Switching off. Why do so many of us find it so hard when surely it is the best thing in the world?!
As a personal trainer my life is spent in a multitude of positions as I jump, lift, squat, push, pull and twist my way through daily life. I love being on the move. I also love nothing more than lying horizontal. Bed is beautiful and one of my favourite places in the world. Silently supportive, it is unconditional love at its best.
For the most part, I am extremely lucky and sleep well. I say lucky but in actual fact I take my sleep very seriously simply because I know just how big an impact it has on me if I don’t get enough. I am grumpy and foggy-minded, I reach for the wrong foods (caffeine, sugar) in a bid to find more energy and generally feel lacklustre and sub-par. This doesn’t cut the mustard in a job that requires endless energy, positivity and motivation. Over the years I have had numerous periods of poor sleep nearly always as a result of my inability to deal with the current stresses in my life and/or over-training. It pains me to say it but yes, you can overdo a good thing. Fortunately for me, these have been episodes only. Some have lasted for months at a time though, and this has enabled me to empathise to some degree with those who suffer from insomnia, which is a whole other beast, one so growly and isolating I can’t begin to see how people function amid the sludge of its weight.
At work, I constantly check in with my client’s quality and quantity of sleep and am no longer surprised that most people struggle to board the sleep train or, if they secure a spot, their body has other ideas at 3am leaving them stranded and wide awake with nowhere to go. The impact of sleep deprivation has been shown to cause insulin resistance and poor glucose tolerance1 leading to poor food choices and weight gain. It affects our concentration, mood, energy & well-being.
Nonetheless, intellectually knowing something doesn’t make it real. We know this and yet, as we choose to pack more and more into our lives and those of our children, we lose the equilibrium of the yin and the yang, of firing up versus winding down, of knowing how to hold on and when to let go. The pressure to achieve more is undercut by the inability to get the fundamentals right and we find ourselves chasing rest rather than allowing it to happen.
The stages of sleep2 are regulated by our circadian rhythm and they tick along in 90 minutes cycles throughout the night. Numerous important biological processes occur whilst we are in the land of nod such as the creation of hormones, repair of cells, elimination of toxic waste and communication of nerve cells.
Fascinating Fact: Our muscles, apart from respiratory and eye muscles, are paralysed (become atonic) during REM sleep so we do not act out our dreams.
GROUNDS FOR FAILURE
There are a multitude of reasons for poor sleep. Here are a few of the obvious culprits:
Poor diet (this clearly covers a multitude of sins…)
Over-consumption of caffeine, alcohol, sugar, stimulants
Lack of exercise
Stress & our methods of coping with it, or not
Parents (I see a theme emerging…)
TV in the bedroom
Too much light
Laptop, tablet, mobile in the bedroom
Consistently not getting to bed early enough
Some of these may be familiar to you (I’m presuming you’ve met your small/big children by now) whilst others you may not connect to at all. I find the one people find the hardest to change is our addiction to devices. We know we have to get up for the alarm in the morning and yet, in a bid to relax we distract ourselves with a show (just the one episode…), social media, a spot of shopping (since when does this save time?) or an interesting article and the next thing we know hours have past and we can’t switch off because our brain has been over-stimulated.
Photo by SHVETS
Enter Sleep Tactics: tossing and turning from side to side like a rubbery, over-cooked pancake; focusing on the back of your eyelids desperately hoping your eyes won’t ping open again; willing your brain to “shut up!” as you try to empty it of thought; alternating poking your feet outside the duvet & pulling them back in again in a bid to regulate your body temperature; spooning your partner, partly looking for some action but also to let them know that you can’t sleep and what are they going to do about it?
Then the dread and panic sets in as you see the hours tick by knowing that pesky alarm is going to bleep all too soon and you’re going to feel and look about 104 come morning. Finally, having re-decorated the house, written a blockbuster and done a full-body wriggle workout, exhaustion steps in and the snoring begins. Bleep! Bleep!
THE NERDY FACT BIT
We are instinctively programmed to rise with daylight and retire at nighttime. When light from any source, be it natural or otherwise, hits our eyes our brain thinks it is morning. This triggers our hormonal system to release cortisol, a stress hormone activated by the light in order to prepare us for movement and activity. Once upon a time, this activity would have been to prepare to fight or flee whereas nowadays, it simply means going about one’s day. The physiology, however, remains the same.
Paul Chek articulates this idea beautifully in his book, “How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy!”:
“As the sun rises, our cortisol levels also rise and peak between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. They then drop a little but remain high through midday, supporting daily activities. In the afternoon, cortisol levels begin dropping significantly, especially as the sun goes down. Decreasing cortisol levels allow the release of melatonin and increase the levels of growth and repair hormones. If we follow our natural sleep/wake cycles, we start winding down as the sun sets and should fall asleep by about 10:00 p.m. Physical repairs mostly take place when the body is asleep, between about 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. After 2:00 a.m. the immune and repair energies are more focused on psychogenic (mental) repair, which last until we awaken.”
Photo by Pixabay
So, how can we be better in bed?
Accept that we need to focus on it, address it and create change.
Then, follow the example we set our kids. That’s right, do as we say. Weird, huh?
We know our kids need plenty of sleep so we teach them to wind down by following familiar rituals around bedtime and ensure they go to bed at the same time very day. We feed them, give them a bath, dim the lights and read them a story. From a book.
TOP TIPS FOR A GREAT NIGHT’S SLEEP
Take regular exercise
Eat a balanced diet aiming to stop eating about 2 hours prior to bedtime
Drink plenty of water, 1.5-2l/day. Try including a pinch of salt to aid hydration & prevent flushing out all the vitamins & nutrients.
Go to bed when you feel sleepy. We run on 90 minute cycles of energy during the day & our sleep cycles follow the same pattern. Roll with this & go to bed when your body is telling you to ride the wave.
Dim the lights & consider blue light blocking glasses (woof!) several hours before bed. This helps reduce brain stimulation from the blue light & sends it a message that it is sunset & therefore time for winding down.
Avoid stimulants from midday. Did you know coffee has a 5 hour half life & a 12 hour quarter life? That means your 3pm pick-me-up cappuccino might be letting you down in the wee hours.
Get daylight in your eyes as soon as you wake. This helps reset your circadian rhythm & is actually more important for our sleep health than going to bed at the same time each night.
Get it on! You know….bumping the uglies, assault with a friendly weapon, matrimonial polka, parallel parking……whatever you call it & however you do it, know that an orgasm releases oxytocin & vasopressin which are two chemicals associated with sleep. Wam, bam, thank you ma’am!
As always, comments, stories, feedback welcome. If you enjoyed this and/or know of someone else who might, please share randomly, widely and plentifully!