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.

Water

“He washed each tiny blade of grass / And every trembling tree; He flung his showers against the hill, And swept the billowing sea.” – William L. Stidger

As the above-quoted poem describes, the work of water is to cleanse the earth–and the people living on it. Next to breathing, our body’s most constant need is to stay hydrated. And both are needed for similar reasons.

Why water?


Drinking water and breathing both supply us with essential elements, such as oxygen. But they also rid our bodies of wastes. Suppose you stopped taking out the trash, and let it pile up inside your home. How long would it take for you to notice the effects–the foul smell, the cockroach infestation–or to feel physically ill from exposure to all that bacteria? Likewise, when we aren’t drinking enough water to flush the waste products out of our bodies, they build up and eventually become harmful.

Water also serves as a medium for transportation. Imagine, for example, that you’re going river tubing. You’ve packed a lunch, inflated the tube, and hopped inside, but there’s one problem–the area’s in a drought. Instead of floating atop several feet of water, your tube is sitting in a foot of mud. And it likely will be for a while.

Similarly, you’re constantly equipping your body for action. When you inhale, you fill your lungs up with oxygen. When you eat a nutritious meal, you pack your stomach with healthy proteins, carbs, fats, and vitamins. But how does the oxygen get to your brain, or the nutrients to your bones and muscles? They’re carried through your bloodstream. And like a river, it transports things much more efficiently when it has enough water flowing through it.

For those who do mentally demanding work, hydration is vital for another, more recognizable reason. Water conducts electricity, and our brains are chiefly electric devices. Think of the USB cable you plug into your phone. Would it still work if the wires snapped? Could you use it to charge your battery, or transfer pictures onto your computer?

Dehydration, in effect, cuts the wires between your neurons. Without sufficient water, nerve impulses are “transferred” less efficiently, resulting in slower processing of information. (That’s bad news for us interpreters, who have to process in two languages simultaneously.) So if you ever feel brain-dead, bringing yourself back to life may be easier than you think. Wash away the fog with a tall glass of water!

Willful watering

It’s clear that water is essential in a big way. So in theory, we should be making it a big part of our lives, and noticing immediately when we’ve failed to do so. But in all the shine of our modern lifestyles, we often lose sight of the things that give us life. So how can we become more aware of staying properly hydrated?

Personally, I sense the effects of a drink of water within minutes. Reminding myself to drink enough of it, therefore, is just a matter of remembering how good it feels when I do. That requires mindfulness. No matter how thirsty I am, I try to sip slowly, noticing the sensation of thirst dissipating. Then I take note of how the rest of me feels. Stiff muscles tend to loosen up a bit; brain fog evaporates (at least partially). If I’m feeling heavy or bloated after a meal, water will generally solve that, as it gets the digestive processes moving. By paying attention to all these positive effects, I’ve learned to recognize the opposite: the negative sensations of being poorly hydrated.

If you’re not used to watching out for these things, it might be hard to tell whether you’re getting enough water. More obvious indicators, such as urine color, can help you gauge your hydration level. But in the spirit of opening our eyes and seeing life in 2020, I think most of us could benefit from simply tuning into the signals our bodies send at any given second. They do tell us what they need; we just have to listen.

When we start to feel deprived and desperate, it may be that all we’re lacking is a slow, deep breath, or a glass of cool, clean water. Or we might try both of those, and still crave something more. In that case, it’s time to move down our checklist, using the process of elimination to find out what it is we truly need.

We’ll move one step closer to seeing ourselves in 2020.