In my year of getting things done, I never expected that learning how to sleep properly would be one of the most important things that I would be working on. After twenty years of not sleeping well, and developing possibly the worst sleep habits on earth, I am finally working on it. I went from the sleepless nights of restless newborns to blogging and never even realised that my kids were way past the stage of waking routinely through out the night, and yet I was still up at all hours. Years of bad sleeping cannot be remedied overnight… it has been quite a journey. I am sharing it with you, because I believe we all need to sleep better and because if my family hear me say anything more about Sleep!!!…
I have become a sleep advocate.
We live in a culture of not sleeping, we are too tired to even go to bed at night. We might feel worn out and uninspired, unmotivated and tired of everything including ourselves… longing for a holiday, or a weekend off… even a day off. And if you are like me you will change project many times throughout the day to stay awake and will hotly deny that you are sleepy. Well I started this year on an unexpected journey to health, my life has literally turned around… I am getting back the person I once was, without even realising that I had gone somewhere. The Sport Science Institute of South Africa invited me to blog for them, and in exchange I could join their Healthy Weight Programme… Oh my heart I was in heaven, just exactly the push I needed to get exercising, though little did I know what I was in for. Firstly, a healthy weight programme says to me straight away: change your diet and start some exercise… in fact any kind of healthy weight programme will say that.
What I didn’t expect was: diet and exercise and SLEEP. That was a bit of a shocker. Day one and I discovered some alarming truths about sleep… without it you cannot maintain a healthy weight. Your body is in shock mode all the time and whatever you do with your diet and exercise… you will not lose weight… you will also not have any of the other benefits of sleep. In fact you will be seriously compromising your health and happiness.
The way they tackled the sleep situation at the gym was to put a sleep tracker on my arm and ask me to keep a sleep diary… just for a week. The point is, you think you exercise okay, you think you eat well enough… but we all think we sleep more than we actually do. Yup… you can go to gym and up your exercise, you can concentrate on eating healthily… but with a sleep tracker and a sleep diary, it was impossible to hide from my appalling sleep habits and I couldn’t deny them anymore. It’s been nearly three months and I am finally getting my sleep to somewhere close to what it should be, I thought I would share my sleep journey so far… because I know that so many of you reading this blog are convinced that you are sleeping enough, if not well. And truthfully, you are probably not. Basically, we don’t get enough sleep and we don’t understand enough about sleep to realise just how important it is to us.
Most of us know we aren’t getting enough and we are “getting round” to our improving our sleep habits… sometime; Others, claim we are fine and use every excuse available not to get sleep, we do just about anything to avoid getting to bed including dozing off in front a screen in the evening, because we are just too tired to get ourselves to bed; And then there are others who think they don’t need very much sleep and will say that they can fall asleep on the spot, anytime, anywhere… folks, that is not a specially learned skill… it is an indication that you don’t sleep well at all. We live in a culture of self inflicted Sleep Deprivation…
I have been reading this book for weeks now, every single word… I have missed nothing. Turns out, that if you are reading this post then you are human and you need between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night… not 5 because you have a lot of work to do, or 3 because you are reading a good book… not 2 because tonight was bad but you can catch it up tomorrow… you know you won’t. Between 7 and 9 hours a night… sounds like a lot, it is… And we have all heard that there are so many “exceptional people” that only need a few hours sleep a day, well yes, but they actually nap (a lot) and they need just as much sleep as you do… and if they aren’t getting enough sleep then they aren’t going to be exceptional for very long.
The Promise of Sleep in Four Parts
- The Fundamentals of Sleep: In the first chapter the author, William C. Dement, describes a family’s sleep journey through one night. Gasp we were all in there. The teenager that just can’t get to sleep till after mid-night, the father who never experiences deep sleep because he is (dare I say) snoring so much, the mother who collapses on the couch and doesn’t move the ten year old that is the only one that actually experiences deep and restorative sleep… basically preteens are experiencing the best time of their lives from a sleep perspective. This section of the book also explains why we are tired, because we are tired…
- When Sleep Fails: There are so many kinds of sleep problem… folk that find themselves falling asleep when they should be awake, those that find themselves awake when they should be asleep, and those that aren’t even aware that they are not sleeping properly but they are exhausted to the point of dysfunctional… all the time. These problems are real, you need to find yourself a doctor that understands sleep problems and you need to get your problems resolved. Folks, it is just not normal to be exhausted all the time. Sleep problems are a lot more serious than we think they are. When sleep fails there are solutions, but we don’t actively seek them out.
- When Sleep Works: This is where we all fall short, we don’t understand sleep well enough to understand that we need it. In this section all the details of good sleep are described. Good sleep enhances our immune system, does wonders for our moods and why we needn’t bother to cram the night before an exam because we won’t remember it any way.
- The Principles of Healthy Sleep: Finally, you are taken through a step by step guide to figure out how to get the best possible sleep for you. Because your sleep needs are unique to you.
So Why Are We Tired?
Even if we don’t know how much sleep we are getting our bodies know… and our brain keeps tabs on, not so much how much we have slept, but how much sleep we haven’t had. It’s called Sleep Debt. Think of the sleep you didn’t get last night as a brick in your back pack, and the night before another brick and the night before… All those bricks add up really fast. Previously people thought that if you had had a couple of late nights, or worked through a few double shifts then a good night sleep will make everything better. Unfortunately that is just not the case. We need to unload our sleep debt brick by brick until we have levelled the playing fields, so to speak.
And here is a real problem for trying to deal with your sleep debt, that we have natural rhythms… and those natural rhythms wake us… in the morning light, that energy lift after your afternoon slump… you know the times that are great for you to be getting work done and those times of day when you really shouldn’t sit on the couch, because you won’t be getting up for a while. So even if you get a good nights sleep after weeks/months/years of accumulating your sleep debt you just can’t catch it up in a night… you have to sleep a little longer every night and slowly whittle away at your accumulated sleep debt.
What we don’t realise, is that when we are tired… not even to the point of exhaustion and you collapse, but way before that when you start to feel a little drowsy you are actually too tired to do most of the things that we think we are fine doing. Experiments have shown that people have micro sleeps between 3 and 5 seconds long, that we are not even slightly aware of, in fact we are quite oblivious to them. Not to mention that performance tests and reaction tests have shown that driving at just the legal level for drunk driving, is equivalent to driving after a double work shift… as a mom I work a whole lot more than double shifts.
Se7en Steps to Getting Good Sleep
- Do a Sleep Audit: You have to really know how badly you sleep before you will want to change. Keep a sleep diary for a week… and write in it throughout the day. Set your watch alarm to beep on the hour and determine how sleepy you feel. Jot down if you are feeling wide awake and alert, or a little foggy, or desperately tired and unable to keep your eyes open. You will discover firstly how many hours of sleep you actually get and secondly when you are most inclined to take a nap (not a bad thing!!!) and when you are most likely to be alert and getting things done.
- Determine Your Sleep Latency: If a sleep diary doesn’t convince you that you need to sleep more then trust me your sleep latency will. Sleep Latency is the time it takes for you to fall asleep after you have put your head on the pillow. Less than 5 minutes, and you are seriously sleep deprived and dangerous. You should not be driving, using heavy machinery or operating on anybody – just saying. In fact the biggest takeaway from the book is that by the time you feel your eyes drooping you are already asleep and if that is ever the case while you are driving that should be a red alert to pull over immediately, take a nap or call for help. If you take longer than twenty minutes to fall asleep, then you probably aren’t that sleepy get up and do something sleep inducing, like read a boring book. In the book, The Promise of Sleep, the author has a great way to check your sleep latency, because when we are in that initial stage of sleep we often deny that we are asleep, so a test helps: Hold a spoon in your hand and let your arm hang over the edge of the bed. Look at the clock as you put your head on the pillow, as soon as you fall asleep the spoon will drop, clunck… and wake you up again. Check the clock and you will be able to figure out your sleep latency.
- Determine How Much Sleep You Need: My goal is to sleep all the sleep I need in a night and to that end, I shouldn’t require an alarm clock. To get to gym on time for class in the morning I need to wake up at 5:30… counting back the hours I need to be in bed by 10:30 to get se7en hours, which also happens to be the very lowest sleep requirement. I might need more sleep to catch up on my personal massive sleep debt, and so you will often find me in bed earlier… and if I can’t get to bed earlier I think nothing of committing to an afternoon nap.
- Get Used to that Good Feeling of Getting Enough Sleep: When I began gym I was so physically tired from my early start that I was actually tired enough for bed at 8:30 in the evening. I tried desperately to ignore it but I was so tired by the end of the day that I literally could not do another thing and staggered to bed. I quickly realised that if I didn’t get to bed timeoulsy that my gym session would feel so bad the next morning that it wasn’t worth staying up late. Even more critical to my decision to sleep better, was how fabulous I felt when I had the right amount of sleep… really I felt like a different person. After weeks of going to bed earlier and whittling away at my sleep debt I am once again able to get to bed at about 10 pm and wake up timeously for gym. But it isn’t just about gym… I can get up early and love my workout… or get to bed late and survive my workout. I cannot begin to express how much easier it is to hike or homeschool an entire gang of kids when you have chosen to have a good night’s sleep.
- Make it a Habit: Initially I would sleep well for a night or two… and then because I was feeling so good stay up late again… and I would feel so physically dreadful the following day that I couldn’t fathom how I survived for years on so little sleep. At this stage the fear of feeling so dreadful even for one day… makes me head for bed and sleep a good nights sleep every night… it is just not worth being undisciplined about going to bed and then feeling dreadful. I have to say initially all the extra sleep and yes, se7en hours sleep a night was a lot of extra sleep for me, left me feeling so much tireder than usual, but it takes a while and then levelled out. I have to say it gets harder to fall asleep, I used to crash as soon as my head hit the pillow and now it takes a few minutes of concentrated effort to fall asleep. I certainly don’t just nod off any time I sit down in a sunny spot anymore.
- Make use of Your Sleep Diary: I discovered that my most alert time was actually between 4 and 6 pm, and that was when I traditionally was doing end of the day chores and getting ready for dinner, not stuff that requires a whole lot of thinking at all. It has turned out to be a lot wiser for me to sit at my computer then and write, especially since at that stage in the day my kids are hard at play outdoors and definitely don’t want to be called in to do chores. I can’t do it every day, life happens, but when I can I will write out at least the roughs for a number of blog posts.
- You May Have to Fight for It: Once you are aware of your sleep requirements you can be a lot more sure about getting it. Before I began my sleep journey I was a lot more blasé to myself about getting enough. Now I demand it and I will even fight to get it. Previously I was available to my kids 24/7… if they woke me up from sleeping I answered their questions and went back to sleep… If my teens got home in the dead of night I would wake up and listen to them. Now I literally fight for my sleep… last one up put the dishwasher on, I no longer wait to be the last one up. It takes a bit of gumption and tenacity – lose the pride, you really can learn to sleep better.
So I may be blogging a little less, have no fear, I am still here blogging away, but I am determined to get the sleep I need. Now that I have a much better understanding of my sleep requirements, I can’t in all honesty not sleep. It is simply a matter of going to bed. I know sleep is not a topic we talk about a lot amongst each other, except to say how we never get enough sleep… well I am planning to swim against the tide. I am prioritising sleep because I have a feeling everything will come together and run much more smoothly around here when sleep is working well.