I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Sleep is a crutch. These are things I used to say myself. At 24 I had a packed schedule of personal training clients and a social life. I started work at 5:15am and finished often after 7pm sometimes as late as 9pm. I still went out with friends, watched all my shows, and existed in a world that I wore a badge of honor over how little sleep I got and could still function on. I may have been functioning but I didn’t spend much time evaluating how well, or unwell, I was functioning. What I came to find was that I was just getting by. Why, oh why, do we spend our lives just getting by?
I had to hit a couple walls before I started evaluating the quality of my life. First it happened with exercise, then with food, then sleep, money, self-love, parenting. It was an evolution. While exercise and food set me up with an amazing foundation it was the sleep that gave me what I needed to carry out the rest and to keep going. Prioritizing sleep made all of the other things easier. I am not one to look for the simple solution. In my experience I’ve found that simple solutions at best serve as a bandaid to a problem. It usually turns out that the shortcut takes you where you want to go but you end up on the opposite side of the road and triple the distance before you are able to circle back around. Once I realized sleep needed to become a priority in my life I began to research. I came across a book called The Sleep Revolution, a book written by The Huffington Post co-founder and editor in chief Arianna Huffington after she found herself in complete burnout. In the beginning of the book she says:
“Instead of questioning how we live our lives, we fall prey to sophisticated marketing that promises us health, happiness, sleep and energy. And who wants to be the naysayer, the Luddite who rejects such progress? A great deal of ingenious and insidious brain power, along with billions of dollars, goes into selling us a solution that doesn’t actually solve our problems but only disguises or prolongs them.”
Me. I want to be the naysayer. I want to be the Luddite. At least when it comes to taking the shortcuts, buying the pills, and trying to change our lives without questioning how we’re actually living them. Sleep is a time of intense neurological activity - a rich time of renewal, memory consolidation, brain and neurochemical cleansing, and cognitive maintenance. Does that really sound like something you’d want to put off until death? A lot of healing happens when we sleep: the activity of the lungs and heart is reduced to a minimum; our body’s temperature, blood pressure and pulse rate all fall and our muscles relax. This allows the cells of our bodies to carry out essential repairs, to grow and regenerate. Even when I was eating healthy and working out a lot I wasn’t able to see or feel the results I was going for. My body didn’t have enough time to rest, my body wasn’t given the chance to repair the muscles I was working. My immune system suffered and the rate of small injuries, extreme soreness, and overall grouchiness soared.
I work with a lot of people who are desperate to lose weight. They want to workout, they want to eat healthier, but they simply don’t have the energy. Usually we’ll come to find that their quality of sleep is similar to a mother with a newborn. The problem here is these people are still usually feeling like they simply aren’t doing enough; these same people will try to push themselves harder and dig the hole of desperation even deeper. It’s time to question how we live our lives. It’s time to prioritize and it’s time to move sleep much closer to the top of that list. Here are a few simple steps I took that made a huge impact in the quality of my sleep and in turn the quality of my life.
One: I gave my cell phone it’s own bedroom.
This was by far one of the best decisions I ever made. I had always used the “night shift” on my iPhone which automatically switches from the smartphones bright blue light to softer warmer colors. The bright blue light that your smartphone and your television emit actually causes the brain to stop producing melatonin, a hormone that gives your body the “time to sleep” memo. Making this small change didn’t stop me from spending an extra hour scrolling my phone at night or reaching to scroll social media if I happened to wake up in the middle of the night.
Two: I started a wind down routine.
A wind down routine starts an hour or two before you want to go to bed. That means no phone, no television, and no over-the-top activities. It’s like a relaxation room at a spa. You want it to be quiet, serene, and full of things that will promote a restful sleep. A good book, a hot drink (that isn’t caffeinated), and soft lighting. Don’t be discouraged by imaging this to a grand routine that you jump straight into. If you can avoid taking your work to bed with you, that would be a perfect starting point. Slowly work your way to a routine one baby step at a time.
Three: I started data dumping.
If you have a mind that is constantly racing it’s going to be difficult to relax let alone fall asleep. If there is something on my mind that needs sorting out or is causing worry I write it down. I start writing until I’ve got it all out, it doesn’t need to be a perfect list or even make perfect sense as long as I’ve gotten it out of my mind and on to paper I know it will be there for me to handle in the morning. You could make a ‘worry’ list and then make an action column, writing everything you need to do as well as people you can contact to help you. Keeping a notepad by your bed will assure that you are able to save all of the data keeping you up at night and know you are able to sleep now and be well rested and better equipped to handle it in the morning.
Four: If I’m hungry, I eat.
Eating after 8pm will not make you gain weight. As always the impact of food and weight gain has to do with your overall intake, overall expenditure, and the quality of your food. If you are hungry before bed eating a good quality snack before bed actually helps build and repair muscle tissue, and may even improve your heart health. Eating when you are hungry will help maintain blood sugar levels and will ultimately help you sleep better.
Five: Get a good quality alarm clock.
I don’t mean quality as in expense, I mean quality as in its features and benefits. The most common argument I get for not wanting to give a cellphone it’s own bedroom is people using their phone as their alarm clock. The alarm clock that I use is actually Vimicy Wake Up Light Alarm Clock, a whopping $20 purchase from Amazon. The Vimicy has a thirty-minute wake up light window before the preset alarm time. A wake up light simulates what the rising sun should do, gently pull us out of slumber. The light starts dim thirty minutes before your alarm time and gradually increases in brightness giving your brain and body time to gently come out of sleep as opposed to a jarring buzzing ripping you from a restful sleep. No one likes to wake up to that alarming alarm. These wake up lights also offer options for nature sounds as opposed to buzzing. This makes for a better way to peacefully start the day.
While some claim our sleep requirements are thought to be genetically determined I’ve yet to find a person that would not benefit or function higher with at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Those that are consistently getting less than they need are courting chronic exhaustion. This doesn’t happen overnight but in several stages. At first we may feel an ordinary sort of tiredness which can be dealt with fairly easily. You can even carry on or “function” at this pace. If ignored, this can develop into the next stage where rest and sleep is no longer refreshing. We’ll keep going, stopping only when a flu knocks on the door. We can avoid these acute episodes of illness by actually getting rest when we are overtired. As you start to question how you’re contributing to poor sleep habits, be kind to yourself. The best changes come with well laid plans and baby steps. It can take two or three weeks for your body to catch up on a sleep deficit or to adapt to a new schedule so give yourself enough time and space to implement these strategies into your life before giving up.
Sweat & Smiles (and well rested),