Good In Bed: The Secret To Good Sleep

What Happened When I Stopped Sleeping (It Was A Nightmare)

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5 min read

In theory, it’s a no-brainer: Sleep is critical.

But for most of us, putting that into practice falls far down the list of priorities, behind work, the gym, getting food on the table, cleaning the house, late-night checking of emails, scrolling through Instagram, having sex, or simply binge-watching House of Cards. Even Arianna Huffington’s massive PR campaign on the benefits of sleep hasn’t seem to cut through.

But here’s the thing: not sleeping is bad, really bad.

It can make you fat. The “hunger hormone” ghrelin shoots up and your ability to regulate your appetite and understand when you are sated, plummets.

It’s bad for your heart. You will drive worse than if you were drunk. You might find yourself unable to create new memories.  You put yourself at increased risk of developing dementia.

And any new parent (or seasoned parent) will tell you, sleep deprivation can make you really, really grumpy. You will crave more sugar and reach for more caffeine. Bad sleep can mess with your mood. If you are prone to anxiety, getting enough shut-eye could be the simple fix you need to stop fighting that sick nervous feeling in your stomach. If you need even more convincing, check out this handy graphic from Johns Hopkins.

Negative effects of sleeo deprivation
Credit: hopkinsmedicine.org

My own sleep history is terrible. As an 18-week old (yes, weeks) Mum would go to bed and I’d stay up with Dad. He was happy to have the company and would read the newspaper out loud to me.

As a five-year-old I pinched my great-grandmother’s old leather-covered silver wireless and snuck it under the covers, listening to BBC broadcasts. I would stare at the ceiling and do mental maths, wonder and worry about the future. I would wake up my sister or read under the covers with a torch. You name it, I’d do it. Everything except sleep.

As a political adviser I was never sure whether it was better to be aware of the next day’s crisis in advance by checking my emails at midnight before I went to bed; or sleep anxiously wondering what the morning would hold. Sometimes I would be woken outrageously early by a call from an East Coast radio producer, not realising (and let’s be honest, not caring anyway) I was in Western Australia and a good three hours behind them.

Between one and three percent of people can get by on just a few hours sleep; a kind of sleepless elite. But for most of us, this just isn’t an option, long-term at least.

As a fitness instructor I would get up at 4.50am, be in the car with coffee number one in hand by 5.15am, and ready to teach at 6am. My lifetime of late nights left me ill-prepared to start going to bed early. Crazily, I thought going back to bed after my class was an absurd idea. I thought napping in the afternoon was simply lazy. Instead, I would arm my sleep-deprived self with a stupidly long to-do list I had no chance of achieving, then berate myself at the end of the day when I had only done maybe half of what was on the list.

I thought I was a hero. I thought sleep was for the weak. I laughed at people who went to bed at 9.30pm. But really, I was the fool. I was destroying my health and my life.

I have a friend who has annual, quarterly, weekly and daily targets categorised into personal, professional and educational or professional-development style, lists.

She is one of those rare people who can survive on about four hours a night. And I wanted to be just like her. I spent years of my life like this, cutting up time, carving it, breaking it into measurable pieces and equating my self-worth with self-assessed productivity levels based on arbitrary self-assigned targets. It was one of the earlier forms of me attempting to assert control over… everything. “If only I could sleep less I could achieve so much more!” I thought. It took me some time to realise I am human, not a machine.

Margaret Thatcher survived on just four hours of sleep. Donald Trump says he only needs three. Read into that what you will. And in our own lives, we all know people who work in industries such as banking or law where working through the night is considered normal.

Between one and three percent of people can get by on just a few hours sleep; a kind of sleepless elite. But for most of us, this just isn’t an option, long-term at least. Shift work messes with the body’s internal clock too, sending confusing signals about when to wake up, when to sleep and when to eat.

How do we start getting more sleep?

First, you have to decide to shift it up the list of priorities. Which means something’s got to give.

On days when I feel totally knackered but guilty about not exercising, I try to stop and ask myself without judgment: “what is going to make me feel better and be better today?” And if that is a nap or an extra hour in bed in the morning, that’s what I prescribe.

What the experts call “sleep hygiene” is important. Here’s how to get started:  

  1. Make bed a place for sleep and for sex. Period.
  2. Keep your phone out of reach of the bed and put it on airplane mode when it hits bedtime. The scrolling-under-the-sheets habit can take a while to break, but stick with it.
  3. Don’t take your laptop to bed.
  4. If you’re tech-minded and find apps help keep you motivated and disciplined, you can monitor your sleep quality and quantity. I find I get too driven by the stats though. My competitive nature means I always want to do more and better. Yep, even with this. So trial one of these and see how it works for you.
  5. Try to set a bed time and waking time. You might find your body naturally falls into line after a couple of weeks.
  6. Make your room and especially your bed, a clean, fresh, happy place. Find pillows you love, invest in sheets you can’t wait to get around you. Try to keep it cool, dark and quiet however you can
  7. Go easy on yourself. Trying to get better sleep actually can create more stress. If you feel like your cycle is affected by your period, you may be right. It’s not just the pain associated with getting your period that can make sleeping tricky: when estrogen levels fall in the days before your period starts you can experience difficultly falling asleep as well as staying asleep. If that’s you, know it’s a natural part of the process.
  8. Especially if you suffer from insomnia, rather than just poor sleeping habits.

And after all that, remember more sleep equals less wrinkles too. It’s not called beauty sleep for nothing.

Do you find it difficult to sleep? Perhaps you used to but discovered some great ways to help you nod off. Please share with us in the comments below.

You might also like, 5 Favourite Podcasts For Your Commute and Why You Don’t Suck At Meditation.

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