Welcome to the Pathways to Sleep project. As part of this project, we have identified four components of an individualized strategy for you to achieve successful sleep. We know that this is a big order and that many other people (and many advertisements) are telling you that they can help you achieve successful sleep. Many voices are to be heard because this is a very important domain of health—and for many of us, a good night of sleep is hard to achieve. We can’t personally promise you successful sleep, but we can identify the four components that you need to keep in mind when planning for your own sleep.
Most importantly, we have identified more than 70 pathways to sleep which cluster around these four components. Furthermore, we can provide you with a Pathway to Sleep Inventory (PSI) that not only lists these pathways, but also tells you something about what experts say about each pathway, how your fellow sleepers judge the efficacy of each pathway, and how much each pathway costs and how accessible is it to you. That is quite a bit of information that you will be able to use in making your own decision about the pathways to follow or at least try out (I am inviting you to become your own personal sleep researcher).
You can obtain an updated version of PSI by completing the inventory yourself, providing us with your own assessment regarding the effectiveness of each pathway with which you are acquainted. Your own assessment will be added to the growing body of data being collected from respondents from all corners of our world. Here is the link that will take you to the inventory.
At the end of the inventory we invite you to provide us with your email address. You will be asked to send your email address to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will send you the updated PSI after we have received results from at least 30 other respondents – so that you are receiving a version of PSI that is truly an update. This means that your emailed receipt of the update PSI might be delayed by several weeks We will continue to send you periodic updates unless you indicate when you send us your inventory that you do not want to receive regular updates.
We would suggest that the updated PSI can be of value not only to you personally as you become a more effective manager of your sleep, but also can be value to you (if you are a human service professional) in your work with clients who are faced with the challenge of improving the quality of their own sleep. If you are going to be using the PSI in your own professional work, we ask only that you identify the inventory as a product of the Pathways to Sleep Project. This identification requires only that you retain our heading at the start of PSI and our source identification at the end of the inventory—both of these statements provide copyright projection.
As this project is launched, we provide you with a series of essays that have been published in the Library of Professional Psychology. We suggest that you complete and submit the inventory before reading these essays, so that your own assessment of the sleep pathways are not biased by the assessments already made by others. We want your independent assessment!
The first essay introduces the project and suggests the ways in which high quality sleep benefits our overall health and the reasons why sleep is so exceptionally important in our life. High quality sleep is described with an emphasis being placed on not only the duration of our time spent in bed, but also the amount of sleep disruption that occurs during the night. We make an original contribution to the field of sleep management by identified the sleep bridge that occurs with bi-modal and tri-modal sleep patterns (that are increasingly common as we grow older).
Human beings need sleep. This is fact of which we are all aware. Not all animals need sleep—a surprising fact and a fact that challenges us and forces us to ask a basic question: Why do we have to sleep? Why does evolution give up vigilance and consciousness in favor of a state of unconsciousness and the loss of vigilance when we are asleep? We are vulnerable to attack from other entities, including other people when we area sleep. Why risk the absence of consciousness and vigilance for the sake of sleep? This doesn’t seem to be very adaptive. If some other species don’t need to sleep, then why are humans saddled with the challenges of falling asleep and somehow surviving when asleep?
In this first essay, I provide some preliminary answers, though research on the benefits of sleep for humans is still underway and we are likely to know more in another ten years than we do now. Before focusing on these benefits, I would like to set the stage by describing something about the unique way in which our brain lets us know that sleep offers such important benefits. Our brain, in fact, is willing to short-circuit all other functions of our body to demand that we fall asleep.
There is a paradox embedded in the question being asked in this essay: how do we “manage” sleep? We all know that the more we worry about sleep and try to manage sleep the more likely we are to remain awake. It is often when we are trying to stay awake while watching a movie or attending a symphony orchestra concert that we are likely to nod off. The Gods on Olympus are truly jokers when they set up the wiring circuit for our sleep machine. Forget about the processes that determine sleep readiness, there is the very unfortunate tendency for that #@$&*$%@$ sleep-inducing chemical (adenosine) to demand attention right when the most interesting part of that TV show is about to unfold. And isn’t it profoundly unfortunate that melatonin seems to fill my brain when I am trying to stay awake while listening to a Mahler symphony (or my pompous friend droning on about his trip to some European country).
There are biological, neurological and even psychological explanations for these paradoxical outcomes; however, I want to focus on what you do about these conditions and what these paradoxical outcomes tell us about the best pathways for sleep. While I will be “getting into the weeds” in the four essays that follow this one, I want to preview three important concepts that are played out in more detail in these four essays. The first of these concepts concerns the sleep bridge between the two (or more) segments of sleep that many of us (as we grow older) experience. The second concept centers on the need for us to work at four different levels when setting the stage for high quality sleep: no one “remedy” will work (despite what the TV commercials suggest). Third, when identified our own unique pathways, we need to take into account the views of experts in the field (knowing that their advice might often differ), the actual sleep-related experiences of the “common folk” (people like us), the accessibility of various pathways, and the cost associated with each pathway.
This is probably the most important of the four components. However, all (or most) of the pathways associated with this component have an elusive and often indirect impact on sleep quality. This first component is elusive because most of these pathways involve the whole body and the whole day (and for that matter one’s entire life). Using fancier terms, these pathways tend to be holistic in nature and impact in a systemic manner. Many of these component one pathways are also likely to have an indirect impact on sleep quality. It’s like a billiard table – there are a lot of impacts that bounce off one wall (e.g. the heart) and then off a second wall (e.g. the impact of shifting heart rate on one’s capacity to relax) and finally drop into the intended pocket (quality of sleep).
It gets even more indirect (and complicated) because the impact might be delayed by many hours. For example, our exercise in the morning can influence our ability to fall asleep many hours later. One can rightfully ask: how does all of this work? Why does something I do to my body in the early morning (exercise) somehow influence what happens to my body many hours later (as I am attempting to fall asleep)? I am not going to get into much detail about the physiological mechanisms involved—given that this isn’t a neurophysiology course (and frankly I am no expert on these matters). I will present a few ideas regarding how this delay mechanism works as a way of helping us all some to appreciate the power inherent in many of the pathways associated with component one.
Exercise is the perfect pathway to identify first. Of all the pathways we have identified in this Pathways to Sleep project, this is the one most consistently rated as very important by both experts and users. Furthermore, this pathway can be inexpensive and accessible. Many research projects have been conducted that yield positive results regarding the relationship between exercise and sleep—they are often mentioned together as two of the most important components of health.
This first component one pathway is clearly much more than an easily overlooked trail or side road—it is a freeway leading to sleep. Yet, many of us don’t direct out body and mind to this freeway on-ramp. We don’t take time to exercise every day, even though we find it a real challenge to manage quality sleep. Why don’t we exercise? And why is exercise so important in the facilitation of sleep quality?
Stress-reduction is a no-nonsense pathway. It is specifically intended to help people get and stay healthy—and one of the major areas in which stress-reduction might be most helpful is in helping us fall asleep and stay asleep. Given the proven record of stress-reduction as an effective pathway to sleep, it is not surprising that it receives considerable attention in the literature on sleep quality. Furthermore, it is not surprising that the field of stress-reduction is filled with many diverse practices and strategies. There is an expansive foundation of bio-social-psychological research that supports the various practices now being employed. We will not attempt to survey this literature or identify all of the stress-reduction practices—but will instead focus on stress-reduction and sleep (building on what we have already presented in the previous essay on exercise and sleep).
Mindfulness is one of the most widely promoted pathways to sleep being touted over the past five years. Mindfulness is clearly the “new wave” among sleep pathways. It seems that mindfulness cures every health and mental health problem. Advocates suggest that this practice can be an incredibly powerful tool in the treatment of mental health disorders, and cancer, as well as cardiovascular conditions. It might also be an important strategy, as we shall note shortly, in our efforts to reduce negative stress. . Advocates for mindfulness suggest that this practice plays a vital role in helping us prepare for an evening of sleep (even if practiced in the morning) by creating directed and focused attention on the present experience—which, in turn, yields many of the direct and indirect health and sleep benefits that we identified in the previous essay regarding physical activity.
While research findings regarding the impact of mindfulness on sleep are mixed, it is clear that mindfulness does enhance (at least temporarily) our capacity to be attentive to our internal psychological and physical state. This attentiveness might, in turn, help us better prepare for sleep and adjust our behavior when in bed to maximize physiological conditions for sleep. Some research suggests that mindfulness practices influence neuro-functioning in certain areas of the brain (such as the anterior cingulate cortex, insula and frontal-limbic network that, in turn, influence our capacity to fall asleep and remain asleep – however there is at best a very indirect impact of mindfulness on the neurobiological aspects of sleep). So, what are we left with? Is mindfulness just a contemporary craze that will soon fade away, like Geritol or the XYZ Fast-Action Diet?