Beginning with Halloween treats, followed by Thanksgiving feasts and culminating with cocktail parties and gift-giving, year-end festivities typically disrupt our routine, involve indulgent eating and impulsive spending that compels us to commit to new and better habits in the coming months. New Year’s resolutions are a long-standing tradition with a notorious reputation for being made by many and accomplished by few.
Although statistics indicate that only about 8% of Americans actually succeed in accomplishing their goals come December, we shamelessly keep the ritual alive by making essentially the same resolutions year after year. Persistence and consistency are virtues, though; and understanding some of the many underlying factors that influence our behavior can help sway the odds in your favor. Notably, proper relaxation and sound sleep are powerful components to your physical and mental health. Now that we are a few weeks into the New Year, this 4-part series is designed around the 4 most popular New Year’s resolutions to empower you with knowledge and actionable tips to help you keep the vows you’ve made for 2014.
Part 1: Resolutions of Self-Improvement
Commitments to personal growth and spiritual renewal are among the most popular resolutions. However, sleep deprivation can impair memory and alertness, cause irritability, and diminish your ability to perform. Here are 2 specific resolutions that may be on your list, changes you can make to achieve them, and a peak into the sleep scienece behind them.
I resolve to... minimize the stress in my life.
Take action by... addressing your bedtime routine by reserving your bedroom for sleep and sex only and invest in a journal to record overbearing thoughts that may be causing you anxiety and disrupting your sleep.
The underlying sleep science:
A study assessing participants’ feelings during various activities throughout their days revealed that a poor night’s sleep and tight work deadlines were by far the two factors that most upset daily moods.
Conversely, a report published this year also highlighted how sleep therapy that resolved insomnia doubled the effectiveness of depression treatment. These results may be scientifically explained by the interaction of hypocretin and GABA, which are essential neurotransmitters that regulate the shift between your states of wakefulness and sleep and energy balance. Hypocretin has also been found to manage emotion, and known to spike particularly during moments of pleasure and happiness; GABA is associated with sensations of calmness because it is an inhibitor that promotes relaxation and helps ease nervous tension. This scientific evidence of interdependence between sleep and happiness also supports why a recent study confirmed that people with positive attitudes tend to report healthier quality of sleep!
I resolve to... expand my wisdom and horizons.
Take action by... booking a camping trip! Then, when you return (or if you’re not the outdoors-type) build time and space into your routine to enjoy silence in the dark each evening by limiting night-time exposure to bright lights and keeping electronics out of the bedroom.
The underlying sleep science:
While sleep is often regarded as the period of our daily routines when our bodies are dormant, in reality our brains are extremely active during this physiological function that we need in order to survive. When you doze off each night, your brain is cycling through different phases of sleep—including light sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and deep sleep—about every 90 minutes. Each of these phases has a different role in rejuvenating our minds and bodies. The REM phase of sleep is considered central to processing emotions; while deeper, slow-wave NREM sleep (stages 3 & 4) is when the body repairs tissues, appears to strengthen the immune system, and consolidates memories.
This restorative quality makes sleep crucial to learning. Research shows that your ability to learn new things could drop by up to 40% if you do not get adequate sleep. While you are snoozing, your brain is processing the new facts and experiences you encountered during the day and then organizing the information and strengthening what it deems most significant; basically, sleep helps transport memories from short-term to long-term storage. Studies have even shown that you can improve certain skills by linking them to sounds heard during sleeping, like playing a melody on a piano.
What’s more, another fascinating finding in sleep research from this past year highlighted how spending time in nature benefits your circadian clock. Researchers found that a week in the wilderness without exposure to artificial light influences sleep-wake cycles to become more aligned with the solar day: participants eventually nodded off naturally earlier in the evening and rose around dawn whether they were night owls or early birds at the outset of the study.
Stay tuned for the next set of tips on How to Conquer the 4 Most Popular New Year's Resolutions; part 2 will tackle your fitness and weight loss goals!
Photo attribution: modified image of Kiliminjaro night sky by Stig Nygaard via Flickr Creative Commons