Sleep more to live more

I had another bad night. My sleep tracker tells me I only slept 5 hours. I only had 4 hours sleep the previous night. It’s not enough. Even without a sleep tracker I know I’m not sleeping enough.

I feel like crap.

Which reminds me about a book I read recently—“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker

I can summarize the book in a single sentence.

Without exception, we must get a least eight hours sleep, every night.

And he recommends we to spend at least nine hours in bed every night.

(He refers to that as ‘sleep opportunity’ — the basic reasoning is that the more time you spend in bed, the more chance there is you’ll get enough sleep.)

Then comes his galvanizing statement that “the shorter your sleep, the shorter your lifespan.”

That reminds me of the self-certifying question “Are you working to live, or living to work?” Or the variation for fitness addicts, “Are you exercising to live, or living to exercise?”

In other words, you can spend so much time doing something to achieve an end result… that you end up spending a major proportion of your remaining lifetime doing it at the expense of all else.

So if for example we go to bed too early in the evening, in order to maximise our sleep opportunity so we live longer, we could actually be robbing ourselves of valuable time we could otherwise spend with our family.

Obviously there has to be a balance.

I certainly can spend more time in bed to maximise sleep. At the moment I’m routinely going to bed after 11pm, and I’m usually on my gadgets until the very last minute leading up to bedtime too. Then I wonder why my mind is too active and I can’t get to sleep quickly. (Some nights I lie awake for hours, desperate to nod off, knowing full well that I’ll feel like crap in the morning.)

It’s a crazy routine when I think about it.

A while back, I briefly got into the routine of not using any gadgets (iPhone, iPad, laptop etc.) after 8pm on an evening. (Until I tried that routine it never occurred to me how often I’d habitually pick up my phone to constantly check my emails, message, WhatsApp, etc., etc..)

The 8pm routine worked.

I know it made my brain less active, and I’d feel sleepy a lot earlier, usually heading off to bed around 9pm. I can’t remember the exact timings, but I know for a fact I got a lot more sleep.

At least for the brief period I stuck to that routine—I’ve considered myself a ‘night owl’ for most of my adult life, and it was so easy to fall back into bad habits of going to bed too late.

But while the routine lasted — going to bed at 9pm and getting up at my usual 6.45am meant I was in bed more than 9 hours… exactly what Matthew Walker talks about above.

He goes on to say that routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night …

  • Demolishes your immune system (Covid alert!)
  • More than doubles your risk of cancer
  • Is a key lifestyle factor in determining whether you develop Alzheimers
  • Increases your likelihood of your coronary arteries become blocked and brittle and sets you on the path toward cardiovascular disease, stroke and congestive heart failure
  • Contributes to all major psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety and suicide

If anyone needed decent reasons to get more sleep, there they are!

He also states some shocking statistics.

For example he says that more car accidents are caused by drowsiness than by alcohol and drugs. That did surprise me.

(N.b. I haven’t validated that fact. It sounds to me like there could be a causal relationship — maybe people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs sleep less than those who aren’t, and therefore are drowsy when driving?)

Anyway, this is why Walker says we have to give ourselves a ”non-negotiable 8 hours of sleep every night.”

As mentioned, I’ve always considered myself a ‘night owl’, but he also states research showing that us so-called ‘night owls’ suffer greater levels of depression, anxiety, diabetes, cancer, heart attack and strokes.

Okay, so maybe I should try and change the label I’ve given myself!

Now back when I read this book, I was going through a particularly bad patch of poor sleep.

I’d read so much about caffeine by this point that when I also read Walker’s comments that caffeine is one of the worst and most common culprits to prevent people from sleeping soundly, I finally decided to knock caffeine on the head.

In 2020 I finally gave up caffeine completely.

The week I gave up was ‘painful’… cold turkey and then some. (I believe I now have a small inkling of how Heroine addicts might feel when they’re locked in a room and deprived of their beloved drug for a week.)

I had hot and cold sweats, the shakes, and a godawful headache for an entire week. I almost caved in and went back on caffeine, but thankfully I got to the end of the week, my condition improved, and I was no longer “a caffeine drinker.”

(If you’re wondering how much caffeine I was drinking—it was somewhere between 10 to 15 cups of tea and coffee a day. Plus the occasional Espresso, using a machine in my office… which was like mainlining amphetamines. I could literally feel my heart start to race when I had one of those bad boys.)

Walker says that it takes up to seven hours to cleanse your body of 50% of the caffeine you drink, and advises his readers to not drink caffeine from lunchtime onwards.

He also warns that caffeine can be found in energy drinks, dark chocolate, weight-loss pills and pain relievers, and that decaffeinated coffee actually does contains caffeine… up to 30% as much as a regular cup.

Anyway, my solution of giving up caffeine completely was of course a lot more extreme than ‘not drinking from lunchtime onwards’, but it’s the only way I know for a fact I won’t regress. Others may vary.

Ironically though, as mentioned at the start of this article, my sleep patterns are dreadful—which I now know is attributable simply due to my routinely late bedtimes, and late night use of white-light-emitting gadgets.

For me, the next step in my journey towards not feeling like crap every day is simple. I just need to get back into my old routine of not using any gadgets from 8pm onwards—including staring at a TV—and go to bed at 9pm and read a relaxing book.

I’ve been through this enough times to know I don’t really need to do anything else. I don’t need pills or potions, and I don’t need a warm milky drink or a warm bath or Lavender pillow spray or any of the myriad of other things you can buy on Amazon.

And I definitely don’t need more books about sleep—I just need to switch off earlier, and give myself two extra hours of sleep opportunity. Simples.

What do you need to do to improve your sleep?