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Light your way to gratitude and better sleep

Your Life

Light your way to gratitude and better sleep

KAILAS ROBERTS considers it may be time to start her day earlier and reap the benefits of ‘fröhlichkeit’.

When it comes to precise word use, the Germans are veritable experts. Take ‘schadenfreude’, for instance – the pleasure one gets from another person’s misfortune, or the ridiculously complicated term ‘flughafenbegrussungsfreude’, which describes the joy one feels when we are welcomed home at the airport.

Another of these intriguing words is ‘fröhlichkeit’ which translates as the special feeling we experience when up and about yet everyone else is still in bed. Now, I wonder whether fröhlichkeit is a feeling that has been preserved over the millennia because it promotes good health. If so, it is worth embracing. Let me explain what I mean. One of the big advantages to being up early is the opportunity to see the sunrise – something missed by most of us as we lie comfortable under our doonas.

There is something special about seeing the first rays of the sun as it ascends into the sky. For many, it is quite a spiritual experience. But it also has profound physiological effects. One of the chief values of witnessing sunrise is the flooding of light onto the back of our eyes. This exposure sets in train a process that leads to the suppression of a hormone called melatonin. You may well have heard of  this – otherwise known as the hormone  of darkness (or sometimes the  vampire hormone).

As melatonin levels drop, cortisol (another hormone) rises and prepares our body for the day ahead. This forced suppression of melatonin means that by evening, the rebound spike in melatonin is even greater. This then tells our body and brain that it is time to prepare to sleep. In this way, making the effort to rise early in the morning not only provides fröhlichkeit, but will also benefit sleep.

This phenomenon may be even more important as we get older, as the peak level of melatonin produced by our brain tends to drop off. This might explain in part why the quality of our sleep deteriorates as we get older. And the level of melatonin is also affected by conditions causing dementia, in particular Alzheimer’s disease. Melatonin can be given as a supplement to compensate for the changed production that occurs with age and in disease states, and the consequent disrupted sleep that may accompany them. It is probably one of the safer ways of treating insomnia – certainly more so than the traditional sleeping tablets.

My wife pointed out another reason that getting up early might be good for us. She is naturally an earlier riser and often takes our labrador to the dog park in time to catch the sunrise. She sees this as a valuable opportunity to exercise gratitude: something that is easy to pass over in the otherwise busyness of our daily lives.

The quietness of the hour lends itself beautifully to this opportunity to reflect on what is good in our lives. Gratitude itself is a boon to our mental health, and whatever difficulties we are facing, there is always something to be grateful for.

Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind Your Brain: The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia, now available at all good bookstores  and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com  or uqp.com.au

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