It's the most obvious and ultimate source of rest. So why are so many of us so bad at it?
Welcome to another edition of Letters from Ximena. In this month’s newsletter we talk about how to get better sleep.
Ever since adolescence, I’ve gone through periods where I can’t fall asleep. I can’t stop thinking about all the things I need to do, or suddenly have a flash of insight that I must capture on paper now! It’s a tug of war between sleep and my thoughts. The longer I stay awake in bed the more likely it is that eventually I’ll find my back hurts or my knee hurts or something hurts, and now I’m not just mentally distracted, but physically, too. (If this makes me sound old, I guess I am 🤷🏻) I toss and turn and get too hot or too cold. Even on miracle nights when I manage to fall asleep quickly, it seems to matter little the next day—I still wake up exhausted, despite “technically” sleeping eight or nine hours a night.
Improving your sleep is an obvious place to start when you’re trying to uncover the secret to getting rest, but given my history with sleep, I admit I initially resisted it. I have been getting at least eight hours a night my whole life and still felt fatigued. But I was desperate. It was time to find a better way.
Sleep Quantity vs. Sleep Quality
My first sleep epiphany was this: All my life I’ve anchored on what turns out to be one measly part of the sleep equation (sleep quantity) instead of looking at the bigger picture. Sleep quantity refers to the number of hours you sleep per night. For adults, the gold standard is eight hours of sleep nightly. Anything less than this, as most of us know, impairs our cognitive and physical performance.
Sleep quality, on the other hand, is how good your sleep is—meaning how efficient (how quickly you fall asleep at bedtime and following night wakings), how interrupted (by night wakings, particularly between 2 and 4 am), and how alert your sleep leaves you (how energized or groggy you are during the day, without caffeine or a nap).
Here, I was failing. Between noisy apartments, night owl roommates, loving but barky pet dogs, blissfully sleeping but loudly tooting newborns, nighttime potty training toddlers, and postpartum night sweats (hormones!), getting intermittent sleep had become my norm. While it looked like I was getting 8 hours of sleep a night, that sleep was pretty regularly interrupted—not great for feeling alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic the next day.
Thankfully, there’s a lot we can do to improve our sleep quality. I wouldn’t call these changes “fun,” and I admit I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes at more than a few, but the truth is they are exceedingly helpful. Here are twelve tips from sleep researcher and author Matthew Walker.
So far, I’ve been reaping the benefits from sticking to steps 1 and 3. My new bedtime routine is not elaborate, but it is consistent. Before, bedtime was haphazard—a thing that happened to me, as much by chance as by necessity. Now it’s something I get to do. An hour before bedtime, the ritual begins. I wind down (nothing fancy, just PJ’s and toothbrushing time), read a (physical!) book (usually fiction), and a few chapters in I am ready to sleep. Sometimes I don’t even make it to my 9:30 pm bedtime (yes I am a grandma). I even look forward to bedtime now, rather than finding all sorts of clever ways (OK, mostly Netflix) to push it back. This, along with cutting out my afternoon cup of black tea (no coffee here, I’m anxious enough as it is), has radically improved my energy levels. Although I still experience the afternoon slump, it’s much milder now—I no longer experience the mega caffeine crashes I used to. Months later, I’m still sticking to these changes because they’ve helped so much. My guess is any of these twelve tips can help you, too.
But wait, hormones
I read Walker’s bestselling book cover-to-cover, but so far I haven’t found anything on the relationship between hormones and sleep, and specifically menstruation, childbirth, postpartum, and menopause. This is unfortunately not surprising because so much medical research is based on men. (It’s the same reason women are so cold in offices and why crash test standards aren’t really suited for us, either.) Yet I can’t imagine hormones and sleep are not related, given how essential a stable core temperature is to sleep. As any woman knows, spiking hormones and night sweats make that impossible. I’ll be digging into this further for my book.
For more on sleep, check out:
Sleepwise, Dan Blum with Emily Tsiang
Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker
When, Dan Pink (see: “Afternoons and Coffee Spoons”)
Make time, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (see: “Sleep in a Cave” and “Optimize Caffeine”)
🕵🏻♀️ The Rest Trials behind the scenes: Regular readers of this newsletter know that I’ve begun to experiment with rest trials, personal experiments for getting well-rested, based on research for my forthcoming book. Once a month, I share these experiments with a small group of folks who have opted in to test them out with me. Sign up here to join.
Support the Ukraine: It can be easy to feel small in times of strife, especially from afar. But there are many ways to help, no matter where you are in the world. Check out this list of vetted resources from The New York Times for inspiration.
💌 As always, the best thing you can do for me is share this edition of the newsletter, or others you enjoy, with your friends and coworkers. Thanks for being here and for sharing the love. 💌
I appreciate Matthew Walker's enthusiasm about how a good night's sleep impacts every aspect of health. I found your assumption of "You won't like these tips" to be interesting, as I have been implementing these for several years now, and I find them to be comforting and nourishing, as I know I am showing myself true self-love.
A glass of wine at night isn't self-care... THIS is.
In fact, these tips are commonly followed by folks such as myself that decided to eliminate alcohol from our lives completely.
As Dr. Walker said in an interview, booze is "the enemy of sleep", but it is also a sedative.
Which means that thousands of Americans are relying on the most commonly used sedative to knock them out at night, but aren't reaping the incredible benefits of quality of sleep, as you talk about in this article.
In fact, that's why the famous big wave surfer Laird Hamilton finally went from a self-proclaimed red wine enthusiast to choosing sobriety-- he is all about maximizing his body's performance, and finally realized that alcohol was detrimental to the nourishing qualities of sleep.
It doesn't matter how much a person limits caffeine or makes their bedroom a cave (get the TV out of there!) if they are sedating themselves to sleep every night. I speak from experience. :)