*Note from Sarah: Dr. Parsley is back with his 3rd blog in his series on sleep! Don’t forget, just through the end of August you can receive 10% off ALL orders on Doc’s amazing sleep supplement – just use coupon code “sarah fragoso” at checkout. Also, please ask us any questions you might have about sleep or the sleep supplement in comments below. Enjoy!
Sleep, Mood, and Willpower
I cannot count the number of times a flummoxed client of mine has said: “I just don’t have any willpower”. It must be one of the most common self-denigrations out there. Maybe you’ve heard somebody say this? Maybe somebody you know very, very, well?;-)
The truth is, that willpower has almost nothing to do with changing behavior, and this is the context I usually hear the phrase above mentioned in. The truth is that changing behavior is more about the environment, social constructs, community, and personal beliefs than willpower. Furthermore, when we discuss behaviors that we’d like to change, we are often times talking about habits—which, by definition, are sub-conscious. You cannot possibly exercise willpower on a thought that has yet to hit your conscious mind! In order to do that you would have to change the course of a behavior, before the behavior happened. That would be like steering your car before you drove it.
The way to change habits is to replace them. Leaving a void has proven nearly impossible. If you want to quit smoking, you’ll need to replace that behavior (chewing gum, twirling your hair, chewing a toothpick etc.). But, we are getting slightly off topic. If you want to learn more about changing habits, I highly recommend the book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. Let’s get back to willpower. Kelly McGonigal (Author of: The Willpower Instinct, and The Up Side of Stress) defines it as, “the ability to do what you really want to do, when part of you really doesn’t want to do it”. Robert Salpolsky (“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, Stanford researcher) defines it as “the ability to do the harder thing”.
I respectfully disagree with both of them (slightly). If you are craving pizza, you “want” pizza. You also “want” to lose weight, decrease inflammation, improve performance etc. So, Kelly’s definition gets a little murky. As to Robert’s: what happens when the harder thing is NOT the best action to take? What if you have been over training, or you’re just slightly under the weather, but you decide to go to the gym and crush your old PR anyway? Doing the workout is definitely the harder thing to do, but you’d be better off having a good meal, a glass of wine and resting for the day. So Robert’s definition doesn’t always work either.
I define willpower as; “a physiologic state that allows the conscious brain to observe and override innate or learned desires”. In other words: will power starts with recognizing the desire that you are trying to attain by doing some behavior (this is where mindfulness, arousal control, and stress mitigation come in to willpower). This first step is CRITICAL. Afterward, you can apply all sorts of techniques to help modulate your behavior. For those science aficionados, this behavior override system is located in our pre-frontal cortex. This part of our brains (behind our foreheads, above our eyes) is often referred to as the executive function region of our brain. Executive function is pretty much what it sounds like; planning, scheduling, deciding between options, biting your tongue, etc.
So, why is the sleep guy talking so much about willpower, and behavior change?
Well, if you’ve ever had the unfortunate task of teaching somebody that has ADHD, or if you have ADHD, you’ll probably recognize that “executive function” is the main problem. We all know that the diagnosis of ADHD and ADD (in school age children) is on the rise. Coincidentally, we also know that our school age children are becoming more and more sleep deprived (due to earlier onset of puberty, and early school start times). Can anybody guess what area of the brain is most effected by sleep deprivation? Anyone? YES!!! You guessed it, the pre-frontal cortex. This is one reason why Sarah and I harp on our clients to improve their sleep FIRST.
If you don’t believe me, Google; “behavioral effects of sleep deprivation” and “symptoms of ADHD”, the results of each search will be uncannily similar. I do not believe that anyone, who is chronically sleep deprived, should be diagnosed with ADD—but that’s another topic.
Having a fatigued, tired, sleep-deprived pre-frontal cortex all negatively impacts attention, emotional responses, behavior and judgment. Please read my first blog on Sarah’s site if you don’t understand why this is true. Furthermore, when we don’t sleep well, our brains are not able to flush out the neurotoxins in our brain, and are limited in their ability to replenish neurotransmitters (little brain hormones that control how your brain works).
A notorious neurotransmitter is serotonin. When a psychiatrist treats a depressed patient, the drugs he/she prescribes most often raise serotonin levels. Thus, serotonin is thought to be associated with depression. Serotonin is a wake-promoting neurotransmitter, and therefore people with low serotonin levels tend to be fatigued or lethargic. But, there is a simpler, and more sustainable way to improve your serotonin levels: sleep! Get both a good quality, and quantity of sleep.
Sleep also balances other neurotransmitters such as; Dopamine (the love and desire NT), Oxytocin (the cuddle and kindness NT), Norepinephrine (the repairing and energizing NT), Acetylcholine (the alertness NT), and on and on and on.
So, if you want to improve your mood, your temper, your fitness, your executive function, or change a behavior, you have to start with attention to those areas. Attention is greatly compromised when your brain is tired—no matter how much you beat yourself up, you cannot will yourself to be more attentive. You have to sleep. A well-rested brain is your best tool for any challenge or goal. A sleep-deprived brain is equal to a drunken brain. Would you trust a drunk person to make critical decisions? If you are chronically sleep deprived, you are trusting the drunk “you” to do so—daily.
Of course mindfulness plays a part too, but again—that starts with attention. Nutrition is important also—for many reasons, and so is exercise. However, no amount of nutrition and exercise will fully compensate for lost sleep. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, learn more on my website. I also invite you to try our sleep supplement—if you simply cannot sleep well or cannot control your sleep schedule, or to ensure that you are getting the best possible sleep quality. Right now you can receive 10% off all orders through the end of August by using coupon code “sarah fragoso” at check out!
If you have a question about this blog, the supplement, or any other sleep information, please send me a tweet @docparsley or email me at one of the sites above or simply leave a comment on this blog!