Sleep. It is SO crucial to our health, but as we age we apparently get worse and worse at it. This is especially true if you have children. In my case, I feel like I can count on one hand the number of truly good nights of sleep I’ve had since my son was born 5 years ago. First, it was because he had reflux as a baby and had to be fed little and often. Now, my active brain keeps me awake over-thinking everything as I try to raise him well. There is fascinating research on how the DNA of your children is in your brain, even long after you are dead, so no wonder I can’t sleep! We are genetically programmed to be tuned to the frequency of our children, and for me that means one eye is always (figuratively) open.
In some ways, I feel a little fraudulent writing a sleep post because I am the WORST sleeper. I’m almost certain that you sleep better than I do, and yet here I am writing about it! I didn’t sleep well as a baby. I slept very little as a child and dropped all naps at age one. I was a terrible sleeper as a teenager and university student (famous for pulling several all-nighters in a row to study; I’d even start hallucinating sometimes). In my twenties, my job in finance involved me getting an hourly phone call from a broker to wake me up and check the prices where currencies and bonds were trading and chart them all on graph paper. In some ways, it was the perfect job for me as someone who didn’t need much sleep. At one point, I even tried working for two companies simultaneously. One was working for a hedge fund by day, and the other working on the night desk of a currency broker. It seemed to make sense since I was awake and graphing the markets 24 hours a day anyway.
There is a eerie enjoyable isolation that you feel when the rest of the world is asleep and you are wide awake. Sometimes my best ideas, my best observations, and my best moments happen then. I researched migraines when I first started to get them. Artists, musicians, and writers often say that they are at their most creative right before the migraine sets in. A ‘solar flare’ of creativity seems to precede the debilitating migraine. Yet despite the discomfort, artists are grateful for the inspiration that the migraine infused into their art. That is kind of how I feel about sleep. Yes, I get anxious and angry as I watch the hours slide past on the clock waiting for sleep to wash over me, but somehow I am grateful for the quiet space it gives me to think and untie my mental knots.
As I get older, sleep is more of a necessity and less of a a luxury than it was when I was young. I need to be well rested to have a good day. I need quality sleep to be a good parent, wife, and friend, or else I’m ratty and short tempered. Who wants to be around me when I’m like that? Even I don’t like me then! When I’ve touched on sleep in videos and previous blog posts, I’ve had so many emails thanking me for my recommendations that I decided to devote a whole post to it here. Now that you know how much I struggle with sleep, here are the things that help me the most.
Zirben Wurfel– The essential oil of the “Zirbe,” Swiss rock pine, or Arolla pine (scientific name Pinus cembra) helps me like nothing else. A reader (thank you Anna!) kindly sourced another brand (linked below) that is easier to find than the ones I buy at the airport in Vienna (Here is Anna’s option for US readers, and an Amazon option of the same product for UK readers. In case you didn’t see my YouTube video about it, the Rock pine only grows in the Alps of Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. For centuries, it has been used to help sleep, calm anxiety, slow the heart rate, and create a sense of well being in humans. I sleep with a small pillow made of the wood shavings and I keep the wooden cube with essential-oil drops on the wood shavings near my bed.
The Calm App– I have my best nights of sleep when I meditate before I go to bed. Even if it is for 10 minutes, it makes a difference. I’ve used lots of meditation apps and The Calm App is by far is my favourite. There is a free two week trial, and then it is $30 a year or so. The guided meditations keep my wandering mind on the right path, and their meditation series for anxiety has been life changing. I can’t recommend this enough, but you have to make a pact with yourself that you WILL do it, not just download it. I thank myself every morning when I’ve made the effort to meditate the night before.
Cotton Pyjamas– I’m very sensitive to fabrics. Cotton knit fabric (aka tee shirt fabric) is lovely to sleep in, but lately I want something a little extra… the bedtime equivalent of lighting a candle for dinner. I want a night time treat to look forward to and these Desmond and Dempsey pyjamas are IT for me. The cotton is the perfect weight for this Goldilocks… neither too thick nor too thin, and the fabric designs are gorgeous. I even wear the pyjama shirts with jeans for daytime. I love them so much I have bought three pairs now. Given my fox love, OF COURSE I have the fox ones, as well as the fern print ones shown here, and also a navy shorts set with a Moroccan motif. They’re stylish and they’re modest enough that I don’t have to change before breakfast when we have houseguests.
Electronic Purge– The hardest one for me is not to look at any electronic devices before bedtime. I really try not to check Twitter or Instagram, but I often get sucked into the current political news on Twitter. It plunges me into anger and anxiety at just the time I should be calming down and switching off. I can only write when my son is asleep, so I often blog into the wee hours. Not only is the HEV (high energy visible) light bad for my skin, but the blue light causes insomnia by keeping my brain from producing the melatonin I NEED for sleep. My new rule is no electronics one hour before lights out. I break it frequently, but I’m really trying. I subscribe to The New Yorker and reading one article per night in the most beautifully written English of any magazine in the world is a great bedtime treat for my brain.
Bedding– Part of my bedtime ritual is looking forward to the tactile sensation of sleeping on good linens. I only have solid white bed linens because that is what feels the most restful and peaceful to me. I allow embroidery or textural detail (a favourite old set was white seersucker because I loved the almost paper towel like feel) but there is no colour. I do have pale grey (or dark white as I call it!) edging on a few sets to match the decor in my bedroom, but no colour. Bed linens are one thing I do not scrimp on. I buy the most insane thread count I can find. I buy antique French linens. I buy anything that feels luxurious, inviting, and conducive to rest.
While I’m on the bedding topic, I’m tempted to try one of these gravity blankets. It is basically a thunder shirt for humans. They work on the theory that deep pressure points are stimulated by the weight which relaxes us and makes us sleep better. That may work for many people, but I’m seriously claustrophobic and it may make me panic rather than relax! I would love to try one just to see though. I’m just listing it here in case this appeals to you.
Rituals– I can’t go to sleep if I don’t have a glass of water beside my bed. Even if I don’t drink it, I need the ‘security blanket’ of knowing it is there. I also have to have lip balm, nail oil, and a pen by my bed! They’re little comforts that for some stupid reason have become part of my routine. Why the pen? It is just in case I wake up with an idea or something important I need to remember, because I always forget by morning. I’d rather write it down than worry that I might forget, because worry will keep me awake. It sounds a little OCD when I read this back, but I think it is more about me creating the most relaxing environment possible, without the urge to get up to go get something.
It isn’t rocket science, but those are my sleeping aids. Even if I am not sleeping, I want to appreciate the relaxation time in my bed rather than getting stressed about not sleeping. Sometimes that is the best I can do. I think of my bed as a big, calm, white, ice floe in the constantly moving waters of everyday life. Find rituals, scents, and textures that are personally calming for you and make your own ice floe as much of a haven as you can. It is important. If not sleep, at least gloriously restorative rest.
“Sleep is not a trivial issue. In our study it was associated with double the risk of a heart attack and up to four times the risk of stroke. Poor sleep should be considered a modifiable risk factor for cardiovascular disease along with smoking, lack of exercise and poor diet. -World Health Organization