How to Sleep and How NOT to SleepMarch 18th, 2022
The chances are, you’re not sleeping as well, as long, or at the right times. My experience as a long term meditator and someone who has helped people breathe, meditate and sleep, is that it is actually very difficult to do these three things.
But why is it so hard?
Because human beings have become so neurologically dysregulated, our brains and bodies almost have to fight biology to be able to relax. In our 'always switched on' world, our nervous system and body never really feel safe enough to surrender to the vulnerability of sleep. One thing is hard to dispute: sleep is a good thing. The cost of rendering ourselves unconscious and paralyzed for hours at a time would have to have incredibly significant advantages to be worth the evolutionary biological effort. And it does; for without sleep, we can’t think clearly, we don’t feel well, and often we don’t feel content or happy, either.
Different types of light and why you should care
Research is conclusive that exposure to the wrong kind of light at the wrong time of day messes up the signal to our brain and can dis-regulate our sleep patterns. This is because, until the last couple hundred years (which is very recent in evolutionary, biological terms) the only source of intense and sustained light would have been the sun and any other source of light would have been red light from candles or other flames. Our brain is used to increasing amounts of red light in the morning as the sun comes up, (which tells our brain that it’s time to wake up) and similarly, a decreasing amount of red light in the evening, as the sun sets, which tells our brain that it’s time to go to sleep.
The advent of blue light (computer screens, phones, TVs and all the little blue LEDs that we have flashing on devices around the home) is an incredibly recent phenomenon, so we just haven’t evolved to look at or be ok with blue light. And since our brain hasn’t evolved to cope with blue light, it gives our brain the signal that it is time to wake up - even though it may be the middle of the night. This issue is further compounded by the fact, that, due to ecological concerns, people are now replacing traditional red tone light bulbs with LEDs - which emit cold, blue light.
Just as too much exposure to blue light in the night time can be too much “wake up” light for our brains, too little exposure to red light at the right times can have a similar but different disruptive effect. Eye masks and blackout blinds to enable a longer sleep, wearing sunglasses when outdoors and prolonged daytime periods indoors without natural light will also stop the brain adjusting to a regular sleep pattern according to the seasons.
So what can you do that doesn't involve living in a cave?
Although we can use blue-light blocking technology or shields to reduce the amount of blue light exposure, there’s no substitute to seeing sunlight at the right time of day. Ideally, to re-order your circadian rhythm, you should view sunlight by going outside within 30-60 minutes of waking. If you do this again in the late afternoon, prior to sunset, your brain will start to re-calibrate. The Huberman lab at Stanford has shown that even a window placed between you and the sun has a huge effect on reducing the amount of beneficial light that hits the back of the eye.
Of course I’m not telling you to look directly into the sun. But actually seeing the sunlight itself - watching the sun rise and go down unfiltered - will adjust your sleep patterns over time quite quickly. It’s even been shown that sleeping outdoors for 3 days will have an adjusting effect on almost everybody.
Technology and sleep
By all means, use blue-blocking technology in your daily life, but really, tech has no place in the bedroom - especially if it emits any kind of light, and even more so if the light is blue. If you have such a device and temporarily has a light on it, you can usually cover the light (such as with Sensate). Devices which use sound are better as sleep aids because they aren’t stimulating the brian with “wake up” messages.
What about my sleep app, which monitors the quality of my sleep?
Any blue light on devices - alarm clocks, phones or other shouldn’t be visible while you are sleeping. If you use a sleep app to monitor the quality of your sleep try to do so in the least obsessive way possible!
By this I mean, if you can, use one which doesn’t have a screen, and don’t check it too frequently. Anomalies in the data aren’t always significant, so try to check it once a week or less to avoid stressing out. In some cases, taking the data too much to heart can cause anxieties which can have a detrimental effect on sleep; thus entirely defeating the purpose. This is especially the case if your sleep data relies solely on a microphone. While the algorithms for sound are very advanced, there really is no substitute for data readings taken from the body itself.
If you want a really accurate picture of what your body is up to I’d recommend the Oura. While it periodically syncs with an app, the ring itself is collecting data all day and night without an interruptive screen.
Last thing at night
Go to bed when you first feel tired. When our first son was born, I remember a seasoned midwife telling us that we must get the baby to bed before the third yawn or he would get over tired and not sleep at all! Similarly for adults, if you push through your first wave of tiredness in the evening, you will probably miss out on an important chunk of sleep and be disrupting your body’s natural instinct to rest.
Mantra - breathe out slowly and repeat in your mind "Light should be red, now go to bed"
I would strongly encourage you not to take devices to bed with you. However, if you do, try to do so mindfully:
- Try not to spend any amount of time on screens within an hour or two of going to bed
- If your phone is your alarm, put your phone on “airplane mode” before you go to bed so you don’t accidentally get sucked back into outside distractions (social media or responding to messages) just before you go to sleep
First thing in the morning when you wake up:
- Try to wait until you have left the bedroom before you switch off “airplane mode” on your phone and start to engage with the outside world
- If possible, take your phone away from the bedroom altogether and look at it after breakfast in order to keep the time clear for your brain
- If all this is too complicated, you could always go old-school and get an alarm clock with bells on it - leaving your phone on charge elsewhere in the house. Simples!
Be happy with four hours
Mantra - breathe out slowly and repeat in your mind: "Four is a score!"
There is an increasing body of evidence which shows that humans evolved to enjoy two periods of four hours of sleep rather than one 8 hour period. The problem is that the rest of society isn't aligned with this!
But you can still allow yourself to feel OK with reaching this milestone: try to accept that you may be programmed to wake after 4 hours and start to work with it - maybe use a wakeful period for some peaceful alone time - to journal, meditate or create and just see what happens.
By lowering your expectations and becoming content with four hours, you can begin to feel as though anything more than that is a bonus. By de-escalating the tyranny of 8 hours, and neutralizing the sense of failure if you don’t reach it, you will feel less pressure and stress and can build on success rather than failure.
Have a nap
Mantra - breathe out slowly and repeat in your mind "With a daytime sleep, my mind goes deep"
People who have siestas live longer. I suspect their quality of life is higher also. Naps are not just for babies and the elderly, but can allow the sleep deprived to re-calibrate rest rhythms.
Action - find a space and time you can dedicate to a regular 20-40 minute nap. Then just do it, without guilt or analysis.
Be more anti-fragile
Being too comfortable reduces our anti-fragile characteristics. What is anti-fragility? It is not about being 'strong', it is building strength through adversity.
Consider the difference here between a machine and a living organism. Even the strongest, most beautifully-engineered machine will eventually wear out, if used sufficiently, because it can’t adapt.
But human beings are anti-fragile - as is evolution. Evolution is the process of things that haven’t worked breaking down and therefore being eliminated. Therefore anti-fragility is built into evolution and into the human system. This means that we have to tolerate a degree of discomfort to allow our anti-fragile mechanism to kick in: if we remove all discomfort, there’s no opportunity for the evolutionary process of anti-fragility to enact itself and no opportunity for us to grow through hardship.
So sleeping in a room which is too quiet, too dark and in a bed which is too warm, too soft or too comfortable will not support our ability to learn to sleep in more challenging circumstances.
If you’re not actually struggling with insomnia, you could experiment here:
- Try turning off your heating allowing your house to get cold overnight - in fact,your body is programmed to wake with heat, so it’s preferable to go to sleep with several layers of blankets and then remove one or two if you wake up hot, than to to to sleep in an already warm place and be unable to cool down later
- Try leaving your blinds up at night and allowing the sun to come into your room when it rises rather than using an alarm clock
- Try leaving a window open a little to allow the sounds of the world to enter your room, along with some fresh air
The secret to success TL:DR
The long and short of it is that to return to our natural state of sleeping peacefully at night and being alert through the day, we must in essence, provide our brain with the most “connected with nature” signals that we can possibly manage.
When you wake, watch the sun rise, allow it to shine on your face, be active in the day time and ensure you get some connection with nature. As the sun sets, mimic the dimming light in your house, lower the lights and try to eliminate blue light, especially in the bedroom. Create a sleeping environment that is not especially sheltered, but which allows you to connect with the rhythms and temperatures of the natural world. And be happy with 4 hours sleep - more is a bonus.
Best wishes to everyone for a good night's sleep,
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