You know sleep is important, and you know the usual rules for getting it: No coffee after noon, kick the TV out of the bedroom. But such a focus on dos and don’ts is a sad way to look at one of the most awesome things we do each day.
"People look at sleeping like it’s flossing their teeth," says Rubin Naiman, a sleep specialist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine. It’s a chore done of duty, a 7-9 hour requirement that’s somewhat like the human appendix: unhelpful in the modern world.
But some people have a different relationship with their nighttime selves. "When we fall in love with sleep, we make it a priority," Naiman says. It’s no longer hard to leave the party, or power down the computer on time. Here are seven secrets of people who enjoy their sleep as much as they enjoy a good meal.
In REM sleep, our brains knit together ideas in ways that should make our conscious minds humble. "Dreaming is really critical in the formation of memory and also critical for creativity," Naiman says.
Good sleepers try to become aware of their dreams, and welcome them. No need to do armchair analyzing: "Even more important than knowing the meaning of the dream is knowing that dreaming is meaningful."
The first bedtime is slowdown time, when anything stressful gets turned off. The second is lights out, when you actually go to sleep. For example, lights out for Naiman is 10 p.m., but slowdown is 9:30 p.m., or even 9:00 p.m.
High-performance people like to think of themselves as sports cars or jets, he notes, but "the faster the car, the longer the braking distance," and the speedier the jet, "the longer the runway you need" to land. Drifting off to sleep, becoming sleepier, and surrendering to that gravity is quite pleasurable.
No, they don’t hit snooze. Instead, the ultimate sign of a good sleeper is someone who can wake up gradually too. "When we awaken, grogginess is a beautiful, exquisite hybrid state of consciousness—part sleep, part dream, part waking," says Naiman. Lingering for a few minutes in that state also increases the chances that you’ll remember your dreams.
Since waking with no alarm isn’t practical for many people, try using one that rouses you slowly and gently.
Lisa Mercurio, cofounder of The Bedtime Network, which produces a music sequence that helps people fall asleep, calls herself a good sleeper. One reason she has little trouble sleeping? She’s a marathoner, and had already run eight miles by the time I interviewed her at 9:00 a.m.
"If you don’t have some quotient of physical exhaustion, if you don’t move your body, good luck with that," she says. Physical tiredness can also quiet that mental worry-track that keeps people from powering down.
Prescription sleep drugs may be overused. But Naiman takes a bit of melatonin, a supplement version of the hormone that helps the body know it’s time to sleep, nightly. "We are very overexposed to light at night," he says, and unless you’re going to live in a cave, you can’t change that. Melatonin helps combat this inevitable feature of modern life.
Everybody has a bad night now and then. Naiman—normally an excellent sleeper, but sensitive to caffeine—-had a piece of cake for dessert the night before we talked, and unbeknownst to him, it had espresso in it. "It took me an extra hour to fall asleep," he says.
The good news? One bad night won’t ruin your life. Accept it rather than worry about it, and you’re more likely to get back on track. "Sleep is like love," says Mercurio. "You can’t force it."
One reason people stay up too late is that they’ve spent the day dealing with work and family demands. Nighttime is me time, and it’s fun to watch TV, or surf the web for just a little longer. Getting a good night’s sleep means changing that mindset: "You need to build in me time at other points in your life," says Mercurio.
Take your lunch break. Get together with friends after work. Don’t work after the kids go to bed some nights, and start your fun at 8 p.m., not 10 p.m. And then, just as fundamentally, embrace your bedtime ritual as the ultimate in me time.
Kids’ bedtime rituals are about pleasure—stories and cuddling—and these are good ideas for grown-ups too.
[Image: Flickr user MadEmoiselle Sugar]