I woke up at 4 am, again. I sighed and clicked open my iPad to “read myself back to sleep.” Two hours later, I was an expert on the refugee situation in Germany and Sweden, and it was time to get up. This could have been any night in the past several years for me.
I wake up from these nights feeling like I’ve been scraped out and now I have to haul my empty flapping body around for the rest of the day. I kick myself into something resembling awake and feint my way through the day, revving on caffeine, sugar and the thought of bedtime. At least half the time, my intention to work out disappears, and then I repeat the cycle the next night.
Apparently, when I was 7, this was not a problem.
I know there’s a mutually reinforcing loop between exercise and sleep, but it feels like the slightest tweak in the wrong direction and I can’t do either of them. We know that sleep deprivation depletes our physical and mental health, and most of us know what we’re supposed to do for good sleep hygiene. But in the “keeping myself fit” zone, sleep is the thing I have the least discipline about. I watch TV in bed before I fall asleep, read on my ipad, don’t do the mint tea/melatonin/quiet reading routine of settling myself down I know I should. And I can’t quite figure out why that is.
I wanted to know if I was alone in this, so I conducted a mini research project earlier this week. In two days I got back 19 detailed responses from my immediate circle — people have a lot to say about their sleep, it turns out. (“Sleep is the new sex,” said Sam. “But you can talk about it!”).
I asked people to describe their last excellent sleep. It amazed me how many remembered specific episodes, and talked about them in detailed, poetic terms: “It was with a special someone…”… “a month ago, on January 7…” “two years ago, after taking a long train…” “I had no commitments at all on the Sunday so I didn’t set my alarm. I had spent the day on Saturday writing and meditating and I got some yoga in as well.”…”I was at a meditation retreat and I slept on a mattress on the floor of the dining room and it was far away from a road and quiet.”… “in Montreal five years ago, on a trip for a work conference and it was at a Sheraton hotel. I went out for dinner with friends, came back to the hotel room, drank wine in the bath and slept for 9 hours straight. It was magical.”
For about half of the people who responded to me, their “excellent sleep” memory was a time out of routine or away from home, an unfettered space where they could be completely unconstrained. And that liberation led to them being more fully themselves. I asked them to describe what it felt like to wake up after a good sleep:
…”Refreshed and grateful…” “Rested, awesome, energetic.” “Such a relief… my brain felt like it was fully on and I was able to accomplish more that day.” “My body wanted to stretch and I was gleeful that I had nothing to do except what I wanted to do”…”Waking up from a better than usual sleep feels luxurious, like I’ve spent a day at the spa, like I am all of myself.”
Sleep is essential to fitness and performance, according to Jackie Mccaffrey, a holistic nutritionist in Toronto, whose clients include athletes, dancers and performers, as well as people who just want to feel as healthy as possible. “When we’re sleep deprived, our body increases the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in order to give us energy.”
The people I spoke to all had a felt sense of the charmed loop between exercise and sleep, noticing that they tended to sleep better if they had exercised that day, and that sleeping badly made it hard to “drag themselves to the gym.” One mused, “I’m not fit right now and I’m certain this affects how deeply I sleep. I think the deeper I sleep, the better able I am to ignore the feeling of having to go to the bathroom and thirst… the vicious cycle. Then I’m sure that feeling under-rested during the day adds to my disinterest in exercise.”
That cycle takes multiple forms. “Working out doesn’t necessarily translate into a good night’s sleep for me, but having a bad sleep can make for a horrible, worthless workout or competition,” said my friend who took up downhill ski racing in her early 50s. “I have found it’s better to switch to a yoga class when sleep deprived, rather than sticking to a high intensity agenda.”
That strategy is a good one, according to Jackie. “We need sleep for our muscles to recover from exercise through the release of Human Growth Hormone. And not just sleep, but we need to achieve REM sleep.”
Most of the people I spoke to made a connection between sleep and what they eat. “Everything in my body works better when I move it a lot and regularly, and when I nourish it like a monk,” said one. Salt, sugar, caffeine, dark chocolate, insufficient protein, eating too close to bedtime and drinking any liquids after certain times were all mentioned as factors that influenced sleep, and almost everyone mentioned alcohol.
Everyone was also keenly aware that they shouldn’t be online, or watching tv in bed on a tablet, and that having our phones in bed is evil. But having the discipline to follow through is difficult. “Most of all I should not use my phone in bed. But that’s not easy!” One mused, “do we have trouble sleeping because we’re on our phones, or are we on our phones because we can’t settle?”
Routine and mindful relaxation were also cited by many of the people I consulted. Strategies included going to bed at the same time every night, rain sounds, eyemasks, ear plugs, acupuncture, body scans, meditation, occasional sleep meds. Not stressing about not sleeping was a huge theme — trying not to look at the clock if you wake up, not lying there calculating how little sleep you have and how horrible the day will be. One person said that he didn’t want his fitbit to tell him how badly he slept, because then he felt even worse.
So everyone has a sense of what they “should” do — and the shift to actually doing those things seems to take the same kind of wrenching discipline that any other fitness routine does. One of the things I noticed in the responses was how many people talked about staying up too late as time to themselves – time to drink wine, be alone, watch tv, be online. One person said “I’ve wondered sometimes if I get out of bed those 4 am mornings because I know there is some great basketball to watch.”
I think there are three lessons in this for me. First, we shouldn’t construct sleep as stealing time from something more fun or valuable — we need to value sleep for itself. (The most “successful” sleepers in my little study said this directly). We need to find the routine that works for us — something that lets us quiet our monkey minds, not wake up hungry, thirsty or poked by alcohol or caffeine, and just be in the recovery, feed-your-body space. And we need to have the mental discipline not to psych ourselves out on the nights that we don’t sleep well. Apparently, research supports this — it’s better not to know if you don’t sleep well.
Tonight I start leaving the phone, computer and tablet in the kitchen and reading an actual book in bed, Amish style. Maybe I’ll buy a flannel nightgown.