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As a frequent traveler, I sometimes find myself so time-shifted that I can’t sleep even though it’s late at night. During a recent episode, I wondered whether lying in bed with my eyes closed has the same benefits as actual sleep. Doesn’t my brain and body still get some rest?

Not surprisingly, the answer isn’t clear cut.

Brian Fung (@B_Fung), an associate editor at The Atlantic, asks exactly this question in “When you can’t sleep, how good is lying in bed with your eyes closed?”  He concludes that actual sleep is significantly superior to simply resting. According to Dr. Chiara Cirelli, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, there’s a unique benefit to sleep you don’t get with “quiet wakefulness, microsleep, or unihemispheric sleep.” Lying down might help the body relax but it doesn’t support the cognitive recovery needed by the brain.

A Daily Mail article titled “Why a rest is as good for you as a sleep” seemingly takes the opposite point of view. According to sleep specialist Dr. Matthew Edlund, rest is as important as sleep to our long-term health. Dr. Edlund feels rest is usually neglected and prescribes four kinds of rest: social, mental, physical and spiritual.

“Many of us are so busy we see rest as a weakness – a waste of precious time, but rest is, in fact, a biological need. All the science shows we need rest to live, just like we need food.”

I interpret this to mean that we need both sleep and rest.

So what can you do to get to sleep? The research is fairly consistent on this one. Take your mind off of the fact that you can’t sleep – worrying about it will only make it worse. Don’t watch TV – blue-colored lights trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime so that it doesn’t release melatonin. Instead, get out of bed and do an activity which uses low light and doesn’t require a lot of activity – reading is a good choice.

I recommend reading this blog. If it doesn’t put you to sleep, nothing will.

Follow me on twitter @jbecher.

This blog was originally posted on Manage By Walking Around.

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3 Comments

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  1. Tom Van Doorslaer

    What about meditation?

    I’ve never tried it out myself, but I can remember several scientific and/or dubious articles describing meditation as the ultimate replacement for sleep.

    In a way, it makes sense, as meditation is supposed to relax your brain, or focus on a specific area, giving the rest of your brain a well needed break to recover.

    (although an airplane is hardly the right setting for a relaxed meditation setting)

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      1. Tom Van Doorslaer

        Depends on the interpretation of spiritual, but I think it’s a safe bet.

        Those that interpret spiritual as being linked to religion or belief, often see meditation as something linked to religion as well.

        Those that see “spiritual” in a broader context (being: spirit, mind) see meditation as a mind-excercise.

        So either way, you win. 🙂

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