It’s 4 am and I’m wide awake. I listen as outside the window my rooster welcomes the new day with a magnificent crow. The sky is fading from black to inky blue and indigo, and the pre-dawn moonlight streams bright through my window.
My rooster’s night-piercing crow, beckoning day and life and sun, precedes the song of the first morning birds, and now terror strikes in my heart. Does anything cause such a panic like the song of the first morning bird on a sleepless night?
All these wakeful hours I’ve been wandering alone through a still and sleeping world and now the world is new again and still I linger from yesterday.
It’s a Twilight Zone episode of surreal displacement, somehow becoming jarringly disconnected from the world.
Like air, sex, and money, sleep is one of those things to which we don’t give much conscious thought... that is, until we’re not getting any.
In fact, in the modern world, sleep has become something on our to-do list we’ll “get to” after we’ve worked long hours and spent time with our families and cleaned our homes and caught up with friends and watched our favourite TV shows. As human beings have “evolved” through the centuries, our attitude toward sleep has drifted from biologically fundamental to something of an afterthought.
Even conversational connotations around sleep seem to mock its usefulness for anyone but the precious, the elderly, or infants. Modern Western culture rubbishes sleep with expressions of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
With that being said, I am certain we can all agree: there is no bliss more sublime than waking restored, recharged, and ready for the day after a good night’s sleep.
I’m equally certain that many of us can relate to how we often feel instead upon waking: tired, unmotivated, and struggling through each day. There’s 3 pm sugar crashes and dark eye bags and trying to function from within a deep mental fog.
We may feel that our emotions are difficult to control and regulate, and with chronic sleep deficiency may become depressed and anxious.
Sleep deficiency (that is, sleeping disorders, insomnia, and disconnection from our natural sleep rhythms) is on the rise. The CDC has found that as many as 7-19% of Americans don’t get enough sleep at the right time of day.
Even more frighteningly, nearly 40% of survey participants admitted to falling asleep accidentally at least once a month. It’s no wonder that as many as one in six car accidents are caused by fatigue.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SLEEP
BODY | There are vital deep biological functions that the body has to undertake to repair, regenerate and rejuvenate itself which can only take place when it is in deep sleep. As well as cellular repair and immune system bolstering, certain hormones are secreted and suppressed.
The stress hormone cortisol is reduced with adequate sleep. The hunger hormone, ghrelin, and the satiety hormone, leptin, are balanced through sleep, without which they become imbalanced. This can lead to “energy crashes” at 3 pm, overeating, and weight gain.
In fact, sleep deficiency has been linked to heart disease, kidney disease, lowered immune system, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and obesity.
SKIN |When our bodies are in deep REM sleep, the repair of cells and tissue and the bolstering of our immune system slows the aging process. The largest organ of the body, our skin is a direct reflection of how our body is aging.
With adequate sleep, the development of fine lines and age spots is impaired, and collagen and other growth hormones are secreted to give our skin a healthy, nourished glow and a youthful appearance. The old wives’ tale about “beauty sleep” is steeped in truth!
MIND | Chronic sleep deficiencies have been associated with depression, negative thinking, anxiety, and even suicide, or risk taking behaviour. Sleep deprivation has also been associated with impaired judgement, delayed reaction times, reduced coordination, and impaired memory and concentration.
Before the 1950s, it was thought that once asleep, we switched off and “powered down” for the night. We now know that our sleep patterns are much more complex.
Our sleep happens in cycles, and adults may experience up to five full cycles a night. During each cycle, our brains and bodies are still very active, going through several stages of activity.
Within each stage, various functions occur in mind and body for healing, rejuvenation and rest.
PHASE 1 | You’ve closed your eyes, your body becomes heavy, and you feel yourself being carried out of consciousness. Just a few minutes after you nod off, you enter the first stage of sleep.
You are only sleeping very lightly, and are in fact still quite alert, easily woken if you startle or are stirred. This phase lasts for several minutes, during which your brain is producing both alpha and theta activity.
PHASE 2 | During the next stage, you also sleep fairly lightly. Your brain suddenly spikes in activity briefly, after which it slows down again.
PHASE 3 + 4 | Now you begin to enter deep, truly restful sleep. The brain is producing much slower delta waves.
Your eyes and muscles do not move at all and your entire body is less responsive to external stimuli. Whilst your brain produces delta waves, your body begins its restorative phase.
It is in this phase that your body begins cellular and tissue repairs, boosts the immune system, stimulates growth, regulates hormones and recharges your energy.
REM SLEEP | If heretofore your sleep cycle was uninterrupted, about 90 minutes after initially falling asleep you will enter REM sleep. Each REM sequence lasts up to one hour.
During this final stage in the sleep cycle, your brain activity picks up again. It is during your REM sequence that you dream.
Your brain works through your subconscious, bringing it to the fore, and processes information from the day, storing it in your long term memory.
If you’re doing the sleep thing right, you should get between five to six full sleep cycles, including REM sleep cycles, per night. This means that we have five to six opportunities for physiological and subconscious healing in the course of a good night’s sleep.
WHY MANY OF US HAVE A DIFFICULT RELATIONSHIP WITH SLEEP
I have a confession: up until recently (like a few months ago recently) I have been a dreadful sleeper. I fell into some sleep habits that were costing me.
I got into the habit of going to bed with the TV on. Worse, before going to sleep, I liked to have the TV on and scroll social media.
This was much to my husband’s understandable frustration, as he donned an eye mask and earplugs to prevent my bad habits from ruining his sleep. The next morning, I would hit snooze at least 10 times before eventually getting out of bed at the last minute.
To go to sleep, my husband, on the other hand, simply resolved to go to sleep, got under the covers, closed his eyes and went to sleep.
I would stare at him for a long time, marvelling at how he fell asleep so quickly. I even tried to mimic his deep breathing, thinking perhaps that was his secret.
Once I was asleep, I slept lightly. At the slightest noise, I would be suddenly wide awake and unable to get back to sleep.
When the morning came, I felt unrefreshed, wandered around in a mental fog, definitely did not feel like doing anything, really, other than drink coffee, and I rocked some baggy black eye puffage.
I couldn’t understand why, even if I felt like I had slept through the night, I would wake looking and feeling tired and unrefreshed, and would almost always sleep in far later than intended.
Here’s why: in today’s world, we’ve put sleep at the bottom of our to-do list. With the de-prioritisation of sleep comes some terrible sleep habits which, in fact, set in motion the exact opposite of biological responses to those necessary for falling asleep.
We squeeze in an extra hour of TV in the bedroom, or check Facebook, or go through our email Inbox one last time. Some of us may even bring our laptop into the bedroom and work.
Furthermore, our sleep habits are all over the place. We have no set bed time or wake time, leaving our bodies to guess.
Set bedtimes and wake times are important, because our sleep cycles (and eating cycles) are governed by what is called a circadian rhythm.
This is a 24-hour body clock. It governs when you feel drowsy, and when you feel wakeful during the day.
These dips occur naturally between 2 and 4 am (when we’re usually asleep anyway) and 1 and 3 pm (why we tend to feel tired after lunch). The interesting thing is that the more sleep rejuvenated we are, the less we feel this 1-3 pm crash.
Our circadian rhythm is controlled by the hypothalamus, and is also controlled by lightness and dark. As the sky and our surroundings grow dark, the eyes signal the hypothalamus that it’s time to feel tired.
Our brain signals the release of melatonin, the chemical which causes the body to feel drowsy. When our eyes are flooded with sunlight, melatonin levels drop and cortisol increases to give us energy and alertness for the day.
Before we invented electricity, we followed our circadian rhythms intuitively. With no light to see, we used to go to sleep when it got dark, and arise naturally with the sun.
Humans slept for an average of 10 hours a day – as opposed to the average of 6-7 hours sleep (if we’re lucky) prevalent in modern culture.
Now, think about your house at night time. All the lights are on, the TV is probably blaring too, and you’re on your iPad.
Your eyeballs are being flooded with bright blue light designed to mimic sunlight, so cortisol is still being produced and melatonin is suppressed. No wonder we struggle to sleep! If you’re anything like I used to be, you’re going to bed without sleep-inducing melatonin and still wired on cortisol.
HEALING YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH SLEEP
For some of us, factors like shift work or new parenthood can cause unavoidable problems with sleep patterns. However, for many of us our worst enemy is poor sleep hygiene.
By tweaking our sleep hygiene habits, all of us can highly improve the quality, if not duration, of our sleep and reap the benefits for mind and body.
Even if, due to your own circumstances, not all of these are possible, incorporating just a few of the below will revolutionise your sleep hygiene. Each will help you to fall asleep faster and feel more refreshed in the morning. If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for almost anyone.
SOCIAL MEDIA BAN | Do not check Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for an hour and a half before bed. Socialising – whether in person or electronically – is an activity for waking hours.
Additionally, the blue light emitted from our phones, tablets, and TVs affect melatonin production, increase night waking frequency, and disrupts circadian rhythms.
If you simply must use a screen at night, consider downloading a blue light blocking app, or rocking a set of these bad boys - blue light blocking glasses.
NO TELEVISION | Ban the TV from the bedroom! Not only can having the TV going delay your bedtime, exposing your mind to stimuli that are exciting, thought-provoking or suspenseful can trigger both emotional and hormonal responses that are counterproductive for sleep.
KEEP YOUR BEDROOM FOR SLEEP + SEX | Reserve your bedroom for sleep, rest, and sex only – this means that it’s a no-go zone for your laptop and work. Your mind associating your bedroom with sleep can help you to fall asleep faster.
TURN OFF YOUR ALERTS | Because the 625 cat memes your overseas friend is sending you at 2 am are not urgent enough to disrupt your sleep. If you set your alarm on your phone, flick your phone over to Flight mode so that you don’t receive notifications during sleep.
DAMAGE CONTROL | If you really must have electronics in the bedroom, minimise the damage. Power down laptops, flip phones over so alerts don’t light up the room, and cover flashing lights with electrical tape. Even tiny flashing lights from devices can disrupt sleep.
HEAL YOUR CIRCADIAN RHYTHMS | Going camping, even overnight, resets your circadian rhythm by reteaching your mind to associate darkness with sleep and lightness with awake. Without the disruption of artificial light, you will notice your body fatigue and wide down as the sun goes down and naturally wake up with the sunrise.
If your schedule doesn’t allow, or camping isn’t your thing, mimic the experience at home. Have less lights blazing in your house at night.
Choose soft lamp lighting or candle light wherever possible and only switch a light on if necessary. (Showers/baths by cande light are exquisite soul food, and prep you perfectly for sleep, especially with lavender aromatherapy for extra calm.)
SLEEP SIGNALS | New parents will tell you that a good sleep routine is vital for getting your baby to sleep. Adults are no different.
Having a “bedtime routine” and creating sleep associations in your mind teaches your body when it is time to prepare for sleep. Bedtime yoga, a hot shower before bed, a foot massage, a cup of calming sleep tea, spritzing magnesium spray on your legs, spraying lavender on your pillow, or using melatonin spray all create powerful associations that trigger sleepiness.
CONSISTENT BEDTIME AND WAKE TIME | Similarly, keeping a consistent time for going to bed and waking up is everything when it comes to balancing sleep cycles.
You may think it more beneficial to “get some extra sleep” on weekends by sleeping in, but it actually does your sleep hygiene a disservice, leading to a lower quality sleep overall. You will be amazed at how quickly you adapt to a consistent bedtime!
When my sleep times were erratic, I laid awake for hours before I eventually fell asleep. Now, I could easily nod off no matter where I am or what I’m doing at 10 pm, because my body is trained to be ready for sleep by that time.
A consistent wakening time also helps to awaken recharged. With time, you hardly even need an alarm clock (goodbye, 6000 snoozes before getting out of bed).
SLEEP GEAR – THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR QUALITY | Choose a bed, a mattress and a mattress topper that suit yours and your partner’s individual and collective needs. Take into account factors such as how you sleep (side sleeper, foetal sleeper, back sleeper, starfish sleeper, active sleeper), your body size, and any medical conditions.
Choose a bed that is the right size, and choose a mattress and pillow that will support your body and sleep style. I was today years old when I discovered that there is a correct pillow type for each sleep style (e.g. side sleeper, back sleeper).
I also recommend high quality bedding that is exceptionally comfortable and feels luxurious, which can promote feelings of ease and relaxation.
BLACKOUT CURTAINS | My husband and I live in the country, and so have no disruptive street light pouring in through our windows at night. The only light we have is starlight and moonlight.
We have blackout curtains blocking out our street-facing window, however, to block out cars driving past with high beams on. Similarly, you may want to consider investing in good quality blackout curtains to overcome street lights and lights from passing cars, if applicable.
When you first waken in the morning, open the curtains wide to teach your body it’s time to wake up.
WHITE NOISE | I find it hard to fall asleep in silence but equally as disruptive to hear people talking/laughing. For a long time, I needed to fall asleep with music playing so I wasn’t going to sleep in silence and I couldn’t hear external noises.
Many people have this same difficulty. Rather than using television or music, try using a white noise machine, this ambient noise music, or even running a fan or air conditioner. It’s soothing because it runs at a constant rhythm and temperature and masks background sounds.
GOOD SLEEP TEMPERATURE | Believe it or not, the temperature of the bedroom can have a profound impact on ease in falling asleep and sleep quality. Think of your bedroom as a sleep cave – it ought to be dark, quiet and cool.
Our bodies have to drop in temperature to fall asleep and this process is greatly helped if our environment closely matches this temperature. The ideal sleep temperature is 64 to 72 degrees Farenheit, or 18 to 22 degrees Celsius.
If you have the means, use air conditioning to achieve this. If not, using a fan, sleeping naked (see below), and using blackout curtains through the day can help to keep the room cool.
NO CAFFEINE OR ALCOHOL | These are stimulant substances best avoided before bed. Although alcohol can initially cause drowsiness, consuming too much too close to bed time increases the number of awakenings at night and reduces sleep quality.
A glass of wine with dinner is usually fine; but avoid drinking more than one to two standard drinks before bed and try to avoid drinking within three hours of sleep.
As for caffeine, I cannot start my day without a blissful cup of fresh coffee! But avoid drinking it up to six hours before bed. Switch to decaf alternatives.
NIX THE NAPS | Whilst I am partial to a nap on a lazy Sunday afternoon, they can be disruptive to sleep. Short power naps (less than 30 minutes) within that natural 2-3 pm circadian slump are usually okay, but if you struggle to sleep at night, it may be time to cut out napping and avoid falling asleep before your regular bedtime.
GET OUT INTO THE SUNSHINE | Truly: game changing. Increasing natural sunlight exposure through the day helps to reset your circadian rhythm and can reduce the amount of time it takes to get to sleep by up to 83%.
Two hours of sunlight exposure a day can increase the duration of sleep by up to two hours. If you work in an office environment where you have little sunlight exposure, make sure you get out into the sunshine at lunch. Try going for a walk, or eating your lunch at a park in the sunshine.
KEEP YOUR BEDROOM CLEAN | A tidy room = a tidy mind. In Feng Shui, the bedroom is the most important room in the home. It is here that mind, body, and qi, or life force, is restored and so energy in this space must be kept clear.
It is even thought that a cluttered bedroom shared between two lovers can cause relationship problems. All I know is that when my bed is neatly made and my room is kept tidy and clean, I fall asleep much faster and awaken much brighter.
CLOSE THE KITCHEN EARLY | Avoid eating large, heavy meals right before bedtime. Late night eating can negatively impact sleep quality, HGH and melatonin production, affecting sleep quality and restoration during sleep cycles. Not to mention it’s difficult to fall asleep when your pepperoni pizza insists on repeating itself.
IF YOU CAN’T SLEEP, GET UP | Your anxiety about not being able to fall asleep, or waking up in the night, will only make things worse. Watching the clock tick down toward your alarm raises cortisol and suppresses melatonin.
As counter intuitive as it may seem, you are likely to fall asleep much faster if you get up, prepare some herbal tea, and do some light reading, colouring in, or even some bedtime yoga. Keep the lights dim and resist the urge to sit on social media!
BALANCE FLUIDS | Somehow, my body got into the dreadful habit of wanting to wake me up through the night to pee. The problem only got worse with time.
Sometimes I was up four times in the night to use the loo. Each time, it took forever to get back to sleep. Going to bed hardly even felt worth it.
After the doctor ruled out medical causes, I researched how to break the habit. Cutting back on caffeine before bed helped, as caffeine is a diuretic (i.e. it increases the frequency of urination).
I also made sure I was done drinking my 3 L of water by 6 pm and held off on drinking all liquids 1- 1.5 hours before bed.
The most helpful tip was from Dr Oz, who as it happened aired an episode on it while I was researching the very thing (manifestation at its best). He suggested going to the toilet at the beginning your bedtime wind down routine, and then going again as the very last thing you do before getting into bed. This habit has been very effective.
EXERCISE! (BUT NOT TOO CLOSE TO BEDTIME) | Studies have shown that regular exercise not only improves energy during the day but helps with sleep at night by increasing time spent in deep sleep, reducing the time it takes to fall asleep (by up to 55%), and relieving insomnia. However, vigorous exercise after 6 pm can interfere with sleep by spiking alertness with hormones epinephrine and adrenaline.
Try working out first thing in the morning – the added bonus being that your workout is over and done with before life distracts you.
HAVE SEX | Sex relieves stress, burns any excess energy you’ve brought to bed, fills you with nature’s painkiller, endorphins, to kill any aches and pains that interfere with sleep, and lowers cortisol. Plus, having an orgasm releases prolactin, which causes you to feel sleepy.
For us women, who sometimes have a million thoughts going on while we try to sleep, sexual stimulation decreases activity in the amygdala and hippocampus – two areas of the brain responsible for anxiety and alertness.
HIMALAYAN SALT LAMP | My husband and I each have a Himalayan salt lamp on our bedside table. There is nothing lovelier or more inviting for sleep than to walk into our bedroom at night, dimly glowing with low pink light. There’s something very comforting and lulling about them.
Himalayan salt lamps are thought to naturally filter and cleanse the air. The pink light also counteracts sleep disrupting blue light and won’t throw off your circadian rhythms.
SATIN PILLOW CASE | For the ultimate beauty sleep experience, choose to sleep on a satin pillow case. More abrasive fabrics will pull on the skin overnight, exacerbating fine lines and wrinkles around your eyes, forehead and mouth.
A satin pillowcase, on the other hand, allows your skin to glide across it without pulling. For the same reason, they’re ideal for people who wear eyelash extensions.
Satin helps your skin to retain moisture, whilst cotton will draw moisture from your face while you sleep. A satin pillowcase also protects against frizzy hair by minimising static and it keeps your hair from getting that “flat”, slept on look in the morning. Plus, it just feels luxurious!
SLEEP NAKED | Freer, more relaxed, better intimacy, and less laundry. It’s win-win. It leads to better sleep because it helps regulate your body temperature.
Sleeping naked is also fantastic for your skin. We’re in clothes all day long and particularly our feet, armpits and intimate areas get no opportunity to breathe. For this reason, sleeping naked can reduce your risk of developing skin conditions like fungal infections. Although our sleep can be disrupted for a variety of reasons, almost all of us can benefit from incorporating better sleep hygiene into our nightly routine. Creating a sacred sleep haven in your bedroom, making sleep associations to reset your circadian rhythm, and allowing yourself to wind down before bed can transform your sleep, making you more rested, better motivated, and energetic throughout the day.
It’s a biological function that unites us all, universally as necessary as eating and drinking to our survival. Now go and prioritise it, my friends. Sweet dreams.