Getting a good night’s sleep

The winter holidays see many of us stressed out with too many commitments. At this time of year, I hear more complaining about “not being able to sleep,” and it seems a good time to bring up some research I did six years ago on this subject. It turns out that there is more to interfere with sleep during the holidays than just a shortage of time.

You may have heard that one needs eight hours of sleep each night. Well, it’s not that simple. Medical sleep researchers have published an amazing amount of new information in recent years. Some of it has confirmed what our mothers told us; other research has upended familiar assumptions.

I am not a medical doctor, so none of this should be consider medical advice. I am just reporting my own (anecdotal) reactions to the information I obtained. Sometimes, what works for me won’t work for you.

If I am going to live on the road, I have to work harder to be sure to get a good night’s sleep. Riding a bicycle, hiking, or just enduring a long drive takes a physical toll. And physical activity, especially endurance activity like long range riding or running absolutely requires the best recovery conditions possible.

About the “eight hours” thing: actually, we don’t need a certain number of hours; we need a certain number of complete sleep cycles. Each sleep cycle has four phases:

  1. A light phase, where we seem to fall asleep deeply, but we can wake up from it rather refreshed. This is why a short nap (20 minutes?) is better than a cup of coffee when I am forced to work and get too tired.
  2. A deeper phase, during which the body begins to recover, and manufactures the melatonin needed for the third phase.
  3. This is the deepest phase, during which the most important repair and recovery takes place. This is when the body rebuilds muscles, resets stressed nerves and otherwise deals with the physical, mental and emotional stresses of the day. Darkness and melatonin are essential for this phase. It is also the worst phase from which to be awakened. Unrepaired bodies wear out (age) faster, so this sleep phase is critical for long-term health, even when we are young.
  4. A light phase, during which dreaming may take place, just before waking. Also called REM, for the rapid eye movement that characterizes this phase.

Some things I learned in the Navy about night vision became important when I began studying sleep. Night vision is essential for seeing where you are going at sea (no streetlights or headlights). At night, all lights are out on deck except legally-required running lights, which are shielded so we can’t see them from the ship. To protect our night vision, all  lights inside the ship are set to red; flashlights have red filters on them, and only certain rooms, away from sleeping or working compartments, have white lights.

I have learned that white and blue light halt the production of melatonin. There is a relationship between the sun rising and waking up that is obvious to anyone, and it’s this business of light hitting a sleeping body. So now I cover or filter blue lights and try to turn off or block any white light when I sleep, whether at home or on the road. I carry an eye-shade to use in places where I can’t control the light completely, and to avoid waking up too early if I cannot get to bed in time.

There are other things that interfere with the body’s ability to make melatonin, which have nothing to do with aging. For example, certain antidepressants, aspirin and other NSAIDS, beta-blockers like metoprolol, caffeine, and the famous “night cap” all have a negative effect on melatonin. So I moved certain medications, and my daily aspirin to the morning, and, while I drink wine with dinner, I forgo drinking after supper. I don’t drink caffeine after the early morning coffee. If you are still taking in caffeine, just remember that it stays in the body for 10 hours or so; turn off the methylated xanthenes in the early afternoon.

I don’t take aspirin for the aches of a long ride at the end of the day anymore. If they are bad, I use ice and heat (ancient remedies), but mainly, I let sleep take care of them. For what it’s worth, I find that I don’t have aches at the end of the day if I remember to do my morning exercises and stretches before I start riding – and take regular breaks on the road.

Each of us has a specific sleep cycle. Mine is about 80 minutes; I think 90 minutes is more common. Since I started paying more attention to the quality of my sleep, I find that a “good night’s sleep” for me has gone from 8 hours (6 sleep cycles) to about 7 hours (5 sleep cycles). That is when I wake up naturally, feeling rested.

My son has an app on his iPhone that senses his sleep cycle and adjusts his alarm clock to wake him at the closest end-of-cycle to the time he wants to be up. Personally, I have not had my alarm clock wake me up in months, so I have not felt the need to try out the app. On the other hand, if I need to be up early, I can skip the eye-shade (assuming that the tent or room is dark) and wake up with the sun.

If you have an iPhone or Smartphone, the keyword “sleep time” will bring up several well-rated apps for sleep-cycle alarm clocks.

It is also important to try to have a schedule. Exercising less than four hours before sleep interferes with melatonin. I try to do my riding in the middle of the day, allowing time at both ends for work, recovery and other things.

So what happens when life gets screwed up? All-nighters, sleeping in airports, missed connections, etc. Well, that is why we have to stay fit and healthy the rest of the time. We need to rest up from each bad day before moving on. Meanwhile, my family doctor told me that a 20-minute nap every day is one of the best overall therapies there is. It’s ancient wisdom, but it fits the data.

Thanks to Leah Flickinger, whose article “9 Golden Rules of Sleep” in Bicycling magazine (www.bicycling.com) helped me check my content. I had forgotten the caffeine on the first draft.

I hope you get a good night’s sleep every night in the coming year. Do you have any tips that work for you?

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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