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Sleep Like Your Life Depends on It
Why do we sleep? The cost of sleeplessness & 5 tips for better sleep
I hope this email finds you well. If you’re new here, welcome!
My name is Ben. Each week, I send out an email about something I'm learning on my journey to a more meaningful and healthy life.
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This week, I want to talk about something I’m currently dealing with, something I am sure you can relate to.
For the past few weeks now, I've been having trouble with my sleep.
I go to bed early enough but then I have difficulty falling asleep.
I’ve been tossing and turning in bed, which has led to frustration and a growing sense of powerlessness.
I've built up a sleep deficit that has left me feeling exhausted.
I’ve noticed the impact on my mood and on my body. I'm less patient, present and focused. My body feels like it's falling apart.
My emotions are running away from me more than they should.
So this week, I spent time to learn more about sleep.
Why is it so important? And, more urgently, how can I improve my own?
I listened to an audio series on the Waking Up app called The Kingdom of Sleep by sleep researcher Matthew Walker and took notes.
(By the way, if you want a free 30-day trial to Waking Up, let me know in the comments below and I'll send you a referral link).
When you think about it, sleep is a very strange thing.
Our heads hit the pillow, we close our eyes and — poof! — off we go.
We’re whisked into an in-between state somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness. For several hours, we stay there, largely unresponsive to the outside world.
How did being so physically vulnerable for such extended periods of time help us survive?
From an evolutionary point of view, it doesn't make much sense.
Yet sleep was never selected out.
Not only that, some form of sleep exists in all animal species, which tells us it has been part of our evolution since the beginning.
There clearly is something about sleep that is absolutely fundamental to life.
Why do we sleep?
We now know that sleep is vital for both our physical and mental well-being.
Getting enough sleep enhances the operation of every single one of our body's interconnected systems. It does this through various processes such as the regulation of hormones or the clearance of metabolic waste.
Sleep is also critical in memory creation, and thus to our capacity to learn. It enables our brains to process information, create memories and then interconnect those memories.
This is why it's always a good idea to sleep on a problem.
Sleep is therapy. It helps us make sense of difficult experiences by disassociating the emotive component from the experience itself, allowing us to gain a more rational perspective.
In other words, we go to sleep with an emotional memory but wake up with the memory of an emotional event.
The cost of sleeplessness
On the flip side, a lack of sleep negatively affects each one of the body's systems.
The reality is that a chronic lack of sleep can, amongst other things, lead to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer's.
And a lack of sleep also affects our mental health.
When we don't get enough sleep, the emotional part of the brain gets more reactive and the prefrontal cortex, which keeps emotions in check, is deactivated.
We instinctually know this: how we behave during the day is influenced by how well we slept the night before.
More tellingly, the neurological profile caused by a lack of sleep is similar to that of depression and especially to anxiety disorders such as PTSD and phobia disorders.
5 Tips for better sleep
As troubling as the lack of sleep is and feels, it is treatable.
Changing our behaviours and attitudes around sleep is understood to be the most effective at working through insomnia.
Here are some tips that can help:
Tip 1: Maintain a regular sleep schedule
Our body’s internal clock-keeper, something called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, works best when our go-to sleep and wake-up times are regular.
So try to fall asleep and wake up at the same time every day.
No matter how little sleep you actually got the night before, avoid sleeping in or taking a nap during the day. Instead, return to your regular sleep schedule as fast as possible.
Tip 2: Expose yourself to light and darkness
Our bodies use light to calibrate our circadian rhythm, which tells us when we should be asleep and when we should be awake.
Darkness signals our bodies to release melatonin, a hormone that helps set this cycle. Conversely, the entire light spectrum inhibits melatonin release.
All of this is problematic because most of us live in environments that are devoid of darkness.
So it’s best to avoid lights, especially blue light, at least one hour before bed. Then make sure to sleep in a room with little to no ambient light.
In the morning, try to do the opposite. Expose yourself to as much natural sunlight as soon as possible after waking up.
Getting more light exposure throughout the day will help your body better calibrate its circadian rhythm by extending the variance between the high peak of wakefulness and low trough of sleep.
Tip 3: Control for Temperature
Temperature is conducive to good sleep.
Our body's internal temperature actually needs to drop by about 1°C (1.8°F) to fall asleep. It then needs to remain cool to stay asleep throughout the night.
That is why sleeping in a room with a temperature of around 18.3°C (65°F) is recommended.
The body's internal temperature will then need to rise to wake you up. Drinking a warm drink in the morning will help you wake up, even if it doesn't contain caffeine, by increasing your core temperature.
Tip 4: Make your bed a place to sleep
As I discussed in Play the Long Game, habits work by associating certain cues to specific actions.
For this reason, only use the environment in which you sleep to do exactly that — sleep and relaxation.
Doing other activities, such as checking emails or watching videos, will subconsciously cement your bed as a cue for mental stimulation.
For the same reason, do not let your bed become a trigger for anxiety.
If you can't fall asleep within 30 minutes, get out of bed. Go to another room and engage in a relaxing activity.
Then only go back to bed once you feel tired enough to fall asleep.
Tip 5: Live in accordance with your chronotype
We all have natural tendencies of when we want to be awake and when we want to be asleep. This is known as the body’s chronotype and ranges on a spectrum from Morning Type to Evening Type.
Take a Morningness Eveningness Questionnaire and discover where you fall on that spectrum; then try to live in accordance with it.
That might not be possible but knowing your natural preference will help you make decisions that are favorable to you.
As I write this, I'm still feeling completely phased by my recent lack of sleep. Yet learning more about sleep has given me a fresh perspective that feels empowering:
Sleep isn't just another activity we can choose to do or not. It is absolutely fundamental to who we are. We have no choice.
Sleep is the price we must pay for being awake.
And, if we don’t diligently pay our debt, we will have to pay the consequences.
For now, I'll continue to focus on getting a more regular sleeping schedule and will try to get as much early morning sunlight as I can. With diligence, I'm confident my sleep will benefit.
How about you?
Are you experiencing any challenges or successes with sleep you’d like to share?
I'd love to hear and learn from your experience.
In the meantime, be well and have a wonderful weekend.