You know that feeling that you often have; foggy head, snapping at family or co-workers, a sluggish demeanour? A typical Monday potentially? A lack of sleep, or a lack of quality sleep, is often the number one culprit for these and many other chronic health symptoms that we experience beyond Mondayitis. Dr. Michael Roizen claimed “sleep is the most underrated health habit” and I agree. It’s one of the easiest and cheapest (well free) yet underutilised way for our bodies to be operating functionally.
In today’s society, it seems to be a race to the bottom for who can survive on the least amount of sleep. Sleep, or rather the lack of sleep, has become a badge of honour and a symbol of our strength and power in the workplace. Anne-Marie Slaughter has labelled this time macho; “the relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you.” It’s like we think we’re making our bodies rich, but really we’re just going further into a sleep debt that is hard to recover from.
The shut-eye that you get every night needs to be perceived as more than just a time lapse till the next meal. This current perception is one of the main contributors as to why we face a sleep deficit. The reason the quality of sleep is often so bad is the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) throughout the day. Our SNS system is responsible for the fight or flight response. The stress, caffeine and deadlines we endure on a daily basis force our bodies to operate in a constant state of fight or flight. When we don’t expel this adrenalin, our bodies look for the next ‘hit’ of glucose to burn (instead of fat!) and without we begin to feel anxious, lethargic and irritable. Talk about a roller coaster for the body.
Sleep is meant to be a mechanism for the three R’s: restoration, repair and rejuvenation. There is literally no element of life that is not diminished by a lack of sleep. But how many people bound out of bed and feel energised after their 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep?
A study published in Science calculated that for the sleep deprived, an extra hour of sleep can do more for their daily happiness than a $60,000 (USD) raise! Of course, the science of getting more and a better quality sleep is all good in theory, but how do you put it into practice with all these competing demands?
Below are the five top ways to get better nights sleep.
#1 Treat sleep like a ritual: Commit to forming a sleep ritual every night. It might be a warm bath or shower, slipping into pyjamas that aren’t your old t-shirt from college but something specifically bought for sleeping, dimming the lights in the bedroom, and reading one page of your favourite book before hitting the hay. Commit to a set time that you’re going to go to bed every night for 30 days and treat it like an important business appointment that you can’t be late for. Going public with your sleep commitment – just like Arianna Huffington famously has – can be one of the best ways to adhere to it by including others to help you stick to your pact!
#2 Turn your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary: It baffles me how many people have made their bedroom into a multi-purpose room; a lounge room, a dining room, a tv room. I give them credit for adaptability with the space, but a bedroom should stay as a bedroom! Nothing but a bed, a bedside table and lamp, and some really great curtains. Treat the bedroom like a sanctuary where only sleep happens. Make sure it’s completely dark, as light destroys the natural melatonin which helps us to sleep. This darkness includes the absence of all electronic devices which leads us to number 3…
#3 Unplug yourself: Some people are going to think I’m suggesting cutting off your life support or an IV drip, but turning of all electronics at least 20 minutes before bed is a proven way to increase your sleep quality. That means all screens – laptops, tablets, smartphones, TV’s. At first if you think it’s not doable (some people have even told me they got the shakes and felt naked and vulnerable!), start with a five minute switch off before bed, and then every couple of nights add another five minutes to the tally.
#4 Activating the Brakes: So think for a moment that your body is like a car. When the SNS system is switched on, it’s like pushing the accelerator in the car and you steam ahead at full speed. But unless you want to be driving around all night, we need to switch on the breaks and bring the car to a halt. That’s where the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) comes in. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down. There are several key ways to engage the PNS including: avoiding all caffeine after 2pm (including black tea!), any form of exercise but especially yoga and tai chi, and relaxation methods which relates to number 5…
#5 Learn How to Really Breathe: How many times have you hopped into bed and then 1000 different thoughts start racing through your head? Calming down the mind before we go to sleep is an art, but like all techniques, practice makes perfect. Focus on the breathe. Start by performing 10 deep abdominal breathes before slowing down your breathing and counting the breathes. This really focuses the mind on one thing and allows the body to relax. While I don’t normally recommend meditation before you go to sleep, there is a meditative relation exercise that promotes sleep and takes less than a few minutes. Close your eyes, and begin to visualise any stress or tension starting from your toes. Imagine it being expelled from the body all the way up to the tip of your head. Focus on each body part and think of any stress or tension like champagne bubbles leaving the body. When I do this exercise I often don’t make it past my knees before I’m in dreamland, but try it out and see where you get to!
If you want to perform at your peak and reduce the impacts that stress has on the body, focusing on your sleep is one of the easiest ways to do it. The best part is, it doesn’t require a pill, a vaccine or a certificate. The importance we should give to sleep really gives a new meaning to the quote “sleeping our way to the top”.