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The Snooze Paradox
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Pass it on
I'm reading
The Snooze Paradox
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
The Snooze Paradox
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
19 October 2022

The Snooze Paradox

What a wonderful feeling — to wake rested. But it often feels so hard to achieve. Through a month-long experiment, Kirsty de Garis explores our relationship with sleep and learns that what might most need to change is the way that we think about what a good night of sleep truly is.

Written by Kirsty de Garis

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

Why is it that getting a good night’s sleep seems impossible to achieve these days? The New York Times recently reported corona-somnia, related to late nights, blurred boundaries between work and home, too much alcohol, not enough exercise, and a generalised anxiety about everything. Sound familiar?

My quest to achieve a good night’s sleep – to wake feeling rested, restored and ready to get into the big stuff of life for another day — has been going on for decades. Age is not helping. A lot of people report degraded sleep patterns as they age. But does it have to be this way? Can we reimagine our relationship with bedtime and restore sleep to the rich, restful haven that it needs to be, in order to get out there and contribute positively to the world?

I kept a sleep diary for a month, searching for patterns and answers that might support a more reliable, positive relationship with sleep. I limited caffeine, sugar and alcohol, tried a few non-prescription remedies and consulted a sleep expert. The result of all this was enlightening and encouraging, so I want to share it with you.

I cut out all sugar and alcohol for the first three weeks of this experiment and I drink one coffee per day, early in the morning. What I learned from my sleep diary is that I tend to fall asleep somewhere between nine and 10 pm, and wake about four hours later. Then I either drift off again without much trouble and rise for the day between four and five in the morning, or I am so wide awake that I toss and turn for hours, tortured by the head noise of an arm-length to-do list and the pressure to fall asleep again in order to service that list. Sometimes if that’s the case I’ll get up – it’s what the Times article recommends. I’ll read something boring under a dim light, and occasionally that will send me back to sleep within an hour or two. Other nights I will toss and turn for hours. Then, as the sun peeps into the sky, I drift off and am woken by an alarm blast so jarring, I’m in a fog all day. Repeat. This is existing, not living. I hope for so much more.

I have a diffuser by my bed and each night I’ll pop a few drops of lavender oil into it – apparently that’s associated with sleep. Even if it isn’t, I have been doing this for so long, I associate it with sleep and perhaps that’s good enough. And each evening, I dissolve a teaspoon of magnesium powder into a glass of water and drink it an hour or so before I get into bed.

The magnesium can definitely help, says Clinical Associate Professor Delwyn Bartlett, a psychologist and insomnia expert at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney. “It can be quite useful if you have restless legs or muscle tension,” she explains, adding that dosage is important: We need 37.5 mg for the magnesium to make a positive impact.

Delwyn tells me a few things that put my mind at ease considerably. “People have unrealistic expectations of their sleep,” she says. “Everybody thinks that if you’re a good sleeper, you spend most of the night in deep sleep, sleep through the night and wake refreshed.” Delwyn insists we aren’t designed to sleep deeply for the duration of the night. Mostly, we should expect that about 20 per cent of our nights are made up of deep, slow-wave sleep, and this tends to occur in the first few hours, straight after we’ve drifted off. This deep, slowwave sleep is when the brain, working as its own dishwasher, flushes out high levels of certain proteins that have built up over the day. By the time I wake in the wee hours, this self-cleaning work is complete. The rest of the night will be comprised of relatively light sleep and dreaming sleep or Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM). Some sleep is so light that we are almost conscious to the point that we could respond to a question if asked.

We wake many times, Delwyn says, but only one or two wakes are generally remembered. This light sleep is more than okay, Delwyn insists. “The second half of the night, you’re more likely to be dreaming,” she says, and if we wake during this stage, we will probably feel wide awake. During REM sleep, brain patterns are similar to an awake state. However, during REM sleep our bodies are semi-paralysed so we don’t get up and act out our dreams.

The goal, Delwyn tells me, is to reset our expectations. “Expect two to three hours of good sleep and from that point onwards you’ll be dreaming or going in and out of relatively light sleep, and that’s okay,” she says. “The most important thing you can do is get up at the same time as much as you can, regardless of the previous night’s sleep quality.” Getting up at the same time is critically important, Delwyn explains, because that anchors our sleep with the environment and sets boundaries in terms of temperature and timing of sleep.

Exercise, diet and power naps are all restorative, she says, as long as we don’t power nap for too long. Beyond 25 minutes you’ll be heading for deep sleep, which is when we wake exhausted, so Delwyn recommends we limit power naps to under 20 minutes. Caffeine and alcohol can interfere with our sleep if we are sensitive, she adds. But the most important ingredient in a good night’s slumber surprises me. I feel like it’s a recipe for a good life.

“We want time out. We don't want to think, feel, or be responsible for anybody else except ourselves. This time out helps us to gain perspective. It's an always-on, responsible life. Sleep is our space to escape that.”

Delwyn explains. “It’s an always-on world that we live in, an always-on, responsible life. Sleep is our space to escape that, and bedtime is something that should be approached with a luxurious looking-forward.”

As it turns out, the best sleep that I had during the month was towards the end of another hectic, responsibility-charged week. My husband and I had a glass of wine and an eye contact-holding conversation. We played a game of cards with the kids after we’d shared a simple meal. And I went to sleep relaxed, having connected with my people in a loving, nourishing way. Though I stirred a couple of times during the night, I woke seven hours later, feeling more rested than I had in months. I’d chilled out for a change, ignored the productivity list and enjoyed my life. Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson of all.

Kirsty de Garis

Kirsty is the Editor of Dumbo Feather magazine. Kirsty is constantly on the lookout for conversations with extraordinary people and thought leaders who will help to guide us into the next economy.

Kirsty spends half her life in the suburbs of Sydney and the other half on a remote farm in the Snowy Mountains. She’s a loving wife and mum, and loves hiking in the high country and ocean swims. She never travels without a good book.

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