FIFO Focus’ Dr John Forbes joins Big Al as part of the REDFM series FIFO Life.
In part 32, Dr John discusses the importance of sleep and some techniques to help you. Do you take sleep for granted?
How important is sleep?
Sleep is very important – perhaps more important that you might realize.
In the field of psychology, with most relationships between things we can say that “If this happens, this is likely to happen” or “If this happens, this is very likely to happen.” With some things, though, the relationship is almost cause and effect, and sleep is one of them. If you have too little or too much sleep, you will almost certainly experience a mood problem such as depression or anxiety. So, it’s obviously very important that we do as much as possible to ensure good, refreshing sleep.
Better Sleep Management Techniques
The first step in this process is to choose a time that you’re going to wake up and get out of bed every day for the next two weeks. Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you’ve chosen 6:00am. That means that you should be aiming to be asleep by 10:00pm the night before – although if you are younger than around 23 you may need to be asleep earlier (in fact, the younger you are, the more sleep you will need). Given that, your head needs to hit the pillow 15 minutes before you’re supposed to be asleep. In this case, that would be 9:45pm.
Now, take a moment to consider what your pre-bed routine is, and how long it takes you. You know – all those little things that you do before you finally go to bed. So, from the moment you decide to go to bed, do you turn off the TV, put the cat out, lock the doors, check the windows, go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, etc. Again, let’s say that this normally takes you ten minutes. That means that you would need to start your pre-bed routine at 9:35pm in order to ensure that your head hits the pillow at 9:45pm.
If it sounds as though I’m being precise with the times, it’s because I am. Your brain has quite an accurate clock built into it. It knows the difference between 9:30pm, 9:45pm, and 10:00pm. One of the things that needs to happen is that we train our brain to know that at the particular time we choose, we’re supposed to be getting ready to sleep. So, even if you have to set yourself an alarm, you need to ensure that you start your pre-bed routine at the same time every night for two weeks. In our example, this is 9:35pm. If there are a few minutes to go on a TV show, that shouldn’t matter – just record the end and go to sleep. Even better, record the show and watch it at a more convenient time.
When you do go to bed, it’s important that you make yourself as cool as possible, without being uncomfortable. It seems that one of the things that humans need to get a good night’s sleep is a slight drop in core body temperature. In some animals, when their core body temperature drops a lot, they hibernate. In humans, it would appear that we just need a lesser version of that in order to trigger sleep. Also, when you go to bed that’s where you need to stay until your chosen wake time, unless it’s an emergency (including needing to use the bathroom). You should still be much more rested drifting in and out of sleep with your eyes shut, than getting up and wandering around, or watching TV. Remember, we’re trying to train your brain how to sleep – not how to wake up in the middle of the night. If you need to stop your mind from racing, please use the Thought Stopping Technique explained in the section on Anxiety. Finally, while you’re following this program it’s important that your bed is only for sleeping. So, it isn’t for reading, or watching TV, or sex, or using your tablet or phone, or (perhaps most challenging of all) talking. You can do all of those things anywhere else you like on the face of the Earth (within reason, of course) – just not in bed at your chosen time. We want your mind to be in no doubt that it’s supposed to be sleeping.
Waking up habits
When you awaken, it’s very important to immediately get out of bed and go and eat breakfast in a brightly lit area of your home – or outside if the sun is bright enough and the weather is pleasant. The reason for that will become apparent soon. If you’re one of those people who don’t eat breakfast, then you should!
Laying the groundwork before bedtime
Food and drink
You actually need to start doing a few things in preparation for a good night’s sleep for about two hours before our desired sleep time. In our example, this would be from 8:00pm. It’s important that you don’t have anything to eat or drink for two hours before your sleep time. Of course, if you need to have a small mouthful of water to wash down some medication, that’s perfectly OK. There are two reasons for this restriction. Firstly, we need to make sure that your body isn’t processing any food or drink, because that will affect your ability to get to sleep and to have a restful sleep. Secondly, we need to minimize the chance of you needing to get up and go to bed in the middle of the night.
Also from two hours before your sleep time, you need to restrict the amount of light that you’re exposed to. Human beings actually need two things in order to fall asleep. I’ve mentioned one of them – a drop in core body temperature – but the other one is a substance called melatonin. Let’s see how we can encourage your brain to produce that. In your brain is something called the pineal gland. As with so many parts of your brain, it doesn’t have that much to do. Its job is essentially to tell whether it’s daytime or night-time. When it thinks that it’s night-time (that is, when the sun has gone down) it triggers the production of melatonin. That might seem fairly straight-forward to you, but there is a bit of a problem. The pineal gland hasn’t quite caught up with technology, and it really is set to figure out when the sun goes down. However, we now enjoy the convenience of electric lighting. So, what usually happens is that we will turn out the lights just as we go to bed. The pineal gland thinks “Wow! The sun has gone down quickly!” and then starts to signal for the production of melatonin. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t have enough melatonin for a good night’s sleep for two or three hours. What we need to do is to bring the production schedule forward.
The way we achieve this is to do things such as not having a light on in the room in which you’re watching TV. Of course, you should have a light on somewhere in the house for the sake of safety, but do your best to not have a light on where you are. It also helps to dim the brightness on the TV in this case. Also, you should avoid using computers/tablets/phones during this time because they are all capable of fooling your pineal gland into thinking that the sun is still up.
Baths and showers
Finally, if you have a bath you should aim to have a nice, big, hot bath about two hours before bed-time (although we may need to change that, depending on how you respond to this part). If you don’t have a bath, then have a hot shower and dress warmly immediately after. With either option, stay in the bath or rugged up (even if it’s warm weather) for about 10 minutes.
Before bed beverages
While you’re in the bath or lounging in your robe, please have a mug of hot milk (if you can’t drink milk, then a mug of relaxing herbal tea is OK) and one small helping of one of the following (and try to pick an option as close to the top of the list as possible):
- Tart (sour) cherry juice concentrate
- Tart (sour) cherries
- Mustard seed
- Ginger root
- Barley grains
- Rolled oats
- Fresh mint
Now, I know that this is probably starting to sound a little odd, so let me explain what it’s all about. The heat of the bath/shower and the heat of the drink is intended to heat you up from the inside and outside. So, when you get out of the bath or remove the warm clothes we will be artificially triggering a drop in your core body temperature (one of the things you need for sleep). Secondly, the foods listed above all contain melatonin in decreasing amounts from the top of the list (which is the other thing we need for sleep). They don’t have huge amounts, but they may help to kick-start the process a little bit.
What you should find after doing this is that a certain period of time later you will quite suddenly feel tired. If this is about two hours afterwards, then leave it at this time so that it aligns with your sleep time. If you find that it’s consistently one hour later, then move this part to one hour before your sleep time. That is, keep them both aligned.
When applying this process, try to begin it when you’ll be in a position to devote as much of the two weeks to it as possible. So, if you have a few nights out coming up soon, it’s probably best to wait until after you’ve enjoyed them before you start.