35 In Wellness

Want Better Health? Go to Sleep!

What indeed, Mr Milton, what indeed…

First, a quick background about my troubled relationship with sleep (which I’ve written about before here). I’ve always maintained that I’m one of those people who simply doesn’t need much sleep. My body actively fights sleep. My university roommates and family will certainly attest to that! In school, I was known for pulling all-nighter cram sessions, sometimes a few in a row (this horrifies me now). In hindsight, it isn’t that I didn’t NEED the sleep, I just didn’t know HOW to get it. Also, a part of me liked the weird out-of-sync perspective of being awake while the rest of the world sleeps. I’m particularly skilled at soldiering through, at looking ok even when I’m sleep deficient (thank you makeup). I drink coffee and pretend like everything is fine. I’m more irritable and forgetful when I’m sleep-deprived,  but I soldier my way through that as well.

Isn’t EVERYONE tired? Aren’t we all busy being busy, feeling deeply virtuous for working so hard, while neglecting one of our most basic needs, sleep? Aren’t we all rushing to show up for our overwhelming obligations but neglecting to tend to our necessities? I sometimes wonder if the ‘hustle’ generation would need to be so obsessed with ‘self-care’ (lord, how I hate that term) if they were getting enough sleep.

Two recent events have changed everything for me–

1- Last year for my birthday, my husband bought me a Fitbit, mostly for sleep tracking. At first I was mildly offended. Why make me more anxious about the sleep I know I’m not getting? That’s not helpful! Furthermore, on the days I don’t get 10,000 steps because I am busy writing to meet a deadline, a Fitbit only increases my irritation at my schedule. It effectively tracks and records my inadequacy; who needs that? I called the new Fitbit my Manacle of Shame. I saw that I was never getting seven hours of sleep a night, and most nights I wasn’t even getting six. However, I did notice that on the odd occasion I had over 7 hours, I felt more positive and I ate better the next day. Nothing drives me to bad decisions around food more than fatigue.

2-  As part of my ongoing research into my bizarre perimenopause symptoms, I ran across work from Matthew Walker, a neuroscientist who specialises in sleep. He has changed my life. I listened to his TED talk. I went to hear him speak in London a couple of weeks ago, and then devoured his book, Why We Sleep. Just as Susan Pierce Thompson enabled me to make sense of my sugar addiction, Matthew Walker made me understand the serious long-term damage my sleep deficiency was doing to me.

If you have a difficult relationship with sleep, I urge you (beg you!) to read his book. I’m evangelical about it. It is dense and scientific, but extremely entertaining and well-written. He writes just like he talks, so if you like the TED talk I linked to, you’ll love the book. After reading it, I have completely re-prioritised my life to accommodate sleep. Even if I don’t have a nice eight-hour night like normal people, I create an eight hour window of ‘sleep opportunity’ so at least I have that possibility. Here are some of the life-altering facts Matthew explained at the lecture I recently attended.

Shorter sleep = a shorter life. It really is as simple as that. Because I had a child later in life, it is a priority for me to be as healthy as I can for as long as I can. Cancer, heart attacks, and Alzheimers are the main risks caused (yes, it is causational, not just correlational) by too little sleep. A lack of sleep upregulates chronic inflammation in our body, promotes the growth of tumours, and wrecks our immune system.  Our risk of cancer is doubled if we get less than six or seven hours routinely. Adequate sleep is also critical for our cardiovascular system; it lowers blood pressure and keeps our heart muscles healthy. During sleep, our brains do many things, but among the most important of these is the glymphatic system’s processes. Our brain and central nervous system has its own ‘sewage system’ which gets cleaned out at night. If this isn’t done, beta amyloid builds up plaque in the brain, collects between neurons, disrupts brain cell function and causes cell death, which promotes and/or causes Alzheimers. It is critical we give our brains this time to clean and regenerate.

Sleep isn’t a bank with deposits and credits. You can’t make up for lost sleep or catch up on the weekends. Your body wants and needs regularity, so having regular sleep and wake times is important.

Sedation is not sleep. Sleeping pills or alcohol gives you fragmented and unrestorative sleep, and blocks REM sleep cycles which your brain and body need for repair. A nightcap is one of the worst things you can do for a restful night. Sleeping pills are a disaster for the brain.

Anxiety is the principal cause of insomnia. Anxiety is your body’s fight or flight mechanism at work. Your body needs this to SHUT OFF for sleep to occur, or else you just stay awake, like I do. Matthew often recommends a worry journal for his patients. For many people, keeping one halves the time it takes for them to fall asleep. Apparently, the act of writing down the things that cause you anxiety allows your brain to process it and temporarily move on. For me, mindfulness and meditation help more than a journal. After years of meditation, I’m able to say to my worries, “Hey, I see you, concern X. I’ll deal with you later, but for now I’m going to push you aside and ignore you. Sorry, but this is not the right time.” No problem gets solved at 2:00 in the morning.

Humans are the only species that WILLFULLY deprives itself of sleep. Sleep is critical to every human (and animal) on this planet. I love this part of the book, “Addressing the question of why we sleep from an evolutionary perspective only compounds the mystery. No matter what vantage point you take, sleep would appear to be the most foolish of biological phenomena. You cannot find a mate and reproduce. You cannot nurture or protect your offspring. Worse still, sleep leaves you vulnerable to predation. Sleep is surely one of the most puzzling of all human behaviors.” Every species sleeps. Giraffes sleep five hours, brown bats sleep 19 hours, opossums sleep 18 hours, elephants sleep four hours, and tigers sleep 15. Even scientists can’t put any rhyme or reason to it. Accounting for body size, or predator/prey status, metabolic function, diurnal/nocturnal nature, commonality with similar species… we don’t understand much of it. Even primitive worms, which predate all vertebrates on earth, sleep. So sleep, technically, has been around for longer than humans.

Less sleep = higher injuries and lower performance. Walker works with top athletes (LeBron James, Usain Bolt, Roger Federer, etc), and they all sleep for twelve hours (either consecutively, or ten hours with a two hour nap during the day). Athletes need this amount to repair and to reduce the inflammation caused by exercise. Interestingly, 35 minutes after waking up, Usain Bolt broke the world record for speed. How is this even possible; I can’t even make a cup of tea 35 minutes after waking up.

More sleep = better memory. During deep sleep, our short term memories are transferred into long term memories. People seem to equate advancing age with declining memory. However, Matthew insists that worse memory and worse sleep are interrelated, and the cognitive decline is often not caused by age but by the lack of sleep that often accompanies age. I dug deeper with other sleep specialists on this topic and interestingly, the ‘brain fog’ that menopausal and perimenopausal women experience may not be a result of hormonal swings as previously suspected, but may rather caused by the lack of sleep caused by night sweats/hot flashes and the vascular changes during perimenopause/menopause that impact our sleep quality.

Learning, memory, and logical decisions are impossible without adequate sleep, at any age. If you’ve had children, you’ll know the ‘baby brain’ mothers refer to. Broken sleep for months on end while you’re feeding and caring for a baby through the night do not make for a highly functional person the following day.

A single hour of missed sleep causes problems. Daylight savings causes health problems globally where people gain or lose an hour of sleep. There is a 24% increase in heart attacks in the population when just an hour of sleep is lost, and a 21% reduction in heart attacks when an hour of sleep is gained. I was too gobsmacked by this to write down the next statistic Matthew talked about, but apparently the number of car crashes, even in young people, following an hour of sleep lost is on a similar scale. Sleep loss is devastating to reaction time.

Lack of sleep demolishes your NK cells. The data point that spoke to me the most was on natural killer cells. They’re like the secret service agents of our immune system, killing rogue viruses and preventing tumour formation. Our bodies need quality sleep to produce them. One night of bad sleep causes a 70% drop in killer cells. One night! When I used to travel regularly for work, I was always sick. Not only was I being exposed to new germs and viruses in the course of travel, but crossing several time zones meant I wasn’t getting the sleep (and the killer cells) I needed to deal with them.

Sleep is our best approximation of immortality; it is truly non-negotiable for good health. This very simple fact has finally sunk in with me– there is no such thing as healthy and tired. I’m officially done with pretending my way through days of not enough sleep. Now, I just say No. No, I won’t stay out late at a party (very often). No I won’t watch a second episode of Killing Eve. No I won’t finish a blog post on the day I planned. No, I won’t finish an email before bedtime. No, I won’t stay up late having a long chat to houseguests. No I won’t keep scrolling through all the political outrage and funny comments on Twitter. My lights go out at 10:00 because my little boy wakes me at 6:00. I’m in charge of my health and my schedule… well, except for that 6:00 a.m. waking part 🙂  Except for my son, I no longer accommodate other people’s timetables at the expense of my own health.  So part of my new sleep routine involves me saying No a lot more, and not feeling remotely selfish about it.  I don’t have FOMO about anything except sleep!

There is so much information in the book that I want to tell you about, but I’m already well over 2000 words here. I’m making myself pull the hand break on spilling Matthew Walker’s facts and wisdom. It has been the most fascinating and life-changing book I’ve ever read. If you’re a terrible sleeper, I really hope it will help you as much as it has helped me.

I’m going to close with this cheerful paragraph from page 165 of the book: “As we approach midlife, and our body begins to deteriorate and health resilience starts its decline, the impact of insufficient sleep on the cardiovascular system escalates. Adults forty-five years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven to eight hours a night. This finding impresses how important it is to prioritise sleep in midlife– which is unfortunately the time when family and professional circumstances encourage us to do the exact opposite.”

P.S. I still stand by every item I recommended in my previous sleep post, from the Calm App to Zirben oil. I’ve added one more thing to my bedtime ritual. (I love rituals as a means of separating my ‘normal’ life from my sleeping life… if you ask my husband, I’m pretty OCD about it). I was given a sample of Feather and Down pillow spray in a goody bag a few months ago, and I absolutely adore it. I’ve bought my own stash now and use the sample for travel. One deep inhale, and I’m instantly relaxed by the powdery/soapy/lavendery scent. The Zirben oil I keep in my room all the time, and the pillow spray I use on my linens just before I get into bed.

“Even a soul submerged in sleep
is hard at work and helps
make something of the world.”
― Heraclitus, Fragments

Picasso asleepPicasso’s Asleep



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  • Reply
    Jean Lipham Oates
    June 23, 2019 at 7:13 PM

    Fantastic blog. It was helpful and encouraging to me also. I DO remember that you have always had a combative approach to sleep – several of your kindergarten and day care workers will attest to this battle of yours. Amazing what you would do to avoid sleep including peeling wallpaper off your nursery wall!!! Very interested in the Zirben oil…and the book sounds like something I must read.

    • Reply
      June 23, 2019 at 9:02 PM

      You’ll love the book, Mom. It is PACKED with super interesting information, and it truly makes you see that sleep isn’t just a pillar of good health, it is the foundation that good health depends on. Without it, nothing else works. xx

  • Reply
    June 24, 2019 at 12:43 AM

    I do love my sleep, more now than ever. I never used to be a morning person because I loved a lie in but since I had kids that’s simply not an option, so I’m often in bed by 10pm. Doing this means I’m now up early in a better mood, although woe betide anyone who pushes me. I’ll switch to foul in a heartbeat, haha it’s my natural default setting I guess?
    I think my point is, we can change our habits if we really want to. Being older Mums we simply must get more sleep than before. It’s Goddam aging!
    I know when I go to sleep before 10pm I feel and look better. Although that’s a rarity, I do try to do it once a month.
    Something important I have changed in this past year is I now switch off my phone at 9pm. No ifs or buts. It’s just too tempting to look at otherwise.
    Also this is something I’ve been doing since I was a kid, it’s kinda strange but anyway….When I get into bed I think about what I’m going to wear the next day and I put together an outfit in my head. Sometimes I restyle my regular outfits or think of an old piece I haven’t worn in a while and work out new ways of wearing it.
    It helps me fall asleep quickly. I think that’s because it relaxes me. My daughter Lulu does it now too.
    Thanks for writing this great article Lisa. It’s really an important subject yet such a neglected one.

    • Reply
      Christine Coates
      June 24, 2019 at 8:14 AM

      Thanks for this great post Lisa. Guilty as charged. Although I do try to go to bed by 11pm if I need to be up early the next day, I often stay up much (much) later than that. I really must follow your lead.

      • Reply
        June 24, 2019 at 9:32 AM

        There is just no upside to getting to little sleep. Maybe commit for one week to a specific (early!) bedtime and see how you feel. I don’t even need coffee if I’m well rested, which frankly is a miracle. xx

        • Reply
          Christine Coates
          June 25, 2019 at 12:23 PM

          I did it! Was in bed at 10.30 last night And feeling full of energy today. Brilliant!

          • Lisa
            June 25, 2019 at 1:04 PM

            GOOD GIRL Christine! See how many days out of 7 you can do that. You’ll feel like a teenager soon 🙂 xx

    • Reply
      June 24, 2019 at 9:36 AM

      It seems so obvious to go to sleep early; we look and feel so much better the next day. I just flipped a switch and decided to make that a priority rather than all the distractions and busy work I can always find to occupy me between the hours of 8:00 and 12:00 p.m.! Switching the phone off is a huge help.

      I LOVE your idea of planning outfits in your head as a sleep tool! It is a good way to get your brain to focus on something specific and stress free. Thank you love! xxx

  • Reply
    June 24, 2019 at 9:47 AM

    Great post. I also read Mathew Walkers book a few months ago. I do keep to a regular schedule however I sttil seem to have bouts of insommnia. I think that I need to make more decisions about cutting back on commitments and begin to lead a slower life, if that makes sense. I do think that there are hereditary factors in this I have several members of my family who also have problems sleeping. Some of us are more sensitive to lifes events and are prone to anxiety. Nature or nurture I don’t know. As a society we seem to have become disonnected from our roots and certainly since the invention of the electric light unaware of our natural rhythms. We are also overloaded with information not to mention noise polution if you live in a city, plus stimulus which does ot help. Give me a small dark cosy cupboard with a bed in it and I will sleep very well.

    • Reply
      June 24, 2019 at 2:51 PM

      It is such a great and fun book to read, isn’t it? Like you, I also have hereditary sleep problems in my family, so I’m sure that has some bearing. Modern life and expectations just aren’t conducive to good sleep habits at all. If you insist on sleep, you’re seen as lazy, rather than healthy. A small dark cosy cupboard sounds ideal! xx

  • Reply
    Lori Cunningham
    June 24, 2019 at 4:02 PM

    Thanks so much for this post, Lisa. I have always been a person who needed 8 hours to function properly, although there have been extended periods where that was not possible (work, babies, life!). I was often made to feel that I was not ‘tough enough’ to survive on 4 -5 hours like so many other parents and colleagues did. Nice to know that the science was on my side all along! xx

    • Reply
      June 25, 2019 at 8:46 AM

      Science is definitely on your side. This overzealous work ethic that advocates being constantly busy with no down time is not how we were designed to function. I got sucked into that thinking for decades. NO MORE! xx

  • Reply
    June 24, 2019 at 4:05 PM

    I received a FITBIT for VALENTINES DAY and finally took it off as it was causing me too MUCH ANXIETY!MY new found doctor does not believe they are accurate!
    I thought I was a good sleeper but the FITBIT told me I got less than an HOUR of deep sleep and REM which made me MAD!
    I have always been a TIRED PERSON SO MAYBE ITS TRUE!
    FASCINATING READ LISA……….think I will get the book and listen to the TEDTALK!
    THANK YOU for always EDUCATING US!

    • Reply
      June 25, 2019 at 8:49 AM

      These Fitbits DO cause anxiety, don’t they!? I’ve learned to use it for some things but not get wrapped up in it. They definitely are NOT accurate; my heart doctor told me the same, and the sleep expert said the same thing. Still, it gives me a little something to aim for and shows me sometimes why I feel so terrible in the morning (not enough sleep!). I often get less than an hour of Deep Sleep and REM. Usually an hour is fine for me. You’ll enjoy the TED talk and book, I bet! xx

  • Reply
    June 24, 2019 at 7:16 PM

    I’m a bit surprised at how many hours of sleep we need. I mean, the day is is just not long enough. But I’m working on it. Checking my mails before sleeping is nr. one to go.

    • Reply
      June 25, 2019 at 8:55 AM

      If you think about humans before electricity, there was nothing to be done at night, so our bodies were designed to do their repair work then. Then light, electricity, internet, work, etc have robbed us of that! Yes, no emails before bedtime! I’d be awake for an hour thinking about them. xx

  • Reply
    No Fear of Fashion
    June 24, 2019 at 8:27 PM

    I am all for going to bed at 10 pm. No problem. I always try that at home as well. Luckily I sleep pretty well. Only once in a while that I wake up and cannot get back to sleep. Then I get up, drink hot milk and read a bit. After 3/4 of an hour I can go back to bed and sleep like a log. The trick of having a paper next to your bed with a pen to write things down is helpful too when I have a stress time at work. Indeed, immediately after writing it down, it is out of my head, I don’t have to remember it.
    Will you spray a bit of that Feather and Down on my pillow too?

    • Reply
      June 25, 2019 at 8:58 AM

      You’re SO lucky to be a good sleeper. I think genetically, I just am not. I’ll definitely put some Feather And Down in your room! I really love that stuff. My brain really associates it with bedtime now (and since our sense of scent has the strongest correlation to memory, I think it works!). My mom just ordered some too. Lavender seems to be quite stimulating to me (sort of fresh and minty in a way) but this is soft and powdery. You’ll see what I mean. xx

  • Reply
    June 25, 2019 at 5:43 PM

    Such a great post Lisa. I am pretty sure that I heard this author on a podcast that my son sent to me- fascinating stuff (our oldest son is 28 and is now SOLD on the necessity of good sleep after listening to that!). My mom always preached about getting a good nights sleep and it had to be 8 hours. I’ve had occasional bouts of poor sleep when life has been particularly stressful, but on the whole, I’m a good sleeper and look forward to bed time. I’m very happy that you’re finding something thats helping you get the sleep you need! Makes a world of difference. 🙂
    ~Melissa xx

    • Reply
      Lynne Farrage
      June 26, 2019 at 9:14 PM

      What a great post. I’ve been lucky with my sleep until the last year and have had to make some adjustments. I will buy the book and share the wisdom

      • Reply
        June 27, 2019 at 9:35 PM

        Thank you, I’m so pleased you like it! You’ll love the book, Lynne. It is seriously fascinating. I hope your adjustments get you back on track to good sleep. xx

    • Reply
      June 27, 2019 at 9:41 PM

      Thank you, Melissa. It may well have been the same author; he’s pretty famous in the sleep world! I’m also totes evangelical now after absorbing all of Matthew’s information. You’re so lucky to be a great sleeper. Being well rested is literally the difference between a good day and a bad day, between enjoying my life and just trudging through the day. Why did I not read this book sooner!? xx

  • Reply
    Sharon Sinclair-Williams
    June 25, 2019 at 8:07 PM

    Super insightful, Lisa … what an educational read.

    Like I said out on Insta I need a minimum of 8 hours sleep week nights for work and can easily do 10 hours straight on a weekend night. My teenage ability to do this has never left me. My family know there is something really wrong with me if I’m not sleeping. On the other hand I have a sugar belly!! I think I need to read and take notes about curbing my sugar addiction. I did break the cycle about 6 years ago. I did a half Iron man in California so all the training definitely knocked me off my sugar perch. Unfortunately, about a year in I succumbed again and have not been able to break the cycle again since 😀

    Lack of sleep and too much sugar …. humanity’s biggest killers!

    • Reply
      June 27, 2019 at 9:37 PM

      Thank you, Sharon! I am SO ENVIOUS of your superwoman sleeping abilities. Gosh. The DREAM!

      I’d recommend doing the Bright Line Eating 14 day trial online for something like £20. It was the best £20 I ever spent. I’ve also been off course a bit lately, and that always puts me right back on track. xx

  • Reply
    June 28, 2019 at 7:25 PM

    Great post Lisa. I used to sleep 7 to 8 hours prior to the menopause. Then due to awful symptoms, went on HRT, which, did help me regain an acceptable sleeping pattern. I am now weaning myself off it after 8 years. So, hopefully all will be okay. I really need to bring my day to an end earlier though – my home seems to go up a notch at the end of the day! My sleep is broken most nights, but I put this down to getting older. However, I do manage to go back to sleep again thankfully. I need to buy this book. As you say, sleep is so important to keep healthy.
    Alison xx

    • Reply
      July 7, 2019 at 9:04 PM

      Thank you, Alison! I hope you get your broken nights sorted out; as long as you get back to sleep you should be getting enough hours in. I know what you mean about things going up a notch at the end of the day… I’ve had to actively work against that too! The winding down process is important. Let me know your thoughts if you read the book. xx

  • Reply
    Catherine, Not Dressed As Lamb
    July 3, 2019 at 12:50 PM

    Lisa I started reading your post just before we lost Riley and never got round to finishing it… as you know sleep has been the one thing we’ve had to sacrifice in order to look after him through the night for a while now. I wouldn’t change a second of it and I’d do it all again for him in a heartbeat, but reading “adults forty-five years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke during their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven to eight hours a night” brought it home to me that our health had been in serious danger for a while now. (I did know that sleep deprivation is incredibly detrimental to your health, but when you’re looking after someone else during the night you tend to try and forget that fact!)

    I’ve never had trouble sleeping (I tend to have trouble waking!!), but we’ve both said that in a weird way we’re going to honour our beloved boy by being as healthy as possible from now on, and that includes a strict 11pm-7am bedtime as well as good food, long walks and exercise. And in the few days we’ve had since being able to do this, we’ve noticed a difference already… I automatically wake at about 6:45 now and get up as soon as my alarm goes off – that’s UNHEARD of for me.

    Thank you for this wonderful post, I’m off to watch Matthew Walker’s TED Talk. C x

    • Reply
      July 7, 2019 at 9:06 PM

      I sure hope that your sleep returns to ‘normal’ now. It is important for both of you. All parents, of children and pets, have those stretches of their life where sleep goes out the window, but eventually we have to get it sorted. I know as life settles down again, you’ll get your sleep routine back. Love to you xx

  • Reply
    July 5, 2019 at 12:16 PM

    Another brilliantly written and insightful post Lisa. Like you, I don’t sleep well either and haven’t done for about five years. I’ve tried all sorts including the Zirben oil you recommended in your last sleep post which I love, but a full night’s sleep often eludes me. I am going to get this book pronto! Lots of love xxx

    • Reply
      July 7, 2019 at 9:07 PM

      Thank you so much, Liz. I know you don’t sleep well, and it worries me just as my own lack of sleep worries me! I can’t wait to see what you think about the book. It sort of scared me into sleeping! xx

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    Ann in Missouri
    September 11, 2019 at 9:38 AM

    Again, I’m late to the party (was a busy summer). But this post (above) requires me to comment. Once again, Lisa, I think we must be twins. Southern-raised, loved all-nighters and project work and beating impossible odds, sleep disruption with menopause that continues and continues and continues. I have less trouble falling asleep now than I once did, but more trouble STAYING asleep. This morning I woke up at midnight, tossed in bed for an hour, and have been up since 1:00 am. Reading, writing, cooking, and drinking the world’s best vegetable juice–coffee. Like you, I feel so much better with eight (or even seven) hours of sleep. I cannot imagine what ten or twelve hours would feel like on a regular basis!

    And now I’m off to listen to that TED talk. Thank you for this post.

    Ann in Missouri

    • Reply
      September 11, 2019 at 1:48 PM

      Hi Ann! So good to hear from you! I’ve also been very busy this summer, I’ve hardly posted because I’m addressing so many things in my personal life right now.

      Gosh, we DO sound like twins! The world’s best vegetable juice, coffee– ha ha ha! I cannot imagine life without it. I’m forcing myself to do 7.5 hours of sleep right now. It helps with my anxiety and I feel better during the day. I give myself a bigger sleep window, but realistically, I’ll take an hour to go to sleep or I’ll wake up like you do.

      Hope you like the TED talk! My husband is reading his book right now, and I gave a copy to my sister in law this summer. He’s a riveting dude 🙂 xx

  • Reply
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