November 12, 2019
As we rapidly seem to be flying through autumn and falling head first into winter, I often find that my patients tend to struggle this time of year. For some, the falling of leaves, colder temps, and shorter days seems to be a trigger for body aches, low mood, sluggishness, headaches and general predictions that the next 6 months of weather are going to be awful. I hear these complaints frequently and while I can certainly understand and commiserate with the challenges of this time of year, I also encourage patients to try to approach autumn and the coming of winter with a completely different mindset.
I believe that the shorter days can be a reminder to return to our natural circadian rhythms….the little clock in our brain that tells us as the sun goes down that bedtime is soon approaching….or at least that was how it worked before Thomas Edison changed the world with the invention of his amazing light bulb. Now we tend to ignore our natural circadian rhythm, push past that initial surge of melatonin that is supposed to lull us to sleep, and stay up late scrolling on our hand held devices, zoning out in front of the TV, or still be responding to work emails at midnight. How much better could you feel if you just listened to your natural rhythms and got a little “more” or “better” sleep this winter?
So this blog is going to be all about the amazing power of sleep and why I want you to make it just as important as I have….and see if maybe this winter goes by a little better for you. Who wouldn’t want more energy and a better mood come January?!? And I believe that it all starts with making sleep a priority.
I was always one of those people that struggled with sleep….falling asleep, staying asleep, etc. Even as a young girl, I can remember lying in bed staring at the ceiling and wondering why everyone else in the house seemed to be able to sleep just fine and I was awake yet again until the wee hours of the morning. After years of this, I started to tell myself the story that I just wasn’t a good sleeper….that I didn’t require as much sleep as other people did….that sleep wasn’t important to me….I can manage just fine with 6 or less hours of sleep. So I didn’t make sleep a priority for years. As a young working mother, my eyes would snap open if my baby sneezed out loud, or if my husband rolled over in bed. I became more and more dependent upon several cups of coffee throughout the day, was too exhausted to exercise, and would binge on sugary treats at night. I would fall down onto my mattress so tired each night, but then was unable to fall asleep. When I did fall asleep, I would wake up a short time later and be unable to fall back asleep. And then I would reaffirm to myself that I didn’t need that much sleep anyway….despite the graying hair, bags under my eyes, achy joints and escalating anxiety that seemed to be permeating my days as time went on.
As my kids got older I acknowledged the need to take some action steps to get my physical and mental health back on track. I started to feel moderately better. But it was after my husband purchased me a sleep tracker to wear at night that I finally admitted to myself that my sleep patterns needed a serious reboot. I dove into the world of sleep and the information out there astonished me. I’ve always promoted health and wellness….diet and exercise and taking the right vitamins. I had no idea just how important sleep was, and how I literally needed to shift my mindset around sleep – moving it up to being higher on the priority list than diet or exercise. Take away my sleep, or weaken it just a bit and my careful eating and physical exercise become a little less effective.
I recently finished reading the game changing book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. In it, he opens a chapter with this eye catching advertisement:
Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer. It enhances your memory and makes you more creative. It makes you look more attractive. It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings. It protects you from cancer and dementia. It wards off colds and the flu. It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes. You’ll even feel happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Are you interested?
Yes, sleep can do all of that. In his book which is meticulously researched and well documented, he cites study after study explaining the benefit of sleep, as well as the different types of sleep and why they are all so important. Our country spends billions of dollars on medications that are trying to treat all of the above, and yet sleep is probably the most potent, effective and least expensive way to help you stay healthy.
There are more than twenty large-scale epidemiological studies that have tracked millions of people over many decades, all of which report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations – heart disease, obesity, dementia, diabetes, and cancer – all have recognized causal links to a lack of sleep.
We would all be more effective in the workplace, more effective parents, more effective in our performance and simply a better version of ourselves if we make sleep a priority. There needs to be a paradigm shift in our culture – one that doesn’t promote staying up past midnight to meet your bosses’ expectations the next day as something to wear on your sleeve like a badge of honor. (I’m so dedicated to my job that I am giving up my need to sleep and therefore my ability to take care of myself!)
We can also be more present with our family/friends and have the energy to enjoy an evening after work, rather than fall into your defined section of the couch and zone out on social media for the evening – too tired to engage with those you love the most.
What does January look like for you if you have a little more energy? Would you be more willing to take a painting class, or try a new recipe for an amazing pot of soup? Try a new yoga app or read a really good book? Listen to an inspiring podcast while folding laundry or call and talk to that friend you haven’t made time for lately? Then after enjoying a relaxing evening, you make your sleep a priority and turn off the lights in time for you to get a quality 8 hours of sleep. Yes my friends, you need 8+ hours of sleep at night whether you think you need it or not.
So let’s explore the how’s and whys of this as sleep is a very complex, metabolically active and ordered series of unique stages:
performance, takes recent information and stores it in long term memory, improves mental alertness during the day
There is so much more to all of the studies promoting the benefits of sleep and I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book I mentioned earlier: “Why We Sleep” but here’s a quick run-down on the importance of sleep:
I know that many of you are willing to admit that sleep is vitally important, but you are one of those that struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep or getting high quality sleep. Here’s a few tips to consider:
So whether you decide you want to start tracking your sleep better, educate yourself more on the benefits of sleep, or just go for a week of 8 hours of sleep each night and see how you feel…..I hope that with the onset of longer nights, your body is able to get the rest it needs to allow you to be a better version of yourself this winter.