Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to get better, more healthful, more restorative sleep.
I re-learned a hard lesson last week, and it was terribly, painfully ironic because I was writing about sleep.
I have this great new schedule where I have more daytime work hours. My husband quit his job to work at home, with me, in large part so that I could get appropriate sleep and be healthier (health isn’t all about the kitchen, which I forget sometimes!!!). I had been doing better overall, as well as I could with a needy nursing-addicted infant, but last week my schedule didn’t have nearly enough writing time in it.
I was doing a lot more posting to fit in all the topics I wanted on the healthy sleep series, and they were quite research heavy posts (meaning time-consuming). I “found” more hours to write by kicking in an old habit – staying up way too late.
I’ve been trying to clock my hours more to figure out how much time I really spend on various parts of my job, and it was a little shocking to see 180 minutes, 3 full hours, spent writing one post…that was nowhere near finished. That time, which started around 10:30 or 11 p.m., was apparently mostly spent either gazing at the screen “deep in thought,” i.e. in a sleepy haze, or actually hanging my head and snoozing at the computer.
How dumb is that?
I seriously make the worst decisions when I’m tired, not the least of which is continuing to stay up, to try to push through and get something done instead of waving the white flag, wrapping it around me like a sheet, and letting my head hit the pillow where it really belongs anyway.
My whole family paid for it all week long with my patience low, temper high, and ability to deal with the normal problems of family life nearly non-existent.
Sound familiar to anyone?
There are plenty of visible and invisible ramifications to being sleep-deprived, which is a true state of life for many of us young parents these days.
What happens when you’re low on sleep?
- Attention span suffers – we feel pulled by every golden trinket that catches our eye!
- Reaction time stinks – in studies, people running on too little sleep perform about as well as those over the legal limit for alcohol, about 50% worse than when they are well-rested. (Including those on simply less than 6 hours per night, not just docs who are up for 30 hours on shift…)
- Cognition is killed – in fact, higher level brain function is the first to get foggy on low sleep. Your energy goes into keeping your body awake and you don’t have enough gas in the tank left for quality decision-making, keeping your emotions in check, social control, and even sticking to your moral guns.
- Your memory gets messed up – in fact, during sleep, our brains process everything from our day and decide what to remember more long-term and what to forget. And forgetting is just as important as remembering so you don’t clutter up your brain with needless information. (That’s why dreams can be so weird, because your brain is literally at work processing your memories!)
- You could get fat (or stay that way)! Sleep deprivation kills your weight goals in two ways – negatively impacting your body’s insulin regulation (and a few other physiological processes) and causing you to make poor choices about “the munchies” when you’re up too late at night, including forgetting how much you’ve eaten. (This podcast at Underground Wellness is truly a great listen!)
- You could get sick (or sicker) – diabetes, obesity, hormonal imbalances and even cancer are higher among shift workers, and it’s thought that sleep and circadian rhythms play a role.
As frightening as the individual and familial consequences of lack of sleep are, the societal problems are there too, almost as much as drunk driving or texting while driving:
According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll, 60% of adult drivers – about 168 million people – say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year, and more than one-third, (37% or 103 million people), have actually fallen asleep at the wheel! In fact, of those who have nodded off, 13% say they have done so at least once a month. Four percent – approximately eleven million drivers – admit they have had an accident or near accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive. (Drowsy Driving)
It’s easy to avoid texting or drinking and driving, but it’s actually pretty difficult to avoid drowsy driving when you’re sleep deprived all the time (raises hand). You can’t get “un-sleepy” very well once you’re already there.
The only solution is to get enough sleep moving forward, right?
It’s Not Only About Hours in Bed!
Sure, you have read that adults need about 8 hours of sleep.
But the same number isn’t true for everyone.
Some people need more like nine hours, some only seven. It’s rare that anyone needs less than six hours for truly optimal functioning, so if you feel like “six is enough for me!” you are either mistaken or special.
In the end, obviously, being in bed, lying down, quiet and trying to sleep is the first and most important weapon in the battle against sleep deprivation. But there are a lot of other elements that deserve to be in your bedtime arsenal because there are reasons beyond “I didn’t get enough sleep” that make people feel tired.
You also need to have quality sleep, sleep that is both deep enough and at the right time of night.
Dan Pardi, a sleep expert who has traveled the podcast circuit with Underground Wellness, Dr. Mercola, Chris Kresser, and Greatist, says there are THREE factors to pinpointing restorative sleep:
- Duration— How long you sleep
- Timing – if your sleep is at a consistent time, and if it’s at the optimal time of day
- Intensity – are you hitting the deep pockets of sleep your body needs to heal and restore function for the next day, or is your sleep disrupted, even without you knowing it or fully waking up?
I’ve shared before on the optimal time of day to sleep (it has to do with your liver!), and it’s pretty commonly accepted that if you can go to bed and get up at the same time each day, your rhythm is better.
But what kinds of things interrupt our deepest, healing sleep (other than the obvious children waking up their poor, haggard parents)?
- snoring spouse
- bedroom too warm
- eating the wrong foods/drink before bed (or all the time, for example heartburn)
- blue light after dark
- pressure from the mattress on our skin (causes us to wake up just a little to roll over so our circulation isn’t cut off)
It’s All About Circadian
Your Circadian rhythm is your body’s 24-hour cycle of growth, rest, wakefulness, etc. It’s largely determined by the amount of light that hits your eyes, and when it’s off, your sleep gets off. When your sleep gets off, your rhythm gets off.
Why is Mr. Circadian important to you?
Circadian rhythms can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions… Circadian rhythms are important in determining human sleep patterns. The body’s master clock, or SCN, controls the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes you sleepy. Since it is located just above the optic nerves, which relay information from the eyes to the brain, the SCN receives information about incoming light. When there is less light—like at night—the SCN tells the brain to make more melatonin so you get drowsy. (National Institute of General Medical Sciences)
It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?
But there is a culprit you can work with without having to go to bed at the moment the sun goes down (which would be pretty hard in northern climates like Michigan where most office workers are driving home in complete darkness in December).
Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light does so more powerfully. (Harvard Health Publications)
Blue light suppresses melatonin and shifts circadian rhythms twice as much as green light. So how do we avoid blue light at night?
- The new energy-efficient CFL lightbulbs = blue light.
- Cell phones, TVs, computer screens = blue light.
This is why many recommend not watching TV right before bed. Is that definitely going to give you insomnia, an obvious sleep problem? Nope.
But there’s a darn good chance it will impact your total restfulness during the night without you even feeling it at the time. You feel it in other hidden ways though, via your alertness the next day, your ability to lose weight, and even your sugar cravings, especially if they kick in with more vengeance later at night (raises hand…again).
Why do You Toss and Turn?
It’s rare that someone is in the same position all night long, comfortably. The pressure your body exerts on your mattress and it on you can be enough to cut off your circulation (it doesn’t take much), and your natural defense mechanism is to fidget, change position, roll over. You don’t even have to wake up all the way to do it, so you may not realize that you are tossing and turning.
The importance of having a great mattress can’t be understated here, because the quality of your sleep is so related to your mental and emotional functioning all day long. It’s not even all about not being sleepy, but about giving your whole body, brain included, a chance to rest and heal during the nighttime hours.
But We Still Don’t Get Enough Hours in Bed
Ok, so it’s not ALL about hours in bed, but no matter how deep and restorative your sleep, you still do need to get enough of it.
And we’re not.
Americans are getting about 20% less sleep now than the average adult in the 1960s. That’s significant! We tend to get used to how sleep deprivation feels on a daily basis because we don’t know any different.
Here’s a thought nugget for you to ponder: How many kids are diagnosed with ADHD simply because they’re not spending enough time in bed (or aren’t getting quality sleep when they are in bed)?
Fixing the Problem: Simple Steps you Can Take NOW to Get Better Sleep
Can you catch up on sleep once you’re behind, or “bank” sleep for another day if you know you’ll have a busy week?
Commonly people have been taught that you can’t, but I did some research into that question last summer and learned some fascinating facts!
You CAN in fact catch up on sleep and even bank sleep, and an earlier bedtime may make an even bigger impact on your health than more total time in bed. Read about all that plus my permanent, sleep-deprived state right HERE.
But just like the problem isn’t only caused by your amount of time in bed, the solution doesn’t lie in an equation either. Here are some super simple things you can do to increase the quality of your sleep and health of your circadian rhythm:
- Get outside just 30 minutes a day. Just half an hour of outdoor sunlight hitting your eyes (don’t wear sunglasses!) creates an “anchor effect” for your circadian rhythm, reducing the negative impact of light at night.
- Dim the lights as the sun goes down.
- Avoid blue light at night. I’m using a free app called f.lux to remove the blue light from my monitors after sundown in my timezone. A bunch of my crunchy friends swear by blue light blocking glasses – I need to get these from Amazon, which aren’t plastic and are super well-made!
- Don’t use a bright alarm clock. Even a little light can mess with your hormones enough to cause cycle imbalances in women with minor fertility issues.
- Go dark – use blackout shades or a sleep mask. Your eyelids aren’t enough to block out light in your room.
Now I know all about sleep, how important it is, how lack of it makes me feel (grrrrrrr!) and what to do about it.
Now if someone could only help me feel assured that I could actually get up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. to get my work done – and maybe get Gabe to sleep longer than a few hours at a crack while they’re at it – life would be grand.
We’re a work in progress here at the Kimball house. How about you?
Click to Read the Whole Healthy Sleep Series:
Images from GraphicStock; used with permission.
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