Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
- Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2.
Humans spend around a third of our lives asleep – it's one of the most important elements of an overall healthy lifestyle. Having a regular sleep cycle is key to performing at or above par during working hours. Sleep is an active physiological process which allows your body to carry out vital activities – it is vital for muscle and tissue recovery, muscle growth, cell restoration, as well as hormonal balance. This is especially important if you are constantly feeling sore, or suffering from injuries or strains. Sleep rehabilitation is such a problem that billion-dollar industries have sprung up to address sleep disturbances and teach good "sleep hygiene." Sleep deprivation is a reliable form of torture to break the will of the enemies of the state. Sleep is so essential to our function as an organism that losing even a few hours during the week can affect high-level reason and verbal communication, as well as have detrimental impacts on our ability to problem solve.
Prior to the Coronavirus Pandemic, people's lives and jobs were, for the most part, spatially delineated. You needed to leave home to get to work, and you needed to leave work to get home. There was a difference between the two, and a boundary imposed by the spatial and time-based separation of those two contexts. With more people working from home as a result of the pandemic and the ongoing crystallisation of those patterns now that things are moving forward, it's becoming more and more difficult to get a good night's sleep, regularly. We spend all of our day working and doing things for other people. Our leisure time is so taken up by the necessity of unwinding from the day and pursuing our hobbies that we sacrifice rest in the moment. Even when we do go to bed, we don't go to sleep so much as continue our relaxing activities while lying down. The challenge, as perverse as it is, is to maximise the effectiveness of the little time we have to recuperate. Our hobbies nourish our souls, our diets nourish our systems and our bodies, but our sleep nourishes us all the more.
In today's world, our sleep hygiene - the means by which we rest - has been severely affected. We have fewer boundaries between our places of rest and work, fewer boundaries between our times of labour and leisure, fewer hours of peace and solace to lay our heads down and rest. The suggestions that follow will not be actionable by everyone, but it's as good of a start as any.
1. Minimise light and sound pollution.
The human ear and eye are extraordinarily sensitive organs. The ear can perceive sound frequencies as low as 20 Hertz, and as high as 20,000 Hertz, and can tolerate sound intensity from near-zero decibels to about 180 decibels before damage begins setting in. The human range of hearing depends on the intensity of sound, but anyone who's lain in bed and heard a mosquito buzzing overhead knows how sensitive human hearing can be. The human eye is similarly sensitive - the photoreceptive cells that convert light energy into perceivable nerve impulses can detect light concentrations at the level of the individual photon. The human eye is so sensitive that it can even detect tiny quantities of light through the closed eyelid. This means that to get a good night's sleep, a resting person needs to minimise light and sound pollution - to turn off light-projecting surfaces and globes like LEDs and phone screens, and to turn off sound-producing sources like computers, laptops, and the like. This can be harder for people living closer to major roads, those who live in apartment buildings, and those who work shift, but the principle is the same.
2. Maintain a room temperature of around 18-degrees celcius.
The human body functions best within a narrow range of temperature. If the temperature rises too far, the body needs to sweat, and a person must disrobe to ensure their continued comfort. If the temperature dips too low, the body will begin shivering, and a person must put on clothes. Both of these extremes of high and low temperature can influence the quality of sleep during the night. Of course, due to individual variations in body composition and metabolism, the 18-degree point is more of a bellcurve peak than an absolute point. A higher body temperature has been associated with a decrease in sleep quality - during deep sleep, the body ceases most temperature-regulation behaviors such as sweating or shivering, leaving you more sensitive to ambient temperature changes. These same factors impact attempted sleep during times of cold as well, so it's important to establish some form of temperature control.
3. Establish a routine before and after sleeping.
Things done consistently tend to stick as habits. I wake up at 6:00AM, have two weetbix and a cup of tea, shower, shave, and brush my teeth, all done by 6:45AM. I have been doing this for twenty years, and it's gotten to the point where I don't even need to set alarms to get myself out of bed. Sometimes I even wake up ten minutes before my alarm. Similarly, establishing patterns of when we go to bed, when we turn out the lights, and when we lie down, will aid in improving sleep efficiency. Of course, this depends on the time we have to do this, and the strength of the delineation between our home and working lives. It's easy for the thoughts of the day to intrude on our restful hours, so meditation and self-centering are necessary to ensure calmness before bed. Rest and rise at the same time, if you can.
4. Avoid using electronic devices before sleeping.
Most electronic devices like television and laptop screens, and phone screens especially, emit short-wave enriched light that can interfere with the production of sleep-related hormones as well as contribute to mental agitation and activity before bed. The recommendation is to stop using these devices thirty minutes before going to bed, to allow the body to reset and rest. The production of sleep-driving hormones is affected by external factors such as lighting, and introducing light just before bed is never a smart idea. Phones and tablet screens also emit blue light, which has been demonstrated to interfere with the production of sleep-inducing hormones as well as stimulating the eyes, which as has been said, are extremely sensitive to even small quantities of light.
5. Avoid ingesting caffeine, stimulants, as well as food before bed.
This is a hard one for me personally. I always make myself a cup of hot tea before bed, and it's a little night-time ritual for me. In winter, I'm partial to a tall mug of hot milo with two shots of Bailey's, just to help me to sleep. The sad thing is that this isn't what you want to do. Caffeine promotes alertness by inhibiting the action of neurochemical signals in the brain that promote sleep. Caffeine is absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream and reaches peak levels within 30-70 minutes, and its effects may last for three to seven hours long. Caffeine enriched foods include coffee and tea, but it is present in chocolates, soft-drinks, and other confectioneries. The concentration of caffeine ingested and its effect on the individual will vary with body composition, metabolism, and habituation to caffeine ingestion. Nevertheless, given the long uptime that caffeine has in the human body, it's a good idea to not drink it too soon to lights-out. Ingesting food before sleep should be avoided as well. During rest and the sleep cycle, the mechanical and chemical processes used in the gut to digest and break down food are slowed as part of rest. Ingesting food can lead to bloating and discomfort overnight, as well as unwanted weightgain if that's something you're concerned about.
6. Avoid napping. Naps should only be used to recover sleep debt, done for no longer than 30 minutes, and taken no later than midday.
To talk about napping, we need to talk about sleep debt. Our bodies need an amount of rest every day in order to function optimally. This total amount may trend up or down depending on factors like the nature of our work, our life's obligations, and what we do to unwind, but the bottom line is that there is a number that needs to be met. Insufficient sleep builds sleep-debt: a requirement for additional rest that if unfulfilled over a long time can lead to exhaustion and poorer functioning in life and in work. If sleep-debt builds up past a critical point, a person can become severely ill. Sometimes, naps - short episodes of shut-eyed rest during the day, can be used to recover sleep debt. This is because the short amount of time taken to get into a nap can be enough to re-energise by addressing sleep-debt in the short term. However, if you nap for too long, that extended nap can disrupt the wake-sleep cycle of the body by introducing a pattern of rest that is incompatible with the demands of life, and which leads to more disruption and poorer functioning long term. This is also why naps should not be taken after mid-day, as even a short amount of rest taken close to the time at which a person is going to sleep has the potential to disrupt their long-cycle sleep. Naps should be taken in a similar manner to a night of sleep - with minimal light and noise pollution and as far after the ingestion of caffeine as possible.
These steps are a set of general recommendations around which a routine of good-quality rest can be developed. The trick here is that everyone is different, with different bodies, different physiologies, different environments, different lives, different demands of living and different individual circumstances. The result of this is that these recommendations are a basis for best practice and a starting point from which people can experiment and consider the development of a sleeping routine and hygiene around that which best fits the demands of their lives. Sleep is important - we spend a third of our lives doing it and it's essential to our wellbeing. Remember, if you don't make time to slow down, your body will make time for you.