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June 2015

What is sleep?; Sleep hygiene; Todd talks


Remember the 1970’s and 1980’s TV series MASH. I’ve always appreciated Alan Alda for making me laugh. However I have come to appreciate Alda even more but for the different contribution he has made today – with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, New York. When he started the Flame Challenge, the goal was for scientists to communicate, succinctly and effectively, to explain science to an 11-year-old.

The 2015 challenge focused on something we all do everyday, for every day of our life. You might think that would mean we’d be both familiar and knowledgeable about something we do everyday. But for most of us, that’s not true. I’m talking about sleep.

It was illuminating to read the top-ranked written answer by Brandon Aldinger, Ph.D and watch the top-ranked video explanation by Eric C. Galicia. These were the winning entries in the 2015 Flame Challenge question: “What is Sleep?”

You can listen to their interviews in the June 5, 2015 edition of Science Friday


Note these tidbits about sleep and dreams written for 11 year olds and the 11 year old in all of us.

Here are excerpts from the winners’ succinct, creative and informative explanations about sleep. Entries were judged by more than 20,000 11 year-olds in schools around the world. Firstly from Brandon Aldinger’s written entry:

  • “If you don’t sleep, you’ll die! Like us, almost all animals need to sleep-everything from fish, to horses, to birds. Even butterflies and worms sleep!”

First Function of Sleep

  • “Our body takes care of two big things while we’re sleeping. First, our brain organizes what it learned while we were awake. Your brain is made up of billions of cells called neurons. These neurons are connected in a huge network.”
  • “While we sleep, our brain strengthens and rearranges these connections to help us remember things more quickly and easily when we are awake.

Second Function of Sleep

  • “The second thing that happens during sleep is our body heals itself. Sleep is a little bit like a superpower.” 
  • “If you want to get over a cold quickly, make sure you sleep a lot. You might also have noticed that adults in your home don’t sleep as much as you do. That’s because your body needs more sleep to manage the stuff that happens while your body and brain are still growing.” 


  • “But what about dreams? Well, as your brain is calming down from being awake, parts of it shoot out random signals, like a TV station with too much static.”
  • “Another part of your brain does its best to make sense of these signals, but the story it puts together can be pretty weird!”


Enjoy the video winner’s short film about sleep and dreams. But here are some excerpts before you see the video.

Eric C. Galicia is a candidate in the Master of Health Physics program at Illinois Institute of Technology. He produced the top-ranked video explanation about sleep, and he did that in just under five minutes. To watch it, click on this link and scroll down the page a bit:
  • “Your brain categorizes things that you learn during the day and generates a lot of cellular waste while doing it. One kind of waste is Amyloid beta, a gummy plaque of brain.”
  • “Cerebral spinal fluid cleans the brain. This fluid is essential and helps the brain re-learn the lessons it learned during the day.”
  • “When you sleep, your body and mind are hard at work replenishing crucial brain functions.”
  • We spend 36% of our life sleeping.

Good sleep

  • With good sleep, we remember lessons from the day before.
  • Good sleep is when the brain cleans itself – get increased concentration, creativity, decreased stress and moodiness.

Bad sleep

  • “When you don’t get enough sleep, it’s hard to remember things; or you can become moody.” Risks for Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and other emotional disorders.
  • Poor memory, judgment, increased stress and impulsivity with not good sleep.


We still don’t understand a lot about dreaming:

  • Dreams are important and contribute to creativity and learning.
  • A part of the brain is dedicated to incapacitating the body while dreaming. It releases serotonin, which inhibits your muscles from moving when intensely dreaming. This disarms movement when dreaming and stops physical movement.  (My comment: This explains to me how I can never run fast enough or fight back and defend myself when having that bad dream.)


Sleep hygiene has been defined in different ways. Here are elements of those definitions along with points about the importance of sleep hygiene:

  • “habits and practices that are conducive to sleeping well on a regular basis.” “sleep hygiene is the key to sweet dreams(Google sleep hygiene)
  • “a variety of different practices that are necessary to have normal, quality nighttime sleep and full daytime alertness.”
  • “The promotion of regular sleep” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC. 
  • Sleep hygiene is important for everyone, from childhood through adulthood. A good sleep hygiene routine promotes healthy sleep and daytime alertness.
  • Good sleep hygiene practices can prevent the development of sleep problems and disorders.
  • Sleep disturbances and daytime sleepiness are the most telling signs of poor sleep hygiene.
  • If one is experiencing a sleep problem, he or she should evaluate their sleep routine. It may take some time for the changes to have a positive effect. (Michael Thorpy, MD.)


How do you measure up with these good sleep hygiene tips?

I merged and rearranged into categories the following tips which are excerpts from The National Sleep Foundation

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and

American Sleep Association (ASA)

A. Regular wake and sleep pattern

  • Maintain a regular wake and sleep pattern; go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning. Ideally, your schedule will remain the same (+/- 20 minutes) every night of the week.
  • Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine. Have a comfortable pre-bedtime routine: a warm bath, shower, meditation, or quiet time.
  • Spend an appropriate amount of time in bed, not too little, or too excessive. This may vary by individual; for example, if someone has a problem with daytime sleepiness, they should spend a minimum of eight hours in bed. If they have difficulty sleeping at night, they should limit themselves to 7 hours in bed in order to keep the sleep pattern consolidated.
  • Avoid napping during the day. It can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness and naps decrease the ‘Sleep Debt’ so necessary for easy sleep onset. Each of us needs a certain amount of sleep per 24-hour period. We need that amount, and we don’t need more than that. When we take naps, it decreases the amount of sleep we need the next night – which may cause sleep fragmentation and difficulty initiating sleep, and may lead to insomnia.
  • Try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before trying to go to sleep. Don’t dwell on, or bring your problems to bed.
  • Don’t stay in bed awake for more than 5-10 minutes. If you find your mind racing, or worrying about not being able to sleep during the middle of the night, get out of bed, and sit in a chair in the dark. Do your mind-racing in the chair until you are sleepy, then return to bed. No TV or internet during these periods! That will just stimulate you more than desired.
  • If this happens several times during the night, that is OK. Just maintain your regular wake time, and try to avoid naps.
  • If you’re taking too long to fall asleep, or awakening during the night, you should consider revising your bedtime habits. Most important for everyone is to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule throughout the week and consider how much time you spend in bed, which could be too much or too little.

B. Food, caffeine, nicotine and alcohol

  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. The effects of caffeine may last for several hours after ingestion. Caffeine can fragment sleep, and cause difficulty initiating sleep. If you drink caffeine, use it only before noon. Remember soda and tea contain caffeine as well.
  • While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep. Stay away from large meals close to bedtime.
  • Dietary changes can cause sleep problems. If struggling with a sleep problem, it’s not a good time to start experimenting with spicy dishes. And, remember, chocolate has caffeine. 

C. Exercise

  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be done in the morning or late afternoon.
  • A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep.
  • Exercise regularly as exercise promotes continuous sleep. Avoid rigorous exercise before bedtime. Rigorous exercise circulates endorphins into the body, which may make initiating sleep difficult. 

D. Sleeping and Bedroom Environment

  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable and associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio or music, or read. Remove all TVs, computers, and other “gadgets” from the bedroom. When you watch TV or read in bed, you associate the bed with wakefulness. The bed is reserved for two things – sleep and hanky panky.
  • Have a quiet, comfortable bedroom with a sleep environment which is pleasant and relaxing. The room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright. Set your bedroom thermostat at a comfortable temperature. Generally, a little cooler is better than a little warmer.
  • Turn off the TV and other extraneous noise that may disrupt sleep. Background ‘white noise’ like a fan is OK.
  • If your pets awaken you, keep them outside the bedroom.
  • If you are a ‘clock watcher’ at night, hide the clock.


Consider your digital devices and their effect on your sleep

In its “Sleepless in America” special series, NBC Nightly News of June 24 reported, “The CDC has called lack of sleep a public health epidemic, and most sleep experts say all our digital devices we’re taking into the bedroom are taking a toll on getting a good night’s rest.”

  • NBC News correspondent Hallie Jackson explained: “Experts say it’s no coincidence 95 percent of us look at some kind of screen within an hour of bedtime and 85 percent have trouble falling asleep.”
  • Blue light emitted from “screens send[s] a signal it’s still daylight, triggering a surge of energy and blocking the melatonin that makes us sleepy.” Therefore, it’s “no wonder then that with the device on nearly every nightstand, one in three people sleeps less than six hours a day, raising the risk for diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression.” (American Psychiatric Association Headlines, June 25, 2015)


What you can do to boost your chances of getting a good night’s rest
  • “Create a charging station in another room to power your devices overnight. Don’t keep them on the bedside table.”
  • “Buy a real alarm clock – don’t use your phone. “It’s better to have an alarm clock that is not interrupting your sleep in the middle of the night,” said Czeisler, “than to have a [phone-based] alarm clock that is waking you up at all hours.”
  • “Turn off all your screens – televisions, phones, computers – an hour before bed. Read from a printed book instead of a tablet, for example.”
  • “If that’s not realistic for you, try an app that flips your screen’s background. Instead of black letters on a white background (like you’re reading right now), it will show white letters on a black background, helping to cut down on how much light is emitted.”

For your children:

“Start good habits early, especially with your kids. A startling 75 percent of children have at least one electronic device in the bedroom when they sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Create a bedtime routine for that does not involve electronics.”


One of the most gratifying joys of working to attract people into recovery is when they come back and thank you for helping them change their lives. That’s what happened this week as I had lunch with Todd (not his real name). Todd had come back to thank his counselor and care coordinator and tell his story.

Todd is 25. About 14 months ago he was doing $1,500 worth of drugs a day supported by drug dealing and “selling my girlfriend for sex”. When he presented for treatment, he was homeless, penniless and was done with drugs. It was addiction treatment, supportive living in a halfway house and Todd’s daily commitment and active participation in Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous (NA & AA) meetings which brought him a new start to life. With over a year of recovery, he is now:

  • Working full time, supporting himself in legal work and paying off all his court debts and obligations.
  • Living in a stable environment; and trusted to baby-sit an 8 and 11 year old while their mother works the night shift.
  • Taking addiction seriously. He has quit not only alcohol and heroin, but also nicotine and caffeine (two drugs many addiction programs are still very ambivalent about).

If you’ve ever been to an AA or NA meeting, you’ll notice it can be a great training environment – for public speaking, humorous and pithy nuggets of wisdom, and inspiring, motivational encouragement for newcomers and long time attendees alike.

Todd, at such a young age and relatively early in his recovery, demonstrated the impact of that “training,” projecting his passion for recovery, which is what AA and NA is all about. As he told his story, Todd shared some nuggets of wisdom I’ll share with you:

  • You can’t be No. 1 unless you are odd,” he said. I was impressed with how ready he was to break away from negative peer influences, quit nicotine and caffeine – “odd” for someone so young in age and recovery.
  • Go early and you’ll never be late” was something his Dad taught him. This spoke to Todd’s level of responsibility and accountability.
  • We live in a world where we’re always noticing the bad things. Keep looking at the peaks instead of dwelling on the valleys.” He joked about whether you ever hear the police thanking you for going nicely through a green light. They only notice when you go through a red light. We all do the same thing and dwell on the bad things in the valleys of life.
  • You need to struggle to succeed.” It was reassuring to me that Todd was not “pink-clouding” thinking recovery was easy, even though he was so positive and made it look easy.
  • Using drugs is not a family event.” When Todd said this, he was not saying addiction doesn’t affect families. In fact, he now has a growing positive relationship with his mother and brother. He is also resolving the death of his father from addiction. The idea he was expressing is that drugs isolate you and he is recovering from the alienation his addiction caused.

What an inspiration Todd was to us! He reinvigorated and re-motivated us to keep attracting people into recovery. Nobody fell asleep listening to this young and grateful man.

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