Some creative geniuses find their ultimate inspiration in the nocturnal hours. Then there are others who fall into a hole of desperation with the torturous deprivation of a late night. No matter the setting of your body clock, the dawning reality is that while we all think, eat, move and sleep differently – for the sake of our sanity, health and longevity, so much can be resolved with rest.
Partial sleep deprivation is what experts refer to as sleep debt, when you achieve some sleep but not 100 per cent of what your body needs to feel restored. Most can function normally after one night of minimal sleep. However, as days and nights continue with deprived rest, we begin to show signs of irritability, headaches, stomach problems, increased production of the stress hormone cortisol, weight gain, lower levels of antibodies to fight illness and disease, mood swings, depression, anxiety, memory lapses and an inability to effectively turn on either the logical or creative brain, due to the fact we are not effectively switching off. Yet we live in a society where we are expected to show up every single day, ready to present creative ideas and logical strategies, to effectively manage our stress, to be on call and ready to respond 24/7, all while sleep deprivation is more common among us than ever before. Our bodies are crying for more rest, yet we deny ourselves what we need in order to keep up with the race. Recognising this is the first step to creating a path to sleep resolution, good energy, health and optimising your creative output.
Stages of Sleep
There are two major types of sleep our bodies experience – REM and non-REM sleep. REM, as scientists define it, is ‘dreaming sleep’ and is the early stage of rest. Non-REM occurs as we drift into the depth of sleep, the ‘quiet sleep’. The two phases repeat approximately every 90 minutes, moving from REM to non-REM. If there is interruption to sleep our bodies stay within the REM phase and, as a result, do not feel quite at rest. During deep sleep the activity of the sympathetic nervous system – the part responsible for our fight or flight response – is generally decreased while parasympathetic nervous system activity, involved with rest and digestion, is increased. When we have a good night of uninterrupted sleep, and more non-REM cycles, we wake feeling alert, well rested and are able to function optimally.
Different factors may affect an individual’s ability to move into peaceful non-REM sleep to achieve complete rest. But from my observations, and practical and personal experience, a major contributor is the stress of our fast-paced lives compounded by an inability to truly disconnect from the pressure of our days.
Sanity and Sanctuary
Creating daily habits that contribute to quality rest and create a safe haven for sleep is vital. As you do, consider these key factors:
Develop a schedule for sleep. This is particularly important for those who suffer anxiety, insomnia or are prone to napping during the day. Structure sleep patterns so the body can wind down and rest at the same time each night (9.30 to 10.30pm) and rise with the day (5.30 to 6.30am). This gives the body the seven to nine hours of rest it needs to recuperate and produce the hormones required to function normally throughout the day. The times we feel wired are often when the body most needs sleep, so be conscious of this in sticking to your schedule. Keep up your commitment and the body will develop an internal pattern of sleep from which it will benefit long term.
Reduce intake of stimulants. While these have the interim effect of helping us flick the on switch, they have a powerful effect on our downtime. Coffee, tea, energy and soft drinks, drugs and alcohol will push the body into a longer awakened period. Despite alcohol being a depressant, it forces the liver to work overtime, which can disrupt sleep in the early hours (3 to 4am) of the morning.
Increase intake of nourishing foods. This will support the production of melatonin and serotonin, our sleep and mood stabilising hormones, and will replenish the adrenals. Consider including bananas, almonds, whole milk, and protein-rich food, oats, chamomile and passionflower tea in your diet to boost your body’s sources of tryptophan, magnesium, essential fats, protein and potassium. These nutrients relax muscles, aid the action of melatonin and serotonin and help the body wind down into restorative rest.
Make the bedroom a sanctuary. Sleep experts suggest the bed is a place for two things only: sleep and sex. When we bring other forces in the mix our bed and bedroom can lose their sense of sanctuary.
Ensure a wind-down hour prior to sleep. Switch off technology (TV, phones, tablets) for 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. Not only do these prolong stress and reduce clarity (with screens often linked to work) but the bright lights can suppress the production of melatonin, a key hormone in the regulation of the body’s circadian rhythms and sleep.
Use your breath. Our body can’t switch off and truly rest unless we start to reduce the activity of our sympathetic nervous system, which is impacted by the physical, emotional and mental stress in our lives. Implement breathing rituals at the beginning and end of each day to reduce the fight or flight mechanism and increase the action of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Finally, consider what expectations you place on yourself. Is the list too long, the pressure too intense, or are there too many boxes to tick in a day? There is only one person responsible for regulating this. Simplifying life can allow our bodies and minds to wind down and enjoy the nights of nourishment and restoration they deserve.