The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body's Own Restorative Systems Sara Mednick

The Power of the Downstate Recharge Your Life Using Your Body's Own Restorative Systems by Sara C. Mednick

Our Wise Guide: Learn the secrets to reenergizing yourself every day and every night. Do you feel exhausted all the time?

Then this book is for you. It presents some relatively easy, evidence-based ways to recharge your batteries. All of them are based on a single principle that provides the key to feeling more energetic, relaxed, and able to perform at your peak, both mentally and physically.

So, what is this key? Well, as you may have gathered from the title of the book, it’s to do with tapping into the power of something called the downstate. And what the heck is that? Well, to understand it, you’ve got to know a few things about how some of your body’s systems work.

Key idea 1
The “downstate” is a term borrowed from neuroscience that describes your body’s restorative systems and processes.
Every night, while you’re sleeping, a strange thing happens inside your brain.

Picture your head as a concert hall filled with about 86 billion tiny musicians. These are your neurons – the cells that make up your brain. Like an orchestra, they’re organized into different sections, which are usually playing different melodies at different times. The notes are the electrical and chemical signals they send to each other, which can be measured as brain waves. When you’re awake, these notes tend to play at a rapid tempo, creating brain waves that vibrate at 13 to 25 or more cycles per second (or hertz, to use the technical term).

But during a stage of sleep called slow-wave sleep, they go all the way down into the range of 0 to 4 hertz. Not only that, they stop playing separately, and they all start playing the same note in unison. For half a second, they fire their signals at once. This is called an upstate. Then, for another half a second, they stop – the orchestra goes silent. And this is called a downstate.

At this moment, your brain enters a place of pure tranquility. All is quiet. All is still.

Sound refreshing? Well, it is. In fact, as you'll learn in more detail later, it’s the secret to why a good night’s sleep is so revitalizing. But it’s also kind of creepy, because, during that half second of inactivity, your brain is basically dead.

Fortunately, it doesn’t stay that way for long. After the half second of silence has ended, your neurons return to the upstate and fire off their signals in unison again. Then they go back to the downstate, they stop firing, and they keep repeating the same pattern over and over – on and off, on and off.

Now, the weird thing about slow-wave sleep is how your neurons all turn on and off in unison, on the other hand, it’s completely normal for them to turn on and off at separate moments. They do that all the time, throughout the day and night. And they do it because neurons are just like us: they need to work, but they also need some downtime.

In fact, they need to take a break after every round of sending messages. And that’s because they lose their electrical charge whenever they fire their signals, and they need some time to recharge themselves before they can do it again.

A similar pattern governs many systems of your body – from your cardiovascular and autonomic nervous system to your metabolism and circadian rhythm. Each of them follows the same basic playbook: build up resources, energy, and strength, use them to get something done, and then take some downtime to replenish them and be able to do things again.

To provide us with some vocabulary for describing this pattern, the author borrows the terms “upstate” and “downstate” from neuroscience. For example, imagine one of your body systems is expending itself? Then we can say it’s in an upstate or doing an upstate activity. And then, if it’s restoring itself, we can say it’s in a downstate or doing a downstate activity.

Your body has various downstate systems and processes for revitalizing itself. By tapping into them, you can reap the benefits: more energy, less stress, and better physical and mental health. So what are these systems and how can you take advantage of them? That’s what the rest of this shortform will explain.

Key idea 2
Many of us don’t spend enough time in the downstate, leading to a condition called autonomic imbalance.
To understand the power of the downstate, let’s start with one of its most important components: the autonomic nervous system.

This is the part of your nervous system that regulates bodily functions that aren’t under your conscious control, like your heartbeat and digestion. It splits into a few different branches. One of them is your sympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of your body’s upstate processes.

The author calls it your REV system because its job is to rev up your body, so it’s ready for action when you perceive or experience a threat, opportunity, or some other stressful or exciting event or activity. To get you ready for that big presentation, run from that guy chasing you with a knife, or dribble past those defenders in a basketball game, the autonomic nervous system has many tricks up its sleeves, like flooding your body with stress hormones and increasing your heart rate, body temperature, and sweat production.

All of these upstate activities are crucial to your ability to do the things you need to do to survive and thrive. But it takes a lot of energy for your body to do them, so it can’t keep doing them for too long without exhausting itself. And that’s where the next branch of your autonomic nervous system comes in – the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates many of your body’s downstate activities.

Its job is to tell your body that it can take some time to cool down and recuperate. The author calls it your RESTORE system, since it enables your body to restore itself – relaxing your muscles, lowering your heart rate, replenishing your bodily fluids, and performing many other crucial downstate processes.

Ideally, your REV and RESTORE systems would be in balance with each other. After letting your REV system rev your body up to get things done, you’d spend enough time in the downstate to let your RESTORE system do its magic. People who find this balance experience a wide range of benefits, from better cardiovascular health to higher cognitive performance, greater control of their emotions, and a feeling of calm alertness in even the most stressful situations.

But instead of charging ourselves back up to full capacity, many of us go through life feeling like smartphones with batteries drained to 10 percent. And that’s because we spend a whole lot of our time in upstate REV mode, without giving ourselves enough time in downstate RESTORE mode. This leads to a condition called autonomic imbalance and its more well-known cousin, chronic stress. These can have serious impacts on your physical and mental health, including impaired memory and cognition, weakened immune system, premature aging, emotional volatility, and increased risk of depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

Why do we spend so much time in upstate REV mode and not enough time in downstate RESTORE mode? Well, there are the usual suspects: high-pressure jobs, jam-packed schedules, chaotic urban environments, scary headlines, and all the other external stress factors of modern life. Some of us also suffer from personal problems and societal issues, like toxic relationships, trauma, and racial discrimination.

As a society and as individuals, we can and should try to remove or mitigate many of these stress factors in our lives – fighting for racial justice, instituting more rational work and school schedules, seeking out therapy, and so on. That being said, many of us are spending way more time in REV mode than we need to, while we’re spending less time in RESTORE mode than we could. To regain some autonomic balance, we can change certain aspects of our lifestyles and habits while we work to achieve a more peaceful, less stressful world.

So, what can you do?

Key idea 3
Improve your autonomic balance by doing things that will increase your heart rate variability.
Alright, so the goal is to regain autonomic balance between your sympathetic REV system and your parasympathetic RESTORE system. That’s a whole handful of words, and they refer to a complicated array of biological systems and processes. But there’s a simple way to get a handle on them, and it’s to do with something called your heart rate variability, or HRV.

Your HRV measures the rhythmic pattern of your heart rate. You can either have a high heart rate variability or a low heart rate variability. If your heart beats steadily like a metronome then you have a low HRV; your heart rate isn’t variable. If, on the other hand, your heartbeat is more uneven, with longer and shorter intervals between the beats, then you have a high heart rate variability.

When your REV system is putting you under stress, your heartbeat not only gets faster but also becomes more uniform – with less variation in the intervals between the beats. Your HRV, therefore, goes down. In contrast, when your RESTORE system lets you relax, your heart not only slows down but also becomes more variable – with variations of up to a few hundred milliseconds between the beats. Which means your HRV goes up. Unsurprisingly, people with a healthy autonomic balance and a lack of stress tend to have a high HRV, whereas those with autonomic imbalance and chronic stress tend to have a low HRV. Thankfully, if you do fall into the unfortunate second category, there’s a relatively simple solution and that is to increase your HRV.

Now you might be thinking – well, easier said than done. But actually, there are some surprisingly simple ways of increasing your heart rate variability. The first – and you’ve probably heard this a hundred times by now – is to take deep breaths. The more you remind yourself of this, the better. When you breathe at a rate of about ten seconds per breath, your heart rate and breath rate synchronize in a way that maximizes the amount of oxygen that goes to your blood, which boosts your HRV. When you breathe deep and slow like this you allow your body to enter RESTORE mode more often and in doing so, you regain autonomic balance.

If you often find yourself forgetting to breathe like this, you might want to try blocking five minutes from your calendar every morning or evening. Title the event “breathe,” and spend these few minutes each day inhaling in for five seconds; then exhaling out for five seconds. After practicing this for a few days, you’ll find yourself naturally integrating deep breathing into your everyday life. Do some slow breathing while you’re cooking, driving, working at your computer, watching television, standing in the elevator, or walking down the street. As the great Thích Nhất Hạnh taught, the ultimate goal is to bring a practice of mindfulness to our every activity – so that washing the dishes is no longer a chore, but a moment for awareness, breath, returning to the body. Whenever you want to regain control of your revved-up body and return to RESTORE mode, say you’re in the middle of an argument or about to deliver a speech, remember the power of your breath.

Be sure to breathe through your nose – both when you’re practicing deep breathing and in general. Nose breathing is naturally slower than mouth breathing, and it maximizes the amount of oxygen that enters the bloodstream.

Another thing you can do to raise your HRV is to practice inversion yoga poses, like Downward Dog, Legs Up the Wall Pose, and Supported Bridge Pose. These are poses where your head ends up lower than your chest, which makes it easier for your heart to beat and draws additional blood and oxygen to your brain. Try practicing inversion poses for seven minutes, three times per week, in the morning or at night, and gradually increase your sessions to 20 minutes. If you have high blood pressure, just make sure to check with a doctor before performing these poses.

Finally, try spending some time in nature once or twice a week. Any natural setting will do – a forest, river, beach, you name it. Just get out there and go for a walk, do some exercise, or try the Japanese practice of forest bathing, where you simply wander around a natural environment and let your mind and senses soak in the sights, sounds, and smells. Research has shown that all of these activities produce a variety of benefits, including higher HRV, lower blood pressure, less stress, and better sleep.

In fact, one study found that when people walked a mile in a natural setting, they had a higher HRV when they went to sleep than when they walked that same mile in an urban setting. That’s a really desirable result, because a high HRV and good sleep go hand in hand, and nothing is more restorative than a good night’s sleep – our next key topic.

Key idea 4
To fully tap into the power of the downstate, make sure you’re getting enough slow-wave sleep.
Want to have a good night’s rest? Get seven or eight hours of sleep. You’ve probably heard that a million times – and it’s true. But it’s only part of the equation. You see, it’s not just how much you sleep but when you sleep that matters. Timing is crucial.

It all comes down to your circadian rhythm – the way your body is regulated by the 24-hour cycle of day and night. As a species, we evolved to follow the same pattern as most other organisms: wake up and shift into REV mode at sunrise, do most of our upstate activities during the day, and then shift into RESTORE mode and go to bed soon after sunset, so we can have a full night of sleep, the ultimate downstate activity.

But today, many of us no longer follow this pattern, we stay up late at night, or we go to bed with our smartphones flashing beside the pillow. But we ignore our circadian rhythm at our peril. And that’s because crucial restorative processes, that happen during sleep, are programmed to take place at specific times throughout the night. When we miss out on those hours, we miss out on those critical restorative processes.

Remember slow-wave sleep? That’s a case in point. Your brain is naturally programmed to have most of its slow-wave sleep in the early nighttime, a couple of hours after sunset. Unfortunately for night owls, that holds true regardless of what time you go to bed or how much you sleep. If you don’t sleep during this window of time, you simply miss out on slow-wave sleep, even if you get a solid eight hours.

And that’s bad news because slow-wave sleep is your body’s deepest, most restorative downstate.

With your REV system fully off and your RESTORE system fully on, your body is able to do things like clean out toxins from your brain, synthesize proteins for cell repair, restock glycogen (your skeletal muscles’ main source of energy), consolidate long-term memories, and reset your brain’s neural networks to make them ready to learn new things the next day.

To get enough slow-wave sleep, you should aim to go to bed at 10:00 p.m. If you’re a night owl, that might sound impossible, but here are three things you can do to help shift your bedtime.

First, get outside and expose yourself to natural sunlight in the morning, and protect yourself from artificial light after 6:00 p.m. Morning sunlight sends a signal to your brain to wake up and activate your REV system, while the vanishing of sunlight in the evening tells it to wind down and switch over to RESTORE mode. Artificial lights, on the other hand, mess up your internal clock: the bright screens of your devices trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime. While indoor lighting is too weak to wake you up properly in the morning.

The difference that these small changes can make is huge. In one study, removing artificial light from people’s environments and making them rely completely on natural sunlight meant that they began going to bed two and a half hours earlier than they normally did. This shift happened in less than a week.

If you can’t get outside and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning, try spending 15 to 30 minutes in front of a light therapy lamp instead. And if you can’t avoid artificial light in the evening, try using blue light filter screens, glasses, or contacts when you look at electronic screens, and wear sunglasses when you enter brightly lit indoor spaces.

Next, avoid nighttime snacks. Eat a light, early dinner around 7:00 p.m., and make breakfast and lunch your main meals of the day. Eating is an energy-intensive, upstate activity, and so your body is set up to do most of it between the morning and midday. If you do too much of it in the hours before you should be going to bed, your REV system will switch back on at just the time when you should be shifting into RESTORE mode.

Finally, do aerobic exercise in the morning, rather than in the evening. Aerobic exercise sends your REV system into overdrive. When your workout ends, your RESTORE system kicks into high gear to help your body recover. The effects of this are great for your health, but it takes a while for the process to complete itself. If you exercise in the evening, you’ll still be in REV mode by the time you should be going to bed. But if you exercise in the morning, by the time evening comes around, your HRV (or heart rate variability) will be at a high point and your RESTORE system will be operating at its peak at exactly the same time that you enter the window for getting the most slow-wave sleep – the perfect combination for a great night’s sleep.

Remember, everything you need to feel truly restored is right there within you. In order to feel restored you don’t need to dish out cash to attend relaxing spas and weekend getaways – although, of course, those are nice too. The trick is tuning into your body’s natural processes and rhythms and making the most of the miracle of downstate.

Final summary
The most important thing to take away from all this is:

Your body has “downstate” restorative systems and processes that you can tap into in order to feel energized and perform at your best. The most restorative downstate activity is slow-wave sleep, which you can benefit from by going to bed around 10 p.m. Another top tip is that by changing your eating habits, exercise routines, and light exposure, you can shift your sleep schedule to an earlier time. During the daytime, you can also tap into the power of the downstate by activating your parasympathetic “RESTORE” system. Three ways you can do this are deep breathing exercises, yoga inversion poses, and spending time in nature.

Back to blog
1 of 4

Get Your Own Expert Coach in Health, Wellness and Reflection