My close friends and family will know that I am very sensitive to late nights and missed sleep. I can remember being at the world's longest church service, 9 lessons and carols, and after about 6 lessons, it was 10:30 PM and I decided I had had enough. In the front row of the church I started to cry... sad, sad, tired tears.
This was the first of many exhaustion-fueled cry fests, and was where (from my memory), my mother decided that I was like a pumpkin. Like the pumpkin in Cinderella, you know? I can be a beautiful chariot, but when the clock strikes midnight, or about 10:30 PM in my case, I turn into a pumpkin.
Secrets and the stress of this horrible thing on my leg caused me to experience proper insomnia for the first time in my life. I would go to bed tired, but wouldn't be able to fall asleep. When the sun came up I'd get a red bull, or buy candy from the school vending machines to try and wake me up, but every night I would continue to struggle to sleep, managing 30 minutes to an hour of sleep most nights.
It all came to a head the night I went to see my best friend perform in the high school play. I was really proud of her afterwards and gave her hug. Then it was like I had reached my breaking point of exhaustion and the flood gates opened. I could not stop crying.
All this drama because of sleep, or lack there of it.
Since then missing out on sleep has become an indicator of stress, it has been a guaranteed indicator of getting sick, and is therefore one of my main research obsessions. I love to read about sleep.
Here's Why We Need Sleep
Humans, on average, spend about 26 years sleeping. It has been cited to be the time when our body recovers by repairing and building new tissues and cells and memories so that we may enter into a new day better than we were the day before. Sleep is also cited as a crucial time for healing, specifically in our dreams. Our dreams are this crazy part of sleep that are thought to exist so that we have more time to process complex emotions and situations we may have been in, or are thinking about being in in the future.
Sleep is absolutely vital. There are terrifying studies out there that show what happens to a human when they get absolutely zero sleep, and if you somehow get no sleep for 11 consecutive days, you can actually die.
But the consequences on little sleep can actually begin from just a few nights of sleep lasting less than 7 hours a piece.
For some reason we praise the individuals who are able to "function" on very little sleep. They "get shit done", and are real "disciplined, go-getters". A new study has actually found that getting less than 7 hours of sleep over multiple days can lead to impairment that is worse than drunk driving.
This is because the brain is desperate to sleep. It is a vital function and it will stop at nothing to get those recovery processes done, regardless of what you think you're capable of.
When you don't get enough sleep your brain will shut down certain areas of the brain while you're awake in order to allow those areas to achieve micro-sleeps. Unfortunately this can mean that things like fine motor skills, decision making skills, and good judgement can all be impaired throughout the day. You may think you're doing fine on very little sleep, but the chances of you snacking without realizing, or engaging in risky behaviour go up because the areas of the brain that would otherwise control cravings and risk assessment are turned off.
How Can We Get More Sleep?
I like to think of myself as an expert sleeper. I can reflect on my day and know exactly how well I will sleep that night, if it will be easy, or difficult to fall asleep, and how refreshed I'll feel the next day.
There are a lot of factors that go into the perfect night sleep. I'll go through what contributes to my perfect sleep conditions, and then you can pick and choose what you can adapt and control in your life. Everyone is different in some aspects, like the firmness of pillows and the bed, but there are some biological aspects of sleep that are fairly universal. I'll try to keep to those, but throw in a few personal items as well.
1. Get a blue light filter for all devices.
There is some speculation about the efficacy of blue-light blocking glasses, but I still encourage people to get a blue light filter on their phone and their laptop and to set it to sunrise (filter off) and sunset (filter on). Yes, it creates a weird orange hue, but it also means that your brain won't be confused about whether the sun is up or not.
Blue light is the light that is emitted by the sun and lets our brains know that the sun is up and it is daytime and we should be alert. When our phones, laptops, and tablets emit that light, it basically tells the brain that the sun is never going down.
2. Try not to eat too close to your desired bed time
This is one that I firmly believe in, as the hormones in your body that control sleep work with the hormones in your body that control hunger and satiety. So if you eat late at night, you interrupt the production of melatonin with a new leptin cycle (the satiety hormone).
I have always found, with the exception of drunk snacks in bed (although these have their own consequences), that I have a really hard time falling asleep when I eat right before bed. Some people may not experience this, especially if they have worked late night snacks into the routine of sleep, but for me, eating right before bed is a guaranteed bad sleep.
3. Avoid processed sugars before bed
Everyone knows that sugar can cause a "sugar-high", so not eating it before bed makes perfect sense.
What isn't talked about as much is the fact that eating processed sugars before bed can actually throw off the metabolic and recovery processes that go on in the brain during sleep, and has been shown to lead to irritability and anxiety the following day. This is something that I always notice. Especially after an evening out with friends, sometimes I come home and get sweets to snack on before bed, and the next day I usually have to deal with a few existential crises.
4. Make sure your room is cool and dark
This is a big one for me. I find that I am very easily disrupted by light and a room that is too hot or too cold. This is why I cover all lights on power bars, and chargers, ensure that I have very good blinds on the window, and if I can control it, I make sure there's no light sneaking in under the door from outside.
As for the temperature, this is something that is different for everyone. The home I live in here in Sweden is kept quite warm through the winter months, so I typically sleep with my window open, or light PJ's while I sleep.
They have done studies on this and apparently the ideal sleeping temperature is between 15.5 degrees Celsius and 19.4 degrees Celsius. I'm not keeping a thermometer in my room to know what exactly the temperature is, so I just make sure it's cool and then I can usually fall asleep much faster than when I'm in a warm room.
5. Make sure I have my stress in check
We have all had those nights where we have 1,000,000 things running through out minds and we just can't fall asleep. This is normal and bound to happen, but you can take steps to limit the number of nights this happens to you.
I try to make my pre-bedtime routine as stress free as possible.
My Fitbit has a relax setting on it that takes me through either 5 or 10 minutes of breathing, and I have found that setting to be helpful when journaling and meditation podcasts are not getting the job done (sometimes the person leading the meditation can have an irritating voice on the wrong day).
There's a reason why my PT clients would always be asked about their sleep (and their water intake) when they trained with me.
Sleep is so important. I hope that this article has done its job conveying that message and I hope you all may have sweet dreams tonight!
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's most recent research, her travel adventures, and her personal fitness journey.