We spend half of our lives immobile and unconscious on the top of a mattress, on a couch, in a chair, or maybe comfortably on the floor snuggling next to a pet. That part is obvious. The not so obvious part, though, is why?
In an article from CBS News, a sleep study identified that without sleep, rats started to die.
“One thing that’s clear, says Walker, is that sleep is critical. In a series of studies done back in the 1980s, rats were kept awake indefinitely. After just five days, they started dying.”1 It turns out that sleep is just as critical as food.
And chances are, you’re not getting enough.
If you’re getting 6-7 hours of sleep per night, that’s not enough. I remember the old saying growing up that kids need 9-10 hours of sleep; adults need 8-9; seniors need 7-8, or something like that. Perhaps it was less in each category. Either way, even since I was a kid, there have been adages on the importance of sleep. But until recently, I didn’t understand what would happen if I didn’t get enough.
At the beginning of this college semester, I was going to bed at 10 p.m. on weeknights when I had to wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning. On production nights for my newspaper, I might slip under the covers anytime between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., depending on the work load. On Fridays and Sundays (my full days off, save homework), I slept in until 11 a.m. after going to bed close to midnight.
I can’t even remember how I felt at the beginning of the semester, since it was so long ago, and I hadn’t yet worn down. But science doesn’t need to tell me that over the semester, my shoulders have slouched more every day; my mood has gone from normal to worse to horrifyingly unstable; my diet has ceased to bring me delight and now causes me stress; exercise isn’t even fathomable because I’m too tired to move my legs.
As Robb Wolf cleverly puts it, “We see NO favorable adaption to sleep deprivation. Some people tolerate it better than others…interestingly, the folks who can “get by” on less sleep die younger…so there is no free lunch here. You do not build a callous, you do not up-regulate this or that enzyme system…you get fracking sick and have a boat load of problems. What I take from this is we are REALLY wired to get a restful nights [sic.] sleep all the damn time. You can get by, but at very high cost.”2
But what if I like my sleep schedule, or I’m a natural nocturnal?
Let me just apologize for bursting your bubble, but that’s not true. The reason you cannot fall asleep at night is probably because you’ve been plugged in to electronics and screens for so long that your body still thinks it is daylight outside. Now, I understand that isn’t always the case. I’m just trying to spark some interest here.
Men’s Health magazine did a good job explaining this is an article.
“‘The bright light of TV stimulates the brain, which can affect the secretion of melatonin, a hormone necessary for quality sleep,’ explains W. Christopher Winter, M.D., Men’s Health‘s sleep advisor. And laptops and tablets used at the brightest setting are just as harmful.”4
Think about it for a second. When the sun goes down or when it’s winter and the nights are longer, what happens? You start to feel a little mellower. So, to wind down, you pull out your kindle, turn on the tube, multitask your laundry with dusting your furniture, and suddenly you’re wide awake. But evolutionarily, people went to bed when the sun went down. That fire just wasn’t enough to stimulate them into sweeping the cave.
It’s not the popular thing – to turn off electronics before bed. It’s fun time, you know, because you’ve worked hard all day. But you’ll be happier tomorrow if you just rest your eyes, pull out a book, knit a sock — whatever you think will help.
Here’s something to lure you in. Imagine: You’re sitting at your favorite place in your abode. You’ve got your jammies on, a book in your hand, a scented candle going next to you or maybe a log fire, a snoring dog/cat on the floor, and a dim lamp to shed light onto your pages.
Tell me there’s not something romantic about that idea.
But then picture you’re in the same scenario. Except, instead of a book, you’re watching a movie. You start to feel a little restless, a little tired, those eyes are getting heavy, but you keep going. You’re at the best part; you won’t stop now. By the time the movie is finally done, you either don’t want to go to bed because you want to do more fun things while you’re slipping into awake-unconsciousness, or you’re mad at yourself because you stayed up to watch a movie that’s made you exhausted. “Night-owl” or not, you could’ve made a better decision here, and you probably know it.
What you need to do to sleep better
I’ve obviously painted a better picture for the book because I’m trying to make a point, but really. Is it worth it to stay up so late just for the sake of entertainment? When I read a book, even if it’s really good, I know I can put it down and shut out the light. The problem with a TV, at least for me, is that if there’s one good thing on, that means there will be another. And another. Some people have that problem with Youtube; I have the problem with television.
Men’s Health continues, “The healthiest nighttime routine: Turn off the tube, and spend that hour with a good book instead. Reading under a dim light won’t disrupt your brain’s melatonin production. Plus, studies have shown that overall memory improves if you learn right before falling asleep.”4
Everyone is going to have to work out the best way for them to fall asleep. Chris Kresser recommends managing stress throughout your day so you can go to sleep restful with the Sleep Sounder program. Meditations and prayers for 10 minutes a day also work wonders. I know when I take a moment to sit quietly on my bed for 10 minutes in prayer, I’m a much better person afterwards.
Some people need to eat before they go to bed. My boyfriend can eat a sandwich and sleep fine. My digestive system doesn’t appreciate it, though; if I eat too close to bedtime (even three hours beforehand), I have horrible nightmares. On nights when I don’t eat before bed, I hardly notice my dreams at all.
Kresser writes in his blog, “Some people sleep better after eating a light dinner. This is especially true for those with digestive issues. Others – like those with a tendency toward hypoglycemia – do better with a snack before bed (and possibly even during the night).”3
Kresser also says that there is some truth to the saying, “an hour before midnight is worth two hours after.”3
I know it’s popular for people to want to take something for those harder days when it’s difficult to fall asleep. I really don’t use them, except the occasional Benadryl (I know, I know). What I can recommend is unplugging, reading books, listening to soft meditation or classical music that you like, getting some sweet aroma therapy sprays going on, take a bath, use some Epsom salts, things like that. Also, abstaining from coffee during the day will help you more at night.
Oh but you’re not that type of person, okay, I see. Well, magnesium should work for you no matter who you are. Most people don’t get enough magnesium, but it’s a strong agent in helping the body to relax. Please, don’t do what I did. Don’t go to Rite Aid or CVS or whatever store you have and pick out the cheapest magnesium you can find. It really won’t do you any good because it will be a weak product probably not in the right absorb-able format. And the added chemicals in the supplement could:
- disrupt your skin,
- upset your stomach,
- cause an allergic reaction,
- or some other fun thing! Woo!
Go online, do your research for the best stuff, and spend the money to help yourself. You’re worth it, you know?
You’ve probably known someone who takes melatonin, but I don’t recommend it and neither does Kresser.
“Melatonin is another commonly used sleep aid. But I don’t recommend it for anything more than emergency, short-term use. Why? Because melatonin is a hormone. Taking any supplemental hormone disrupts our natural regulatory mechanisms of that hormone and throws our internal production of it out of whack. This can create dependence over time and disrupt our circadian rhythm, which is crucial not only to sleep, but to overall health,”3 Kresser writes.
My friend takes melatonin. And birth control. And drugs for depression. While you can’t see problems on the outside, what’s happening on the inside could be very dangerous. I don’t know a lot about hormones, but I know that they run our bodies. If you’re inserting some that don’t belong there, they could mess up the ones that already are.
I haven’t been able to find solid Paleo sources on napping, so I’m going to reference some science/news articles in the hopes that it will help guide your decisions.
In terms of napping throughout the day, most of my research indicates that people performed better, had better health, better working performance, and better moods/diets than those who did not.
For one thing, “A six-year Greek study found that those who took a 30-minute siesta at least three times a week had a 37% lower risk of heart-related death.”5 Okay, so far, naps are a go. The study measured 23,681 men and women all between 20 and 86 years old. All of the individuals were healthy and were also monitored for physical activity.
One finding was that “Among working men who took midday naps, there was a 64% reduced risk of death compared with a 36% reduced risk among non-working men.”5
Even though midday naps can likely help, June Davison, cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, encouraged that people remain physically active during the day. “‘However it is important to get a balance between rest and activity, as being regularly active can help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.'”5
I’m not saying that this is a perfect study or that you shouldn’t do your own research. It is interesting, however, that sleep helps reduce the risk of heart-related death because America’s number one killers right now in 2014 are diabetes and heart-related conditions (usually associated with diabetes).6 If we slept more, our medical bills would be lower. Neat concept.
In my experience, if I really need a nap, I will take one. I try not to sleep longer than one hour because it disrupts my sleep schedule later. However, my personal motto is that if I’m really tired, my body is trying to tell me something.
Perhaps Paleo enthusiasts will figure out later that napping is completely un-Paleo and that we should never sleep during the day. But I encourage you to remember that with anything, one size doesn’t fit all. There will always be outliers and inconsistencies. Listen to your body. If you need rest, get some.
- Health Management and Policy 401 class at the University of New Hampshire taught by professors Mittal and McGrath.