That ever elusive good night’s sleep!

Image: cartoon of a sheep jumping over fence with the word "sleep" overhead. Credit:
Image: cartoon of a sheep jumping over fence with the word “sleep” overhead.

Sam has written here about sleep a few times, including “Sleep is a Feminist Issue,” “The Puzzle over Too Much Sleep,” “Zzzzzz, Sleep and Fitness,” and “Sleep! Zzzzz.

I talk to so many women who struggle with getting a good night’s sleep. From getting to bed too late and having to get up early, to not being able to fall asleep, to tossing and turning in the middle of the night, to waking up in a puddle of sweat, to a stream of thoughts that just won’t shut down, all sorts of things keep us up at night.

I’ve never had kids, but I remember my mother saying at some point that every kid needs a structured bedtime ritual.  As a child, I had that.  Bath time preceded bedtime, then we brushed our teeth, got into our jammies, and curled up in bed for a bedtime story that one of my parents or, more often, my grandfather, read aloud to us.  I never had difficulty falling asleep. Never woke up in the middle of the night. Never lay awake for hours tossing and turning.

The one the Precision Nutrition habit that has so far surprised me the most is: create and use a sleep ritual.  This surprised me because I never thought of it as part of a nutritional plan to get a good night’s sleep. And I also haven’t given a lot of thought in recent years to the idea of bedtime as involving more than just brushing my teeth and turning out the light.

But it’s a good thing for me to reflect upon lately because my days of being a “good sleeper” (I was sucha good sleeper) are over.  Much of this has to do with hormones I guess. It’s hard to sleep through night sweats.

What I’ve learned and what this New York Times article confirms, is that a good night’s sleep starts way before the light goes out. Like almost anything else that you want to go well, it requires a plan.  In PN terms, that would be the sleep ritual. As part of the sleep ritual, PN recommends a few things:  Start at least half an hour if not a full hour before lights out; at the appointed time, turn off all electronics; do a “brain dump” where you spill everything that might keep you awake out onto a piece of paper; do something relaxing (like have a bath, do a meditation, read some fiction). Of course, the ritual can include the usual things like brushing your teeth and flossing, changing into your sleep wear (or getting naked). They also recommend dimming the lights well before it’s time to shut them off for the night.

These things are all with a view to slowing us down and calming the brain. From the New York Times piece:

Beauty is sleep; sleep, beauty. But in our harried multitasking worlds, sleep, like truth, can sometimes be compromised.

Dr. Wechsler, the author of “The Mind-Beauty Connection,” said that there’s no quick fix to getting enough sleep, only a slow, mindful one.

“There has to be a plan, you have to slow down,” she said. For those who are on the fast track and desperate to look rested, Botox between the eyebrows can help fake it in the short term, she said, but it does not address the root of the problem.

If the root of the problem is a mind that won’t stop, what can we do to slow things down? The article makes a bunch of suggestions:

Enter the lavender pillows, nap pods and masseuses. The sleep-wellness industry is on an upswing as shut-eye becomes an increasingly sought-after beauty experience.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, has a section on its website dedicated to treating sleep disorders with herbals and meditative practices like tai chi. Canyon Ranch is on track to double the number of all-night sleep studies it has conducted in 2013 and 2014. The number of guests choosing rest and relaxation programs at Omega, a holistic center in upstate New York, has increased by over a third since 2006. Other resort offerings include power napping classes, pillow menus and yogic sleep programs.

Another possibility:

cognitive behavioral therapy techniques like “worry journals.” On one page a problem is written out, and on an opposite page a solution, right before bed. Even if the solution is “I’ll figure it out tomorrow,” said Dr. Breus, the act of writing out what’s keeping their brains awake helps his patients “close their minds to their lists of anxieties.” For those who wake up in the middle of the night, he offers an MP3 of a progressive muscle relaxation meditation, similar to what Ms. Harris practices.

Rubin Naiman, a sleep and dream specialist who conducts workshops at ashrams and spas nationwide, emphasized that people should avoid trying too hard to fall asleep and that they need to learn how to “fall in love with sleep again,” adding that it must be invoked “through ritual and pleasure.”

There are even fragrances that are thought to induce calm:

ath and Body Works has an aromatherapy collection called Sleep, which includes a pillow mist, sugar scrub and massage oil. And Hope Gillerman’s essential oil line, which works with acupressure points to ease mind-body stresses, includes a product called Natural Rest Sleep Remedy.

Herbals with calming qualities include valerian and magnolia bark, according to Dr. Breus. As for the soothing elements of lavender, he is supportive of it for setting the mood and causing a relaxation response but not for putting you to sleep.

I find it challenging to implement a solid sleep ritual for all sorts of reasons. Though I’ve stopped watching Orange is the New Black on my iPad in bed as the last thing I do before I turn out the light, I find reading isn’t always a better option for me. I have been known to get so drawn into a book that I can’t put it down.  Sharing the bed with a partner who brings his laptop with him because his bedtime ritual includes watching YouTube videos of sailboats poses another challenge.  I might want a sleep ritual that involves no electronics, but it’s not my right to impose that on someone else.

I also have difficulty starting to wind down much before I’m in urgent need of getting to bed.  But I’m about to be traveling for a week, and I am going to try the 30-60 minute unwind thing while I’m gone: electronics off (this is a tough one for me), dim lights, brush and floss, wash face, change, read, and sleep.

And I’m open to other suggestions, especially about how to implement a sleep ritual that is different from that of  your bedmate.

5 thoughts on “That ever elusive good night’s sleep!

  1. My husband is a night owl and I am a morning person. He likes to get in bed with me when I’m ready to go to sleep, and then he either reads books (with the light on) or reads stuff on his iPad.

    One year for Christmas, one of the things he got me was an eye mask. We laughed about it because ho ho, so funny, I like to sleep while he reads. And then I started using it, and it has honestly been the best (in terms of usefulness) gift he has ever given me.

    I can still tell that the lights are on when I wear the mask (we are now on mask #2 because I wore out the first one until the elastic on it gave out) so it isn’t ideal, and if I’m still awake when he turns out the light, I can flip that thing off quick as a wink, but it has definitely helped.

  2. I am a lover of earplugs. My partner has apnea and snores, so they are pretty essential. They don’t block out all the sound, but they muffle it some. I bring it up because it has become part of my ritual, so now I take them even when traveling. Just putting them in cues my brain that it is time to sleep. It really helps with falling asleep quickly.

  3. Good thing my partner doesn’t always read the blog! No movies in our bed, unless I’m asleep already, on the reasoning that he can watch elsewhere but I can only sleep there. I also use an app on my phone that starts dimming blue light in the evening. Think it’s called twilight.

  4. I’m a bit of a sensitive flower when it comes to sleeping, so I have to have the conditions just right otherwise I’m awake half the night. I almost always have the window open, even in the dead of winter, and I have a black-out blind to block out as much light as possible.

    I also do what I can to switch off my thoughts before going to bed, which is a challenge given that I’m a chronic worrier. I find stopping doing anything that involves actively using my brain at least an hour before going to bed helps, as does reading a book or doing some knitting. I also have a journal that I write my thoughts into before I go to bed. This is particularly good as writing my thoughts out helps me to process them, so they’re not churning around in my head when I should be sleeping.

    I don’t have a partner at the moment, but if I did I would be strict about no lights or computers in the bedroom if I’m asleep or trying to get to sleep.

  5. I work out at night, so when my head finally hits the pillow, I’m out!

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