Rest doesn't just mean sleep: What "downstate" means, and why you need more of it

Author Sara C. Mednick explains what "downstate" is, and how it's different from sleep

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 15, 2022 4:01PM (EDT)

Woman sleeping in bed in the morning (Getty Images/Kilito Chan)
Woman sleeping in bed in the morning (Getty Images/Kilito Chan)

We know we're bad at sleep. We know we stay up late, doomscrolling through the day's tragedies as disruptive blue light pours into our eye sockets. We know our jobs expect us to be on call 24/7. We know that neither our kids nor our aging parents keep regular hours when they need us. And they we feel guilty and anxious about not getting enough sleep, which just serves to keep us up nights.

So what if we eased off a little? What if, rather than stressing about the hours of sleep we get, we put some more energy into making our waking hours more balanced and restorative? That's the premise of Sara C. Mednick's reassuring and practical new book, "The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body's Own Restorative Systems." Mednick, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of "Take a Nap! Change Your Life," knows that tricks like trying to "catch up" on sleep over the weekends just lead to a fog of self-induced jet lag. Instead, she wants to help us connect the dots between sleep and exercise, diet and meditative work, so we can actually feel more rested — and more energetic. Salon talked to her recently about how to build a better day, so we can enjoy a better night.

This conversation has been edited and condensed lightly for clarity.

What is the downstate, Sara? How is that different from sleep?

It's much more. The downstate is all of the restorative processes that our bodies need to experience every day to combat the wear and tear of the other side of the rhythm, which is the upstate.

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It starts with the idea that we're rhythmic animals, and rhythms have two states. They have an upstate, where you're primed and ready for energy mobilization, exertion, and activity. That's followed by a downstate, where you can replenish your resources. You go back into your cave and think through the things that you experience when you're in the upstate, process your emotions, solidify those memories, and then get yourself recharged for the next upstate, which is coming soon enough.

This idea of rhythms is very powerful because it's universal, and it prioritizes the doing, the exertion, and the stuff that our society always pushes us to do. But it also prioritizes the downstate recovery because the recovery is just as important. That's where we actually generate all the strength to be ready for the next upstate.

We are constantly trying to work against our own nature. We do so many things to keep the upstate upstating longer than it should. Keep us in the state of high caffeine, high productivity, increasing our strength, our speed, our intelligence, and our communication with people as though if you just keep pushing, and keep exerting yourself, that's going to reach whatever goal you have. The pushing is actually what's getting us to the state of collapse and emotional burnout that a lot of people are experiencing, especially now with the transition out of the pandemic. Now we suddenly have this mega shift that's just as severe as the shift into the shutdown mode.

The shutdown mode was such a terror because we suddenly had to re-understand who we were, and recreate all sorts of new rhythms. We had nothing to go on, because we'd never experienced this before. But now, we're into a state of having to reestablish not the same old rhythms, but even newer ones. Things that are sort of now we're in this post pandemic, what does this look like? What do our lives like life? I think that's also very stressful for people. How do we then establish rhythms that work in this new state?

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A word that you use a lot in this book is balance, which is hard. And one of the things you say is that your body is not designed for adrenaline 24/7.

No, it's going to kill you. That's it, right? I talk about these more simplified terms of rev and restore. Rev is that feeling of revving high, where you have the high stress hormones, cortisol, and your heart rate is at its ceiling and just stays there. You're really exerting all of your concentration and energy. That's good to do when you need it. But if you continue doing that into a long period of time, it's going to basically lead to chronic stress, and all of the chronic diseases that we see taking over our population.

Very often, this gets very drilled down into, well, we need more sleep. We don't really talk about more rest, more downstate. I want to talk about out the circadian rhythms aspect of it, and the ways in which you say we're on permanent jet lag, and respecting our rhythms. What does that look like?

I like the terms of, what is organic to us? What is harmonizing with our own internal rhythm? These are not easy questions when you are somebody who has children, has parents, has a job, has a relationship and a social life that you want to maintain. These are all things that they can seemingly be at odds with trying to find downstate. One of the things is to not necessarily see these things as separate from your downstate, but try to find harmony with all of these things. It's not yet another stress that we're putting on ourselves that, "Oh my God! I have to find time for the downstate!"

It's the same thing with, "I just have to sleep better?" That's exactly what's going to make people sleep worse. Because then, you just start worrying about yet another thing you have to do.

Back to the question about how do you find your own internal rhythm? One of the points is that you may not be as individualistic as you think. There are some universal rhythms. Even though some people might be roosters, and some people might be owls, for the most part, those are rare cases. The moment that you wake up is when you start your upstate, and that is when your metabolism is going to be its highest, in the early part of the day.

By 3 PM, your insulin levels just start to drop. By 6 PM, your melatonin levels, if you're not dosing yourself with blue light, will naturally start to rise because that's when the sun starts to set. I feel like the stress of trying to figure out your own personal schedule may not even be needed very much, because we're part of this universe. This universe was started billions of years ago, and it's been doing its thing way longer than each one of our lives. Just f settling into this universal rhythm, the daytime is when I'm most primed for activity, and at some point during the night, I need to really slow the F down.

How do you find time to downstate even during the day? That idea that sleep is the downstate, and we need to push everything to nighttime, it doesn't work anymore. People still do a lot in the night. They don't really lay down their sword and take off their armor. They're still doing at night. What can we do during the day so that by the end of the day, you don't get to the place of being to totally exhausted, and you need to rejuvenate also during the day? If you have this highly revving state, how can you bring more restore into your day to day rhythm?

If you are thinking about when you should be exercising, how do you think about that rhythm of exercise as a big burst in rev, and timing that big burst in rev to then coincide with restore that comes like six to 12 hours later. You want that to coincide with sleep, with nighttime, with this time of natural shutting down the systems so that you have this even larger restore response.

Intellectually, we know, yes, we need to rest and well, I guess I should exercise, and I guess this should eat right. But you tie it all together that those things are not discrete from each other. The things that we do to move our bodies, and the food that we put into our bodies, then affect our ability to have a better, more healing, restorative downstate. Tell me what we can do in that space of our waking time.

A lot of this idea of balance has to do with what the activities you do during the day, and when you time them. Eating, exercise, heavy thinking, all these things, they jumpstart your rev system. Actually anything you put in your mouth, you immediately start the process of digestion, which requires a lot of glucose and ATP. It requires a lot of energy to do this stuff. That puts you in a high upstate, high rev response. Exercise when you're already primed to have your metabolism be at its height, to already have your body and brain completely recharged, and filled up with glycogen, the energy currency of the body and the brain.

Once you do a supercharge of revving yourself up, either with exercise or eating, you're going to have a slower, long term increase. As rev decreases, you're going to have an increase in restore. The stronger your restore system, the better it is at calming down the rev system. You need have a strong restore system, because that is what calms you down. It's like two twins, and one is the rabble-rouser, and the other one is the the calming force. You need to have them be in opposition, but also work together because they need to. And so, when you can time your rev activities such that the restore response from those rev activities coincides with your sleep time, that is the greatest. That is truly making your whole system hum and resonate with itself.

You spend a lot of time talking about how to just stop, slow down, take a few breaths. When I'm spinning out in the middle of my day, talk to me about how I can achieve that taste of the down state that might really turn around my energy level, my stress level.

I think that there's always that, "Oh, just do some deep breathing." But nobody really knows why you're doing that deep breathing.

When you get worked up, you either stop breathing, or you start breathing very rapidly and shallowly. There's this thing called email apnea. You open up your email and you basically just stop breathing. It's a shocking thing. You think, "I'm just reading this stuff," but immediately, you get a fight or flight response of "What am I missing? What have I done wrong? What are people demanding of me?" We have these multiple experiences during the day that set. us up into like a highly revved up state.

What does deep breathing do? The slow, deep breath is controlled by the restore system. It's calming down your arousal state, but it's also sending a message of self-control and self-regulation to the brain. When you can physically calm down the breathing, you are increasing restore, and you're telling the body, everything is fine. You don't have to freak out, you don't have to worry, I got this. There's no reason for me to run, there's nothing for me to go at attack. Stepping away from whatever it is that is revving you up, gives you across the day moments where you're just taking the air out of all of the stress. By the end of the day, you're not just this big ball of stress, and you're asking sleep to do all the magic for you.

One of the reasons why I think we're having trouble with sleep is that we haven't really done anything all day to prepare for sleep. All we've been doing is just revving all day. Then we expect sleep to kind of just take us away. Of course, we can't because we're too revved up.

We expect sleep to do too much heavy lifting. We definitely expect that of weekend sleep, which is also another of the many lies we tell ourselves.

Yeah. Because the daily wear and tear of the stressors that we experience are actually building up.Without good restore function, and good deep sleep, you're not using that natural plumbing system to flush out all the toxins in your brain and your body. If your sleep isn't that great during the week, just sleeping in on the weekend, won't make up for the amount of wear and tear that's already built up across the week. There's disturbing information to say that the kind of sleep deprivation, and sleep restriction, or poor sleep people have in their forties and fifties can predict their onset of dimension Alzheimer's in their seventies.

There is the cost of not respecting the downstate. It takes a toll on our bodies. You said it ages you, it can put your risk for dementia. Tell me what those risks are, and when we activate the downstate more, what are the benefits that we can start to see?

One of the things that I think is important to think about is that view of aging. You get into unhealthy weight, you stop exercising, you stop having bright light in the morning to sort of spark up your circadian rhythm, and you start having cognitive loss, and immobility due to frailty issues. I think there's so much of that can get chalked up to an early giving away of all of our down states. Basically just trading them like baseball cards. You stop taking long walks, you stop having intimacy, you stop being in nature, you stop doing yoga, meditation, whatever sort of deep breathing routines that you would normally do when you're young and you have time to go to yoga.

In our forties, we stop doing these things. We start having more sleep problems. There's the daily wear and tear, but then, there's the long term wear and tear where you start to have premature aging, increased risk for diabetes, increased risk for being overweight, cardiovascular risk because you have increased blood pressure, also metabolic disorders, because you're over stressing your insulin engine, and the insulin just poops out. It just can't keep up anymore. And then, of course, the cognitive disorders that come with giving up your downstate is the dementia, and Alzheimer's risks.

The people who are really keeping themselves cognitively sharp and fit are the ones who are living longer. The ones who are doing all the stuff that it takes to learn. Do something that increases your, heart rate variability, doing some sort of meditation practice, breathing practice. The people who are using brain training games that do kind of executive function training, like working memory, learning new languages, are also people who are living longer. Particularly exercise. That burst of rev comes with a really strong restore system also has feedback to this whole network that keeps you stronger, and also then affects your sleep. Also eating and having enough light, not staying indoors all day. Old people stay indoors all day long and their circadian rhythms are totally whacked.

I feel like just giving full a sense of the why, and the big picture, is better than trying to tell people that there's like a silver bullet. Just do this one thing, just eat this supplement, or just change your diet in this way. No, that's not the point. Once you kind of get your head around it, and you can understand the process, it's easier to actually execute. It's just a better way of thinking about the whole body and how it all works together.

It deflates the over emphasis we put on the idea that if you have a bad night sleep, you're ruined. I've learned that if I've had a bad night's sleep, but I still eat a good breakfast, and I still exercise, and I still figure out time to just even take a few deep breaths, I'm going to be okay because it's not all up to sleep. It's such a relief.

I think that all of these different devices that people now have to track their sleep has made people a little overly obsessive about the sleep number. Maybe if we can take some of the air out of that pressure and just say, "Hey, it's the whole system. Sleep is one part of your downstate, but everything you're doing can be helpful."

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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