Amy Riolo: “Don’t listen to anything that might bother you before you go to sleep”

For those who avoid naps because they fear “sleep inertia,” the feeling of waking up confused, groggy, or disoriented, the key is to take a shorter nap. Ten to twenty minutes might be all you need to refresh and “reboot” your system. If you need to learn a lot of new material, longer naps of […]

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For those who avoid naps because they fear “sleep inertia,” the feeling of waking up confused, groggy, or disoriented, the key is to take a shorter nap. Ten to twenty minutes might be all you need to refresh and “reboot” your system. If you need to learn a lot of new material, longer naps of around an hour will help. During this time, the brain can transfer information from the hippocampus where it is temporarily held to the cortex where it will be stored permanently.

Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?

In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.

As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Amy Riolo.

As an award — winning, best-selling, author, chef, television personality, and educator, Amy Riolo is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Mediterranean diet. She is known for sharing history, culture, and nutrition through global cuisine as well as promoting the Mediterranean lifestyle. A graduate of Cornell University, Amy is considered a culinary thought leader who enjoys changing the way we think about food and the people who create it.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?

Of course! I was born and raised in an Italian-American family in Upstate New York. I started cooking and baking with my family as a young girl. The earliest times I can remember were when I was around 3 years old. My mother would sit me on the counter where she was cooking and let me roll meatballs and cookies while she cooked. My paternal grandfather lived next door to us, and he was a cook in the military, so when I helped him he taught me how to make substitutions and swap outs when cooking, because he rarely had the luxury of cooking with prime ingredients, and wanted me to be prepared. My maternal grandmother was a fabulous cook and baker, and I got to learn all of our traditional Calabrian and other Italian baked goods from her. My father is what we refer to in Italian as a “buon gustaio,” someone who really enjoys food and has good taste. Cooking for him and shopping with him is always a treat for me. As I grew up, I became the family cook when my mom went to work. Shortly thereafter she was diagnosed with diabetes, and for the first time I had to really give a lot of thought to nutrition and various aspects of our lifestyle that could improve our health. Later on, when I dealt with (and thankfully overcame) my own health crisis, I vowed to do everything in my power to be as healthy as possible. Health is a luxury, a true wealth not afforded to everyone, so we should do everything in our power to enhance it. Sleep is an easy, free way to make a major impact on our well-being.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?

Yes, When I first went to Calabria, in southern Italy to visit relatives, I noticed how much healthier they were than our family in the US. We had the same genes, obviously, and everyone looked alike, but those of us in the States had major health issues — diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, etc which did not plague our Italian family. I knew that the quality and freshness of the food they ate played a big factor, but so did lifestyle. As soon as I had that realization, I wanted to make it my life’s work to teach people how to harness their traditional way of life to enjoy better health anywhere.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

I am a Mediterranean Diet and Lifestyle Ambassador and my work is recognized in the US and abroad. Sleep is a critical part of lifestyle. In addition to our nightly rest, napping, and siestas are also really important.

My unique contribution to the world of wellness is to interpret the many Mediterranean-style customs that are both pleasurable and healthful to audiences worldwide. I also provide solutions and strategies for them to be able to incorporate them into their lives outside of the Mediterranean region. I am proud to collaborate with doctors and policy makers on spreading the word about the benefits of sleep, and to take a stand against nap and sleep-shaming.

Our modern society glorifies lack of sleep. Somehow a lack of sleep, instead of being viewed as alarmingly dangerous to our health has become a psychological badge of honor for people who “take their work seriously” or “are too busy.” Not sleeping at night is linked with caring so much about someone that you lay awake worrying about them or their problems. But eventually that catches up to a person, no matter how “cool” our culture makes skipping sleep seem. Naps help us to perform better, reduce our appetite, feel more optimistic and focused, they improve our stress response and physical performance, balance our hormones and help us to heal.

When we get enough sleep, our hormones balance, we are more productive and alert, our bodies combat stress and infection more easily, and our cells have time to repair. Those are just a few of the many benefits that adequate sleep offers us.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Actually, I have yet to find a book which details the information about sleep and napping that I think we all need to be aware of, so I am writing one. My tenth book is dedicated to the Mediterranean lifestyle and a portion of it will discuss sleep and napping in great detail. A story that I heard (and loved), was that in 2015, the Mayor of the Valencian town of Ador; passed a law making siestas obligatory. “Everything closes between 2pm and 5pm,” a town hall spokesman said. “Bars, shops, the swimming pool, everything.” Mayor Joan Faus Vitòria, ordered that that town’s inhabitants stay quiet between 2pm and 5pm. “Children should stay indoors between 2pm and 5pm so that they do not go outside and play with balls and disturb older people,” the town hall spokesman continued. Throughout the Mediterranean region, I have found the siesta to be enforced whether it is legally or just as a matter of tradition, even in urban centers like Athens. When I co-lead cuisine, culture, and wellness tours to the Mediterranean region, this is one of the aspects of the lifestyle that I like to highlight. Corporations, of course, have to back up this mentality as well. It seems like a far-fetched fantasy compared to the way that we work, but the truth is that those who nap in the afternoon are far more productive and healthy which helps company’s and economies at the same time.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“The wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings.” Hippocrates

When you lose your health or deal with dis-ease or illness, you realize just how important good health is. If we have our health we have everything, and anything is possible. In Italy we say “mente sano, corpo sano” which means “healthy mind, healthy body” and I truly believe in the mind-body connection. It might not happen overnight, but by addressing the thought patterns that are affecting our well-being, and transforming them in to ones that feel good to us, we can all achieve greatness. In my work, I try to suggest as many ways for people to eat, think, and live as healthfully as possible, and it is a daily goal of mine. I measure my own personal success by how good I feel, not by how many awards or contracts I receive.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?

6–8 hours per night is what experts in all of the countries I spend time in promote, and that is a great average number. I believe that’s a minimum. We need different amounts of sleep depending upon the type of physical and mental stress we deal with on a daily basis — in addition to our age. A 65 year old yoga practitioner will require a lot less sleep than a 30 year old who is facing tremendous stress or illness, so it depends. It’s a good idea to talk to your health care practitioner who knows your history, etc. Most people also have a natural set point — a time they feel good waking up at (usually without an alarm).

The National Sleep Foundation states that “for healthy individuals with normal sleep, the appropriate sleep duration for newborns is between 14 and 17 hours, infants between 12 and 15 hours, toddlers between 11 and 14 hours, preschoolers between 10 and 13 hours, and school-aged children between 9 and 11 hours. For teenagers, 8 to 10 hours was considered appropriate, 7 to 9 hours for young adults and adults, and 7 to 8 hours of sleep for older adults.”

Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?

In the United States, many of the doctors that I collaborate with believe that the hours of 10–12 pm and 4–6 am are the best for the body — so sleeping from 10–6 am would provide 8 hours and be within that window to get the maximum benefit of both times. That said, different people have varying levels of cortisol in their body at different times, and going to sleep at 10pm might be impossible for some. It is important to have a wind-down ritual and a start-up ritual that helps coax the body into sleep and then back into the world again.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?

Yes — they can expect to have a healthier body weight, better blood sugar levels, more focus, clarity, self-control and brain function. Getting too little sleep and getting sleep of poor quality both are risk factors for obesity. Poor sleep usually translates as decreased glucose tolerance and decreased insulin sensitivity. The stress hormone cortisol is increased during the evenings of people who sleep less as well. Ghrelin and leptin — two appetite-regulating hormones also decrease with inadequate sleep. For these reasons, it is important for us to get adequate amounts of quality sleep on a daily basis.

Inadequate sleep dulls activity in our brain’s frontal lobe in a way similar to the effect of alcohol, impairs our judgement. Without the mental clarity to make good decisions, it’s much harder to eat and exercise in a manner conducive to losing weight.

What’s worse is that when we are overtired, we look for immediate ways to feel better because the satisfaction centers in our brains flare up. The unhealthy temptations that we are normally able to resist become much more difficult to say no to when we’re tired. Sleep deprived people also binge-eat and enjoy more late-night food than those who are more rested. All of these factors, of course, make losing weight even more difficult. Studies show that people who are sleep deprived choose snacks with twice the amount of fat as people who are well rested.

For that reason, many people with sleep apnea are overweight. When we sleep soundly, many important functions take place in our bodies that help us to maintain a healthy immune system and balance our appetite. Hunger and appetite controlling hormones are balanced during normal sleep. But when we can’t sleep enough, those same hormones make us feel like we need to eat more. In addition to the types of food we eat and poor choices that we make when we are tired, inadequate sleep is also linked with eating larger portions of all foods as well as increased cravings for high-carbohydrate foods.

Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?

Yes, a good night’s sleep and napping should be a priority in our lives. These are among the easiest and cheapest ways to improve our health, mood, and mental functions. Since napping helps keep drivers alert which in turn prevents accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that drivers get adequate amounts of sleep (7–8 hours) on a nightly basis. For sleepy drivers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends drinking caffeine and pulling over safely for a 20-minute nap.

The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?

I believe the three main blocks are habit, being embarrassed because of the cultural stigma we have around sleeping “a lot” and napping, as well as various life changes (new babies, an unusual work schedule, travel, etc). In the US we plan our lives (ie work and commitments) and then fit our health in. We need to do it the other way around in order to reverse the dramatic numbers of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other illnesses that plague our nation.

Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?

No — but I do think it is more socially acceptable and fashionable to not sleep. Sleeping and napping are not trendy things. If they were, people would prioritize them in the way that they do other tings.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Have an evening routine which incorporates wind down time before getting into bed. Turn off all electronics and either meditate or pray or perform another type of ritual which helps you to wind down before getting in to bed.
  2. Don’t listen to anything that might bother you before you go to sleep. Think pleasant thoughts, keep a gratitude journal, and if anything is on your mind for the next day, make a list for it and set it aside so that you can stop worrying about it.
  3. Add naps into your routine. A 2019 study found that participants who took naps were 48% less likely to have a cardiovascular event. Taking a short nap between the hours of 1pm-3pm in the afternoon has the most amount of benefits. The US Army recently decided to take on a new holistic approach to health within its ranks. The new manual released says, “Soldiers can use short, infrequent naps to restore wakefulness and promote performance… When routinely available sleep time is difficult to predict, soldiers might take the longest nap possible as frequently as time is available.”
  4. Naps are especially beneficial to the central nervous system. They help to reduce stress and regulate our healing nervous systems. They can help us to digest our food better, lower blood pressure, and improve our memory and sexual performance. By reducing the amounts of mental and physical tension we feel, naps help prepare us for the rest of our day without feeling the afternoon slumps. Studies revealed emergency room nurses to be much more productive and efficient after taking 25 minute naps during their shifts.
  5. For those who avoid naps because they fear “sleep inertia,” the feeling of waking up confused, groggy, or disoriented, the key is to take a shorter nap. Ten to twenty minutes might be all you need to refresh and “reboot” your system. If you need to learn a lot of new material, longer naps of around an hour will help. During this time, the brain can transfer information from the hippocampus where it is temporarily held to the cortex where it will be stored permanently.

What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?

To listen to something soothing — there are many nature sounds — from crickets to oceans to relaxing music — even a meditation CD can help you get to sleep again fast — but stay in bed. If it is OK with your doctor, I recommend taking Magnesium Threonate supplements at dinner time to help you sleep through the night. If this is a reoccurring problem, I would make sure that the person isn’t drinking alcohol right before bed and instead encourage them to drink a relaxing tea or perform another relaxing ritual that helps to calm their central nervous system.

What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?

I love them — as I explained in the section above — a 10–20 minute nap in the day can help you to sleep even better at night. There is evidence that different amounts of napping are beneficial to different age groups, just as different nighttime sleeping is. Johns Hopkins University researchers examined a large study of people 65+ years of age from China and found that people who napped for 30 to 90 minutes had better word recall and were better at figure-drawing , than people who did not nap or who napped for longer than 90 minutes. These findings show the effects of napping on memory and cognition.

According to the National Sleep Foundation,” Naps can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. A study at NASA on sleepy military pilots and astronauts found that a 40-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness 100%. Naps can increase alertness in the period directly following the nap and may extend alertness a few hours later in the day.” Napping is also good for brain health. “. A nap can be a pleasant luxury, a mini-vacation. It can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation” says the NSF.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Dr. Joe Dispenza, for the amazing work he has done in helping us understand how to truly heal using the power of our brains.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

@amyriolo — and @amyrioloofficial Facebook and Twitter

@aasriolo Instagram

Amy Riolo Channel on You Tube

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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