Do you feel like you regularly get good sleep?
Good sleep would be defined as not only sleeping a sufficient amount of time, but also having deep, high quality sleep during that time. Having that good sleep be regular would be defined as most of the time, where disrupted sleep is quite rare.
I confess that my sleep has not regularly been good by this definition. Sometimes it has been good but over the last several years it has less and less been so. Yet, I have these vivid memories of being a child and youth, laying blissfully snuggled in my bed on a Saturday morning, feeling so comfortable and rested in my whole body that I was seriously tempted to stay there longer instead of get up to go play. But where did that great feeling go over the years? And why has it been getting worse?
I started to wonder if this just something that was normal as one gets older – feeling not fully rested and the body a bit sore from laying on this or that side too long. And even with a more than 8 hours of sleep, a few 4 hours into my day my head would feel like it needed a nap, and I could often rule out food as a culprit.
And, I can’t do caffeine at all. It would mask the cloudy head but then wreck my sleep that night, which would then necessitate some sort of medication to counter. That is a terrible spiral I have not wanted to fall into.
Over the last several months I’ve started to learn that my sleep does not necessarily need to be so poor, and my body so uncomfortable. Though there is more challenge to good sleep as we age, what is commonly experienced is far below what is possible, according to neuroscientist and sleep specialist Matthew Walker in his book Why We Sleep.
I had read a few other articles, listened to some podcasts, and at least one other good book on sleep before. But it was from listening to Matthew Walker (or I should say, from having my attention completely glued to his words!) on a 3 part long-format discussion with Peter Attia (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) that I learned that there was more to the importance of sleep and more to the definition of good sleep than I realized.
Things were getting worse this spring and early summer. Last July, after returning from overseas travel, with a 10 hour time zone jet lag, my sleep quality got worse, and not just for a few days, but continued. From years of international travel I have developed what seemed to be an effective strategy for recovering from jetlag quickly, but this time it was like my body just gave up trying to get back on schedule. In the weeks to follow I would eagerly fall asleep early and that first half of the night I seemed to sleep heavily. But I’d wake up sometime between 1 and 3 am and either I would stay awake for an hour or two (and apply some mental meditation technique) or I would slip back into a fitful sleep where I would wake often and find my body feeling uncomfortable laying in any position for much time. For much of the day, my mental clarity, my energy levels and my emotional flow would be much less than the optimal I know it could be.
At the end of September I had another overseas trip. Interestingly, I often sleep better when traveling (for a few reasons) and returned home at the start of October. However, my sleep was amazing good from the first day home and has been significantly better for the weeks since. I am sleeping through that second half of the night much more deeply and with much less discomfort in the body. What in the heck happened?
Well, this is what I can trace out…
I have some sleep-promoting habits in place already (like several of these in the Sleep Smarter book) and I have some tools I pull out from time to time (like meditation before sleep) that can help. And, I think my nutrition habits help. Here, I want to point out simply what was different, what might have made a difference in this recent breakthrough, which suggests that although those other things are known to be helpful, they were obviously not sufficient to get me into good sleep apart from some other pieces coming into place.
First, I noticed that I was more deliberately drinking 1.5 liters of water each day – 3 big cups. I know, despite my athletic lifestyle, I have been inconsistently hydrated for years, and have built up what felt like a tolerance for dehydration (at least in the day time). Rather, I think I had just lost sensitivity to the consequences. I link having more fluid in my body to feeling significantly more comfortable in my joints when I sleep at night, less likely to feel achy in my body when laying in a particular position for hours. Though sufficient hydration means I have to get up in the middle of the night to go pee, the benefit of having a body that feels so much better in bed far outweighs that disruption.
I have been getting to bed earlier – like 8:00 pm and asleep before 9 – which is very difficult to do in my house with young adults and pre-teen kids who still move around and make noise around that time. Upon return from my big trips I naturally go to be earlier but within a week or so I fall back to the later hours, 9 to 10 pm, or later. This is a very difficult boundary to protect- there are so many pressures and pulls on me to stay up later. However, it is so clear that my body and my mind seem to do so much better when early to bed , and early to rise (or just sleep it bit more if needed).
Something I am privileged to be able to do – I am self-employed, work at home often, and I set my own work schedule, which means I can wake up without an alarm most of the time. However, if I set an alarm, my brain seems to know this and I often get up before it anyway. I have already been doing this for years, but I can feel the big difference in my mind as I go off to sleep with an anticipation of an alarm and when there is not. When I can get to bed earlier, it means I can possibly wake up on my own without an alarm, before others in my house wake up. This is important because I am a very light sleeper and have suffered from sleep anxiety for years in relation to people I live with making unexpected noises in the house, or worse, in the same room. If people are up, I am up.
And here was what I think was the biggest change: I had a few significant psychological loads lifted from my mind. I didn’t realize how much these things were staying present just below consciousness and weighing me down whether I was thinking about them or not.
One of these: I had for years felt uncertain about what to aim for professionally, something that would both offer more hope of sufficient income and resonate with my soul – and I made a decision and got busy working in that new direction. That has brought a wave of hope and corresponding energy.
The next: I have had one increasingly anxiety-provoking association that, after years of waiting for improvement and weighing the costs of leaving, I finally decided to let go of. That has brought deeper relief than I realized it would.
And, in the last year I have a long-time friend who had some bad choices in his past catch up and put him in serious trouble with the law and with his family. For several months I’ve been in position as the primary person to help him emotionally, legally and in some ways materially. While away overseas, I was relieved of much of my responsibility for some weeks. That part of my heart and mind was occupied with other people and their needs, I was able to withdraw a bit from that whole situation. I didn’t realize how much it had drawn me in and weighed me down all day long, week after week. Since coming back from that trip, I’ve worked out stronger boundaries and recent developments have allowed me to shift some portion of responsibility to others.
From these things at least, not only have I been sleeping better, I have stopped my occasional use of melatonin and have not felt the need to take a half of an allergy pill as I would sometimes do when more desperate to get uninterrupted sleep.
It’s been over a month now and I would say 90% of my nights are ‘good’ and that is an amazingly long stretch of good for me. In the months prior, and years even, I might have estimated only about 30% of my nights had good sleep before.
It is so clear to me that sleep is both a physical bodily experience and it is a psychological one. As the Why We Sleep book describes so well, sleep is a profoundly important restorative process for the body and brain system and consequently, for the mind. What’s happening in the body and mind affects sleep and sleep affects what is happening in the body and mind. So, we have to put care into both the daily life as we prepare for good sleep, and get good sleep in order to prepare for daily life.
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