A while back, I conducted a little experiment on myself. For three nights I went to sleep at the same time as my preschooler – 7.30pm. I wanted to see how I would feel if I slept more, so I just closed my eyes and drifted off a couple hours earlier than I usually would (it was winter, so it was actually pretty darn easy to do).
The results of my little self-experiment were basically that I felt awesome. Because we totally undervalue sleep and the impact it has on our health.
There was a great study back in the 90s that gave a glimpse into the horror that is sleep deprivation. 11 fit, healthy, young men were allowed eight hours of sleep for six nights, then only four hours for the next six nights, then 12 hours for the last six nights. During their sleep-restricted window, these fit dudes would have been considered prediabetic by today’s standards. And it was nothing to do with what they ate, because they had to have exactly the same diet the entire time. Chronic partial sleep loss just messed with their metabolic function and their hormones. A lot. 40% longer to regulate their blood sugar, 30% decreased response to insulin, less thyroid stimulating hormone and increased cortisol. So like, a lot a lot.
Yet, as a society, we don’t value sleep. If we did, we wouldn’t be staying up late under artificial lights every night. And in winter we’d allow ourselves to sleep even more, because the days are shorter and we naturally produce more of the sleepy hormone melatonin. Instead, we try to get by on as little sleep as possible, with disastrous consequences for our health.
I’m not even going to list the shit-show that is all the negative consequences of not getting enough quality sleep, I think I’ve already said enough. Instead, let’s be proactive and skip straight to how to sleep better.
Wind down an hour or so before bed with a regular routine. A warm bath or shower will help, too. This is because your core body temperature needs to drop enough for you to drop off. Your extremities warm up and your core body temperature drops. A warm shower or bath helps with this transition.
Clearly, humans are designed to be active when it’s light and sleepy when it’s dark. So dim those artificial lights and turn off the ones you don’t need. Hand in hand with this, getting outside during the day will help the transition for your body when it gets dark (see my blog post about sunshine here). Few things irritate me more than having a bright light turned on at night – I swear I can feel my cortisol spiking, making it harder for me to go to sleep. And if you have to get up to pee in the night, try to make your way in the dark or have only the dimmest lights necessary.
Put your phone away. Easier said than done, I know, but that blue light is killer. And no, blue light blocking glasses or a blue light filter on your phone/tablet does not a magic bullet make. It may be a little better for your eyes but your sleep is still affected. Plus, scrolling through social media isn’t a good way to wind down. If you need to have your phone in the bedroom, put it on silent and keep it facedown – you don’t want notification beeps and flashing lights waking you up in the night.
Regular physical activity in the day is wicked good for sleeping at night. Just try not to do it too late in the day, because getting active is stimulating and it won’t help you to fall asleep straight away. It’s more the long term effects of activity we’re talking about here. Bonus points if you get outside!
This is an association thing as much as it is a physiological thing. If your bedroom is prime for sleeping and you only use it for sleep and intimacy, then your brain makes the connection between the bedroom and sleep, helping you to drift off at night.
Don’t sweat it if you can’t sleep
There will be times when you can’t sleep, and the more you try to sleep, the less likely you are to actually sleep. You just can’t force it. Focus on relaxing instead: meditation, deep breathing, gentle stretching, list things you’re grateful for – it’ll all help you to relax, which will help get you to sleep. Remember, no one sleeps perfectly every single night. How you sleep over many nights is way more important than you sleep any one night. So if it’s really not happening, just get up, do something relaxing in another room (with the lights dimmed), and go back to bed when you feel ready.
No, I don’t go to bed at 7.30pm every night. And yes, I totally get sucked into watching stuff on my phone in bed sometimes. But I know that I feel way better when I get enough sleep, so it’s something I’m working on. And you might want to, too. I think we’ll feel much better for it. So go on, conduct your own experiment.