by Dr. James M. Ballard
Ever figuratively try to fall asleep, but literally not be able to do so? Talk about frustrating. Lying in bed with eyes open, mind racing, and hope for an energetic next day fading with each passing second. In 2019, according to a Philips Global Sleep survey, this was the sad but often quiet plight of 62% of adults around the world, who said they didn’t sleep as well as they’d liked. Dr. Teofilo Lee-Chiong, M.D., Chief Medical Liaison, Sleep and Respiratory Care at Philips, stated that “Around the world, people recognize they are not sleeping enough, and for some the pandemic has negatively impacted their sleep.” In fact, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 45% of global consumers reported that the time they spend fully asleep has decreased, and they’ve identified stress as the #1 barrier to getting a good night’s sleep.
Real talk, not getting good sleep sucks. The question is: Why can’t we sleep?
Our minds tend to catalogue negative experiences more readily than positive experiences, and we dwell on them. When we visit and revisit an issue and attempt to problem-solve, our aroused minds keep our bodies awake. Psychiatrist Dr. Al Griskaitis, and Clinical Psychologist Jess O’Garr, describe the interplay of our sleep drive and arousal as follows: when our sleep drive is greater than our arousal we sleep, and when our arousal is greater than our sleep drive, we remain awake. According to Dr. O’Garr, in order to sleep well, we need to be minimally aroused, and thus our heads need to be as empty as possible when we’re getting into bed. A clear head helps us sleep.
The challenge is how we get our minds to stop sorting through decisions we made earlier in the day about which we have not completely made peace or about upcoming responsibilities. How we reduce our tendency to revisit personal or professional business we feel is unfinished and needs to be addressed. All of these thoughts can become our focus, increase our arousal, and decrease our potential for sleep.
Dr. Griskaitis and Dr. O’Garr both suggest that de-arousal must begin way before we go to bed and they offer specific exercises we can perform to clear our minds in preparation for sleep:
• Sit comfortably and write about the problems flowing through our minds
• State the core problem concisely – write it out clearly
• Consider whether or not the ‘problem’ is solvable or unsolvable
• Decide on a next action
• Schedule the next action
Interestingly, not only does having a clear head help with sleep, but sleep also helps us clear our heads. In 2019, Neuroscientist Dr. Laura Lewis of Boston University and her team of researchers, found the slow waves or the slow electrical oscillations that characterize non-Rapid Eye Movement (non-REM) sleep contribute to memory consolidation and drive oscillations in blood flow and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) in the brain. This is significant because CSF is thought to flush toxic metabolic waste products from our brains. Dr. Lewis’ research found that during sleep, CSF appears to synchronize with brainwaves, which likely helps remove brain waste in the form of potentially toxic proteins that may otherwise form buildups. These buildups, when they occur, can impair the flow of information between neurons. Amazingly, these findings reportedly may offer perspective regarding conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, given that with Alzheimer’s disease, toxic protein plaques play a key role in memory loss and other cognitive impairments.
Sleep is essential for both cognition and the maintenance of healthy brain functioning. The quality and duration of sleep can worsen a wide array of conditions, such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and hypertension. While getting enough sleep helps you lower stress, decrease inflammation, and lose weight. Having a ‘clear head’– because of its impact on sleep – is far more critical to our overall health than many imagined.
Best of all, we can proactively act to improve our sleep. We need not be conditioned to think our sleep must remain poor or inadequate. We can reclaim good sleep habits and patterns, and while doing so responsibly bolster our wellbeing.
Lewis, L.D., Polimeni, J.R., Rosen, Stickgold, R.A., Setsompop, K., Bonmassar, G., & Fultz, N.E. (2019). Coupled electrophysiological hemodynamic, and cerebrospinal fluid oscillations in human sleep. Science. Vol 366, Issue 6465, pp. 628-631. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax5440
O’Garr, J. & Griskaitis, A. (2020). The secret to sleep: Clear your head before bed. Deal with the thoughts to resolve insomnia. [Video file]. The PSYCH Collective. Retrieved from
Philips North America Corporation. (2021). Seeking Solutions: How COVID-19 Changed Sleep Around the World. Philips Global Sleep Survey.