Not Like a Baby

Ah, sleep. The domino by which all the rest fall. You’ve been told a thousand times that lack of sleep is bad for you. It makes you, well, sleepy. Your mental acuity drops, you feel sluggish, your muscles don’t do what you tell them. If all this happens to a healthy person, can you imagine how much harder a chronic patient’s body has to work to get them through a day without the right amount of sleep? There is considerable evidence that lack of sleep can increase both blood pressure and insulin resistance, as well as cause other health issues that can exacerbate chronic and autoimmune conditions.

Sleeping baby.jpeg

And the worst part is, you can’t just sleep more to make up a sleep deficit. it might take a month of an extra hour of sleep every day to catch up.

A sleep deficit is a primary tool in my self-sabotage campaign, the excuse I use to overeat and skip exercise. I tell myself sleep is more important. If only I were caught up on sleep, being too tired to exercise wouldn’t factor in. Neither would eating sugar to give me an energy a boost.

But why? Why do we need so much? As long as you get some, isn’t all sleep the same?

You know it’s not. If you want to resolve a (non-clinical) sleep issue, first understand how sleep works. Everyone has an internal 24-hour clock that governs the hormones that put you to sleep and wake you up. It’s called your circadian rhythm. It still takes its cues primarily from light and darkness. When it’s light outside, it’s time to be awake. When it gets dark, it’s time to sleep. However, our society no longer operates in conjunction with sunrise and sunset. We use electric lights to dictate our own schedules, often without realizing how counterintuitive it is to our natural functionality.

Second, understand how we use light and how it affects sleep. Turns out light is complicated. There is a price to pay for that incredibly clear, vivid device screen because of the type of light it uses to project images. No matter what size it is, that screen emits “short-wavelength-enriched light”, which has a higher concentration of blue light than natural light does. Blue light suppresses melatonin -- the hormone that tells you it’s time to sleep -- more than any other type of light on the spectrum. So if you’re one of those people who reads on a tablet before bed or uses the TV to cure insomnia (guilty), you might be making it worse instead.

Sleeping with screens on or just after you turn them off can affect both length and quality of sleep. Ideally, adults should get somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep, enough to spend the right amount of time in each of the five sleep cycles.  The stimulant effect of our screens make it hard to fall asleep when we intend to and upset the balance of light, heavy, and REM sleep. That kind of imbalance can affect how you feel as much as not enough time asleep.

Third, find a solution that works for you. Everyone’s will be different. I am going back to my childhood. When I was little, my parents used to read me to sleep. So, tonight, I am going to set the TV timer and turn on a podcast that comes close to the kinds of stories my parents used to read. In fact, some are exactly the same stories, just a little more grown up. I’ve tried this when I can’t sleep and I’m always out in minutes when I do that (I listen to the whole podcast another time – thanks, Myths and Legends!).

Just as sleep is the domino that brings all the others down, it is also a strong foundation to build upon. There is a reason I use it as my favorite excuse. If I don’t feel tired, it eliminates one of the biggest roadblocks to reaching my goals. If this works, I’ll be well on my way.

First Down and 9*

*For those of you unfamiliar with American football, when a team gets the ball, they have four chances (downs) to move forward 10 yards. I have gained one yard in my first chance. Still have nine to go.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I’ve been struggling to get back to the routine I want, the one that, if I follow it, will lead to optimal health. (It’s only been a year since I was at the top of my game.) In the six weeks since that article, I have sporadically been following the plan I laid out for myself --simply re-starting my exercise routine and going to sleep on time -- but only sporadically. Definitely running backward a bit. My goals now are basically the same, but I have arranged things to give myself every advantage, as opposed to struggling against logistics that sometimes work against me.

First, I asked for flex time from my employer. This falls under the category of “reasonable accommodation,” something that we are legally entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of my bouncing blood sugars, I was having real trouble exercising before work. I was either too high or too low or too tired (because of the too high/low), and would have to treat myself before I could run. That took time I didn’t have. So, I asked to start coming in to work at 6:00 or 6:30 since I was up anyway, and leaving at 2:30. This allows the commute time to be my treatment time, and I would be ready to get going as soon as I got home. I had to get it in sometime. Lack of exercise is one of two primary reasons my blood sugars are bouncing. It took a while due to the red tape provided by my company’s disabilities office, but my request was granted. (NOTE: Disabilities offices are there for your protection and your company’s. They are your official advocate in the workplace. Just because I don’t have the patience to deal with it doesn’t mean they don’t serve a useful purpose.)

Second, I elaborated on and expanded my goals. Slightly. Sleep on time is coming easily as exercise is wearing me out. But there are a few components to exercise. My new weekly tracker has four things on it: number of days my blood sugar stays under 200, number of days I do cardio, number of days I do weights, and number of days I hit my meal plan target. I am ignoring the latter for right now and the first one will come easily with the cardio and weights, so it’s only a little tiny bit more than before, mainly more frequent blood sugar monitoring.

Third, I enlisted friends to help. I know we are “supposed” to do these things for ourselves. To find the motivation within. The theory is that if we depend on external motivation, we will falter when it goes away. Maybe so. But there is a reason workout buddies increase the amount of exercise you do (there’s a study). Mine are not actually workout buddies per se, but they are checking in and I know I’m in trouble if there aren’t enough tick marks next to a goal.

But the hardest part? As my body adjusts, I will gain weight. It will take about two or three weeks for it to figure out that I'm not actually trying to starve it. If I want this plan to succeed, I have to make myself sit there and take it. Which I am, so far. 

All of this has led me to my first baby streak – three days of both cardio and weights/resistance training. I can already tell it’s going to exhaust me until I adjust, probably a couple of weeks, about the time I stop gaining weight. It’s a different exhaustion, though. Before it was sick exhaustion. Like when you have the flu. You’re kind of stewing in it. This is clean exhaustion that will send you to bed on time because you are actually tired and falling asleep.

Along those same lines, I confess I am proud of my baby streak, made up of just three baby steps, and that goes a long way. Right now, it’s solid. It feels like it will stick. I am a master of self-sabotage and an all-or-nothing kind of person, which is generally not healthy, but if it works in my favor here, I will take it. As I’ve said before, without a return to this plan, I will have nothing. You can walk around the world in baby steps, so yes, I will definitely take it.

Tip: Make it simple.

·        My tracker is a piece of paper tacked to a cork board. I’m keeping track with tick marks. You know, four little lines then one diagonally across for the fifth. Easy.

·        I also switched from a Fitbit to a Polar 10. Fitbit is great, but it allows my neuroses to run away with me – obsessing over every number in every category without focusing on the overall picture. The Polar is just a heart rate monitor that will keep track of calories burned during a workout. That’s all I really need to estimate what my intake should be.

Simple means something to me that it might not mean for you, so experiment to see what works for you while still giving you all the information you need/want.