(The Full Text are from when EOV’s in-person workshops were developed.)
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.’ – William Shakespeare
“I love sleep. It’s my favorite.” – Kanye West
Sleep is one of the most central things to human beings – we have adapted to a sleep/wake cycle in response to life on this spinning planet that cycles endlessly through day and night. It’s part of an ancient, inescapable rhythm. And so it makes sense that we all need a good night’s sleep. But like many of the simplest things in the world, it can be incredibly hard to do, especially in an era when our lifestyles don’t align with the trajectory of the sun.
So, if you’re tossing and turning in bed, and finding it hard to sleep, don’t feel singled out. This is the case for many of us who live in cities, stimulated by lights, TVs, computers and of course, our closest, most constant companions, our phones. Going back to just a century ago, we know from written records that people got about 10 hours of sleep a day. By the 1970’s we were down to an average of 7 hours of sleep. These days it’s 6 hours. Which means we are likely the most under-slept humans in history.
We’re also the inheritors of a million year old legacy – our fight or flight instinct that keeps us on alert, and provides us with bursts of adrenaline. It’s an instinct that ensured our survival when we were hunter-gatherers. But today, although we’re not being chased by tigers on a regular basis, we still have the same alarm system going off if something doesn’t feel right. So we’re often reacting quite extremely to things that are not life-threatening several times a day (such as nasty emails).
And then of course, we’ve created a complex society in the last 7000 years, since humans started farming, and discovered a good many stimulants along the way. Coffee (is there a city block anywhere in the world now that doesn’t have at least one coffee shop on it?). Cigarettes. Alcohol. And we consume all of these stimulants as part of our social lives – when we go out with friends. We also consume them when we’re feeling lonely. We consume them when we want to celebrate. And we consume them when we’re feeling depressed. And it is so tempting to use these stimulants to get us through our stress, while all the while, we’re just pushing ourselves further away from good health.
Let’s look at a common scenario that a lot of us urban-dwellers face.
Work related tension.
Exhaustion (which in turn means you have no energy left for social contact).
Dependency on three to four cups of coffee a day and two glasses of alcohol.
Not a lot of sleep.
No regular exercise program.
No nutrition plan.
The good news is that this can be fixed. What we’d like to share with you is some ways in which you can make good sleep achievable. These ideas come mainly from people who have collectively spent decades studying sleep – lead researchers in this field from the Harvard Medical School, where EOV’s Medical Director, Dr. Stewart-Patterson is a faculty member. We’ll also pull in sleep wisdom from other places as well. So when we share observations and tips with you, it’s based on the foundational research that some of the best medical minds in the world have researching and testing and analyzing.
And what we’d really like to do is to take their findings and make this work for your own personal health goals. Every one of us has a different health goal, a different starting point, and different ways of getting where we want to go. We’re going to help you build your own map, your own guide on the journey towards wellbeing. And it is meant to work for one person -you.
So, there are many reasons for choosing sleep as the first step to wellbeing, not least because it’s something you can start doing today. EOV’s Medical Director, Dr. Stewart-Patterson says it’s often the very first thing he’ll recommend to patients. “Guard your sleep” are his words of advice. Whether it’s sleeping better and longer at night, or being able to get a nap, sleep is often the best thing you could do for yourself.
Sleep actually reduces and gets rid of Adrenaline and Cortisol the fight-or-flight chemicals that induce the stress you might be feeling. It also rebuilds your immune system. It regulates your appetite and weight – usually something that goes out of control in response to stress. It regulates your mood – it’s quite obvious that under-slept people are irritable and well slept people aren’t. And you’ll find you just have more energy.
Researchers at Duke University did a study with some 200 people, drawing a connection between sleep and immune function. It showed that people who got less than 7 hours of sleep were 4 times as likely to develop a cold as those who got 7+ hours. A factor of four. That’s significant. If you think of the number of colds you’re likely to develop in a year and the physical and mental toll of those colds, you appreciate how important sleep is to your immune system.
Now that we’ve established the massive importance of sleep in several ways, what do we actually do to make sure we get the sleep we need? Here’s what the experts say:
Reduce stimulation. As you get to the later part of the evening, say 8pm, don’t do anything that gets you worked up – whether it’s something unpleasant, or whether it’s something fun and interesting. So you can watch TV or read a book or do light housework. But don’t watch a horror film or read an unputdownable thriller, or start a home renovation project. Don’t get into an argument with someone – whether it’s your partner in person, or someone online. Also dimming the lights around the house to make a softly lit atmosphere will help reduce stimulation.
Keep your bedroom dark. This might sound obvious, but I challenge you to turn your bedroom light off and count the number of light sources that are still around. Your phone lighting up when you get a message, a bedside clock, a streetlight that somehow peeks through the crack in your shades. Quite often, rooms are just not truly dark and that has an effect on sleep. The darker the room, the better your sleep.
Minimize noise. This is especially tough if you live in an urban environment where there is just a lot of noise pollution. You might need to get a white noise generator if you are extremely sensitive.
Temperature. The ideal sleeping temperature is 18C or 65F – so that means your nose is just a tiny bit cold and you should feel comfortable in the blankets. Temperature actually makes quite a difference.
Cut caffeine. You should ideally limit yourself to two cups of coffee in a day, and no coffee after 2pm. Try to make your coffee something you enjoy and savour rather than gulp down to try and get a hit of caffeine.
Watch alcohol. No alcohol for at least 3 hours before bed. Alcohol can make you get to sleep earlier, but it has the effect of actually disrupting your sleep architecture.
Use your bed only for sleep or for sex. No binge-watching Game of Thrones! Obviously this applies to people who are having trouble sleeping – if you’re sleeping fine, it doesn’t matter. But if you’re having trouble going to sleep, what you want is to enter your bedroom and turn the lights out right away. Don’t do one last scan of your emails, or a quick Instagram check before you go to sleep. Just get into bed and turn the lights out. What you’re trying to do here is behaviour modify your mind to equate bed with sleep, and not all the other things.
The reset trick. This is a really good one to know. If you’re not asleep within 20 minutes of lying down, get out of bed and start again. Go out of the bedroom, sit on the couch, relax, meditate if you can, or do light housework. Read something light. No TV because the blue light is actually an activator. Wait until you’re tired or bored and then go back to bed and try to sleep again. You can do this three or four times until you finally fall asleep. Again, the point is behaviour modification. If you’re lying in bed for hours waiting for sleep, you’ll start to condition yourself to associate the bed with not sleeping. So we’re trying to break that association, and emphasize that bed equals sleep.
If none of the above works to give you better sleep, you could be suffering from insomnia, and there are techniques to deal with that that too. One very successful method is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Some of you might have heard this term, or know what it is. It is basically about consciously examining your dysfunctional thoughts, challenging them and plugging in new thoughts that are constructive. It’s used in treating depression, it’s used for high performance athletes, and it’s part of ancient traditional practices in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism and probably other religions as well.
And for some of us, it’s not just that we can’t go to sleep, it’s the not sleeping that becomes a source of tension in itself. So there is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to deal with the fact that you’re anxious about not sleeping. A lot of this work came out of Harvard Medical School where the psychologist who put together the CBT for insomnia program said that 100% of the insomniacs who came in reported that they slept better after using CBT techniques, and that CBT was more effective than pills.
At the end of this video, you’ll find links to some resources and further readings on sleep recommended by our Medical Director, Dr Stewart-Patterson.
There is so much more to explore and learn about sleep. For example, the writer Michael Finkel suggests that our waking brain is optimized for collecting information or recording mode. When we sleep, the brain switches to editing mode.
What is clear is that we Humans have been thinking about sleep for a while.
Sleep has been studied by everyone from Ancient Greek Philosophers to contemporary neurosurgeons, so there is no shortage of information on the topic.
For those of you who want to dig deeper, we invite you to explore the resources on our website. And now we are at a point where you can take some of the tips we’ve shared with you and start building your own sleep map. As we said right at the beginning, sometimes the answers to our health questions can actually be quite simple.
To keep things that way, we’ve chosen to share with you evidence based facts that our Medical Director believes are the simplest and most effective tools to build a state of wellbeing.
You are ready to start tonight if you wish.
Just remember that making this achievable means that you take a one size fits one approach.
It has to work for you.
Everyone has different barriers, different aptitudes, different strengths and levels of self-control. You know yourself best, your strengths and your skills. Work with yourself not against yourself and you will build the map that is meant for you.