sleep - a sunlight dappled, unmade bed

Sleep: Part One

The terrain of middle age isn’t always an easy one. One of the biggest challenges is realizing that the things you used to do, that you’ve always done, aren’t having the same effect on your body, and your life, as they used to. The most popular disappointments are likely in the Boy Oh Boy I Sure Can’t Drink Like I Used To or Why Can’t I Eat Anything I Want and Not Gain Weight categories, followed by a newfound concern for getting enough fiber in your diet and enough exercise in your sedentary, heretofore unexamined, daily lifestyle.

As a borderline hypochondriac, I  fear all of these things, and I dread the ramped-up concern and concomitant health screenings that are the calling cards of your 40’s. (As a borderline pessimist, I fear this only gets worse.) I’ll admit that I’m not running to the gym, well, ever, and that I haven’t quite adjusted to the notion that I really am going to have to go on a no-shit diet if I’m ever going to shed the nearly 10 pounds that my 40’s have deposited on my previously taken for granted small, and maintenance-free, frame. I know I need more cardio, and that heart health is this depressing and dull thing I have to think about for the rest of my life. But these things are hard, and sleep is easy. And improving the quality and duration of your sleep, as it turns out, is just as important as any of these other self-improvement projects.

Never let it be said that I don’t enjoy a drink or two. I very, very much do. But my new, suddenly less resilient body is telling me something that seems very important, and it’s not mincing words: I sleep grandly when I have nothing to drink. That’s not to say I don’t sleep just fine when I do drink, but there’s no comparison. The sleep I have after a night of my favorite cheapy white wine, or a few beers, is the burger to a “How about some tea before bed?” night’s filet mignon. And the following day, after a weapons grade 8+ hours of uninterrupted unconsciousness, I am focused and productive and much more creative. Much. And I’m not alone:

Since I began noticing this, I decided to read up on sleep. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this thing we all do for a significant percentage of the time we’re alive is even more important than I’d realized. Putting aside the dozens of sleep disorders people cope with—a lifetime’s worth of reading in and of themselves—there’s an awful lot of chatter out there about how sleep impacts three areas of my life that need addressing: creativity, productivity and keeping myself from outgrowing all of my clothes.

Getting sufficient sleep helps you eat smarter

You know how to use the Google machine, so I’ll hit you up with some highlights on this one so that you can wander off and find out more if you like. In short: if you’re tired, you crave carbohydrates. Your exhausted body needs fast energy, and stuffing your face with bread or sugary foods is a quick solution. Of course, these sources of energy aren’t what make you healthy and slim in the long term, but when you’re low on energy, your body’s not keeping an eye on some distant prize, it’s telling you to eat something full of fast energy right this instant. As usual, there are hormones involved—in this case leptin and ghrelin—that conspire, in the sleep-deprived body, to fool you into eating too much of the wrong things and to continue eating even after you would normally be full.

Getting enough GOOD sleep is the key

Of course, the quality of your sleep is just as important as the amount. Assuming you don’t have any of the number of sleep disorders out there, improving the quality of your sleep is a matter of making changes to how you prepare for sleep, and considering the effect of the surroundings you sleep in.

Prepare your body for sleep

I can get away with drinking caffeine before bed about 80% of the time. However, despite these reasonable odds, I find the risk outweighs the reward. Eating very close to bedtime can also lead to wakefulness. Alcohol isn’t a great choice; that nightcap or three still needs to be processed, and your body doesn’t start a normal sleep cycle until that’s been done. While you may well sleep deeply while your body metabolizes the booze you drank, you’re likely to sleep lightly, and to be disrupted easily, once it has finished this task, robbing you of the testful, restorative sleep a normal sleep cycle provides. If you can limit yourself to a single drink before bed, go for it—seems like this has no impact whatsoever. But if you, like me, enjoy more than one at a time, indulging this preference may lead to sleep problems.

Some people find that the same routine before bed every night is a signal to your body and mind that it’s time to wind down. I’m such a creature of habit that I can hardly imagine how it could be that everyone doesn’t have similar nightly rituals—let the dog out, let the dog in, brush your teeth, take your vitamins, etc.—but if you lack a series of steps that remain the same on most nights, creating a routine could help you sleep better.

Sleep in a restful space

Your bedroom is really only for two activities. As such, avoid using your bedroom as an office, a place to watch tv, or anything but a place to sleep and a place to get it on with your special friend. If you can lie in bed and look at a pile of paperwork, or a project undone, you’re less likely to get the visual and emotional cues that it’s time to go to sleep. And mobile devices do not belong in the bedroom. Seriously. Though I read in bed before sleeping, and this well works for me, others may find an exciting book a reason to stay awake and read. If you’re one of those people, don’t read in bed.

Obviously your bed should be comfortable, and you should sleep surrounded in linens that are clean and luxurious. Choose pillows that give you the support that’s the most comfortable for you. Don’t skimp on these things; your bed, linens and pillows are like an outfit you wear every day. Make that outfit one that fits great and makes you feel fabulous.

Sleep - restful bed in a dark bedroom

A night of restful sleep makes you more creative

Though we’re all familiar with the stereotype of the author, painter or musician who, at 3am, is at his creative peak, churning out art in a fog of booze, or pot, or whatever. (I used “his” on purpose, since when women are portrayed this way, it’s more often viewed as simply dysfunctional.) I’m not going to dispel this legend, as I’m sure it works for some people. But overall, I’ve begun to believe that being rested is a better boost to creative activities. Though this could be yet another change brought about by my, ahem, maturing body, I can’t argue with the results. When I get an epic sleep after a night of sipping tea instead of even a moderate amount of wine, my brain is more limber, I see connections and interesting new associations better, my memory is improved and I am far more focused.

While my experience suggests that I do, in fact, produce more creative work when I’m rested, it’s important to distinguish being sleep deprived from being tired. The in-between space where you sometimes linger, somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, is fertile creative ground. Dali famously set up a simple system to help him capture the vivid and often bizarre images his mind came up with in this border region. Capturing these thoughts before full wakefulness chases them off may yield better ideas for you to develop later.

I’m tempted, though not yet ready, to try some of the suggestions I’ve recently read about the creative boost some people claim results from getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning and getting your day started while your fellow time zoners are still snoozing. Though I love the quiet and solitude that being awake and productive hours before everyone else affords when I’m bold enough to face getting up that early, I just can’t imagine that going to bed at 7pm every night doesn’t destroy your social life. And what do you write about if your day ends when the evening begins? But, if you can make it work without sacrificing high-quality sleep of sufficient duration and any semblance of having a life, give it a try.

Sleep is rebellious

Our culture glorifies busy. I’m married to someone in the military, an organization that uses exhaustion, busyness and a complete lack of a healthy work/life balance as yardsticks for one’s value. I don’t know about you, but nearly nothing makes an activity more fun for me than knowing  that by participating in it, I’m rebelling against one authority figure or another.

You know who else the worshipers of all things busy disdain? Latin cultures who enjoy napping, sleeping late on the weekend, taking long vacations and having lots of afternoon sex. When you look at it that way, doesn’t sleep seem fun, and like a needed eye poke to those who want you to believe that sleep deprivation should be the goal of all successful people?

And if all of that isn’t enough to get me to take my sleep more seriously, here’s a helpful quote that really sums it all up: “If you aren’t getting enough sleep, you will become sick, fat and stupid.” Thanks, Dr. Robert Stickgold, for getting straight to the point.


Why We’re More Creative When We’re Tired, and 9 Other Surprising Things About How Brains Work

How Much Sleep Do We Need Really to Work Productively?

The Dream Diet: Losing Weight While You Sleep

Sleep and Do Better

Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use by Timothy Roehrs, Ph.D., and Thomas Roth, Ph.D.

All photos:  Sarah J Abraham