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  • Writer's pictureSandhya Gokal

From Mundane to Magic Part 3 - Making Sleep Habits Fun (2023)

From Mundane to Magic - Making Sleep Habits Fun (2023)


“I tried counting sheep so I can fall asleep but that got boring, so I started talking to the shepherd instead.” — Anonymous



This is the 3rd post in my 3 part series on injecting boring essential habits with a sense of whimsy, quirkiness and a swirly whirl of unpredictability - that is, FUN!


Over three posts, we will explore the three of the most common habits people find arduous, and find ways to distil some of those elements into them to make them more sticky. The first one, which you can read here, covered exercise. The second explored the world of food habits.


Today’s topic is….



Sleep Habits!


Did you know that it is almost impossible to hear or see someone yawn, and not yawn yourself? How cool is that? (pharmacist nerd alert).


Sleep is one of the most important habits we can cultivate to enhance a healthy lifestyle. I have participated in many sleep competitions - sleeping before midnight, optimising sleep time (mine is 9 hours), having exemplary sleep hygiene and even observing the effect of alcohol on my sleep patterns!


There have been many advancements in sleep tracking that allow us to be super clinical about how our sleep progresses through the night. And yet, it is still one of the most common complaints I treat for patients both as a pharmacist, and a health coach.


Sleep hygiene is really important. Sleep hygiene is defined as the healthy habits, behaviours and environmental factors that can be adjusted to help you have a good night's sleep. This is what we will be focusing on to get our sleep patterns to the optimally functioning state.




Hypothesis:


Connecting sleep habits with fun will make it easier to stick to the optimal sleep routine.


The problem with not optimising your sleep habits


Sleep is vital. During sleep, your body reconciles the day’s activities, supports healthy brain function and maintains physical and mental health.


You’ve probably had at least one all-nighter in your life (if you are an adult and haven’t experienced this, BRAVO! Kudos. I applaud your excellent life habits, bow down to you and beg you to take me as your Padawan.) The side effects of no sleep include dizziness, drowsiness, lack of concentration, an inability to finish your sentences and thoughts and excessive eating, amongst others.


Without enough sleep, we are at increased risk of chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity and stroke. Sleep can also be affected be a specific condition called sleep apnoea, which can present with respiratory symptoms, and…well…snoring.


Did you know that your sleep patterns directly affect your metabolism? Try this out. The next time you have a bad night’s sleep, check your biomarkers - weight, waist circumference, body fat percentage and how you feel in your clothes.


Repeat this after an amazing night’s sleep.


I bet you will find a marked difference between the two. This is because when you don’t sleep well, studies have shown that


  • you probably have higher levels of hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin),

  • a decreased ability to respond to insulin (which controls your blood sugar levels),

  • increased consumption of fatty, sweet and salty foods (because we think they give us fast energy hits)

  • decreased physical activity (well...hard to exercise when your limbs feel so heavy it’s like wading through custard).


When you look at it like that, no wonder there’s an increased risk of obesity with prolonged low quality sleep!


When I was in university, something that etched so deeply into my mind was a study that we explored, that showed how a lack of quality sleep can impair your brain function so much that it’s like having alcohol in the blood.


What happens when you have amazing sleep


We all know the basics of this question.


Sleep helps you have clearer thinking, quicker reflexes and better focus. Good quality sleep gives you higher levels of reasoning, problem-solving and attention to detail. Another known bonus is a better mood - I’m sure you’ve had days of being extremely crabby after having less sleep than is optimal for you.

I want to focus a little more on the lesser known benefits of amazing sleep quality.


Number 1: Repair


The brain actually mimics the kidneys when we sleep - that is, it starts eliminating waste through its own unique drainage system (the pharmacist in me is staring in awe at this sentence. Seriously, mouth open, eyes bright with wonder. So cool!)


Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a sleep expert with the University of Rochester found that this amazing drainage system removes proteins linked with Alzheimer’s disease twice as fast during sleep than wake in mice.


According to a second sleep researcher, Dr Kenneth Wright Jr, all systems in the body use sleep as a time for repair.


Think about your exercise habits and your muscular capacity. Have you noticed that on days you have a good night’s rest, you are much more ready and rearing to go? Is your workout more explosive (or calming, if you choose to do yoga)?


Number 2: Efficiency of Vaccinations


Recent studies have shown that well-rested individuals develop stronger protection following vaccinations (the study used influenza as the test) than their groggy counterparts. A 2022 systematic review study demonstrated that antibody levels in normal sleep were higher than those produced in sleep deprived test subjects, concluding that sleep deprivation, which disturbs the circadian rhythms in our body, negatively impacts our immune responses. Conversely, having great sleep increased the circulation of immune cells. (4)


What does this mean?


Getting good sleep before you get a vaccination is associated with your immune system responding better to the vaccine. Imagine the immune cells as an army. After getting a good night's sleep, your soldiers are much more ready to fight the oncoming wave of evil antigens (the things that cause disease) and much faster to trap the antigens in prison cells, to be exiled. So make sure you shore up your defenses and hit the sack nice and early before getting jabbed!


Number 3: Steadier blood sugar.



I discovered the truth of this benefit during my pregnancy, when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. There was a clear difference between my fasting blood sugar levels on days when I got 7-8 hours sleep and days where that number dropped below 6.


During the deep, slow-wave part of the sleep cycle, your blood glucose levels drop. If you don’t get enough time in this deep stage, you don’t get enough time to reset your blood glucose levels, which in turn makes it harder for your body to respond to your cells needs. (5)


Our friendly researchers, hard at work on the various health topics around the world, uncovered this little gem about the relationship between sleep and blood sugar: Your hormones are deeply impacted by your sleep quality. Good sleep reduces the amount of circulating cortisol, which in turn reduces your blood sugar levels. Insulin sensitivity is increased by a good night’s rest. (6) The circadian system also plays a part in food processing and glucose metabolism, so the time at which your head hits the pillow impacts your quality of sleep and its corresponding benefits.(7)




It’s all connected. Having a good night’s sleep usually means that it’s so much easier to maintain the food habits you want. Have you ever noticed that? I certainly have!


Number 4: More willpower reserves


Ever get up some days and think, man, I feel so rested, I am ready to take on the world? You jump out of bed, full of good resolutions, and by the end of the day, you have a smile on your face because you know you’ve used your time as well as you could hope?


This is because good sleep habits indirectly lower psychological strain, and increase self-control. Having good quality sleep is like sailing in smooth waters (7). Things seem to flow easily, flow states are reached really quickly and time passes by unencumbered. Your energy cup is full, almost overflowing, and reaching in for energy to complete tasks doesn’t deplete your willpower too quickly.


An interesting thing to note is that if you haven’t had good quality sleep, and you are allowed to choose the tasks you want to complete, generally your brain will choose less taxing tasks, to compensate for the lack of concentration.


So on days you feel incredible rested, full of jumping beans and ready to take on the world, choose the challenging tasks, because your willpower reserves. Save the easy, non-commital projects for lazy, sleep days. It’s all about keeping in line with your willpower!



So why is it difficult to change sleep habits and behaviours?


There aren’t enough hours in the day

So you have 24 hours in a day, but you wish you could buy some more, like flex leave?


Isn’t this the dream? Getting everything done in one day can seem like an impossible task.


Remember this:


Getting good quality sleep improves the quality of the actions you take. Choose your actions wisely. The sequence looks like this. If you can maximise the quality of the sleep you have, you have more energy. If you have more energy, you can get more done. If you get more done, then when you come to your pre-sleep routine, you feel more rested and content. If you master your pre-sleep routine by feeling content, you get better quality sleep. And so the cycle continues.


The ever-moving nature of the screens


In today’s day and age, it is almost impossible to function without a screen. I frequently wish I could leave my phone aside, but when I do, my arm naturally inches for the remote control, as if it had a mind of its own. (ZOMBIE ARM!! ARGGGH!!) It’s becoming harder and harder to disconnect, even with conscious effort. Unfortunately, screens and blue light are one of the worst offenders for impacting sleep quality (followed closely by alcohol). Using devices within 1 hour of bedtime almost guarantees a poor transition time into dreamland.


Remember this:


Good sleep hygiene is the precursor for good quality sleep. Leave those phones and screens aside, say goodnight to the global world an hour before your bedtime, and engage in your little corner of the world to ground yourself.


By setting strict guidelines around when you put your phone on charge and move to your sacred sleep space, you are freeing yourself from the tyranny of the screen! Be mindful of what activities you do before you put your phone away - are they necessary setups for the next day? Is doom scrolling creeping in?


If reading is what you use your phone for, consider using an e-reader, which has less blue-light impact. Or (and I know this is out there) a physical book. Shock horror, I know. I still prefer physical books over all other forms of reading.


Another thing to keep in mind is having your phone away from your sleep space is a super effective move. Phones within the sleep space can cause migraines. They also increase temptation. Try and rearrange your environment to keep them out.


Mind won’t stop moving


Okay, so you’ve put your phone on charge, you’ve done the dishes, you’ve answered the last email and shut off the TV. You lay down in bed, close your eyes, ready to drift off to dreamland…..and your mind decides it is party time. It starts shooting out thoughts in rapid succession, faster and faster, a whirling dervish.


15 minutes later, you open your eyes, heart racing, filled with unease and agitation at the sheer volume of the thought avalanche that hit you.


If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. If you have open loops, things that are unfinished, still lingering from your day, your mind may be prompting you to address them. This increases tenfold if you have a strong emotional affinity to the aforementioned activities! Anxiety eventuates, stress compounds, and you bound out of bed to numb the sensations with TV, a book, or some other form of escapism. Sometimes this can take hours to alleviate. Sometimes, for the unfortunate few, it is almost impossible to escape, and this can result in only a few hours of sleep.


Remember this:


Use meditation and mindfulness techniques, coupled with journaling, to get everything out of your head onto paper into a list, and MAKE SURE YOU ADDRESS the list in the morning. This is important. This is called closing loops, and closing the loops reinforces this technique's effectiveness because it improves self-trust, which in turn increases your confidence in yourself and your capabilities.


Journaling is a really effective way to get emotional baggage out of your head. I find it particularly effective before bedtime, because it acts as a garbage bin - I can empty all my thoughts into my journal, and fall asleep relatively clear headed.


I’m too wired and don’t feel sleepy.


You’ve had a great day, and you're running on adrenaline. You want to talk, and laugh and revel in the amazement. Sleep? Psh, you could run a marathon with the energy coursing through your body!


This is almost the opposite to the last problem! Your body is too riled up to rest. Caffeine intake during the later parts of the day can contribute to this sensation, as can sugar.


Remember this:


By giving in to that feeling, you are inhibiting your body’s natural ability to feel tiredness. It is only by resting, staying still, and relaxing that your body’s natural instincts can kick in to prepare you for dreamland. Engaging in relaxing exercises such as yoga, stretching and mild bodyweight exercises can shake out and utilise all the pent up energy that has accumulated, allowing your muscles to relax. A magnesium supplement or magnesium salts bath can also be a great way to relax!


Anxiety about what wearables will say about sleep, or past behaviours


This is a bit of a sneaky one that I personally have fallen prey to. Tracking sleep behaviour can be a really useful tool. However, if you have an obsessive personality (which I do) sometimes it can rear its ugly head and lead you into the depths of too much focus.


Tracking devices include Fitbit, Garmin, smart watches and the aura ring. These track your sleep from the time you fall asleep to the time you wake, creating nifty little charts that show when you entered REM sleep, where you had awake periods and even rating the quality of sleep you had!


It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. I got so focused on achieving over 90% sleep quality on my Fitbit I started getting anxious when I couldn’t get to sleep on time, and shaming myself when I got less than the desired result! That’s not the point of these devices. Like any tool, they can be used for good, or can be overused.


Remember this:

Past performance is not an indicator of future performance. Using tracking devices as a guide for how you sleep is the best way to utilise this tool. Once you have mastered your sleep habits, the tracking device will best serve you as a way to keep on track. If you find yourself getting too deep into achieving a particular result, it might be time to take a few night’s break from wearing your wearable! Turning off the sleep tracking is also an option.



GAMIFYING YOUR SLEEP Routines - 4 actionable steps to making your sleep habits fun!


Level 1: Set your rules


If you’ve read the other two articles in this series, you probably recognise this level as a standard starting point in any game. Setting boundaries around what you want to achieve is the first step to accessing your superpowers. Guidelines which are specific create freedom! It seems counterintuitive, but creating rules around what you want enables you to play happily within them, and still get a positive outcome.

Let me give you an example. I was in a sleep competition with a couple of friends. We set the rules like this:


We had to be in bed, ready to sleep, before midnight.

Phones had to be in another room


These rules were not hugely restrictive, and they were highly achievable with a few small routine changes. By having this “bedtime” rule, we were able to enjoy our nights with whatever we wanted up until it was time for our sleep hygiene routine to kick in.


Some other rules could be:


  • Stretching before bed (I’ve personally used this one when I cannot sleep, and gradually just incorporated it into my sleep hygiene)

  • a meditation ritual

  • journalling

  • gratitude practice

  • hypnosis (there are specific sleep ones, but any hypnosis practice before bed is really effective)

Level 2: Reward yourself


Go crazy here! Sleep is one of the greatest measures to track, because unlike food (where it is unwise to use food as a reward for eating well) you can use almost ANYTHING as a reward for getting good sleep. Even a nap. A rewarding nap, that’s the ticket….zzzz



Level 3: Ramp up the competition with a sleep challenge



I’ve touched on this one above, but let me go into more detail.


My friends and I were experiencing completely erratic sleep schedules. Some days sleep would elude us, because of one of the above reasons, until 2am. Other nights, we would be so wiped out from the day that 9pm saw us crashing into bed and snoring as soon as our heads hit the sweet pillows. The random nature of our sleep schedules meant that our sleep quality wasn’t optimal.


So we decided to host a sleep challenge. We recruited 10 people to join us. Each person used their own tracking device and sent a screenshot of their sleep data in the morning. Like I mentioned above, the parameters were fairly fluid, meaning that each person could engage in whatever night time activities they wished, so long as by midnight, we were in bed and ready to sleep.


We used a streak system: The “winner” or the person at the top of the leaderboard was the person who successfully followed the rules the most nights in a row. By having a collective goal and in-built accountability, the sleep quality of the group slowly improved.


The reward was personal glory and the goal in and of itself (i.e intrinsic); however, we could have made it anything - money, a gift voucher, an experience, a dinner - the possibilities are endless.



Level 4: Use your sleep routine to form genuine connections with your roommate, friend or partner.



Nir Ayal has the best quote in his book, Indistractable.


“Every night, my wife and I engaged in the same routine: put our daughter to bed, brushed her teeth, and freshened up. Slipping under the covers, we exchanged glances and knew it was time to do what comes naturally for a couple in bed—she began to fondle her cell phone, while I tenderly stroked the screen of my iPad. Ooh, it felt so good.”


I laughed out loud when I read this line. How true is this?


Having connection time with the loved ones in our life, free from distractions, is a habit that can easily be incorporated right before bed. Using that time to reconnect with a partner is like using sand at a beach to build a sandcastle - it is inbuilt into the activity.


In the case of roommates, having deep conversations before bed can help clear your mind of clutter and give the other person a safe space to chat about any issues they may be having, reigniting that social bond.


Some of the most fun ways to use this technique involve a ritual. I’ve heard of Wine at 5, where a couple of roommates would sip a glass of wine and have discussions at 5pm each day.



I personally connect with my husband by playing a board game before bed, which takes all our energy and concentration out of our devices and onto each other (and, of course, how to win). We usually have the best talks and go to bed feeling calm.


I like to call this “our little corner of the world” moments. Taking inspiration from the song “My little corner of the world” by Yo La Tengo, it reminds me that we have a connection that needs nurturing, and blooms with a little love. This really can be applied to any relationship.


Think back to any sleepover you have had with friends. What was the best time of connection? I’m betting the time right before sleep is definitely up there in the top 5 friendship creation moments, when all the secrets come out and you go to bed with a warm fuzzy feeling and a smile on your face.


BONUS LEVEL:



Use your sleep prep time to hit some of your creative markers - gentle exercise, me-time with a face mask, drawing, writing, stretching. Let those creative juices run wild! Starting your sleep routine with this can put you in a flow state, and once you come out of that state to sleep, you generally feel much more rested and your mind is calm.





YOU WON! The end.


So there you have it! A comprehensive guide to changing your sleep habits, complete with beliefs that hold you back, belief-busters and techniques to fun up your health. Let me know which ones you try in the comments below! Bonus points go to those daring adventurers who try ALL the techniques listed in the post.




Disclaimer: This article covers general advice. Although the advice within is highly applicable, if you have chronic sleep issues, please consult a physician to discuss personalised techniques. If you think you have symptoms of sleep apnea, please consult a physician to schedule a sleep test, which in Australia is covered by Medicare every 12 months at the time of writing this article. If you are suffering from chronic anxiety which is causing insomnia, please consult your psychologist for management strategies.



References:



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