This is the first post in our series Listen To Your Body. It’s about sleeping and how we can learn to do it well. Do you make a puzzled face at that, thinking ‘well, surely you’re either sleeping or you’re not’? That’s only partly true. Yes, your body will gain some benefits from getting your head on the pillow and some sleep is definitely better than none. However, managing your sleep well will help you to feel bright eyed and bushy tailed most days.
According to Dr. Larissa Barber, sleep is the single most important health behavior we engage in. It plays a crucial role in self-regulation, the function in our brain that controls our behaviour. We’ve all done it – snapped at someone, thrown a strop or burst into tears, usually because we think someone is behaving so unreasonably. It’s only afterwards that, if we’re self-reflective at all, we realise that we may simply have been a teensy, weensy bit over-tired…
So, our sleep affects everything we do during our waking hours. Good reason to get it right, then. The tips below are particularly important if you run or exercise regularly, and even more so if you’re training for a race (the longer the distance, the more important it is that you have good sleep management habits). Don’t just exhaust yourself and crash out. Make sure that your sleep is the best kind of sleep it can be. Your brain and body will thank you for it.
Good sleep hygiene
Sounds grubby but ‘sleep hygiene’ refers to your sleep habits. Some bedtime habits have a negative effect on our ability to sleep. Watching television in bed, staying up too late, working when we should be resting; all of these can get in the way of sleeping well. Alcohol can also be a problem. A glass of wine early in the evening probably won’t affect your sleep but much more than that and you’ll sleep for a while but wake dehydrated and most likely feeling dreadful in the middle of the night.
The Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Maryland provides a great list of tips to help you sleep well. These indicate that we sleep best when we go to bed at a regular time and get up around the same time each day. Blocking out noise and light is important too. I’m an eye mask and earplugs sleeper; these send a clear signal to my body that it’s sleep time – and, if I get the other things right too, my body listens! You might not want to go that far but make sure that your curtains or blinds are thick enough to block out light and that you eliminate as much noise as possible.
It’s also important to step away from the technology, difficult as that may be to do. Watching television, faffing on your smart phone and (loathe as I am to say it!) blogging and tweeting, all stimulate the brain. They’re what sleep scientists call ‘engaging’ media so switch them off at least an hour before bedtime to let your brain disengage. (Note by Bibi: I use a piece of software called Flux on my MacBook which starts dimming my screen automatically at dusk. It’s really helped with my sleeping.)
Establish a pre-sleep ritual too. UoM recommend a bath, a light snack, a milky drink or practicing relaxation techniques. I tend to read, even if just for a few minutes, before I switch the light out. Half the time I’m so tired that I forget what I’ve read and have to read it all over again the next night anyway. No matter – my body knows that this little bit of reading signals that it’s nearly sleeping time and starts to relax.
Know how much sleep you really need
Our bodies know how much sleep they need, if only we’d take the time to listen to them. We shouldn’t be fooled by the idea that we all need 8 hours. We don’t. There’s a great article here on the myth of the need for eight hours’ sleep. I’ve discovered over time that I need just short of 7 hours’ sleep a night (which was disappointing; I love my sleep and was hoping I needed more!) Our sleep comes in two cycles, generally of more or less the same length. So don’t panic if you wake in the middle of the night; you’ve probably just finished a sleep cycle.
I find that if I let myself go back to sleep after waking in the morning (i.e. after my second sleep cycle), I tend to be tired for much of the day. You can have too much of a good thing so it’s a good idea to get up soon after you wake up, however tired you might feel.
Observe your own sleeping patterns over a few days and work out how much you really need. The rest-deep sleep-dream pattern is very distinctive and easy to understand once you know what you’re looking for (the stages of sleep are listed in the article linked above). As noted above, it’s normal to wake in the night – you’ve almost certainly just finished the first cycle. Try to relax and let yourself drift into the next one which, if you note the timings over a few days, will be about the same length as the first. This will give you a clear sense of how much sleep your body needs. Not anyone else’s – not your partner’s or your kids’ – yours! Armed with this knowledge, try to organize your life so that you get this amount as often as possible.
Strange as it may sound, we need to learn to schedule our sleep, just as we do all our other important commitments. Your body and soul will thank you for it.