By Stella Loichot
Have you ever heard someone explain how they wake up at 4 am to hit the gym even though they feel exhausted? Have you ever heard someone proudly announce that they only sleep 5 hours per night because they have so much to do? Have you ever heard someone wear their lack of sleep as a badge of honor?
I have, and my guess is, you have too. I have even done it myself, for many years!
Sleep has no value
We live in a society where lack of sleep is widespread and almost praiseworthy. We have created a culture of sleep deprivation, where resting is associated with laziness or lack of productivity, while being hard-pressed and overworked is something to be applauded.
Sleep is instrumental to emotional and physical health. Yet, most of us try to cut back on our snooze. Sleeping less is the recent trend in our fast-paced Western societies. More and more people are commuting to work at the crack of dawn and still bringing home projects to work on at night. And even those who stay at home and using their time for everything else but sleep.
When she was Associate Director of Sleep Disorders at the Boston Medical Center, Yelena Pyatkevich explained that we, as a society, have lost one hour and a half of sleep each night over the past 100 years. This would amount to one month and a half of sleep per year, or ten years by the time we reach 80 years old. The World Health Organization confirms that globally, nightly sleep time has been reduced by 20% over the past century.
Are we responsible for our lack of sleep?
When we eat poorly, we take the blame and make plans on doing “better”, whether that mean shopping differently, meal prepping, or reading food labels. When we are not working out, we take the blame and try to move more by joining a plank challenge, walking during lunch break, or signing up for a yoga class. Now, when we don’t sleep enough, we blame it on life events and the people around us. We often don’t even think about making changes. We just assume that there is nothing we can do about stressful world news, sick children waking us up in the middle of the night, or a demanding manager who expects us to email at 10 pm.
Why is that?
The answer is simple: when it comes to sleep, we feel completely powerless.
We don’t take responsibility for sleep the way we do for food or exercise. This double standard leads us to thinking that being tired is not a choice, as opposed to eating pastries or sitting on the couch. This double standard is actually the #1 reason why so many of us, especially busy women and moms, are so desperately sleep deprived.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not implying that the time we get up in the morning or the time we go to bed at night is solely the result of our own decisions. There is no level playing field here, and some of us struggle with insanely long commutes, taxing jobs, aging parents, children, pets, and other demands from life that interfere with a good night’s sleep. Yet, more often than not, we are not trying to take action. We don’t even know how much we sleep and how much we would need to sleep. We have settled for chronic fatigue.
I plead guilty too! For about 2 decades I have given sleep absolutely zero consideration and it had never occurred to me that, as a very light sleeper and mother of three with a full-time job, there was something I had the power to do in order to sleep better and longer. Like many of my clients when they first start working with me, I felt powerless and somewhat detached.
How to sleep more and feel good about it?
Being aware that we are sleep-deprived and committing to sleeping better are the first steps. We have to stop finding pride in our lack of sleep. It starts with you and me feeling proud and telling the world that we want to sleep more rather than feeling guilty about it. Once we internalize the fact that sleeping is at least as important to our health and happiness than nutrition and physical activity, ten we can take specific steps to sleep better.
5 steps to sleeping well:
1. Find out whether or not you sleep enough
Those who drink coffee, tea, energy drinks or caffeinated soda, can stop relying on caffeine for 1 or 2 weeks and see how they feel. Believe me, it is a very enriching experience! Many of my clients have gone through that experiment and realized that they were completely caffeine dependent. I personally go caffeine-free for about 10 days 3 or 4 times per year, and every time, I am surprised!
Another easy way to find out whether or not you sleep enough, is to take this short quiz. Answering a few questions regarding your daily life will help you figure out how sleep-deprived you might be and what you can do about it.
2. Track how much you actually sleep
There is often a discrepancy between the time we think we sleep and the time we actually sleep. Using a journal or a sleep tracker on your phone or watch can help you find out how many hours you are actually asleep each night. Knowing where you are starting from is the only way to make progress.
3. Find out how long you need to sleep
If there is a specific time you need to wake up at every morning, try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night until you wake up naturally at the required time the next morning. If you cannot go to bed until a specific time at night, don’t set an alarm for the next day and find out when you will wake up naturally. If you do this for long enough – about 10 days – while at the same time not relying on caffeine, you will be able to assess your exact sleep needs.
Remember that there is no one-size-fits-all. Some people need seven hours while others need nine hours. Some people need to sleep through the night, and others are wired to wake up once or twice. Certain people are meant to take a nap while others aren’t.
4. Make sleep a priority and go public
Once you have committed to sleeping better, tell people around you. This is the only way you can get some support, and this is the only way we can change society, so that those of us who want to sleep well won’t always have to swim against the current. If you don’t feel comfortable informing your entire network of your self-care plans, write down the names of at least three people you will talk to about this new endeavor and how they might help or inspire you.
5. Set goals and start implementing changes
Keep in mind that change will take time and that no goal is too small. It is a journey and rushing things will usually backfire. It has taken me 3 years to go from 5 hours of sleep per night to 8 hours. I still have one hour to go to feel completely rested. There is no rush, with self-acceptance and self-respect, I can get there eventually, and so can you. Small changes really add up. If you start sleeping 10 minutes longer every night, you will end up with 6 extra hours of sleep per month, or 72 hours of extra snooze per year. Allow yourself to progress slowly but consistently and give yourself grace when things don’t go the way you want. The fact that you are taking responsibility for your sleep is already reason for pride in itself.
If you feel stuck or don’t know where to start, feel free to reach out. Good luck, you got this!
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Stella Loichot is a National Board-Certified Health Coach and the Best-Selling Author of SLEEP IT OFF, a Revolutionary Guide to Losing Weight, Beating Diabetes, and Feeling Your Best Through Optimal Rest. Using a combination of science, personal experience, and her French background, she helps adults around the globe live healthier lives without giving up the foods they love. Visit her website at allonzcoaching.com or follow her on Facebook to learn more about her unique approach to diabetes prevention and natural prediabetes reversal.