A Neuroscientist From The Army Reveals How To Sleep Better

"Nappuccinos" are involved.

A neuroscientist with the U.S. Army shares sleep readiness tips that'll give you more energy the nex...
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Whether you’re a soldier or a civilian, you may have heard the phrase “sleep is for the weak.” It essentially promotes the idea of the grind, aka a lifestyle that involves getting up early, working late into the night, and existing off only a few hours of sleep. This, of course, is a great recipe for burnout. When you’re in the military, burnout isn’t an option; in fact, according to Major Allison Brager, a neuroscientist involved in the U.S. Army’s primary investment in soldier performance, sleeping is one of the foundational elements involved in a soldiers’ overall well-being — and the same is true whether you’re in the army or not.

This is where the notion of sleep readiness comes from. At its essence, sleep readiness is the practice of leveraging quality nighttime sleep to perform at your best the next day, Brager explains. “The term evolved from General Milley's philosophy that the number one priority of the army is readiness,” she tells Bustle. Besides sleep, other forms required of soldiers include physical, mental, and emotional readiness.

In the army, the sleep readiness protocol is most often used when soldiers are in combat situations, Brager explains. They essentially follow a “map to bedtime,” aka a routine that helps them prep for sleep. A lot of the practices are sleep hygiene tips you’ve likely heard of before, like dimming the lights and putting work away hours before bed. Still, prioritizing these habits is key if you’re looking to get a better night’s sleep and be in tip-top shape the following day, whether you’re in the army or need the energy to slay a long to-do list. Read on for everything to know about sleep readiness and how to try it for yourself.

Why Sleep (Readiness) Is So Important

According to Brager, soldiers have historically been expected to thrive on only four hours of sleep a night. But she says this is a common expectation for pretty much everyone: think about hustle culture, strict morning routines, and habits that put sleep on the backburner.

She points to research from places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that’s revealed how a lack of sleep can affect emotional balance and stability. Go without sleep and you might find that you’re jumpy or that you overreact to everyday situations. When you don’t get enough ZZZs, it also becomes more difficult to be as “on” or productive as you’d like to be.

“We have some military data to show that your performance is no better than 50% [when sleep deprived],” Brager says. “We actually found that if the soldier is sleeping six hours a night, [their] ‘combat effectiveness’ is only at 50%. And if they're only getting four hours of sleep a night — which used to be the army minimum standard for sleep — they're only 15% effective.”

Deficient sleep makes it tough to pay attention or attend to minute tasks, too. “There's a lot of mind wandering,” Brager says. It also impacts your ability to learn. “When we're tired, we lose that ability to effectively learn or memorize something to our full capacity.” All the more reason to practice sleep readiness.

How To Practice Sleep Readiness

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While sleep readiness stems from the army, it includes tricks that apply to everyone who wants (and needs) more quality sleep, says Brager. Here’s how to sleep better so that you wake up with more energy and brainpower.

1. Wind Down 60 Minutes Before Bed

Brager suggests starting a relaxation routine about 60 to 90 minutes before you plan to go to bed. This will give your brain enough time to relax so that you’re in the mood to snooze once you slip between the sheets.

2. Put Your Work Down

To wind down, close out of your email and get off social media, Brager says. The goal is to avoid anything stimulating so that your brain can slow down and prep for sleep.

3. Turn Off Technology

It’s beneficial to steer clear of your phone, laptop, and TV in the evening, too — basically anything with a screen. “The blue light emitted from technology actually interferes with the release of melatonin, which is the hormone that helps you fall asleep and stay asleep,” Brager says. Instead, read a book, listen to relaxing music, do a few yoga poses — and give your eyes a break.

4. Dim The Lights

To help your brain release melatonin, try dimming the lights or hanging out in a darker room during those 60 minutes before bed. “If you go in a room with dim light [it will] increase the internal release of melatonin,” Brager says. “This is a strategy that's applied whether you're a healthy sleeper or if you have a sleep disorder, such as insomnia.” These techniques are even common protocol in cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, Brager adds.

5. Take A Nap — Or A “Nappuccino”

If you don’t get enough sleep, you should feel free to catch some midday shut-eye. This is where a “nappuccino” might come in handy. To do it, Brager suggests drinking a coffee before lying down for a 20-minute nap. “It takes about 20 minutes for coffee to act on your brain, so by the time you wake up from your nap, you're refreshed,” she says. “That's something where we've really been able to change army culture and military culture — about giving soldiers time for what we call ‘tactical napping time.’” And who wouldn’t be down for an afternoon espresso-and-nap break?

Studies referenced:

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Alger SE, Brager AJ, Balkin TJ, Capaldi VF, Simonelli G. Effect of cognitive load and emotional valence of distractors on performance during sleep extension and subsequent sleep deprivation. Sleep. 2020 Aug 12;43(8):zsaa013. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa013. PMID: 32016401.

Good CH, Brager AJ, Capaldi VF, Mysliwiec V. Sleep in the United States Military. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2020 Jan;45(1):176-191. doi: 10.1038/s41386-019-0431-7. Epub 2019 Jun 11. PMID: 31185484; PMCID: PMC6879759.

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Skeiky L, Brager AJ, Satterfield BC, Petrovick M, Balkin TJ, Capaldi VF, Ratcliffe RH, Van Dongen HPA, Hansen DA. TNFα G308A genotype, resilience to sleep deprivation, and the effect of caffeine on psychomotor vigilance performance in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study. Chronobiol Int. 2020 Sep-Oct;37(9-10):1461-1464. doi: 10.1080/07420528.2020.1821044. Epub 2020 Sep 16. PMID: 32933332.

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