Dreaming of a Good Night's Sleep
By Melissa Berman
March 7, 2021
The alarm ringtone sounded for the third snooze at 8:05 a.m. I sat up quickly, remembered I had a phone interview in 25 minutes, and popped my eyes open. I had about 3.5 hours of sleep after another night of insomnia, and I needed to power up my groggy brain and my computer to interview Javier Suarez, Certified Sleep Coach and Regional Wellness Director at Six Sense Resorts, about the Science of Sleep.
“Sleep is the most important thing.” Suarez got straight to the point. He’s been studying scientific data and working with people who have sleeping issues for decades. He pointed out that most conversations about health revolve around diet and exercise, with less focus on sleep. But the truth is, without healthy sleep habits, the other two are adversely affected and overall health is compromised. “Every system in our body relies on adequate sleep. This means 7 to 8 hours a day, and also, importantly, at relatively the same time each day.”
I understood what he was saying. My recent bout with insomnia had kept me up until 4am or 5 a.m. some nights, snacking on whatever I could find in the fridge or pantry, vowing to resume my workout routine the next day, only to be too tired to even try. And so it went, leaving me feeling depleted in every way.
I had sent Javier a list of questions the day before our call, as a way to prepare for our conversation, but I was in the middle of a sleep crisis, and he seemed friendly enough, so I switched my agenda. “I got three and a half hours last night.” I confessed, “I need this article as much as anyone reading it.”
He laughed and asked me a few questions. “You may be a Dolphin,” he said. “Are you familiar with sleep chronotypes?” I wasn’t, but he explained that each of us has a genetic pre-disposition to which sleep schedules are best for us. Our own biological sleeping clock. I always thought the best way to sleep was early to bed and early to rise, something I’ve never been able to do. Not so, says Suarez, “Your bio-rhythm is who you are. It’s ok if you aren’t so early to bed, as long as you wake up 7 or 8 hours later.”
After speaking at length, and later confirming with a chronotype quiz, I learned that I am actually not a Dolphin, but a Wolf, otherwise known as a night owl. I felt redeemed after a lifetime of trying, to no avail, to train myself to be a morning person. According to sleep experts, working with your chronotype is the best way to establish your best sleep schedule, and organize your day around when you are at your best. For me, evenings are my time to shine and prepare me for a little later bedtime than most.
So, what constitutes a good night sleep? And how do you even know if you aren’t getting it? “If you aren’t sleeping well, you know it.” says Suarez. “Even if you are sleeping 7 hours, you might not be getting the full number of sleep cycles you need for healthy, restorative sleep, and you will feel it.” Your energy drags, your focus is off, appetite, mood, even digestion are all signs of sleep issues. While some sleeping issues require a full medical sleep study, with wires and monitors that track brain activity overnight, most of us can start to get a good picture at home. A good way to evaluate your sleep this way is using a Fitbit or Apple Watch. “These devices have greatly improved their technology and are very accurate,” he noted. “They can let you know, not only how much sleep you are getting, but offer insight into the quality of that sleep.” In order to have truly restorative, healthy sleep we need the 7-8 hours, but we need them to happen in 90-minute sleep cycles – 4-5 cycles per night. The mapping of these cycles is called sleep architecture.
A healthy Sleep architecture looks something like this:
1. Sleep latency - The time it takes you to fall asleep.
2. Light sleep - Drowsiness, your brain waves start to slow down, and heart rate goes down.
3. Deep sleep - Deep short wave or Delta sleep, your muscle tone, pulse, and breathing rate decrease and body fully relaxes.
4. REM sleep - Rapid Eye Movement, your body is temporarily paralyzed except for eyes and breathing, vivid dreams occur, and deep restoration takes place.
Getting through the full cycle is important for cognitive health, as well as immune and other bodily health. For those who don’t sleep enough or wake up frequently, the cycle is interrupted, and less time is spent in those crucial deeper sleep levels.
One of the experts Suarez consults with, and recommends checking out, is Dr. Michael Breus, otherwise known as ‘The Sleep Doctor’. Dr. Breus, a psychologist, is renowned in the world of sleep science and is one of the pioneers of the chronotype model, as well as many proven protocols for diagnosing and improving sleep patterns. Suarez mentions his specialty as a psychologist because, he says, so much of our sleep quality is affected by our mental state and vice versa. During sleep, specifically REM and dream states, our subconscious processes things that happen in our waking life, sort of clearing our mental plate so we awake refreshed and more clear. The more we have to process, the more our sleep is affected; and the more our sleep is affected, the harder it is for us to cope when we are awake.
This discussion gives me a perfect segue to my next topic, sleep and COVID. My own insomnia seems like a good case study of what many of my friends are also experiencing, pandemic-induced insomnia. I wonder what advice the sleep experts have to offer. Suarez says that deep REM sleep is crucial now, as our minds are processing so much more stress, and we really need the restorative and immune protective benefits of deep sleep.
Now, more than ever, we all need to be on top of our healthy sleep habits game.
• Beds are for sleep and sex, full stop. No pandemic binge TV watching here. Get up and go to the sofa.
• Know your chronotype and stick to that schedule. The body does better on a regular sleep schedule.
• Get as much sunlight as you can first thing in the morning. Sunlight tells your body it’s awake time and also signals the production of melatonin, which is what you need to regulate that circadian rhythm.
• Don’t eat 3-4 hours before bed. No late-night lockdown snacking.
• Don’t drink alcohol before going to bed. It may seem like it makes you fall asleep more easily, but you won’t be getting the quality sleep you need.
• Get exercise no less than 3-4 hours before sleep. Exercise is good in so many ways, sleep is no exception. Exercise in the day can help you fall faster and deeper to sleep at night. It also releases growth hormones that help you restore and revitalize during sleep.
• Get away from those screens. Turn them off at least an hour before bed. The infamous blue light confuses your mind and body. And speaking of the screens, Suarez adds that, limiting your intake of news, can really help you sleep better. Just because you are at home most of the time, doesn’t mean you need to keep loading your nervous system with bad or scary news. Step away and meditate, take a bath, or read fiction, allow your body and mind some good wind down time.
• Have Sex. Sex releases hormones that make you feel good and help you sleep.
• Do good. There’s truth to that saying about having a good conscience and being able to sleep at night. People with regrets or guilt have a harder time sleeping, and conversely, those who do good deeds feel better about themselves and others and can sleep with a clear mind. The pandemic offers lots of opportunities to help others – a little silver lining.
After speaking for almost an hour with Suarez, it’s about time for me to have my breakfast on the East Coast of the US, and him to have an afternoon tea in the beautiful Douro region of Portugal, where he’s based. I am grateful to have these tips for myself and this story. In closing, Suarez reminds me that good sleep is like anything else, you have to work at it, like going to the gym, or sticking to a healthy diet.
Here’s to better sleep, sweeter dreams, and brighter days ahead.
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