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Six unique tips to try the next time you find yourself staring at the ceiling
I’ve seen them on the Dubai Metro, or in a waiting room at a clinic. It seems like they have a special skill that allows them to curl up on hard plastic chairs and be sound asleep even under bright lights. Their mouth remains open and head, tilted slightly backwards, as people come and go, babies cry and scream. I have great respect for people who can forget their surroundings and fall asleep.
It’s a superhuman ability that I don’t possess. Far from it, I need all my human weaknesses to lull me to sleep. The white noise of a fan, a cool soft breeze on my face or the warmth of herbal tea, the minty taste of toothpaste after brushing my teeth, right before I go to bed. Most of all, I need a routine that allows me to let the stress go and fall asleep.
Of late, when I have been trying to fall asleep, the recent loss of my childhood friend has rendered my strongest cup of chamomile useless. As I go on the hunt for the best ways to get a good night’s sleep I stumbled upon some unusual methods like taking a cold shower before bedtime, that some expats in the UAE say is actually not a bad idea.
Faheed Khan is a Pakistani expat and driving assessor, who lives in international city, Dubai, and he has been taking cool showers right before bedtime for the past three years.
“I used to find it difficult to get sound sleep. I would spend hours looking at the roof or just browsing through my phone. During one summer, I just decided to take a cold shower before going to bed, to feel fresh. The cold water calmed my mind and distracted my thoughts that were keeping me up. This shower helped me feel more alert and I started reading motivational books with a lot of focus. After an hour I just fell asleep. Now, I do this daily. Taking a cold shower puts me in a good mood and I can easily relax after that.”
I used to think that being a workaholic would most certainly lead to deep exhausted sleep, before I met Mohammed Yasir, a 34-year-old Indian expat based in Dubai, who works for an advertising agency.
“Sometimes, I feel very tired, but I still can’t sleep. That’s when I take cold showers even if I come home late from work. I don’t force myself to sleep. I get a lot of ideas when I’m in the shower. It recharges me and I am able to complete some pending tasks with more creativity. This helps me go to bed with a sense of accomplishment. I get sound sleep after that.”
On a similar note, Shakeel Ahmed, a Pakistani expat based in Sharjah, who is a fitness enthusiast, says that he has never had any trouble falling asleep and he believes that cold showers help him too.
“I used to have many thoughts before going to bed and I would feel restless. Now, I come back from work and go for a run, between 8 and 10pm. I don’t feel tired. I take a cold shower and within minutes I just fall asleep. I like the fresh, clean feeling before going to sleep.”
Does this mean cold showers and going for a run can help? Neuroscience says yes
According to Dr Mona Chetan Thakre, a consultant neurologist at Al Zahra Hospital Dubai, sleep is a time for rest when the brain and other organs begin to focus on the most vital functions.
“Yes, it is true that cold showers, cool temperature, moving around or exercise does help in falling asleep. Some people find it hard to fall asleep because their mind does not switch off. Anxiety, stress or the same thoughts coming back and forth prevents people from relaxing. This leads to difficulty in falling asleep. When the brain does not switch off and you are not sleeping, it will cause severe exhaustion or headaches in the morning.”
Each person goes through four to five sleep cycles and then they enter deep sleep, Thakre explains.
“As you enter this state of deep sleep, your heart rate drops and your breathing slows down. Sleep is a time when the brain regenerates neurotransmitters, a kind of chemical in the brain that is important for the healthy functioning of the brain.
“These neurotransmitters have been in use during the day. Deep sleep recharges these chemicals and the body. When you don’t sleep at night, your brain keeps using the neurotransmitters even at night. So, in daytime you feel slow and lethargic. You will find it difficult to concentrate and you will experience brain fog.
“As you start to fall asleep, your brainwaves start to slow down and you will notice that you don’t have an appetite or that you are not thirsty. Your mind enters into the sleep wave cycle which means you go through different types of sleeps. The first cycle happens in the first five or ten minutes that you can easily wake up from. If you are still sleeping beyond this stage then your brain waves begin to slow down, your heart rate and your body temperature decrease, as the mind enters the second cycle. This prepares you for the third cycle of deep sleep.”
Dr Suhas Patil, a specialist neurologist at Open Minds Centre says that cold showers may not necessarily help and that it could all depend on the person’s mindset. However he cautions, “Memory and focus may worsen on prolonged exposure to cold.
“When the body experiences sudden cold, the temperature regulating center in brain called the hypothalamus sends signals to specific parts of brain to prepare the body to fight against the cold.
“A part of brain called sympathetic nervous system is activated leading to release of certain neurochemicals like epinephrine and norepinephrine that divert blood supply away from skin to vital organs and also increase metabolic rate to provide energy to the body. In fact, a sudden exposure to very cold temperatures might improve attention span and memory for a short duration. Whether it will help you relax later is difficult to prove. When people feel that cold showers improve their quality of sleep, it could be their individual experiences.”
According to Dr Thakre, why some people don’t sleep may also depend on their genes. Similarly she says there could be those who sleep well without any trouble.
Much like Saeed Abdallah Saeed Al Shamsi, a 35-year-old Emirati aeronautical engineer, who says that for over 13 years, he has been getting sound sleep at night and doesn’t have a bedtime routine.
“I just close my eyes and before I know it, I am fast asleep. I don’t even wake up in the middle of the night. I work in a 12-hour shift for three days in a row and on these days I sleep only for six hours at night. I don’t really struggle to sleep because the work during the day physically and mentally tires me. On the other three days, I sleep for the same amount of time.
“This helps me fall asleep instantly no matter where I am. I can just shut everything out and sleep. Even when I go camping, I can fall asleep on hard surfaces or on a chair, even if it gets too cold outside. I think that the work tires me enough to help me sleep.”
What if staying alert itself becomes a problem during the day? Especially when one is already in a cycle of sleeping poorly the previous night. For a long time, my solution was a cup of cold coffee, which helped me focus. Then I found another unusual technique.
Recently, Aric Prather, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco penned some solutions for the sleep deprived. In his new book ‘The Sleep Prescription,’ Prather suggests that sticking your head in a freezer can have the same effect of caffeine, to shock your system and drive away afternoon drowsiness.
I found another extreme way to fall asleep when I spoke to Ahmad Halil, a 28-yar-old Indian expat based in Dubai, who has an unusual habit of watching loud action films, with his headphones on to fall asleep.
“No matter how exhausted I am, I take all the efforts to find an action movie. It’s because the sounds comfort me, which help me avoid overthinking, especially when I’m trying to sleep. Silence doesn’t work out too well for me.”
Meanwhile, Nazmeen Sayed, an Indian expat based in Dubai listens to the sound of rain on her phone before she goes to bed.
“I think most of the time I am unable to sleep, I am stressed about something that happened during the day. When I listen to the sound of rain, I feel close to Nature. This relaxes my mind faster and I can fall asleep sooner.”
Instead of a rush of cold water, Raghavendra Adyantaya, a 41-year-old Indian expat from Dubai shares how a calm state of mind helped him with his sleep disorder.
“I have always believed that a part of our happiness lies in the ability to fall asleep and wake up on a regular schedule. I used to manually count down my nights until sleep deprivation caught up with me. Only to realise that insomnia is a cruel master.
“Along with Covid-19 came this new concept of work from home, which affected my sleep. I slept for only two or three hours at night for over a year and I worked every day due to which my mind felt like it was shattered. I was not myself anymore and I finally went to see a psychiatrist who then diagnosed me with anxiety, depression and acute insomnia for which I took antidepressants and sleeping pills for more than a year. Initially I felt better, but then I experienced other health issues which could have been a side effect of the continuous use of antidepressants. My colleague suggested I try meditation and enrolled me into a course where I learned breath work, which made a difference in my mental health and sleep patterns.
“Cold showers are not for me but my mental and physical health is my top priority and meditation helps me achieve it.”
On a similar note, Jean Meldie de Leon, a Dubai-based expat from the Philippines meditates and prays every night before going to bed.
“Being away from my family used to make me restless, but then I began to pray before I sleep. Prayer feeds my soul, it makes me find peace and gives me hope. In prayer, I can express all my anxiety and leave it all to God so that I can sleep peacefully through the night and regain my strength for work in the morning.”
Sometimes, sleeping well requires professional help, says Manar Anwar, a hypnotherapist and mental health coach, based in Muscat, Oman. She explains that some of her clients have benefited from sleep hypnosis.
“Hypnosis is a type of mind and body intervention in which we try to focus on the root cause of any psychological disorder or concern. During sleep hypnosis, you’ll typically recline comfortably and close your eyes. Then the therapist will guide you to into deep relaxations using a soothing voice and calming music. Once you’re relaxed, the therapist will begin to suggest improving your sleep, by addressing the cause of the lack of sleep.
Anwar recommends a simple technique.
“Close your eyes, count from 20 to 1 backwards slowly and focus on your breath and stay still for a minimum of 5 to 10 minutes. This will help you relax and prepare you to fall asleep.” Goodnight!
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