Coming to full consciousness and plagued by a wretched night’s sleep, a need to do some writing invades me. In fact I started writing this last night, under the very dim light of tiny lamp shaded by a towel, with my phone nowhere in sight and inside an otherwise very dark apartment, at around 9:30pm. Why the details, you may ask…well. I changed the tagline of this blog to “travelling France between day naps,” this being a direct reflection of what we’re doing, and founded on a topic that has peaked my interest over the last 6-9 months…SLEEP.
Being in the business of harvesting a growing mind, (a child) the true role and function of sleep is important to me. My inclination to learn more about it started when I had a baby, and sleep (for one and all in our household) became this evasive, mystical thing I would grab at and then watch disappear into thin air. All new parents know that a baby needs to sleep, but why? And how do we create an environment that is conducive for sleep? I will touch on this later, there being some points I’d definitely like to address on the topic. So the last two years has of course, been a roller coaster of learning about a zillion and one new things, however sleep remains to be perpetually and perhaps negatively associated with child-rearing. As a parent, you want to do everything in your power to give your child the best opportunities at rest, all the while hoping that it might also lead to everyone else in the family getting the zeds they deserve too.
After listening to a couple of audiobooks on general health (Sleep Smarter, Sara Gottfried & Shawn Stevenson and The Mindful Athlete, George Mumford among many more) with the topic of sleep touched upon, I stumbled upon a GEM. Matthew Walker published this goldmine in 2017 – Why We Sleep, The New Science of Sleep and Dreams. And I have been so obsessed with it that I after listening to five hours of it, I started again for fear of having forgotten what I’d learnt. Now, I have 27 minutes left of a book that is 13 hours worth of information that you want to absorb into your psyche. Walker was a guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast (watch it here) and then I coincidentally found him again on Rhonda Patrick’s podcast (watch it here). I was sold. Next came the book and the rest is history. P.S. each of the links above are very worthwhile for investing your time, if you are interested in living a healthy, long, creative, intelligent life (in short).
I started putting what I was learning into practice by actively seeking out opportunities for better sleep, and learning how to optimise it for myself. At the same time I have been trying to really enforce strong, positive sleep habits and associations for my son. Because you see, it’s not just that a lack of sleep makes you tired the next day. It is so much more than that. And what is evident in the book is that our society as a collective has created a public health epidemic, based on the little we know about what sleep truly does for us. Walker highlights a multitude of astonishing and absolutely captivating topics throughout the journey that is this piece of work. With hundreds of citations, over two decades worth of research and having himself published over 100 scientific research studies, you cannot read this book and not change your habits immediately.
We all assume to know that sleep is related to health. But did you know that the human brain uses sleep as a cleansing, flushing system, to clear out the debris of the day’s accumulated memories and facts? Did you know that this process (in short) also works to sluice the amyloid protein build up, which a storing of is directly related to Alzheimer’s Disease? Did you know that in fact, you do need eight hours of sleep a night, no matter who you are or what your age? And that time of sleep does matter? Do you have any idea why or how a lack of proper, balanced REM and NREM sleep has on every level of function – from beauty to brains? I personally didn’t know any of these things or the details involved, and still consider myself to be at an elementary level of understanding. But I’m one step ahead of where I was before, that’s for sure.
Professor Walker talks about how sleep is portrayed in the workforce, too. How we have this glorified perception of people who claim to stay up working late, and head to the office early. He highlights the detrimental effect of sleep deprivation, and how it is impacting the nooks and crannies of society. How? It turns out that being denied the sleep we actually need manifests in myriad ways, not least of those being vehicle incidents resulting in death. Walker also talks about the crisis (yes, crisis) gripping our education system in the western world. Early school start times are ruining the very fabric of our children’s development – at a time when their brains are the most malleable. As a parent, did you know how truly vital sleep is for brain and body development? For skill mastering? For healthy emotional function? To avoid both physical disease and mental health dysfunction? Proper sleep even ensures a person eats well, and makes “good” choices with food. The pre-frontal cortex is our decision making part of the brain and it relies on proper sleep to operate at 100%. If it doesn’t get the sleep it desires, it simply will not work optimally. In a fatigued state, you’ll find yourself rationalising “bad” food choices and eating more than what you need. This is fact, and has been proven by SCIENCE. How good.
You may snigger at what I’ve relaid thus far. But factually, there is so much more to sleep than we ever thought. This incredible wealth of information is truly worth the 13 hours listening and reading, and I would go so far as to say that it could be life changing for you. For my family, everything now revolves around sleep. For ourselves, yes, but majorly for our son. And that leads me to this point: A “normal,” healthy child should NEVER BE WOKEN UP FROM SLEEPING. If you’re a parent and you have ever worried about your child’s sleep thus carried out some research, you will have found that some parenting books instruct you to put your baby down at a certain time and wake him up at a certain time. Now, Walker doesn’t actually attack this topic BUT the other thousands of words he has written imply it anyway. A growing brain needs sleep, just the same way that a plant needs sunlight and water. It’s not optional. Earlier, I stated that everybody needs eight hours sleep. This only really changes for babies and young children, who need more. Did you know that a three year old who gets less than 10 hours sleep in a 24 hour period has a 40% increased risk of developing obesity by age seven?
Going further on this issue, we often scorn those who claim to sleep a lot, to sleep in on weekends or who go to bed “early.” Children and teenagers are usually included in this group, and whose supposedly slovenly ways are seen by adults as lazy. In fact, this is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. Of course, Walker talks about circadian rhythms and how innate they are, as well as how they change depending on age. Surprisingly, a teenager doesn’t choose to go to bed 2-3 hours later than her parents…it’s her circadian rhythm which decides when sleep can be instigated, and this rhythm changes over time. As we get older, it heads back to a more “reasonable” timeframe; this is why adults are more ready for bed earlier in the evening than kids. Sleep is the time that child’s brain is growing. It’s moving information from one section to another. It is enhancing creativity, it is resetting emotions, it is solidifying facts and skills. It is learning! It is making every action carried out during the day worthwhile. So right now, stop your adolescent from staying up late to study, and refrain from waking your kids up before they do it themselves, naturally. Instead, establish a regular bed time for them, and let them stay there for a full 7-9 hours. Routines and schedules can surely be sacrificed, if it means a growing brain gets to swim in the healing powers of sleep properly.
It would be remiss of me not to mention our two most loved, most drunk and most misunderstood substances. Alcohol and coffee. Two types of beverages deemed suitable to drink at certain times of day, and two drinks that we haven’t really understood the true implications of consuming around sleep…until now.
First to coffee. My husband and I have both been coffee drinkers for a long time, especially with being advocates of intermittent fasting. When I wake up in the morning and choose not to eat breakfast, I’d still like something food-like to enjoy. And that is a long black with a tablespoon of pouring cream. I decided to cut coffee out for a week, because despite carrying out many of the suggestions Walker advises, I was still waking up 1-2 times during the night, and not reaching the level of deep sleep I craved. It’s the kind of slumber that when you wake up, your memory (coincidentally) of the very last thing you did has vanished. Can you remember the last time this happened for you? Some of you won’t, because it will have been years since that morning, and in between those days, weeks and months, you filled your life with coffee in order to stave off the building adenosine. This is the sleep pressure chemical in your brain, which is blocked by caffeine; this is why we think a coffee wakes us up. Despite what could certainly be classified as sleep deprivation, you have generally felt okay, despite a persistent, nagging sense of fatigue behind your eyes. Like the low hum of an old refrigerator, the noise becomes part of your environment and you don’t notice it too often. The chemical (adenosine) mentioned above, does not actually stop being produced when you consume coffee. It becomes blocked, so that you don’t feel its pressure while caffeine is circulating in your system.
Interestingly, caffeine has a half-life of 8 hours, meaning that 8 hours after drinking your morning coffee, you still have HALF THE AMOUNT of caffeine in your bod. Still working to block those adenosine receptors and still making you feel like you are not tired. If you’re a person who drinks MORE than one cup in the morning and maybe has a midday or an afternoon cup, the cycle restarts, only this time with double the caffeine. So of course, it takes longer to flush it. If you don’t remember the last time you went a day without coffee, I dare say the caffeine build up in your system is playing a large part in preventing healthy sleep for you. Do yourself a favour – carry out an experiment and drink a decaffeinated coffee <OR A TEA, NOT GREEN> for one month. It will take a few weeks, maybe two, depending on how heavy of a caffeine consumer you are, before you will feel the effects wear off. The first day was hard for me, I felt tired and I couldn’t combat the fatigue with caffeine, but I pushed through it. The difference for me though, is that I go through periods of drinking coffee every single day, and then some periods of incidentally skipping 2-3 days. I didn’t start sleeping better till well over ten days later, so don’t give up if no changes happen straight away. You must persist if you want real change, and you will truly benefit if you do.
This post was not meant to be an instruction manual at all, but I do want to spread the message of health where I can. We are all sleep deprived, and it’s the sharing of this sort of information that might help us get past it. I wanted to also talk about alcohol – at night (the absolute worst time to drink it, apparently) and it’s effects on sleep, on LEARNING and a big one for me, on CONSUMPTION DURING PREGNANCY AND BREASTFEEDING. Capitals necessary. If you’re doing either of the latter two, I urge you to stop now and don’t look back. If you want more information please let me know. I’ve also recently done some reading on nutrition and health during pregnancy, with Lily Nichol’s Real Food for Pregnancy being the most relevant. A great read if you are planning to fall or have already OR are breastfeeding. Anyway, Matt Walker calls attention to drinking alcohol both during pregnancy and in the postnatal period if a mother is breastfeeding. It’s crucial to know how we are actually misunderstanding the effects of even one glass of wine on our babies.
Personally, I drank wine when I was breastfeeding my first child but will certainly not be touching the stuff in consecutive pregnancies and breastfeeding periods. Alcohol in pregnancy and breastfeeding inhibits the baby’s ability to reach REM sleep, which when it does occur, helps to form the very structure of a brain. Some disturbing and very sad animal experiments have been carried out in order to test this theory, and whether a lot or a little, this substance has the same effect. And to make matters worse, once the damage on those tiny brains is done, it never fully recovers and the fabric that builds a healthy brain ends up looking like a half built home after being deserted because the builder ran out of money. This impairment leads to all sorts of issues for future development, including problems with healthy metabolism function, social interaction, learning, and physical development.
The body will take what the body needs, and sleep is the pillar that holds other essential aspects of health up. Those other two are nutrition and exercise, but IN FACT they both mean very little if you’re sleeping badly. Even your lung capacity is affected if you don’t have a good nights sleep. Research has proven that we eat more when we’re tired. And to top that off, we aren’t as efficient at metabolising the food we do consume. Poor quality sleep or sleep deprivation is the founding mother for all other health problems, from obesity to cancer and everything in between. This is due mainly to inflammation. The brain and body rest and recuperate during sleep, putting out the fires from the 16+ hours of wake time, cooling everything down and storing vital information away. The first step to mastery is understanding, and that is what is lacking in our modern world. If we can comprehend the verifiable reason as to why sleep is so incredibly integral, perhaps we will treat it differently.
If you’re wondering how you just quickly implement some action to move toward better sleep, I’m going to share what Matthew Walker strongly advocates and how I personally do it on a daily basis. I have experimented with most of these, resulting in horrible, restless nights where I commit to change at 3am…take it from Matthew Walker and just trust that they work.
- Minimise blue light exposure (this means NO IPAD, NO MOBILE, NO TV) 2-3 hours before predicted bedtime. Read a book, sharpen your skills on a musical instrument, write in a journal, listen to music or communicate with loved ones. Do something more worthwhile than scrolling Instagram, or watching tasteless reality television.
- The ambient light for the evening should be shades of yellow and orange, not bright white. Melatonin release will only begin when your brain get the signal that light is disappearing, and this chemical is what means you will be able to fall asleep quickly and stay asleep longer. If you have a lamp by your bed, shade it with an orange or red t-shirt – this is a good one, I like how it changes the colour in my bedroom to look a little bit spicy!
- Try and eat dinner early, not shortly before going to bed. Your body should really have already partly digested your food by the time you’re drifting off…and stay away from SUGAR right before bed. Studies have found that sugar (carbohydrate) intake before a night’s rest leads to a tougher, longer time falling asleep, more wake ups and a lack of deep REM sleep.
- Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, even on weekends. Walker advises that if you take anything from the book at all, let it be this one.
- When you feel tired of an evening, do your absolute best to get to bed as quickly as possible. That fatigue is the adenosine (sleep chemical) pressuring you to rest. It’s a signal from your body and you’d do well to listen to it.
- CUT OUT COFFEE. Or decrease it at least. If you currently drink two cups, cut down to one. If you must have one, have it first thing in the morning. Try to cycle your addictive substances; i.e. drink (caffeine) for a week, then drink decaf for a week, then drink non-caffeinated tea for a week. Then go back to coffee. This means you will also notice the effects of the caffeine more strongly – drinking it every single day means you build a tolerance and it’s less effective. Obviously.
- Stay well and truly away from sleeping tablets. I don’t have any authority to hand out facts here, but Walker has done the research alongside some brilliant and likeminded scientists and the facts are in…Sleeping tablets increase your risk of cancer and death. Even occasional consumption increases your risk by a significant amount, just 10 tablets a year, apparently. If you are taking sleeping tablets regularly, it is worth looking into this yourself.
I’m going to stop there, just because I am writing this to spread the message of health and nobody is paying me. My child is asleep and I have washing to hang out, so I’ll sign off now. Do yourself and your family a favour and read the book. If you want more information and “don’t have time” to read, let me know and I’ll share what I can.
Sweetest of dreams, friends.