In 2007, Arianna Huffington, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, found herself lying on the floor, surrounded by blood. A long-time workaholic, she had collapsed from exhaustion and broken a cheekbone in her fall.
Before her accident, she, like millions of others of us, took pride in how little sleep she needed; convinced that working until late into the night and being on-call even while sleeping, proved what an important high-achiever she was.
Sleep research is rapidly putting the lie to these notions. Here is a bit of what the evidence seems to be telling us.
We need more sleep
Statistics Canada says that one-third of Canadians are getting less than seven hours of sleep a night, down by an hour a night since 2005. Apparently, we should all be getting closer to eight hours of sleep a night.
We need sleep to form and hold memories and to slow the onset of dementia. “Sleep spindles,” created while we sleep, take what we learned the day before, stored during the day in our hippocampus, and lock it into our memory, thus clearing space in the hippocampus for what we will learn the following day.
According to sleep researchers, when we sleep fewer than six hours in a night, we do not form enough spindles to allow us to retain memories from the previous day.
Lack of sleep is also associated with weight gain. There seem to be a number of reasons for this: when we sleep less, we have more time to eat; we tend to make poor food choices when we are tired, heading towards high fat and sugar foods that give us a quick hit of energy, and, when we are tired from lack of sleep, we are less inclined to exercise.
My own experience with sleep
Until a badly broken arm several years ago significantly disrupted my sleep for several months, I fell asleep promptly when I went to bed and stayed asleep until I woke up five to six hours later, pretty much every night.
I knew from friends the agony of sleeplessness – the tossing and turning to get to sleep, the middle of the night reading once awakened and the inability to get up in the morning because of exhaustion – and felt really fortunate to be free of such troubles.
However, the disruption to my sleep caused by my broken arm seemed to start a spiral down in my sleeping skills, which has just been further aggravated by ageing. I can still fall asleep ridiculously easily: my partner jokes that I nod off in bed before my head hits the pillow. But for a few years now, I have not been able to stay asleep. I wake up and my mind immediately begins whirling with thoughts both important and trivial; thoughts that seem impossible to banish.
I will admit, too, that I have been one of those extremely annoying people who likes to boast about how much I can get done in a day because “I don’t need sleep.” Obnoxious as it is, I have tended to see early rising as proof of moral virtue and sleeping in as a sign of indolence. I failed to see, as Huffington points out, that “exhaustion is a sign of chaos, not a badge of honor.”
But, in recent months, I have admitted to myself that I am, in fact, tired a lot of the time and would like to sleep both better and more.
“A good day starts the night before”
Huffington has developed a five-step bedtime routine that she says will improve both quantity and quality of sleep:
- Take 30 minutes to wind down before getting into bed, during which time you turn off all devices and remove them from the bedroom.
- Take a hot bath.
- Wear what she calls “dedicated pyjamas,” rather than gym clothes or something else repurposed into pjs.
- Only do non-work reading in bed.
- Take a few minutes to think of (and maybe even write down) three things from your day that you feel gratitude for.
Canadian writer, Chris Advansun, has turned to writing bedtime stories for grownups, which you can find on calm.com. His goal is to get the attention of the listener at the beginning, then “hold it gently” until the listener drifts off to sleep, hopefully before the end of the story. He avoids plot lines that involve conflict and says his stories are neither boring nor exciting.
My new sleep strategies
Whether or not it’s due to my new sleep strategies, I am sleeping better now than I have for several years.
My new approach starts in the morning, when I take 30 minutes for reiki, which grounds me (more or less) for the day.
At bedtime, I get into my bed wearing pyjamas, as opposed to the sweat pants and t-shirts I wore for years. I put lavender oil on my temples and crawl under the covers to read. When I think I am close to falling asleep, I don my nite hood, turn my sound machine on and drift off to sleep to the gentle sounds of waves crashing on the beach.
Since implementing this system about a month ago, I am sleeping longer, going back to sleep more quickly when I wake up in the night and sleeping more deeply.
May all of you find the tricks that give you equally good slumbers.