For optimum sleep at night your brain needs downtime during the day. Find out why – and how best to get it!
Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in reading or enjoying a pastime and next thing you know, hours have passed? We’ve all been there. And we’ve all felt good for it. Conversely, you’ve probably also experienced feeling wired after a hectic day where everything has been non-stop. The latter can sadly be a more common experience, perhaps because many of us feel that to be productive we must be in ‘doing mode’.
There’s an assumption that a resting brain is an idle one but, in fact, it’s during downtime – having a bath, taking a walk or slipping into a daydream – that your brain does some important processing. The place your mind goes to when relaxed – referred to by neuroscientists as the default brain network (DBN) – is somewhere you need to visit periodically throughout the day to process events, explore experiences and make good decisions.
Aside from periods of rest, the only other time your brain slips into DBN is during REM sleep but if you’re skimping on daytime downtime, your mind may be too busy to access this place at night. ‘The part of the brain involved in consolidating memory and enabling learning operates on a cycle; it can become overloaded if you don’t take breaks during the day,’ says Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert for Silent Night. ‘This then leads to sleep that feels more “wired”, as your brain is forced to spend time filing during REM sleep, rather than accessing a place that’s healing and restorative.’
There have been plenty of studies to support the benefits of taking breaks throughout the day. The first came from researchers William Dement and Nathan Kleitman more than 50 years ago. These two pioneering sleep experts discovered the 90-minute sleep pattern, during which we move through five stages of sleep, from light to deep then out again. They also found that this natural flow is not limited to our sleeping hours; humans operate by the same 90-minute rhythm when awake, too, moving through phases of higher and lower alertness.
‘Not taking breaks throughout the day means you lose the ability to focus and concentrate. You might even become irritable and less productive,’ says Nerina, who recommends taking breaks every hour or so, away from screens and information.’ If you can, pop outside and look up at the sky, even if only for a few minutes. The message is simple: give yourself mini time-outs during the day and your brain should be calmer at bedtime.
Take a nap
The Spanish are really onto something with their siestas, as a 2012 report from the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians showed benefits for stress levels and memory. And NASA agrees, saying the optimum nap time for maximum efficiency is 26 minutes. It’s enough to give your brain the time it needs to process and refresh, and it can even counteract the negative health impact of lack of sleep the night before. Just be careful not to drift off too deeply or you may struggle to sleep later on. The traditional siesta is always taken in an armchair to avoid getting too comfy.
Rub your soles
Your feet hold more than 14,000 nerve endings, which correspond to every organ and system in your body. Doing a little self-reflexology works wonders for helping you slip into a blissful state, best enjoyed on the lead-up to bed or prior to a nap.
The reflex area for your brain is on the big toe of each foot, in the fleshy part on the underside.
- Gently pinch your big toes between your thumbs and index fingers.
- Hold for 10 seconds.
- Continue to do this for as long as you like, perhaps combining with meditative thoughts.
- Finish by slipping on a pair of cosy socks, such as the alpaca and merino lounge socks from Flock by Nature (£18 flockbynature.co), to give your brain a signal it’s time to sleep.
Knitting, bonsai practice, quilting and many other creative, repetitive crafts have a therapeutic effect on the mind, making these perfect for downtime. During his TED talk in 2004, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said becoming totally absorbed in a creative task was the ‘secret to happiness’, explaining that existence outside that activity becomes temporarily suspended. You don’t have to worry about being a total newbie, as just the process of creating with your hands gives a positivity boost like nothing else and allows your brain to have a break in a similar way to meditating or sleeping.
It’s fun, it keeps you healthy and it also helps you sleep better. Yes, dancing gives your brain some much-needed downtime as while you’re twirling and swirling, you forget your troubles and live in the moment. During your time on the dance floor – even if that’s your living room carpet – you allow your brain the time it needs to process recent experiences by slipping into DBN mode and, by doing so, you free up your mind at bedtime to drift off into a restorative sleep. Moving your body to music releases endorphins and, as it connects directly to the emotional centres and pattern sequencing processes in your brain, can be a wholly absorbing experience.
Another great way to give your brain some downtime and get into a ‘flow’ state, as it’s known, is by playing chess. Although you might think this would be taxing for your brain, the game encourages the use of both hemispheres, not just the logical left side, and the challenge is usually just enough to require all your focus, but not so much that it becomes a struggle. As well as giving you the opportunity to tap into your default brain network, chess offers many other benefits too, including faster brain connections, reduced anxiety, increased attention span and even strengthened self-confidence.