Feel like a phone that’s running on ten percent charge? University of California Psychology professor Sara Mednick is an authority on how to replenish our energy stores.
Mednick is a sleep researcher who’s become engrossed with all the ways, in addition to sleep, that the human organism can restore itself.
She argues that we have built-in recovery systems we can tap into to repair our most vital functions at cellular level. She calls this our Downstate and outlines how to access these recovery systems in her recent book The Power of the Downstate.
Doing this takes the pressure off our heart, brain and metabolism, repairs inflamed tissue, and gives us time to process our memories, emotions and thoughts. It’s as though we can plug ourselves into our own power back-up.
The Downstate, Mednick says, is critical to our resilience — i.e. our capacity to deal with life and all it throws our way — along with our health, well-being, and longevity.
Perhaps now more than ever though, modern life is out of step with the concept of a Downstate. The world is in go-go-go mode 24/7. There are always things to do, phones to check, and caffeine to keep us going.
This means we can feel guilty, lazy or as though we’re missing out if we don’t play that game.
Mednick believes that the lack of time spent recuperating is a big factor underlying the mounting mental and physical health problems we’re seeing.
She points out that rest and rejuvenation are vital aspects of Nature, which works on cycles that balance activity with recovery. So not engaging in rest and recovery goes against the natural order and the way all living things are designed to function.
While much of her program for switching on our restorative processes might sound like something we’ve heard before, it’s one thing to be aware of an idea and another thing entirely to embrace it and embed it into our daily lives. What’s important is the embracing and embedding.
So here are six important ways to activate our Downstate.
Sleep and napping
Given her work around sleep it’s no surprise that Mednick is a passionate advocate.
Life inflicts wear and tear on us which sleep heals, she says. It also removes waste, so a good sleep is like emptying the rubbish bins overnight.
It follows that a lack of quality sleep increases our risk of degenerative conditions such as high blood pressure or metabolic disorders. The toxins which form the plaque we see in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s don’t get taken away.
An aspect of sleep that might’ve largely disappeared in our culture is napping. In pre-Industrial times, and in many traditional cultures, it’s normal to have a daily nap, or at least to have a rest in the middle of the day. Mednick argues that we’re not designed to go all day.
Naps, she says, increase our alertness and immunity, and ensure that when we go back to the daily grind we’ll be in a healthier place.
A post-lunch nap of 20-90 minutes (a longer time allows for deeper sleep process to occur) can top up our tank and reverse fatigue in a way that caffeine can’t.
To sleep well she advises being in bed by 10pm, wearing an eye mask or ear plugs if light or sound is a problem, and if we’re disturbed by a partner tossing around, investing in separate mattresses and bedding.
This means a rate of six breaths a minute — five seconds in and five seconds out — ten seconds per breath.
We can do it almost anytime: while we’re watching TV, making a meal, standing in a queue, walking down the street, driving, or before sleep.
If meditation has always seemed like a good idea but you haven’t quite gotten there, Mednick says this has the same effect.
There’s recently been publicity around the idea of nasal breathing which involves inhaling and exhaling through our nose rather than our mouth. She endorses this as the way to do slow breathing because it’s calming, whereas the body interprets mouth breathing as stressful, like gasping or panting.
Exercisers sleep better, and exercise boosts slow-wave sleep, the state we need for our body’s growth and repair functions to kick in. This state should be called the Fountain of Youth for its regenerative powers, says Mednick.
The brains of older people who exercise show more communication between parts of the brain which allows for more flexible thinking. There’s also a link between muscle strength and cognitive decline.
While she’s enthusiastic about vigorous activity, the exercise umbrella is broad and includes slower activities such as yoga and tai chi. Any activity that entails mindful breathing will, as we’ve seen already, help induce the Downstate.
All of which is a good reason to make sure we’re going as close as we can to the national recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise a week.
Mednick endorses a diet of fresh, whole foods, avoiding ultra-processed products, eating at consistent times, and the various versions of intermittent fasting that limit eating to a twelve-, ten- or eight-hour window. There’s also the 5:2 plan which involves eating less on two days of the week.
These give our metabolism a rest, and even if you don’t adopt any of them, it’s at least wise to avoid eating between meals or late at night. If you’re an all-day grazer or a post-dinner muncher, look at how you can turn that around.
She supports the idea of a bigger breakfast and lunch and a smaller dinner. This provides sustained energy throughout the day, but it also helps with our weight and sleep because we’re not loading up on food at night and going to bed with a full stomach.
Mother Nature is a restoration powerhouse, and we can access her magic as easily as getting out in the garden or going for a walk in the park with a canine or human friend.
Close contact with another being is grounding and nourishing, be it through hugs and cuddles, hand holding, sex, or time with our pets.
As commonsense as these might occur, few of us fully access our natural recharge systems. Often, we look for a short cut through alcohol.
Mednick warns that it’s folly to do that in place of accessing the Downstate. She’s not saying anyone needs to give up alcohol completely, but she asks whether we’d need to rely on it to relax if we were accessing our regenerative capacity.
So, ready for a top up? Go outside and sit in the sun, talk to a friend, do some slow breathing, go for a walk, prepare a healthy meal or grab some shut-eye.
Photo Source: Bigstock