When I was 16 years old and an exchange student in Germany, my friends and I used to use the phrase “sleep when you’re dead” all the time. We were young and allowed to drink beer and away from adult supervision for the first time. Who needs sleep when there are nightclubs that will let you through the door?! But for the next 14 years of my life, the phrase “sleep when you’re dead” stuck in my head. It acted as a driving force in my life, motivating me to push through long days and longer nights in pursuit of my “best life”. I don’t think I’m the only person who often feels like if I’m not either working or chasing my dreams, I’m wasting time. But now that I’m 30, I feel like I need to take more care of myself. I need to focus my energies. So I’m on a journey, where I’m learning that sleep is the most important form of self care.
Learning that sleep is the most important form of self care
When the opportunity to work with Granny Goose, an amazing luxury down duvet and pillow company, and the Sports Science Institute of South Africa’s (SSISA) Sleep Science came up, I was ready. I’d actually been going through a phase of really struggling with sleep, often lying awake at strange hours, waking up to my alarm exhausted and wishing I could be back in pre-school just so someone would allow me an afternoon nap. I was very often completely exhausted early in the evening, falling asleep on the couch even before dinner, then lying awake between 2am and 5am.
Between working on my career and travelling as much as I possibly can, I don’t have much time for sleep. I often find myself coming home from the office only to open my laptop back up to work until my eyes start closing. Then I’m up early for a flight, landing late and immediately hitting the pavement, favouring exploring over catching up on my sleep because who knows when I’ll be in New York again?! I’ll spend a full day out and about, then work until after midnight. When I’m finally back home, I want to spend time with my friends, on early morning hikes or catching up around the fire until way past bedtime. “Sleep when you’re dead”, right?
First, I met with Rob Henst at the SSISA Sleep Science. Rob sat me down for over an hour to discuss my sleep patterns, lifestyle, sleep environment and general wellbeing. I mentioned my ongoing depression and treatment, frequent chest infections, and a housebreaking that kept me awake at night for a long time. Talking with Rob was really interesting, and I quickly learned just how important sleep really is. Did you know that poor sleep is linked to physical and mental health problems like obesity, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, mental health disorders, reduced productivity and irritability? Not getting enough good quality sleep is not just bad, it’s dangerous.
Working with the Sleep Science Institute to improve my sleep
The Sports Science Institute of South Africa’s (SSISA) Sleep Science, is run by scientists from the University of Cape Town. Their mission is to use cutting-edge and innovative research to optimise sleep. They believe that through sleep, they can optimise the nation’s health, well-being and performance with evidence-based, best-practice sleep research, teaching, education and services.
I mean, on a basic level, I knew that sleep is important. But Rob shared some truly scary stats, like the fact that there tends to be a higher risk of obesity in night shift staff than day shift staff. And that people who frequently work through the night instead of during normal daytime hours are at higher risk of breast cancer. It was listening to these insights that made me realise that sleep isn’t something I should put off until I collapse into it, but something that I should prioritise and consider as part of my lifestyle and my self care routine. When I’m not sleeping properly or enough, I can’t take care of myself. I’m too tired to work out, I’m always starting my day off feeling stressed because I’m running late because I can’t get myself out of bed and I’m constantly craving comfort food. And that’s just not how I want to start this important next decade of my life.
After my initial consultation with Rob, I was sent home with a sleep-monitoring watch – which would identify sleep duration, night-time awakenings and sleeping patterns, and a sleep diary. Rob had already assessed my risk for sleep apnea, and come to the conclusion that I was at low risk of having the disorder, thankfully. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder where you repeatedly stop and start breathing throughout the night. This disruptive sleep disorder is surprisingly common and can cause a list of health issues, starting with exhaustion which we already know can basically ruin your health and your life. It’s not always easy to identify by the sleeper, so a consultation with SSISA Sleep Science is recommended.
Creating a sleep sanctuary with Granny Goose
While Rob was doing all the science stuff with the data from my watch, I was working with Granny Goose to turn my bed into a sleep sanctuary. I visited the Granny Goose showroom to have a custom pillow made to my specifications, using the filling of my choice. That’s right. First you select your filling, then your pillow is stuffed and hand-sewn right there while you wait. I really loved the whole experience and I think it’s actually an amazing gift! For a housewarming, a wedding, or just a because-you-deserve-a-little-luxury. Then I added one of Granny Goose’s luxurious feather beds to my mattress, turning it into a giant marshmallow. I made an effort to warm my room up before bed, turn my phone and laptop to night mode early on in the evening and burn some scented candles when I’m getting ready to wind down.
The results of my Sleep Check
I received a 5 page report, detailing my overall sleep pattern, which seemed normal. I do think that being so focussed on my sleep; monitoring my bed time, wake-up time, hours of sleep and pre-bed ritual also helped me to be more responsible about my sleep. Keeping a sleep diary helped me to make a point of sleep, instead of treating it like something that was just going to happen to me. According to Rob’s findings, I don’t have sleep apnea and my sleep patterns are normal. I do sleep for a long time, and I tend to wake up tired, but this is commonly associated with depression.
Tips for improving your sleep and feeling less sleepy during the day
Rob gave me some recommendations for my daytime sleepiness and bouts of insomnia:
- Divide work and private life more clearly. Decide in advance what will be work-time and what will be non-work time. Stop working at least 1 to 2 hours before bedtime, and do not work while you are in bed. Associating your bed with sleep and sex only may make it easier for you to relax and wind down. This may not make a difference to your sleep onset latency, but it may decrease your nocturnal awakenings.
- Improve your bedtime regularity. Ensure that your bedtimes fall within a 60-min period. E.g. between 22h00 and 23h00. This will help you develop a robust circadian clock.
- Improve your get-up time regularity. Ensure that your get-up times fall within a 60-min period. E.g. between 07h00 – 08h00.
- Keep light exposure in the evening (2h before bedtime) to a minimum. Use candles, or dim lights instead of overhead lights. Install F.Lux on your Mac or PC, and set-up Night Shift or Blue Light Filter on your iOS or Android devices.
- Set-up “do-not-disturb” mode 1h before bedtime until your get-up time. Schedule this in your device settings for your convenience.
- Keep alcohol consumption to a minimum. Ideally, do not consume more than two glasses per day.
What I learned from my sleep check with the Sleep Science Institute
Overall, I found that the experience helped me to prioritise sleep, and to feel less guilty about saying “I can’t do that I have to sleep”. It also made me more aware of looking after my overall health, and supporting my anti-depressants with anxiety management and an adrenal support vitamin. Creating a proper nest with Granny Goose has turned my bed into a little sanctuary, and having a custom pillow has been a game-changer for my neck!
If you struggle with sleep issues, you can contact the SSISA Sleep Science, who specialise in sleep checks, sleep coaching, sleep apnea testing, sleep workshops and the Optimise Your Sleep online course.
*This post was sponsored by Granny Goose and the Sleep Science Institute.