South Slope. Asheville.

Monday, August 22, 2016

What I learned about sleep

The best sleep of my adult life occurred during my six months of traveling around Asia in the year 2000.  It was combination of many factors - being excited about something, living in the moment, expending lots of physical and mental energy, having no obligations, eating a very good diet and not needing to live by the clock.  I would sleep soundly at night and wake up in a natural way, not needing to use an alarm.  Probably halfway into my journey, and as a result of learning more about myself and my particular needs, I started researching about sleep.  I would even peruse books on this subject at bookstores.  I was feeling so fresh and so alive, it was as though I had found a cure for something.  And I guess I had!  Not just any kind of sleep would ever satisfy me again.  One of the first questions I had was How do we know how much sleep we truly need?  I always heard the standard 8 hours was the right amount.  I certainly didn't always get it.  I knew that in many cultures and environments, sleep would be forfeited for the sake of getting to the office a bit earlier, packing in as much as possible on a vacation day or just trying to do everyday things.  And I knew that people felt guilty, or were made to feel guilty, about sleeping in or napping. There would always be an expectation that they'd have to answer an incoming call or get up if someone knocked on the door.  Sleeping was often secondary, especially getting that deep, satisfying sleep.  What I discovered was that the best way to determine how much you need - and it's very important to know this, since it varies person to person  - was first to determine if you feel very rejuvenated upon awakening, and if you can wake up without an alarm clock.  Then, you'd need to look at your weekends, when you don't have work, and check to see if you are erasing a sleep debt by needing to sleep more hours those mornings.  This is a start to learning how much you need.  But the ideal way was to evaluate your sleeping patterns over a period of time.  This is very hard to do for most, due to modern lifestyles, our daily commitments, the obligations placed on us by work and culture.  Is there ever an opportunity to get away for just a month, where you silence your cell phones, turn off the TV and go to sleep when you're ready and then wake up when you do?  Almost impossible.  But while I was traveling during that period, I thought, "I now have the perfect chance to do this."  And, so, I started keeping track. The results could not have been more obvious.  Looking back on the first half of my trip (three months) and then consciously observing my sleep patterns over the remaining period (another three months), the conclusion was that I need nine hours of quality sleep a night, or every 24-hour cycle.  Not eight, not ten, not seven and half.  I would wake up, without fail, after nine hours of sleep.  And when I woke up - and this is key - I was completely rejuvenated.  I was very alert, I felt fresh and I was in a great frame of mind.  This was empowering personal insight.  Next, I wanted to learn more about why sleep is needed.  I learned that sleep is primarily for our brains.  They need to recharge, heal and even grow.  It's like our laptops needing those updates and then a reboot.  Getting the right amount of sleep would make us smarter, would keep our brains younger, would regulate our moods better, would give us more energy during the day, would help us cope with stress, would positively affect our perceptions of others and the environment around us, and would be the best anti-aging strategy.  It's not called Beauty Sleep for nothing!  And I also learned from my research - and this has been proven in studies released in the past few years - that getting an inadequate amount of sleep contributes greatly to obesity levels.  Show me someone who struggles with their weight, and I can show someone who is very likely not getting enough sleep.  Think about it.  When you're sleeping, you're not awake, and therefore, not eating.  Seems elementary to say it that way.  But it's true.  And when you're sleep-deprived, you're more likely to turn to carbs, fatty foods, sugar and caffeine to stay awake, just to get through the day.  This does terrible things to your metabolism, and causes you to pack on pounds.  So something so fundamental - sleep - is vital for maintaining a healthy body weight.  You would think that alone would be enough motivation for people to do whatever it takes to get quality sleep!  We're so image-conscious, and a proven remedy for premature aging is getting adequate sleep.  It's quite funny that the one or two people in my life who have seemed most obsessed with the amount of sleep I get - or my wife gets - are quite large and out of shape, and clearly display a number of other sleep-deprivation side effects.  In conclusion, traveling like I did enabled me to learn about my specific sleeping needs, and it caused me to change my perspective on the subject.  If I could do one thing, it would be to encourage people to do their own research, period.  After that, make sleep as important as going to church or watching your favorite football game.  Give it that kind of attention, and I can assure you will feel better and live a longer, healthier life.  And if anyone tries to make you feel guilty about how much sleep you get, hit them with the facts.  Ask them how many hours Albert Einstein slept a night (ten!).   At the end of the day, only you can take care of your health!

Here's another one of my blog posts on the relationship between sleep and weight:

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