How and why to sleep well

I’m not an ‘early bird’ or a ‘night owl’. I’m more some kind of ‘permanently exhausted pigeon’.

From https://www.gemmacorrell.com/

No, that’s not quite the truth, it’s just a quote from Gemma Correll’s brilliant comic that I like. I’m more of an early bird these days. But I do seem to need more sleep than your average bear.

Sleep is so very important. I’ve been reading the book Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang and I’ve learned a bit about what sleep can do for you:

  • It helps your body to grow
  • It helps your body to fight infection
  • It helps your body to repair wounds and scratches
  • It is a time when myelin is generated (a substance that helps your body to send nerve signals and is damaged in MS)
  • It is a time when your brain washes out toxins
  • It is a time when brain injuries are repaired

Lack of sleep is associated with increased risk of ulcers, heart disease, breast cancer, diabetes, dementia, and cognitive decline.

Sleep is a time when your brain solidifies its memories. Visual, emotional and procedural memories are solidified during rapid eye movement sleep, and verbal memories during slow wave sleep.

And while we sleep, our subconscious mind works on problems from the day, which can lead to moments of insight. We can wake up and find that our problems are solved!

When we are busy or trying to be productive, it can be tempting to cut into our sleep time. To think of sleep as unproductive, wasted time.

‘No sleep is going to be lost time’ says Pang. And when I look at the list of things that sleep helps with, I have to agree.

Sleep occurs in cycles that are 90 – 110 minutes long. If you get woken in the middle of a sleep cycle you feel groggy and horrible. But waking at the end of a cycle makes you feel more refreshed.

You can plan for this by looking at the time you wake up and counting back in 90 minute blocks to find the best time for you to go to bed. For example, if you need to wake up at 6 am then going to bed at 10.30 pm will get you five full cycles (if my maths is correct) and 7.5 hours sleep. 

I need more like 9 hours sleep myself, but my husband Moz is fully loaded at 7.5 hours. A while back, he would do his best to head to bed at 10.30 pm in an attempt to get all his cycles in before the alarm went off in the morning.

There was a problem with this calculation though. The thing was that in order to get all the sleep he needed, he had to drop off to sleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He came to bed needing to fall asleep straight away. And that kind of stress is not very sleep-inducing.

Now, he’s fixed that by heading to bed a little earlier. He’ll be reading in bed at around 9.30 or 10 pm and turning the light off shortly thereafter. That means that often his sleep cycles finish early in the morning. He often wakes quite relaxed and refreshed at 5am. But that’s ok. He just gets up and goes to his study (leaving me still peacefully snoring) and plays on the computer or peruses the internet until it’s time to get going for the day. The activities he used to do at night he now does earlier in the morning. And he’s a lot less stressed, but he’s still getting the sleep that he needs.

There are even smart watches that keep track of your sleep cycles. You can tell them the time that you need to be awake and they will use a vibrating alarm to wake you at a time near to that where you are in a good place in your sleep cycle and less likely to be groggy. No more waking out of deep sleep to the insistent buzzing of an alarm.

Even naps are helpful. Did you know that Winston Churchill took afternoon naps all the way through World War II? Even a five minute nap apparently helps your memory work better. A 30 minute nap helps renew your depleted energy (I took one of those right before writing this) and a longer nap can cut your day in two so that you can work longer into the evening. 

I know that some people who nap for longer wake up feeling disoriented and groggy, so I prefer a nice 30 minute nap. Enough to restore energy, but not too deep into the sleep cycle.

I want to finish with a few tips for getting yourself a good night’s sleep. 

Turn off your screens an hour or so before going to bed. The blue light from screens keeps you awake and the dopamine hits from social media or the adrenaline from playing games or watching TV dramas are not going to help with the calming down either. A book is a great alternative.

Keep your screens and your work out of the bedroom. Use the bedroom for sleeping. Keep your work life elsewhere in the house so you’re not drawn to worrying about it at night.

If worrying about things keeps you awake, choose a time of day when you will worry, either a few hours before bed, or first thing in the morning. Dedicate that time to worrying and write down your worries. Then give them to God (I put them in a shoebox that is God’s inbox). When worries wake you at night, you can tell yourself that you will worry about that in your ‘worry time’ and go back to sleep. (It sounds strange, but it works for me.)

Make sure you do some exercise, again, earlier in the day and not immediately before you’re going to jump into bed and turn your light out. And make sure you don’t drink caffeine late in the day either. Most people stop drinking caffeinated drinks after lunch so that the caffeine has a bit of a chance to leave their systems.

A warm, milky drink before bed and a cool room should be a good combination that will lead to a peaceful and restful night’s sleep.

I am still working on my sleep habits. But I know it’s worth working on and getting right. Sleep is not wasted time, it is incredibly important for both mental and physical health. I hope you can prioritise your sleep and be energised and ready to face each new day.

PS here are a few websites you might also find helpful 🙂

https://www.healthline.com/health/sleep/sleep-calculator#not-enough-sleep

https://startsleeping.org/sleep-calculator/

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/sleep-hygiene#general-suggestions

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