07 January, 2015

Do You Want to Live Better: Sleep

Living better requires sleep.

Seriously. If you intend to make your relationships come alive, there may be no single better way to shoot yourself in the foot than regularly to short change your brain on sleep. I've done this all my life, and it's never worked well for me. In seeking solid information on the subject, I found this amazing article:
We don't always want sleep, but we need sleep

God told us something like this a long, long time ago, but science is getting closer to understanding why it's true. I find that helpful.

Every bodily function produces waste, but the brain's wastes are handled uniquely. The brain has to shut down to clear them, and the process takes a long time. It appears the brain clears these poisonous waste products by shrinking our neurons as we sleep, thereby making space to flush a whole slough of damaging waste proteins away.

When we wake up our neurons re-expand, and the waste products begin accumulating again.

I imagine the brain-flush to be somewhat like tooth brushing. It's a critical habit, but missing any individual session isn't risky. Plaque is only a problem, for most people, when it's allowed to take root. The beta amyloid that causes brain plaques doesn't seem to be a problem if we sleep long enough, regularly enough to keep major deposits from forming.

A sleepless night isn't going to kill anyone, but a discipline of late nights and early mornings supported by coffee damages us in real ways. Science is currently connecting beta amyloid accumulations with Alzheimer's, but I find my experience with irritability, impatience, depression, and willpower deficits after accumulating sleep debt plenty convincing. John Wayne, Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, and a thousand other red-blooded Americans unite and call me a wimp. With them I must agree. I don't want to be a wimp, but I really am.

God and life both call us to endure times of great hardship, and I'm happy to pull my weight when I must, but I can't call keep it up. If I miss too much beauty rest, I'm truly ugly to be around. I'm daily called to play a part in tending the lives of a few people to whom God has joined me, and I best live up to that calling when I'm reasonably well-rested.

Americans are tough.

Proud Americans take no handouts. We make it by maximizing our productivity, maximizing the number of productive days in every week and the number of hours in every day. My insomnia's always been a flag-waver's blessing, and I'm at home as an American, living the American way. God's way is Sabbath, but Sabbath is difficult. I'm American, from my debit card clear down to the bottom of my 401k, so Sabbath is frankly terrifying. Believing God will meet my needs, while I simply rest, gives me all the warm fuzzies of a bungee jump into deep fog.

If I'm going to live better, though, I must risk rest. With God's blessing, I hope to treat my ongoing insomnia as enemy rather than friend. Ten years ago I was sleeping 5-6 hours per night with very little insomnia. Five years ago I was up to 6+ hours, but as I started getting closer to having enough sleep I started facing insomnia. I've made it to 7+ within the last 5 years, and am working toward 7.5. Evidence is rich I'm not sleeping too much, but I'm rested enough my anxieties lead to insomnia commonly. Here are things I'm trying:
  • Absolute darkness
    Science says darkness is necessary for deep sleep. I hate to be a science denier, but darkness never did much for me. I slept in absolute cavernous darkness for a couple months, and observed how my symptoms and degree of restedness didn't change at all.
  • Turning off screen devices
    For years, I shut off my computer and fell quickly into sound sleep. These days, I find about twenty minutes after I stop the last activity of the night, often when I shut off the computer, the first wave of sleep hits me. Since my biggest problem is accidentally pushing through that sleep wave into my second wind, I'm finding some ease sleeping when I make sure I stay on the computer until bed time.
  • Melatonin
    When I get my second wind, I'm going to be either awake or in an awful, zombified, half-asleep state for a couple hours. As soon as that happens, I take .6-1.2mg of melatonin every 20 minutes until I'm asleep. It works very consistently for me. Happily, on nights when I hit the sack at or before that first wave of sleep, I fall asleep well without the assistance. That assures me the assertions melatonin are not addictive are probably true.
  • Prayer
    Prayer cuts both ways, for me. When anxieties entangle my mind, prayer lets me slowly brush away each strand. I'm not wired to just slice through the whole web with one bold declaration of faith, but I can sort of roll each concern up in front of the Father and leave it with Him. That's a necessity for me. Once, however, the wave of sleep hits I don't quit praying! I start obsessing about prayer itself. I can't just quit. Suddenly, I find I'm well into my second wind, and prayer transforms aggressively from solution into problem.
  • Talking
    Copy and paste the prayer stuff here. Talk can relax me, but at some point I'm surprised to find I've pushed into my second wind and there's no going back.
  • Meditation
    Meditation is a tremendous sleep aid - prior to 7:00 AM. Or practically any other time I should carefully stay awake. As an intentional sleep aid, though, it never has worked for me.
  • Thinking happy thoughts
    I always thought I stunk at thinking happy thoughts. Actually, happy thoughts only work if a sleep wave is rolling in. My problem has been trying to "happy thought" my way back to sleepiness after reaching my second wind. Knowing that, and managing my sleep waves better, I finally discovered a happy thought that works consistently for me (I'm reporting against almost 3 weeks of happy experiment with it.) That's kind of cool. The trick for me is to find a thought sufficiently complex and absorbing, but completely without any goal or solution over which I can obsess.
When I do all this, and still fail to fall asleep, I'm not shocked. I remind myself I'm not truly exhausted, refuse to allow myself to solve any of my problems, and wait quietly until the melatonin kicks in.

Life really is measurably better this way.


pearlie said...

I thank God I sleep normal. But lately any consumption of coffee afternoon onwards will result in an extremely late night. I need total darkness to sleep but I can't get off my screen devices. I do find myself reading my devices to sleep. Think happy thoughts work for me, but not all the time.

Kevin Knox said...

Nice inventory, Pearlie. I love how different we all are. That you require darkness, but also benefit from blue screens is fascinating.

Nothing's formulaic.

MzEllen said...

When I have my insomnia moments I play "the Alphabet Game" - with the names and attributes of God. It acts as quiet worship (which centers me) and keeps my mind from whizzing away.

A = awesome
B - beautiful...

you get the picture. It's worth trying. ;-)

Kevin Knox said...

Very nice, Ellen. Interesting and not too complex - if I can avoid obsessing about making it to Z. :-)

salguod said...

Interesting stuff. I absolutely love when science discovers things that confirm Gods wisdom.

I don't think I'm getting too little sleep, but I'm a night owl and fairly often find myself up later than I realize. I find it hard to awake when I need to, so I sleep with sheer curtains drawn that let in the morning sun, helping me arise - at least in the summer months.

I sleep about 7 hours a might generally, sometimes a bit more, sometimes less. I rarely have trouble getting to sleep, in fact if I try to read a magazine article at bed I frequently can't finish it.

Kevin Knox said...

That's great, Doug. I did the reading thing for quite a while, but when it starts to make me sleepy I accidently push through before I know what I'm doing. After I make that mistake ... again ... it's 20 minutes to 2 hours. I've given it up, for the most part. Once I hit the bed, I'd best have nothing left to think about or do, or I'm done.