Is there such a thing as sleeping better? Faster? Could I argue that I could sleep 5 hours, and you could sleep 8, but I am better rested?
I think so.
I floated through my first 26 years of life sleeping really well, I still sleep really well but with a bit of investment in to it because I think it’s so so… SO important. The first 26 years I would take it or leave it; a good night’s kip was a bonus, a restless night had to just be dealt with by means of hard caffeine and napping while people were talking to me and that was just the way it went. Lazy thinking on my part and I could’ve coasted through my entire life with that mindset. But once again, curiosity got the better of me.
In the past year and a half I began getting bouts of sleep paralysis (about one a month or every couple) which in short, is one of the most terrifying but alluring things I’ve experienced. It usually involves a distorted state of awareness in consciousness while remaining paralysed half-way between a phase of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and wakefulness. Sleep paralysis is a freakish phenomenon which happens to most people maybe once or twice in a lifetime. Commonly it’s paired with fearful hallucinations of an intruder in the room while you cannot move yet can hear outside stimulus (maybe footsteps in the flat up the stairs, maybe a door closing in another room or voices from people outside) to which you’re unable to react due to being frozen inside your body, and being very aware of this.
I read up about the history of the strange experience, and not surprisingly in the 18th century it was just assumed to be a visit from demons, aliens or ghost-parasites… no biggie!
More recently and gratefully science has moved (lots of us) away from assumptions of angels and demons. Now of course the scenarios are still not ‘real’ and the common shadowed/blurred ‘intruder’ figure is not standing in my room edging towards me as I try to push my body to it’s limits to move a millimetre with no success and more panic.
Sleep paralysis commonly happens in the stages of REM, this is when we’re having the hallucinogenic chemical compound Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) drip fed to our brain by the pituitary gland while laying paralysed with those freakishly fast blinking eyes. So how it is happening does kind of make sense, now why?
It shouldn’t have been but this was the first time I started to think about what is happening during my day — what am I putting my body through and what am I putting in to it that is causing these crazy moments of being trapped in a very thin, fearful layer of reality sandwiched between sleep and waking up. Of course I could have done the lazy western norm and went to the doctor and been handed a bunch of pills which would wreak havoc on my hormones, blood-sugar levels and cortisol while either delaying the problem or relaying it elsewhere — but that’s always been a last ditch effort for me and always will be.
I started digging in to what I could gain from investing time in it, am I wasting my time or not? A bunch of resources from The Lancet Medical Journal (Prof. M. Dahlitz, MRCPsych) to the Harvard Medical Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep turned up the same benefits of taking my sleep more seriously. There’s tons of work out there already done. When I found out what I could be getting out of investing a bit of time in sleep I was immediately on board.
- Strengthens immunity
- Increases muscle mass
- Decreases body fat
- Increases testosterone
- Cleans out your brain of toxins
- Decreases inflammation
- Spurs creativity
- Improves athletic performance
- Increases focus and attention
- Decreases stress
- Improves memory
Yep, I’d like some of that. I think most of the tiny changes I make when I listen to my body telling me I need better sleep are easy and in all honesty, really obvious. But I’ll list the ones which make the biggest change to me, and you can see if they help you at all.
1—Blue wave light exposure
Laying in bed, thumbing through photos you don’t want to look at and complaints you don’t want to read about until you glance up at the clock and realise you’ve lost an hour, shit, better get some kip. Sound familiar? Probably the one we are most guilty of — exposure to blue-wave light (phones, laptop, monitors) late at night. As the sun goes down our bodies slow down production of cortisol, our wakey wakey stress hormone and begin production of serotonin, our sleepy sleepy time-to-relax hormone. Blasting our eyeballs with artificial blue-wave light tells our bodies it’s go time and changes us at a hormonal level. Put down the phone and pick up a book an hour before shut-eye. Our Circadian clock which governs the sleep cycle in response to dark and light knows what it’s doing better than we do!
Caffeine is a stimulant that will keep you awake if you take it too late. Keep in mind that the half-life (how long it lingers in your body) of caffeine is three to five hours, meaning that that cup of Joe you hammered down the hatch at 4pm could still be having a stimulating effect on you at 9pm. I know people who drink tea right before bed and do fine, others like myself — not so much.
On top of that, stay hydrated — caffeine is not your friend here even if you can sleep through it. We have two kidneys that remove toxins from the body and sweep blood for infectious debris. And the entire restoration system runs overtime in your sleep with water. I’d have some of that. Due to air conditioning, caffeine and sugar loaded drinks I’d guess a huge percentage of us walk around with chronic dehydration day-to-day. Tackle that titan and watch what starts to happen to your sleep.
I’ve heard all sorts of crazy things about food. Like the popular ‘don’t eat after 6pm or your body will turn into an obese whale’ junk. Probably best to avoid eating an entire meal before sleep, but seen as this is when your body is going in to physical repair it needs fuel. Small amounts of carbohydrates or clean fats will help produce tryptophan, an essential amino acid for protein synthesis and the sleep-regulating melatonin. Although you’re just laying there having wild hallucinations your body is hard at work and will need fuel. Some clean peanut butter and a glass of milk works for me.
Nope, turning in your bed for four hours before finally getting some shut-eye doesn’t count. I can’t argue with statistics and a study from The National Library of Medicine on Exercise to improve sleep in insomniacs showed that even light weekly exercise improved sleep and lessened anxiety. Your body now has more work to squeeze in to those hours and is going to dig to the later levels of SWS (slow wave sleep) quicker to get to the repair. In the time that I’ve spent measuring sleep, even if I don’t work out that day I try to spend some time stretching out my muscles and foam rolling any knots away normally means much better sleep.
5—Measure it and tailor it
I’m not talking about your bed, although a custom bed is likely not a bad idea. Experiment and use analytics to find better sleep. I downloaded an app called Sleep Time, which I love. It uses the microphone and smart phone’s accelerometer tracking movement and noise to chart your sleep pattern in and out of light sleep, deep sleep and being awake. The alarm clock has a 30-min window which will waken you out of your lightest phase of sleep, rather than hauling you out of the deepest phase — which can have a knock on effect of grogginess and sluggish mental response for a few hours. The app then charts this for you to see night by night how your sleep is going.
At a glance I can see my last five nights of sleep instantly recognise where it’s been good or bad. The orange shows periods of being awake, green is light sleep and blue is my deep sleep. Although none of this is the best feature. The best feature lets me dig a little deeper in to why, and that is really what I need to make any improvements.
The app allows you to add custom tags; ‘ate late’, ‘stressful day’, ‘Not in my own bed’ (Not that I’m often adding that tag!) etc. I can use these statistics to find the best combinations and then all this can be grounded in cold, hard evidence and measured to make better choices! I’ve picked the week’s best sleep and the most fragmented, least efficient sleep from the above chart to show you that I can answer why, and stop just assuming it’s a good or bad night’s sleep and there’s nothing I can do about it.
Does it seem like a serious skill to have? Can you be good at sleeping? You’re damn right! Like I said, none of this seems like revolutionary info and it’s all there to tap in to, I’ve just been a little too busy scrolling through tablets in the dark to see it before.