Thursday, May 07, 2015

Why is "Get A Good Night’s Sleep" NOT on My 10 Healthy Life Habits List?

This is the 2nd post of a 13 part series on Healthy Life Habits. In case you've missed the previous post we've already covered:

1. My 10 Healthy Life Habits


I had someone ask me last night why I didn’t put 8 hours sleep on my 10 healthy life habits list. 

The answer is both simple and involved.

The simple answer is sleep is not a habit you can “practice” the way you can, say, eating real food. Either you can sleep at night or you can’t. As anyone who has been tortured by insomnia will tell you (I am one of them) it’s not a matter of choice. And TRYING to sleep? AHAHAAHHAAHHAAHA! *wipes tears away* Good luck with that.

The more involved answer has two main components. First, a good night’s sleep will probably be a natural outcome of practicing the 10 healthy habits. Second, while I agree that 8 solid hours of sleep has undeniable benefits, I’m not convinced that humans were designed to sleep a certain way or for a certain amount of time or that they absolutely must sleep 8 hours in a row to be healthy.

Let me clarify one thing before everyone jumps down my throat about the sleep thing: I know there is good research on the benefits of 8 hours of sleep in a row; I've read the articles and research papers; I’m not denying that research. What I am saying is there is also evidence that humans can have different sleep patterns and still be healthy. Maybe they won’t get the maximum benefits of the human growth hormone for weight loss or building muscle, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t healthy.

Also, one thing I learned from struggling with insomnia is that, well, struggling with it is pointless. If you can’t sleep, the best thing you can do is accept it and relax. There are tons and tons of websites devoted to “How to get a good night’s sleep”, so I’m not going to address this in detail. There are wonderful articles and books filled with ideas about what may be causing your insomnia and some things you can do to bring an end to the sleepless nights, if that’s what you need.

So back to why I'm writing this blog post: to address why I didn't put the standard "get 8 solid hours of sleep per night" on my 10 healthy life habits list. Here is my involved answer:

Let me address the first component of my sleep answer: A good night’s sleep will probably be a natural outcome of practicing the 10 healthy habits. This is what happened to me. When I first got serious about taking care of myself, I was six months postpartum, after the birth of my first child. Among other things, I was not sleeping well. Part of that was having a baby, but my daughter was sleeping through the night at three months old, and I mean 7 to 8 hours, but I wasn't.  

A bigger part of my insomnia was a perfect storm of hormones, anxiety, medications, allergies, stress, lack of a balanced diet, chronic dehydration, and not enough exercise. As I worked on getting healthier—and it was a total trial and error process—I started sleeping better. By the time my daughter was 2 and I got pregnant with my son, I was sleeping well. I won’t say I was sleeping 8 hours straight; more like 4 - 6 hours, then another 2-4 hours.

The really telling part was after my son was born, though, because I slept so much better than I did after my daughter was born. Even with night time feedings. There were some complications with my second pregnancy that contributed to a sixty-five pound weight gain, but I’ll save that for another post.

Which brings me to the second component: is 8 hours of sleep in a row the only way to get a good night’s sleep? Historically, humans did not sleep 8 hours in a row, as this article explains. There is plenty of evidence in pre-1800s documents that humans slept in two phases, “first sleep” and “second sleep”. (I’m thinking about Hobbits now, too. ;-) ) It wasn’t just noted that humans COULD sleep this way, it was the WAY humans slept. It was common knowledge.

People would rest over a twelve hour period (pretty much from sunset to sunrise) with a 3-4 hour first sleep, then a 3-4 hour wakeful period—when such activities as studying, prayer, contemplation, visiting neighbors, having a snack, and bumping boots was recommended—then a 3-4 hour second sleep before dawn. This was how humans slept until the nineteenth century.

So why did the 8 hours of sleep thing start? Roger Ekirch, professor of history at Virgnia Tech, surmises that the advent of "street lighting and eventually electric indoor light, as well as the popularity of coffee houses” led to people staying awake after sunset more often, thus limiting the time for rest/sleep and possibly affecting the circadian rhythm. Author Craig Koflosky expands on these ideas in his book Evening’s Empire.

Basically, two sleeps became a waste of time when the night was reclaimed from criminals and other shaggy, long-toothed predators. Nighttime activities were no longer the sole domain of the seedy and depraved. There were varied activities available to a wider segment of the population, and, hmmmmmm, isn’t it possible that there was money to be made by keeping people up later, shopping, dining, going to plays and ballets and even just drinking?

Kind of looks like cramming as much as we possibly can into the day wasn't enough; we had to start cramming our sleep into as small a time frame as possible, too. 

So my advice about sleep? Let it happen. Relax, even if you’re not sleeping through the night, it’s okay. Stop thinking your sleep has to be "perfect". Make sure you rest, but please don’t make it worse for yourself by stressing out about whether you're sleeping "correctly". Sheesh. How we torture ourselves with the "shoulds". smh.

Do some experiments. Maybe less caffeine during the day or more water. Hey, why not start working on one of the healthy habits, like De-stressing Daily? Pick up a book on creating good sleep habits. I think its way too stressful if I tell you how you should be sleeping, and that stress is not going to make you sleep better, is it?

The way you are sleeping or not sleeping is NOT wrong, it’s simply a result of your lifestyle choices and the current state of your health. The best way to get a good night’s sleep is not to “try” to practice sleeping better, but to work on changing the things that are making it hard to sleep in the first place.

Working on developing the 10 healthy life habits will help you do just that.


Previous Article in this Series:
My 10 Healthy Life Habits

Next Article in this Series:
Let them Drink Water 

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