I share this out of deep respect for the Post-Thanksgiving-Meal Nap.
I love to sleep. I’m good at it. And I can sleep anywhere — planes, trains, automobiles, and even waiting rooms. More than once, I’ve been awakened by “Mr. Culberson, the dentist will see you now.”
Yet, “sleeping in” is a challenge for me.
As a sleep enthusiast, I believe there are few things better than waking up and realizing I don’t have to get up early that day. I look at the clock, fall back on the pillow and bask in the knowledge that I can doze off again if I wish.
Of course, I can’t.
I roll onto my other side. I adjust my pillow to get more fluff. I smooth out the comforter to eliminate those pesky creases. Then, I start thinking about the things I could be doing if I wasn’t in bed — even though I’ve already established that I have no pressing responsibilities. As my mind races through the projects and challenges I could be tackling, I hear my wife making coffee since, she never can sleep in. My mind recaps conversations and encounters I had the day before including one offhanded comment I made to my wife. I wonder if she thought I was being rude. I realize I’m a horribly insensitive person who is not being a good husband by sleeping the day away while she makes our coffee. I am now fully awake, unable to relax, and of course, I have to go to the bathroom.
I look at the clock. It’s 6:20 a.m.
Sleeping is a problem for many people. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 50% of the population struggles with insomnia. And while I’m not a slumbertologist, I think that sleep may be one of the most important remedies for many of life’s ailments.
As I’ve gotten older, sleep has helped me battle emotional swings, muscle aches, colds, and other assaults on my body. Now, let’s be clear, I’m not talking about the college student routine of sleeping until noon on the weekends or when the first class of the day is in the afternoon. I’m talking about a consistent and thorough sleep routine.
Far too many of us fail to maintain a good sleep schedule and then we use pills, alcohol or late night television to make up for it. This does not help to create a routine but instead prevents our body from maintaining it’s natural sleep patterns. Yet, we think that these “tools” will help us sleep better.
As an undergraduate student, I participated in a sleep study and learned that patterns are critical for good sleep habits and restfulness. Going to bed at the same time every night and getting up at the same time each morning train our bodies to know when to sleep. These schedules allow the mind to slip into the deep sleep we need to truly rest. If, however, we have erratic schedules, our body’s sleep cycles get out of whack (a clinical term used by those of us who were pre-med but never made it to full-med). As a result, our sleep is shallow and less restful.
Additionally, when I worked as an aide in a psychiatric hospital, the head psychiatrist (pun intended) suggested that the most effective treatments for sleep problems were simple and natural: exercise and warm milk. He used to say that vigorous sex with warm milk afterwards was a healthy nightly routine. I’ve been an advocate of his prescription for most of my adult life. My wife has not yet fully embraced it’s efficacy.
There are many things that can also affect a good night’s sleep such as nutrition, exercise, emotional health, mattresses, pillows, and a quiet environment. But for the sake of simplicity, I will offer a few basic practices to help you log some z’s.
Exercise. We sleep better when we’re tired. We get tired when we exercise. This is not higher math. Sitting all day won’t give you the tired you need to sleep. You need to move. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise throughout the day. Or just be more active. Use the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Park farther from rather than closer to the entrance of buildings. Chase your partner around the house with a glass of warm milk. Mostly, make sure you’re not sitting all day.
Routines. Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern. Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time. Your body will learn your schedule and act accordingly. When you change time zones, as I often do, try to maintain the same hours relative to your home time zone. You can’t always do this but the more often you do, the better you will sleep when you’re away and when you return home.
Food and drink. Be careful what you put in your body. Too much alcohol and too much rich food will disrupt your sleep. I love the vivid dreams I have after a heavy meal but my sleep is fitful. Additionally, while alcohol can relax you at first, it can disrupt your sleep later and then you’ll be wine-ing about getting no sleep.
Your mind. Your brain can be the biggest barrier to good sleep. When things get quiet, our brains get loud. We start ruminating over everything and this can escalate until we can’t sleep. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is a calm mind. You can do this with guided imagery, a visualization technique I learned in acting class (see, my minor in Drama did pay off). But, just like any mindfulness technique, you must practice to get good at it.
Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to sleep. If we follow the steps above and then accept that some nights we may get more rest than deep sleep, our bodies will eventually fall into a good sleep routine. But if this doesn’t make sense to you or you don’t fully embrace the information, please don’t discount it completely. Instead, give it a chance. In other words, just sleep on it.