When we talk to our customers, a common sleep-centered concern is around falling asleep. This typically leads to a conversation about the “sleep switch,” which allows us to transition from wakefulness to sleep.
Your sleep switch is exactly like a light switch in the simple sense that they can both be “on” (awake) or “off” (sleep). In your body, this switch works when there is a change of temperature at the right time. What is the right time? It depends on your body clock but aim for about eight hours before you want to wake up. For me, that is around 9:00.
I am a morning person. In the window between 9:00 to 10:00 pm, my body “wants” to go to sleep. You ideally want to flip your switch then. Some people will use a warm bath or shower. I use my OOLER to warm up in my bed. Others have had success with taking a walk outside or even just putting on socks to warm up your feet.
When you use temperature to flip your sleep switch it can help with sleep latency, or how long it takes to fall asleep. So today we’ll discuss the sleep switch in-depth, starting with a definition and studies, so you’ll understand how to switch your brain off to sleep, how to get more deep sleep, how to get more REM sleep, and, really, how to get more sleep in general.
The Science Behind the Sleep Switch
The key to wrapping your head around the concept of a sleep switch is viewing your brain as an impressive electrical system, one with circuits that signal when to be awake or asleep. The idea of the switch is based on neurons firing off and on, which dictates your sleeping patterns.
A 2018 study by Clifford B. Saper, MD/PhD, Chairman of the Department of Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), discovered that the neurons in question are located in the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO) are critical for getting a good night’s sleep.
The study was conducted in the following manner:
“Working with genetically engineered mice, Saper's team artificially activated the VLPO neurons using several different tools. In one set of experiments, the scientists activated the neuron cells using a laser light beam to make them fire, a process called optogentics. In another test, the team used a chemical to selectively activate the VLPO neurons. In both cases, activating these cells profoundly drove sleep.”
Ultimately, the VLPO starts secreting neurotransmitters called GABA and galanin, which work to calm the brain. Conversely, orexin is a neurotransmitter that manages wakefulness. That means the switch works both ways, as an electrical feedback loop with these neurotransmitters moving in conflicting directions. There’s never a transitional state; you’re either on (awake!) or off (asleep).
Body Temperature and the Sleep Switch
Let’s return to Saper’s study again, which had a significant finding:
“Additionally, Saper's team also found that activating the VLPO cells caused a fall in body temperature. Scientists already knew that warm temperatures activate VLPO cells, and that body temperature dips slightly during sleep, when the VLPO neurons are firing.”
Based on what we know about sleep—and the products we offer—this makes total sense. In many ways, body temperature is the perfect way to frame sleep.
Let’s assume you sleep from 10 pm to 7 am. If this is your chronotype, your body will be at its warmest in the early evening, around 7 pm. As you approach bedtime, your “Sleep Drive” kicks in, which is triggered by a drop in temperature—which means the VLPO is ready to release that GABA and galanin. This primes the body for deep sleep, a period where you’ll drop to your lowest temperature of the night.
Ultimately, as you slowly warm-up, you’re entering REM sleep, until finally, that feedback loop runs in the opposite direction with orexin, causing you to wake. So dropping that temperature is directly tied to triggering that sleep switch, in turn allowing you to enjoy longer stretches of deep sleep. As you know, we’re big fans of deep sleep, mostly because of its restorative power around memory and overall cognitive performance.
How to Switch Off Your Brain to Sleep
If you think of all of this from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense: our ancestors would be at their warmest right as the sun went down, and as evening turned into night, the outside temperature would drop, and these hunter-gatherers’ body temperatures would follow suit, causing their Sleep Drive to kick in. A study, by Jerry Siegel, UCLA, confirms this assumption.
Thanks to modern conveniences like the thermostat, our environments often remain at a constant temperature. But by taking a walk outside, or a hot shower, you can certainly give yourself a better chance to flip that sleep switch. Furthermore, products like our Cube or OOLER® sleep systems can help you drop your temperature further to enjoy deep sleep, and slowly warm you up at the appropriate point in the early morning for REM sleep.
Once you’re in bed, but still struggling to sleep? There are methods we discussed before to ease a racing mind.
How to Calm Your Mind
- Making a to-do list before bed
- Reading a book
- Listening to a podcast or soothing sounds
- Focusing on your breathing
- Meditating before bed
- Trying yoga Nidra (there are some great free samples online)
- Using a science-based smartphone app
Each sleeper is unique—ranging from their chronotype to their sleep switch to their stages—so different methods will be more successful for some than for others.
Sleep in Cooler Temperatures
At the end of the day (literally and figuratively), your brain is craving cooler temperatures. While there’s no way to flip it internally like a light switch on a wall, you can prime yourself for sleep by working to affect your core temperature through some of these tricks and temperature-regulating sleep systems. Because if your sleep switch is turning off effectively, it probably means you’re getting more deep sleep too, and that fact alone makes any effort on your part a worthwhile endeavor.
Have more questions about the sleep switch? Or why deep sleep is so important? We’d love to hear them.