The question of how to spend a cold winter’s night does sound like a no-brainer for the torrid imagination of romance writers. However, even the most romantically afflicted occasionally wants to use a bed for sleeping. Sounds simple, right? But in a world filled with to-do lists, work issues, dissatisfying conversations, and other naggy crud, sometimes a full night’s snooze is elusive.
I’m one of the chronically sleep deprived. Some of it’s periodic insomnia (usually around book deadlines), some just the result of running out of time. Back in the heady days of my first basement apartment and way too much sociability, I could survive on three hours a night. Or thought I could—my powers of self-deception were remarkable back then. But now that I spend more time in meetings with other theoretical grown-ups, I have to give the illusion of paying attention. That’s a little hard to do with one’s eyes drifting shut.
According to my intense research of various studies (as seen on the Internet) most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep for optimal rest. Among other things, that’s when cell repair/rejuvenation happens and various metabolic processes take place. The body releases growth hormone and melatonin and assorted things that make our internal furnace work properly. When that doesn’t happen—such as when we don’t sleep long enough or wake up repeatedly during the night—growth hormone levels drop and stress hormones like cortisol rise in our systems. Basically, our bodies become convinced that we’re under attack. Our metabolism drops to a crawl, storing everything it possibly can because it thinks we’re going to need it for fight or flight. Eventually, our adrenal system burns out, and so do we. One of the nasty side-effects of all this is an inability to properly burn carbs, which can lead to high blood sugar problems and occasionally diabetes.
No, I’m not a medical doctor and you should see the experts for a complete and accurate description of this phenomenon. However, the point is that we need rest or we break. We gain weight, we’re tired, we’re sick and we age faster than we need to. If that’s not bad enough, lack of sleep lowers leptin levels, which makes us hungry all the time.
So how are we supposed to get enough down time? Obviously, prioritizing bedtime is a must, but there are a few other tips I came across, some of which surprised me.
First, avoid looking at TV, computers or other backlit screens (which will include some e-readers) for half an hour before bed. Your brain thinks all that bright light means it’s daytime and not sleep time.
Forget drinking warm milk or having a snack for several hours before bed. The increased blood sugar throws off the hormone release cycle that happens during periods of deep sleep. The best practice is to stop eating after dinner is done.
Don’t exercise right before bed, but do exercise during the day. If you’re physically tired, chances are you’ll sleep.
Don’t do work in your bedroom. If you study or work where you sleep, it’s harder to switch off and rest. Unless, of course, you’re taking the microeconomics course I did a few years ago, which had a guaranteed soporific effect.
We all know that it’s important to get enough rest, but the medical consequences of not doing so are far more dire than I knew. I believed, as so many do, that working the extra hour or two each night would get me further ahead than hitting the hay on time. Not so much, apparently.
Of course, this is a blog by romance writers, so I’ll give the last word to Elizabethan dude Sir Philip Sidney, whose hero is pining for his lady love. It’s one of my favourite poems.
Come Sleep! O Sleep, the certain knot of peace,
The baiting-place of wit, the balm of woe,
The poor man’s wealth, the prisoner’s release,
Th’ indifferent judge between the high and low.
With shield of proof shield me from out the prease
Of those fierce darts despair at me doth throw:
O make in me those civil wars to cease;
I will good tribute pay, if thou do so.
Take thou of me smooth pillows, sweetest bed,
A chamber deaf to noise and blind to light,
A rosy garland and a weary head:
And if these things, as being thine by right,
Move not thy heavy grace, thou shalt in me,
Livelier than elsewhere, Stella’s image see.