Last week we wrote about the importance of getting plenty of sleep at night; this week we show you how. After explaining the four stages of the sleep cycle, this Provision identifies eight suggestions for better sleep. The more we make sleep a priority, give ourselves permission to sleep, follow regular patterns, create safe, comfortable, dark, and peaceful environments, and adopt healthy practices the more we will enjoy a good night’s sleep. If it’s been a while since you had one of those, it may be time for you to take this Provision to heart!
Last week I made the case for getting plenty of sleep at night (8-9 hours) and for taking a brief nap (10-20 minutes) in the early afternoon. That approximates the pattern we lived with and evolved from across millions of years. It is, you might say, a formula for health that is imbedded in our genes.
Scientific research confirms that sleep deprivation • the norm, rather than the exception, in modern society • contributes to manifold physical, psychological, and social problems. To mention only a few:
- A lack of sleep disrupts the body’s production of leptin and ghrelin, two hormones that control our sense of hunger. Too little leptin and too much ghrelin leaves people feeling hungry all the time. It’s no accident that overweight and obesity have skyrocketed as sleep has plummeted (people today get 1-2 hours less sleep per day, on the average, than we did just 40 years ago when, on the average, we weighed 25 pounds less than we do today).
- Even if you manage to keep your weight under control while getting less than 8 hours of sleep per night, that does not mean you are off the hook. In a study that’s still under way, getting less than 6.5 hours of sleep per night appears to increase insulin-resistance by 30%-40%. In other words, the less sleep you get, the more insulin your body needs to produce in order to dispose of the same amount of glucose. And more insulin is definitely bad for heart health, since it leads to Syndrome X (the silent killer of cardiovascular disease).
- A lack of sleep also makes one tired and sleepy. Duh! Unfortunately, that leads to a host of problems as tired and sleepy people go through the day. Those problems include lost work hours, impaired concentration, slowed reaction time, reduced creativity, poor performance, traffic and workplace accidents as well as anxiety, depression, irritability, and mental health issues.
The fact is, we’ve been hard-coded to sleep and the more we do without sleep (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the more we suffer the consequences. An ideal night’s sleep involves five sleep cycles, each of which lasts approximately 90 minutes. Researchers have identified four stages in each cycle:
- Stage 1. This is the stage closest to wakefulness, where Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and dreaming take place. It is the easiest stage to wake up from, and it is also the transition stage as we begin to fall asleep. Up to 30% of a good night’s sleep is spent in this stage.
- Stage 2. This is a transition stage as we cycle from REM sleep to deep sleep. It is the second easiest stage to wake up from, yet blood pressure, metabolism, secretions, and cardiac activity are all decreased from wakefulness; brain waves are larger and slower. Up to 60% of a good night’s sleep is spent in this stage.
- Stage 3. This is the beginning of deep sleep, when it becomes harder to wake the sleeper and when brain waves are slow and large. Up to 15% of a good night’s sleep is spent in this stage.
- Stage 4. This is the deepest and most restorative stage of sleep. Only the first two of five cycles in a good night’s sleep will typically dip into deep sleep. Even though it accounts for only 10%-15% of our total sleep time, Stage 4 sleep is the most important. This is where all the good stuff happens, including muscle repair, memory consolidation, emotional processing, and hormone regulation. It is the hardest stage to wake up from and is where all the wild stuff happens (such as sleep-walking, sleep-talking, sleep-driving, bed-wetting, and other motor activities).
There’s no way to go directly from Stage 1 to Stage 4 sleep. It is a linear sequence that takes about 90 minutes to complete. Our bodies have been oscillating through that sequence for millions of years. 1-2-3-4-3-2-1 If we are not asleep for at least 7.5 hours (actually asleep, not just lying in bed) there is no way to get in a full five cycles of sleep and no way to experience the rejuvenation and health and that come from sleep. That’s why it’s so important to make the time for and to master the art of sleeping.
So what’s the key to sleeping well? To listen to the television commercials and marketing messages from pharmaceutical companies, one might think the secret is medication. Au contraire! Medication works, and it may be helpful on an occasional basis, but medication-induced sleep does not generate the full rejuvenating effects of natural sleep. To get that kind of sleep we would do well to take the following eight suggestions:
- Priority. There’s no way to get a good night’s sleep if we don’t make it a priority. Between last week’s Provision and this one, I hope you have more than enough reasons to make sleep a priority. For those productivity addicts in our midst, myself included, here’s one more interesting factoid: although you might think you could get more done by spending less time asleep, researchers have found no such correlation. In other words, to quote Dennis Drabell of The Washington Post, “The early bird may get the first worm, but there will be other worms, and long, late sleepers will get their full share too.”
- Permission. Although it goes hand-in-hand with priority, permission is a bit more personal and, as a result, a bit more motivating. It’s one thing to know that sleep is important as a general rule, it’s another thing to give yourself permission to follow that rule. Society is not sleep-friendly. To retire routinely around 9:00 PM is to miss a lot of goings-on in our 24/7 world. What about the late-night talk shows, for goodness sake! To take a nap after lunch, except on occasion, is virtually taboo. Try telling your boss that you need to take a nap! Only you can give yourself the permission to sleep. So do it.
- Patterns. People sleep best who follow a regular pattern, seven days a week, as to when they go to bed and when they wake up. They also follow a regular pattern as to how they get themselves ready for bed. What works for one person may not work for another. I, for example, like to read quietly with low light for 5-15 minutes before falling asleep. My wife, on the other hand, likes to stretch and breathe. I had a client who developed an elaborate ritual of doing something different in each room of her house (e.g., breathwork, Bible reading, journal writing, and meditation) before ending with prayer in her bedroom. That was enough to put her right to sleep. Keep experimenting until you find a pattern that works for you, then stay with it.
- Protection. When it comes to a good night’s sleep, nothing beats a safe and secure environment. Do whatever it takes to make sure you are free from worries, interruptions, inconveniences, and threats. Soldiers take turns guarding the post so others can sleep. Hopefully you won’t need anything that dramatic, but you do need something that secure. There’s no way to sleep and watch your back at the same time. You may rest, but you will not go into deep, restorative sleep. So protect yourself to protect your sleep. Clean up your environment. Lock your door. Be safe.
- Privacy. Privacy takes protection to another level. When we’re not only safe, but when we’re alone or with the ones we love, that’s when we fall asleep easily and stay asleep well. The key is to define privacy your way. In some cultures and households, even among couples, privacy means having your own bed in your own room. To others, it may mean sleeping with the family or family group. Whatever it looks like for you, make sure that only those people are present who you want to be present. That’s when sleep will find you, rather than you having to find sleep.
- Pitch-Dark. As we discussed in last week’s Provision, no circadian rhythm is more important than the body’s sensitivity to light. For millions of years, our hominid ancestors lived with only dim, natural light at night (the moon, stars, and, more recently, fire). Our bodies are programmed to slow down and go to sleep in the dark. Unfortunately, many of us try to sleep in conditions that are anything but pitch-dark. Our bedrooms are filled with electronic devices, including illuminated clock radios, night lights, televisions, and computers not to mention the light that streams in through the windows. It has reached the point that many people turn on the television and leave it broadcasting throughout the night. This does not promote long, deep, rejuvenating sleep. Even those who sleep during the day, due to work schedules, would do well to sleep in total darkness.
- Peaceful. In addition to darkness, it’s also important for the sleep area to be quiet, peaceful, and pleasurable. In that respect, televisions left on present a triple whammy: they light the room, make it noisy, and create too much stimulation. Think a comfortably cool, dark, quiet cave and you have the basic formula for a room conducive to sleep. Decorating your sleeping area with peaceful artwork, tokens, and reminders can also be helpful. If you keep only one room in your house neat and tidy, make it your bedroom. It should be a place you enjoy and from which you receive comfort. An excellent mattress is an important investment for a good night’s sleep and, thereby, for excellent health and wellness.
- Practices. When preparation patterns such as those mentioned above fail to help you wind down and fall asleep, you may want to experiment with other practices until you find the ones that work for you. Remember: your body is designed to sleep, sleep a lot, and sleep well. It knows how to do this, if only we can get out of the way.
Example: many people have trouble sleeping because they are overweight or obese. It becomes a vicious cycle. We can’t sleep because we’re overweight; we can’t lose weight because we can’t sleep. Losing even 10 pounds, however, has proven sleep benefits.
Another example: eliminating caffeine and other drugs (including tobacco, alcohol, and sugar) may also do the trick. You’ll never know until you run the experiment, and run it long enough to determine the results.
Yet another example: emotions such as anxiety, worry, anger, stress, frustration, grief, and obsessive attachments interfere with many people’s ability to sleep. Emotional freedom techniques such as meditation, breathwork, mindfulness, acupuncture, Reiki, and biofeedback are proven practices to heal the problems rather than to just treat the symptoms. We’ll be talking more about these and other such techniques in future Provisions.
The more we incorporate these suggestions, the eight “P’s” of natural sleep, into our lives the more and better sleep we will enjoy both at night, when it matters most, and at other points during the day, when we have the opportunity. Sleep is not a nice-to-have, as medical residency programs have recently been forced to admit. It was not long ago that most of America’s medical interns and residents worked up to 130 hours per week. Today, those programs are limited to 80 hours per week or less. Why? Because sleep deprivation causes big problems and that leads to big law suits. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association,
Interns working a traditional schedule got 5.8 hours less sleep, had 50 percent more attentional mistakes, and made 22 percent more serious errors on critical care units compared with those who worked less hours. Also, self-reported lifetime rates of motor vehicle crashes and near-miss crashes among residents are 3 and 2.5 times those of nonresident drivers, respectively.
Examining the effect of extended work hours, researchers found that performance impairment during a heavy call rotation was comparable to impairment associated with a .04 to .05 grams percent blood alcohol concentration during a light call rotation. Compared with light call, heavy call reaction times were 7 percent slower and lane variability and speed variability during the simulated driving test were 27 percent and 71 percent greater, respectively. Speed variability was 29 percent greater in heavy call with placebo than light call with alcohol, and there were similar errors and reaction times.
In other words, sleep is a have-to-have not only for medical interns and residents but for everyone. It comes down to our evolutionary makeup. To be the best we can possibly be, we need long, deep, rejuvenating sleep on a nightly (or close-to-nightly) basis. To think otherwise is to fool ourselves, to compromise our health, and to risk the health of others.
Coaching Inquiries: How well do you sleep at night? Do you get in five, full sleep cycles on a regular basis? What does your bedroom look like? Is it attractive, quiet, dark, safe, and peaceful? How could you make it more conducive to wonderful sleep? Who could work with you in order to make it so?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
I am looking forward to this series. With your last Provision, Sleep Enough, you are hitting on an important topic for me. Thanks for slowing me down this afternoon. I just had a ten minute vacation!
Thanks for all the hard work and insight in your Provisions! Just a quick note. I’m not sure your comment that we all come from one couple is quite accurate. At least in watching “The Original Eve,” a documentary on human origins, they did not specifically say that. They concluded, aside from Africans, that the rest of us came from one group of exodus out of Africa (group of approx. 250,000). This is established by one strain of mitochondria that got whittled down from this original 250,000 group of individuals. Thought you’d be interested in the documentary if you haven’t seen it. (Ed. Note: My reading of the literature suggests that we do, in fact, all go back to a single couple in that original group. Check out National Geographic. Enjoy and let me know what else you discover!)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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