Sleep

“Sleep sweet within this quiet room, O thou, whoe’er thou art, and let no mournful yesterdays disturb thy peaceful heart.” – Ellen M. Huntington Gates

“Sleep.”

Does the title of this post sound like a command to you? If so, that’s probably because it’s exactly what you want to be doing right now. Sleep–the word is so simple, the act so natural…yet, most of us don’t get nearly enough of it.

When we think of survival items–the things humans absolutely must have in order to keep living–what comes to mind first? Water. Food. Shelter. Clothing. But we need something else even more urgently than food. Deprived of this one thing–sleep–we would die long before starvation could kill us.

Yet, when a deadline approaches and our schedule needs trimming, what’s the first thing we choose to sacrifice? It sure isn’t eating. And for many people in the Western world, even TV-watching and internet-surfing are considered indispensable. We’d much rather trim our sleep time.

Yes, I said “we.” I’ve done it before, and chances are, I’ll do it again. But before you denounce me as a hypocrite, consider this: “Sleep time,” for me, often equals “lying awake in bed wishing I could be asleep” time. I’ve had insomnia for as long as I can remember, so even those famously sweet naps of early childhood sound like fiction to me–let alone a peaceful night’s rest as an adult. ‘If trying to sleep only causes frustration,’ my reasoning usually goes, ‘why waste more time on it than is absolutely necessary?’

And here is the answer, for me and everyone else (including my fellow insomniacs): Because it’s more necessary than you think. No matter how much time you must invest in getting a good night’s sleep, the rewards will be worth it. As my dad always says, “Time spent sleeping is never wasted.”

So, the question remains: How do we spend more time sleeping, instead of merely lying in bed? I’ve investigated this question thoroughly, found many logical explanations and helpful tips, and faced many setbacks in applying them. Now it’s my pleasure to share with you the strategies that have worked for me–and if they’ve worked for me, they can work for anybody.

Most of them can be summed up in one easy-to-remember principle:

Use light–the RIGHT way.

You’ve probably heard of what health experts call “circadian rhythms.” Basically, this is our body’s daily cycle of functions, including waking up and going to sleep. For most of us, those rhythms are naturally synced with the earth’s daily rotation–in other words, our body’s default setting is to rise with the sun and go down with it too. (For you night owls, I have no explanation.)

So why don’t we fall asleep as soon as it’s dark outside? Because, well, it isn’t dark inside. Ever since the invention of electric light, we’ve had a way to trick our brains into thinking it’s still daytime when in reality, it’s time to start getting ready for bed. The problem is simple, and so is the solution: control your usage of electric light.

Controlling, of course, doesn’t mean ceasing altogether. Rather, you can use your home’s lighting to your advantage, showing your brain how awake you want it to be at any given time of the day. Here’s what I try to do every day:

Start the day with sunlight.

As soon as I wake up, I open all the blinds and curtains in my house, letting in the sunshine. If I happen to wake up before dawn, I turn on electric lights, starting with the dimmest one and gradually moving toward the brightest, thereby simulating a sunrise. In effect, this tells my brain: It’s morning now. Awake is the appropriate state to be in.

And this really does work. I notice a marked increase in my grogginess level on the days when I wait too long to let the light in, probably because my brain is confused about being up when it’s still dark. Much better results come when you do it right away.

Avoid bright light after sunset.

You feel relaxed just looking at my perfectly-lit reading corner, don’t you?

As you’ve probably read before, this includes the blue light emitted by phones, tablets, computers, and TVs, which is proven to disrupt sleep patterns by overstimulating parts of our brain. But lightbulbs can have the same effect–we just might not notice it as much, because we aren’t staring directly at them. Be conscious of how this type of light affects you. Then adjust it in whatever ways you can.

I use the “night shift” settings on my devices to make the screen color warmer in the evening. And even at midday, I often decrease my screen brightness to a much lower setting than the default. If it hurts my eyes, it’s safe to assume it will hurt my sleep too. For that same reason, blue-light-blocking glasses are worth investing in. (I recently bought these SightRelax lenses from EyeBuyDirect, and I notice a huge difference in how strained my eyes feel after working on the computer all day.)

I also have certain lamps in my house that I don’t turn on after dark, because their light is too bright and cool. If you have dimmers, that’s probably ideal; I don’t, so I just switch to using lamps with warm, low levels of light.

Say good night to Edison.

Though it might sound crazy, electricity is not the only way to light our homes at night–fire also does the job quite well. And what sounds cozier than reading by the fireplace (if you have one), or more romantic than a candlelit dinner?

Personally, the quickest way for me to relax is to light some candles and just sit still. Something about the flickering orange light, the warmth of the room, and the smell of burning wicks tells my brain to slow down. If I do that about half an hour before I plan to go to bed, I’m usually ready to sleep right on time. Try it tonight! And if the idea of sitting for that long makes you jittery (as it does for me sometimes), you can use the time to stretch or to massage tense muscles. Whatever you do, just make sure you’re not putting your mind to work.

End the day with darkness.

Simple enough, right? The less light there is, the less stimulated our brain will be. So shut those curtains, turn off the hallway lamp, and make sure your body knows it’s night time!

So, there you have a step-by-step guide to resetting your circadian rhythm–and using these steps, you can set it to whatever time you want to go to sleep and wake up, like an alarm clock. Once you’re able to fall asleep on a more regular schedule, you’ll also awake more easily and be more alert throughout the day. In future posts, I’ll outline other strategies that have helped me to get, not just more, but higher quality sleep.

Truly, there are few things in life that bring greater health benefits–physically, mentally, and emotionally–than sleep. So close your eyes and sleep well tonight. Tomorrow, I think you’ll see life differently.

One Comment on “Sleep

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