How I Learned To Get A Good Night’s Sleep

pillow-V1

It was 2am and I was lying in bed wide-awake. I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t settle my mind. I felt agitated and restless with thoughts about my ruined day ahead plaguing me. How on earth was I going to function?

 

Part of my concern was that I couldn’t identify the source of my insomnia. I wasn’t especially worried about anything and I’d performed my usual bedtime ritual – no bright overhead lights after dark (only lamps), meditation, herbal tea… the works. So why couldn’t I sleep? I was confused because while I’ve suffered my fair share of sleepless nights in the past, insomnia hasn’t been a problem for me lately.

 

Having been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and knowing that sleep deprivation may not only be one of the causes of my illness but that it also exacerbated my symptoms, I’d come to understand the critical importance of sleep when it comes to my health. I’m highly aware of the latest research showing that regularly getting less than seven hours of sleep each night has wide ranging negative effects on the cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, anxiety and depression.

 

With all this in mind, I’m careful to follow the abundance of expert advice on how to get more sleep. One of the major changes I made was to drastically reduce screen time at night because research shows that blue light exposure suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls sleep and wake cycles. I also realized that even though I enjoyed the shows I was watching, some of them sent my stress levels through the roof. There are only so many zombie attacks and royal conspiracies one can take after a long day at work. So my evening TV time is virtually zip these days. Most nights I shoot for 9:30pm bed time and 10:00pm lights out. Boring I know, but oh so necessary.

 

So, on this particular sleepless night, having ticked all the boxes… what was going on? I decided to revert to an old trick of performing my bedtime ritual again. I took a warm shower, brushed my teeth and sat down to meditate. At that point I was mentally wiped so trying to practice a focused awareness exercise was like trying to get my toddler son into the bath after playing with his blocks. Not going to happen. Nevertheless I attempted twenty deep, focused breaths and each time my mind wandered, I gently brought it back to the count.

 

Afterwards I felt much calmer, more centered and peaceful. A mental shift had happened. What did it matter if I couldn’t sleep? No big deal. I just wouldn’t push myself too hard during the approaching workday. And then, like one of those cliche light bulb moments people describe when they realize something obvious, I worked out why I was having trouble sleeping. Caffeine.

 

I am not a coffee drinker. I gave it up years ago but occasionally have a homemade quarter-cup. That morning a well-meaning colleague had handed me a store bought cappuccino in a friendly gesture to start our day. It smelled delicious. I didn’t think twice and thoroughly enjoyed the buzz and focused high that followed. As the day progressed into the afternoon I started to feel jittery, though by then I’d completely forgotten about my coffee and wondered why I was feeling off.

 

There’s a great book written by an Australian sleep expert, Dr Carmel Harrington called The Complete Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep, in which she talks about the importance of realizing that there are many different causes of insomnia and there is no one-size-fits-all sleep solution. There might be many reasons you’re not able to get to sleep, stay asleep, or sleep deeply and those things – from anxiety, to out-of-whack circadian rhythms, to chemical induced stimulation – may all be interacting. In my case on this particular night, the problem started with caffeine and one thing led to another until I wound up sleepless at 2am.

 

The stimulant effects of caffeine work by blocking an important sleep chemical called adenosine, which builds up in our body all day long. From the moment we wake up, the adenosine levels in our brain accumulate until we eventually succumb to sleep. While we are asleep this chemical is not produced so the longer we sleep, the lower the levels of adenosine and the more refreshed we feel in the morning.

 

Caffeine can fool the brain into thinking there are low levels of the sleep chemical, which is why it helps to pick us up after a rough night. But if we’re still under the influence of caffeine when we go to bed, we may have trouble initiating sleep. Over time we can build up a caffeine tolerance and while we all metabolize caffeine differently, this study showed that caffeine consumed even 6 hours before bedtime could significantly disrupt sleep and this study showed that the equivalent of two cups of coffee at 7:10am in the morning could disrupt sleep efficiency and duration.

 

I seem to be a particularly sensitive sod when it comes to caffeine and needless to say I’ve been careful not to repeat my mistake, as delicious as that friendly soy cappuccino was. I’ve slept well most nights since except for those involving a certain restless or sick toddler, but the health impact of parenting a young child is another topic for another post.

  • Catherine

    I read an interesting article recently that suggested humans traditionally slept in two separate blocks until the advent of artificial lighting. http://www.delanceyplace.com/view-archives.php?p=2828

    Catherine

  • Kathy

    Very Interesting. Thanks.

  • http://192.241.214.193/ Shannon

    Thanks Catherine. A really interesting read. We'll share this one out on our social media. Can't quite see myself being able to cut all artificial light out of my life. I'd have to move somewhere very remote. But it would be fascinating to know what that time in between the two sleeps feels like after time. I like the idea of it feeling like the equivalent of being at a day spa.

  • Joy King

    Thanks Catherine. My husband regularly wakes up for an hour or so in the wee small hours and it's been a source of distress for him. Perhaps knowing that it's 'normal' will help him to relax into it.

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

RECENT POSTS

EASY TECHNIQUES TO MAKE HEALTHY CHANGES LAST

I have a confession to make.   Even though I’m a health journalist who extensively researches and writes about the latest science proving there’s ...

HEALTH OR WEALTH? FINDING THE WORK-LIFE-HEALTH BALANCE

I was giving a talk recently to a group of people interested in hearing more about my road to good health after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. The ...

WHY I USE A SIT-STAND DESK

I remember the first time I saw someone working at a stand-up desk. It was 2009 and a colleague had rearranged the furniture in her office and needed some help ...

WHAT IS
THE CONNECTION?

The Connection is a feature documentary and blog about integrating the latest science in mind body medicine into our everyday lives.

Subscribe

Sign up to The Connection newsletter and stay in the loop.