here. The TL: DR version: It’s not a real thing and will do you actual, quantifiable harm. If you want to make a manageable, sustainable improvement in your physical health this year you would be much better off taking 10,000 steps per day (1-2) and maybe delaying your breakfast by a couple of hours(3). So, for those of you who are sufficiently convinced that a ‘detox’ is a giant waste of time, energy and life I offer an alternative health resolution. I’ve compiled a list of the top five things you can do to improve your brain function and mental wellbeing in 2017 (based on non-frothy science) because there is no health without mental health. The fantastic five are: Sleep, diet/nutrition, rest/meditation, exercise, and learning. I was originally planning on creating a top ten but small, incremental changes are the ones most likely to stick so get these under your belt and you will be well on the way to a happier, healthier 2017.
There’s supposed to be something very impressive about getting by with very little sleep. We hear urban legends about highly successful people who require only four or five hours per night. They are described as ‘superhuman’ rather than just ‘different’. Corporate law firms and big banks provide beds in their buildings and newly-qualified and graduate trainees fight it out to demonstrate how productive they can be, how much sleep deprivation they can tolerate.
But there is nothing big or clever about surviving on very little sleep. For people who are not natural short-sleepers (and maybe only 2% of the population are) poor and disturbed sleep is a serious problem. The American Centre for Disease Control and Prevention describes insufficient sleep as an ‘important public health concern’(4). According to a recent YouGov poll only half of people are happy with the amount of sleep that they get(5). Psychologically, we know that poor sleep:
- Increases risk of depression
- Impairs decision making, including around risk
- Makes you more easily distracted
- Makes you less able to adapt to a situation/adopt new strategies that might be more appropriate to the situation
- Impairs communication and language skills
- Makes you less able to control mood/impairs mood stability
- Impairs insight
It has serious consequences for physical health too and poor sleep is associated with increased risk of obesity and heart disease(6).
For a long time disturbed sleep was seen just as a symptom of depression but more recently researchers have been looking at poor sleep as a causal factor in depressive illness(7-8). This perspective presents us with the opportunity to target sleep disorders as a treatment for depression. So, what can you do?
- Keep cool – Cooling body temperature is a physiological indicator that it will soon be time to sleep. If your room or bed are very hot this can make it harder to drop off and impair sleep quality (think of those hot summer nights). Use the right tog duvet for the season, and use a quiet fan if you need to. You can also promote this sleep-inducing effect by taking a warm bath about an hour before bed, the cooling of the body once you step out of the bath can help to promote sleep.
- Step in to the light - We all have a natural sleep-wake cycle that coordinates – based on light-exposure – to the 24hr day/night cycle. This is part of the circadian rhythm. Left to its own devices this cycle can drift slightly; it needs light at the right times of day to stay 'anchored'. Try to get at least 30 minutes of bright daylight in the morning or at lunchtime. A half hour walk after lunch is perfect if you can manage it.
- Hack your ultradian rhythm - As well as the 24hr rhythm you also have a shorter, 90 min cycle clicking over throughout the day, your ultradian rhythm, and tracking this can help you to identify when is the best time for you to go to bed. The ultradian rhythm is remarkably consistent making it a very useful measure and you can track it by timing your yawns. See the image on this page. At the peak of the wave you are at your most alert and this is a great time to work through your to-do list or focus on a challenging problem. 45 minutes later you are at the trough of the wave, at your most sleepy and most likely to yawn. So, if I yawn at 7pm but it’s too early for me to go to bed, I know that I am likely to be most sleepy again at 8.30pm, 10pm and 11.30pm. I might plan, then to be in bed by 10pm or 11.30pm in order to get to sleep quickly.
- Put down your phone – Smartphones, tablets and computer screens emit blue light. This is the same wavelength as dawn light, and this is received by the suprachiasmatic nucleus (the brain region responsible for controlling the circadian rhythm) as a message that it is time to wake up, be alert and get active. Try to avoid using these devices for at least 60 minutes before heading to bed, or, if you absolutely must, download an app that can help to filter out the blue light.
- Make sure the room is as dark and quiet as possible (unless that freaks you out). Think about using eye masks, blackout curtains and ear plugs if you live in or near a noisy environment.
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime – Although it can promote the initial falling asleep, alcohol disturbs the quality of sleep, preventing your brain from entering the deeper sleep stages.
- Try not to drink too much before going to bed – I mean just normal drinks here. It seems obvious but a lot of people underestimate how detrimental midnight trips to the loo are to a good night’s sleep. Have a bottle of water by your bedside so you can rehydrate in morning.
Also, remember that here is no magic number. The right amount of sleep is the amount that is enough for you, for you not to feel excessively sleepy during the day. That might be seven hours, that might be nine, we all have different sleep needs. So, work out what is right for you and try to achieve that more often than not.
Next week, the effect of nutrition on brain function. Until then, wishing you a very restful night.
- Yuenyongchaiyat, K. (2016). Effects of 10,000 steps a day on physical and mental health in overweight participants in a community setting: A preliminary study. Brazilian Journal of Physical Therapy.
- Castres, I., Tourny, C., Lemaitre, F. & Coquart., J. (2016). Impact of a walking program of 10,000 steps per day and dietary counseling on health-related quality of life, energy expenditure and anthropometric parameters in obese subjects. Journl of Endocrinological Investgation, DOI: 10.1007/s40618-016-0530-9.
- Horne, BD., Muhlestein, J. B. & Anderson, J. L. (2015). Health effects on intermittent fasting: hormesis or harm? A systematic review. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 102, 464-470.
- Kecklund, G. & Axelsson, J. (2016). Health consequences of shift work and poor sleep. British Journal of Medicine, 355, i5210.
- Chen, Y., Keller, J. K., Kang, J., Hsieh, H. & Lin, H. (2013). Obstructive sleep apnea and subsequent risk of depressive disorder: A population-based follow up study. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 15, 417-423.
- Roberts, R. E. & Duong, H. T. (2014). The prospective association between sleep deprivation and depression in adolescents. Sleep, 37, 239-244.