Are You a Revengeful Sleeper?
High-quality sleep is vital for both healing and sustained wellness. While the body appears from the outside to be still and inactive, sleep is a time when the body is quite busy. During the night, we restock our supply of hormones, process significant toxins including flushing them out of the brain, repair damaged tissue, generate vital white blood cells for immunity, eliminate the effects of stress, and process heavy emotions.
Unfortunately, we have an epidemic of sleep disorders – from trouble falling asleep to often-interrupted sleep to actual insomnia. Between 50- 70 million people experience sleep disorders each year, and 37.9% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month.
However, humans haven’t always suffered with sleep disorders. According to the National Sleep Foundation, which runs routine sleep studies, we’re getting 20% less sleep per night on average than we were 40 years ago.
The list of sleep disorders is quite extensive and includes the following:
- Circadian rhythm disorders
- Idiopathic hypersomnia
- Sleep nightmares/terrors
- Sleep eating disorder
- Exploding head syndrome
- Sleep walking
- REM Sleep Behavior Disorder
- Sleep apnea
- Restless leg syndrome
- Bruxism (tooth grinding)
- And more…
There’s a long list of downstream health impacts from insufficient sleep: Lack of sleep creates an increased risk of obesity, blood sugar dysregulation and diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, weakened immunity, sex hormone imbalances, mood changes, memory issues, and trouble with thinking and concentrating. One could argue that sleep should be the #1 focus of all health efforts (and indeed, we prioritize sleep above all else when our clients begin working with us).
It’s All About That Sleep…
There are three cardinal features about sleep: timing, intensity, and duration. “Timing” is about your bedtime and waking time. “Duration” is the length of time that you actually sleep between bed and wake times. (Someone may go to sleep at 10pm and get out of bed at 6am, but if they’re waking up in the middle of the night, the amount of sleep they’re getting is less than 8 hours.) Finally we can consider “intensity,” which refers to the depth of sleep. This means you could spend 8 hours sleeping, but if you only stay in the lighter stages of sleep, you’re not going to really reap the full benefits of sleep, and you may wake up feeling like you didn’t sleep at all.
There are also different stages of sleep and we want to ensure we’re cycling through each of them. During sleep, every 90 minutes humans cycle between two very different sleep stages: REM and Non-REM (NREM). REM sleep offers different benefits for our brains than NREM sleep. For instance, Stage 1 involves falling asleep and is typically a very light sleep. During Stage 2, your heart rate slows down and your body temperature drops. Stages 3 and 4 are very deep sleep where your brain detoxifies and muscles and tissues repair themselves. Lastly, REM occurs and this is where you begin having dreams. Each stage of sleep has a unique set of intentions and benefits involved, which is why we need all stages of nightly sleep for our bodies and brains to function effectively.
As mentioned, we’re getting 20% less sleep than we did 40 years ago: One-third of Americans sleep only about 6.5 hours each night, and many of those hours are poor-quality. So what’s causing this epidemic of sleep deprivation?
The Great Circadian Mash-Up
One big factor is the shift in our circadian rhythms, which is our biological clock. For ideal sleep, melatonin (sleepy hormone) should be rising steadily throughout the evening while cortisol (stress & “get up and go” hormone) should be rock-bottom low at bedtime. So why is our circadian rhythm so messed up?
Cortisol is naturally highest in the morning to wake us up and get us easily out of bed. Production is assisted by the presence of blue light, which is found in high concentrations in bright white light – day light. (This is why taking a morning walk is so wonderful to get us up and going in the morning!). Loud noises also raise cortisol as a stress response. The level of produced cortisol naturally should taper off by afternoon, get fairly low by dinnertime, and be extremely low by evening. (This is why quiet, relaxing evening routines are critical for sleep.) After all, it’s hard to sleep when we are revving to go!
Meanwhile, the pineal gland in the brain secretes melatonin largely in response to the presence of red/orange light and darkness, and peaks overnight, then tapers to allow cortisol to wake us up. For bedtime and melatonin production, think cavemen and evening fires, outside and surrounded by a soft glow from the fire and the moonlight. Our ancestors were melatonin-producing machines. But now with unlimited technology whenever we want to access it, we are disrupting the natural ebb and flow of cortisol and melatonin.
Devices such as TV’s, computers/laptops, tablets, smartphones display full spectrum light which can confuse the brain about what time of day it is. Many of us also watch TV shows, play video games, respond to emails, or read suspenseful thriller books on devices right before bedtime, which can summons up more cortisol and dampen melatonin production.
Another big factor in too little sleep is revenge sleep. Revenge bedtime procrastination is a way to find a few hours of entertainment or leisure or personal time by sacrificing sleep. While anyone can engage in bedtime sleep procrastination, some people may be more likely than others to delay going to bed. For instance, a 2019 Polish study found that females are twice as high than males to engage in severe bedtime procrastination. Parents are especially guilty of this habit. And late millennials and Gen Z’s are also more likely to engage in this behavior, particularly those in high-pressure jobs that work very long hours and have ambitious goals and career objectives.
What are individuals taking revenge on, exactly? A study from the Netherlands that appeared in Frontiers in Psychology in 2018 found that the more a person had to “resist desires” during the rest of their day, the more likely they would be a bedtime procrastinator. Translated, the less enjoyable things a person did during the day, the more likely it was that they would try to reclaim that time at night and engage in the more pleasurable activities they had not been able to do during the day. The “revenge” aspect of bedtime procrastination comes almost as an act of rebellion against ever-increasing demands at work and at home, which leave many individuals little time or energy to invest in leisure activities. For some individuals who have high pressure careers, their act of revenge may be on the organizational cultures they’re trying to navigate. Regardless of the individual’s reason, one could say that this act of revenge is a way to gain a sense of control over their lives.
When we engage in revenge sleep, it ultimately bites us in the rear. Losing out on sleep has detrimental effects on physical, mental, and emotional health, but also on productivity. Lack of sleep can feed a cycle of exhaustion and lack of productivity, leading to even more feelings of lack of control and self medicating with external substances for daytime energy and perhaps night time relaxants.
Foundations for How to Improve Sleep
There are many factors individuals’ can do to reclaim their lives and their sleep.
- Get natural daylight as often as you can throughout the day, but especially first thing in the morning to set up your circadian rhythm.
- Take regular breaks during \}”the work day to disconnect from tasks.
- Separate your work environment from your home environment. This might mean moving work devices to another area, defining a set time of the day when you finish your work, and creating a routine/set action to transition between work and personal time.
- Avoid screens in the evening, or wear blue light-filtering glasses at least 2 hours prior to bed.
- Create a relaxing bedtime ritual that allows your body to feel safe, calm and nurtured at least 15 minutes before turning out the lights.
- Make sure your bedroom is cool, dark, and quiet.
- Avoid watching TV in bed. Keep your bedroom only for sleep and sexual intimacy.
- Avoid ramping up your brain. Avoid activities such as budgeting, balancing your checkbook, next-day-planning, or stressful conversations in the full hour prior to bedtime.
- Completely avoid caffeinated food or drink after 2 pm (e.g. tea (even green), coffee, soda, chocolate, maté)
- Ask for help with household tasks – get the family involved with chores and clean up, so that you aren’t staying up late to complete tasks.
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
If you prefer to make incremental changes to your routine, the “Go To Bed” ebook written by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne offers a 14 day challenge and provides you just one task a day, with each one building on the day before. By the end of two weeks, you will hopefully be sleeping more soundly, and enjoying the changes you’ve made to your routine. There are two ways to do this challenge. You can start any time you want, and there’s even a link in the e-book to sign up for daily emails with tips and reminders to support you. The rest of the book provides tips and resources to maintain your new sleep habits.
Good quality sleep is a wonder drug and is one of the most important gifts you can give to yourself. Create the intention to set a new cultural norm for yourself and your family that makes sleep (and you!) a priority.
If you are trying “all the things” for a good night of sleep and are still struggling, consider reaching out for professional support.