How to Get More Efficient Sleep with Dr. Allison Brager

Sleep is on our minds and we wanted answers to all of our burning questions about getting a restful night’s sleep. We sat down with US Army Neuroscientist and US Army Warrior Fit athlete Dr. Allison Brager to learn more about sleep and how to get more efficient with our sleep game. Here’s what she had to say.

What is the most common sleep challenge?

The most common sleep challenge is developing a consistent, sleep-promoting routine. Sleep is directly tied to our behavior and actions. If we prepare our brains for sleep (winding down/putting away phones/not watching Netflix, etc.) at least an hour before bedtime, we put ourselves in the best position possible to enter the deepest & most restorative stages of sleep. It takes commitment & discipline but the benefits of restorative sleep on next-day performance is worth every bit of the sacrifice.

What are some vitamins/herbs/supplements that can support sleep?

Herbal remedies/supplements for sleep have been around for centuries. The ancient Chinese have been reported to use valerian root. A recent supplement promoting restorative sleep of interest is magnesium due to its mediation in how the central nervous system communicates. Tart cherry root (a natural source of melatonin) has also been shown to promote sleep in one clinical study. More research needs to be done on the benefits of select herbs/supplements on actual sleep processes but there are challenges due to the fact that the supplement industry is not regulated by the FDA. However, we shall prevail and it is industry leaders like LIFEAID who can implement a change in bureaucracy. 

Why is your circadian rhythm so important? 

The circadian rhythm is literally everything. The master circadian clock in the brain has input and output from virtually every tissue in the body. There is a self-sustaining circadian clock in every tissue of the body. When I was a fellow, I discovered one of these clocks in the skeletal muscle and how it regulates sleep (Ehlen, Brager et al. 2017). Because of these unique biological pathways, this is why adhering to a strict sleep routine, training, and even eating schedule are so incredibly important. A change in routine can rapidly shift the clock and how we sleep & perform.

What’s the difference between REM and Non-REM Sleep?

NREM sleep is for physical recovery & REM sleep for cognitive recovery, but both are equally as important and make up what is known as deep & restorative sleep. We cycle through NREM-REM in 90 min cycles across the night. The 90 min cycle is more saturated with NREM sleep in the first half of the night and more REM sleep in the second half of night. This distribution is actually tied to the circadian rhythm of core body temperature. 

What is the best sleep environment? 

The best sleep environment is dark (pitch black!), cool (< 68 degrees F), and noise free (with the exception of a white noise machine which research supports to help coax the brain into sleep). It’s that simple. This one percent change goes a long way. 

Is there such thing as too much sleep?

From the perspective of someone who is in a career field known for massive sleep deprivation/sleep debt (i.e., first responder & military), no. Sleep banking prior to bouts of sleep deprivation can actually help stabilize performance during bouts of sleep deprivation. For the average person though, too much sleep can be a sign of an underlying health condition. But the important point here is that we never ever want to be in any situation where we are accumulating sleep debt.

Can daytime naps affect sleep?

Napping is a wonderful thing. Napping can help to repay sleep debt. Napping can also lead to an immediate benefit/boost in cognitive & athletic performance. Nap timing and amount matters. Keeping a nap < 30 min in the afternoon ensures that it will not disrupt sleep at night. 

Is it better to sleep on your back, stomach or side?

Sleeping position absolutely matters. Sleeping in the fetal position is absolutely best. Sleeping on one’s back can make one more prone to sleep apnea-like episodes (due to relaxing of the tongue/throat muscles) and sleeping on one’s stomach requires more effort to breath (due to dead weight). There are now forming pillows (i.e., Rooster Recovery) available to ensure one sleeps on their side.

How does food affect your sleep quality?

This is challenging for athletes but one should avoid food high on the glycemic index prior to bed (e.g., bananas, candy). A higher glycemic index can spike blood glucose preventing one from entering the deepest stages of restorative sleep.

When should you workout for the best night’s sleep?

Exercise elevates core body temperature. Lower core body temperatures lead to hitting the deepest & more restorative stages of sleep. As such, aim to finish working out 2 -3 hours before bedtime to allow core body temperature to return to baseline. This of course applies to high-intensity exercise. Taking a walking or moderate exercise (< 40% rate of perceived full exertion) to relax & wind before bed won’t have the same impact.

Why do we dream?

Dreaming is part of REM sleep. It happens due to high activation of the visual cortex & hippocampus (center of memories) among other brain areas. REM sleep can be best described as an awake brain in a paralyzed body. REM sleep helps to consolidate learned information for future recall. 

Why can we remember some of our dreams and forget others?

This largely has to do with where one wakes up in the sleep cycle. The 90 min sleep cycle goes from NREM-REM-wake (very briefly). One is more likely to remember their dream if they wake up (and stay awake for a brief time) after fully completing a NREM-REM sleep cycle. This is why we tend to remember our last dream before we fully wake up in the morning. 

Why do we sleep talk/walk?

Sleep talking and walking happen during NREM sleep not REM sleep. It is a myth that it happens during REM sleep. Basically, the brain gets a mixed signal to “move” when it shouldn’t and that is why people who sleep talk & walk engage in automatic behaviors like talking & walking. Sleep talking & walking are not healthy and a sign for sleep deprivation or something more clinically concerning.

What do different sleep positions say about you?

Hahah, I’m not sure but the fetal position is best! And also, being the big spoon and/or little spoon may release other “feel good” chemicals of love & attachment like oxytocin and vasopressin.

What questions do YOU have about sleep? Let us know in the comments!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *