In our culture of scarcity, sleep is one of the top winners for the never enough awards. As I wrote this first sentence last Thursday, I realized I was too sleep-deprived to be able to write anything coherent. So I put my virtual pen down and went to sleep. The next day, I woke up to find out it was World Sleep Day and thought I missed a window to reflect on the importance of sleep. But given the state of sleep deprivation, so many of us find ourselves in, I think the window is always open.
Sleeping takes too much time
For many years, that was my motto. I thought sleep was a relatively necessary evil that honestly, just took too much time. I don’t know if I stayed in banking because I thought like that or if I thought like that because I was in banking. Not sure I will ever know the answer to that. No matter what the option was, my choice was rarely sleep over anything else. If I had work, sleep was not a consideration. But if I didn’t, I would easily choose to go out on a Wednesday night. And if I had to travel and work, then both would happen and sleep would be a rare afterthought. I did not think much of it. My thought was that I was just someone who did not need much sleep. And therefore none of it felt much like a choice. More of a way of living.
By the time I had children, I was probably back to a more normal sleep level, or so I thought. I was around 6-7 hours of sleep on good days. Having children and waking up in the middle of the night did not phase me. At least not for the first few years. I was convinced my M&A training had prepared my body to make good use of any 2 hours of sleep and therefore built this huge ability to recover. I had a night nurse for 2 nights 6 weeks into #2, only after a hospital stay where me and Baby S were sort of locked for 72 hours in a 2×2 room and I felt maybe that would help me. However, I quickly realized that I was waking up anyway and therefore the money was wasted. Sleep was still not an obvious problem to me.
Why we sleep
3 years ago, I got recommended the book “Why We Sleep“. I started not knowing what to expect, but already at a phase where I realized I was missing out on sleep. Waking up in the morning was hard, it always felt hard, no matter what the time was. I was forgetful and could no longer blame baby brains. My health was poor, even if nothing was wrong. But until I read this book, I did not connect any of the factors. And then I read this:
“Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Inadequate sleep—even moderate reductions for just one week—disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic. Short sleeping increases the likelihood of your coronary arteries becoming blocked and brittle, setting you on a path to cardiovascular disease, stroke, and congestive heart failure […] sleep disruption further contributes to all major psychiatric conditions, including depression, anxiety, and suicidality.”Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker
I guess I could have stopped here. And just put a link to the book with a nudge. But not everyone thinks they can do anything about it, especially in our famous busy lives. So I will continue just one bit more, because our health is worth it. And the damage we do to it, is not.
Changing the sleep pattern
As I read the book, I knew I could no longer abstain from this free medicine. My watch told me I had an average of 6h11 minutes of sleep. I was on a schedule of getting up at 6am every week day, so clearly I had to work on the other book-end. I committed to increasing from 6 to 7 as a goal, even if I knew that 7 might not be enough, at least according to the book.
My first step was to commit to be in bed no later than 11, and that was not “heading to bed” but rather “lights off”. I put a sleep alarm on that was so loud I had trouble ignoring it. At twenty to 11 it would go off and say it was time to get ready for bed. Usually, I would be working for the charity and more nights than not, it got me annoyed. There was just a bit more that I could finish, one more thing I needed to do. But as I did that, I also started being more aware. If it was 10.30 and I was about to start something new, I probably avoided doing so. Initially, the quantity of my work reduced, but over time, it became inevitably better and more focused (no doubt my journal helped here, to make the most of the 2.5 hours of work I could get after dinner).
If you are wondering what I did with screen time before sleep, I must admit I did not cancel screen time before bed. I was working for ALG until the last minute, and whilst I recognise sometimes it made me super awake at bed time, I really could not do better.
Don’t forget the caffeine
The other belief I had about myself was that I did not need coffee. Through my career, I lived on a single coffee a day and usually single shot. Mostly, I had it because I enjoy a warm drink in the morning and it would ensure I would drink a full cup of milk.
Now, not needing it does not mean my body did not react to it. I learnt a fair amount about the impact coffee has and how to use it to your benefit. So I cut out my habitual coffee. Did I stop drinking coffee? No, I broke the habit. Some days I would have a coffee first thing if I really felt like it, most days I would have it any time between 9.30-11.00, well after breakfast. Why? Coffee has a half-life of 12 hours, therefore that also ensured by the time I was planning to hit the bed, the caffeine was just gone. You have to understand your circadian rhythm before you make coffee experiments, but this is one I certainly thought beneficial.
And by the way, I also found out I do need coffee. If I am on a migraine-prone day, I have to have caffeine. So maybe I don’t need it to stay awake or concentrate, but I need it to function in some days.
Small habits can help you change your sleep pattern. And you know habits are important for me. Actually, habits are important because they make things so much easier. In 6 months, my sleep average increased from 6h10 minutes to 6h45 minutes. That is quite a lot. That was over 2 years ago. In the last 6 months, it was 7h31 minutes, or so my watch says.
It is 11pm now. My phone has entered sleep mode at 10.30 even if on a Saturday night I don’t have a programmed sleep alert. My body knows it is time to go to bed. For the last 8 days, I have struggled with sleep. Between kids nightmares, travelling and the need to commute earlier when in London, I am now back to being sleep deprived.
Whilst before I would just take an attitude of “powering through” now, it is like I fight back anything that gets in between sleep and me. I easily get snappy at the kids if they take too long to go to bed and I know I still have things to do and want to get to bed fast. I skip writing, reading, journaling. I chose a single task to do for the charity. I don’t want to go out for dinner. It seems sad, I know, but the difference it has made to my mental health is huge. And my patience levels are where they probably have not been before. Added to an easier ability to concentrate at work, my list could go on to explain “why I sleep”.
The physical effects
Do I sleep well? Not always. Little Girl C suffers from frequent nightmares (and so do I), therefore my sleep is still mostly interrupted around half the nights. I am still adjusting to a routing in different countries each week, despite the same time zone. And I still have a lighter sleep that feels exhausting post my first 7 hours of sleep, when I try to push the bar to rest further in the weekends. But I power through and force myself to stay in bed rather than to give up.
I don’t know yet if I am seeing the physical benefit of more sleep. I like to think my immune system is less bad than a year or two ago. Whilst I still catch a fair amount of sneezes and flus (and covid), I don’t feel constantly ill. There are a few rare days I don’t feel like I need a forklift truck to get me out of bed. And, as I added sport into my schedule, my energy levels have certainly risen. So I will persevere. And go to sleep now.
“Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day — Mother Nature’s best effort yet at contra-death.”Why We Sleep