27 Mar Tackling the Myth of “good” sleep
For years I have always thought of myself as a “bad sleeper”. I could never quite master the art of getting a “full 8 hours” of sleep every night; often awake until the wee-hours, mind aflutter with creative new biz ideas, or stresses – the typical cog-turning brain of an inspired business owner. I would so often wake feeling tired and hazy, kicking myself for having yet another ‘bad’ night’s sleep.
On the odd occasions where I would make a concerted effort to “catch up” and have an extended sleep-in, I would often feel even more groggy and brain-foggy the next day….I felt like I couldn’t win! Not only did I struggle with sleeping, when I actually did get it – I felt worse. #bamboozled
I was beginning to feel like I was allergic to sleep – and as a health practitioner; aiming to project out into the world a bright and sparkly, empassioned and healthful persona…..I was definitely NOT feeling it.
Herein enter my saviour (only about 33 years late): Polyphasic Sleep Cycling.
Now, I’m going to do my best to explain this, and I encourage you to read my lay-man’s version because it has made a TREMENDOUS difference to my wellbeing (& a number of people around me, who have already heard my passionate sleep revelation lecture).
If you want to go straight to the source, I highly recommend Nick Littlehales’ book: Sleep, from which I extracted much of the information for this blog (including a number of images, thanks Nick!)
Now, where were we? Ah! My old mate, Polyphasic sleep cycling.
For the most part, society most typically subscribes to a bi-phasic or 2-phase model of sleep vs. awake,
-> ie: we are asleep for “X” hours (1 ‘block’ or phase) and we are awake for “X” hours (another ‘block’ or phase).
Typically, 8 hours per night is the socially accepted ideal amount of sleep for an adult to get through their various stages of sleep, meaning that we then spend 16 hours of our day awake and functioning (aka: adulting).
If you don’t get ‘enough’ sleep, your waking hours are spent groggy and hopeful for the opportunity to get more sleep the next night, or the one after that…..constantly swinging between these 2 big ol’ blocks of time.
The notion of polyphasic sleep cycling (as taught by my now-favourite person Nick Littlehales) is that our sleep, and not dissimilarly, our waking hours, can be broken into 90 minute blocks, which is much more in-sync with our circadian rhythm. The focus is on good quality sleep, rather than just an arbitrary quantity.
Why 90 minutes? Well, the average brain cycles through our multiple stages of sleep in about 90 minutes, so if you break your sleep down to 90 minute blocks, you can ensure that you wake up at the end of a cycle, not mid-cycle – you’ll know that mid-cycle feeling, when you wake hazy and foggy, even though you had a “full” night’ sleep.
In polyphasic sleep cycling, rather than looking at your sleep as a full night’s sleep or not, we look at sleep, and waking hours, in these 90 minute cycles, and in any given week we aim to get 30-35 cycles of sleep.
In my case – and it is very important to note that everyone is different – a 5 cycle night is ‘ideal’ for me, e.g = 7.5hrs.
However, I usually have a few “4 cycle” nights in a week (6 hours), and overall have about 32 cycles per week.
And I feel bloody marvellous.
I feel in control of my sleep. I am having better, less interrupted sleep, and feel awake when I rise. I am aware of the affects of my natural cycles on my activities and make active decisions around that.
NOW: There are a few ‘rules’ to this system, which I will summarise for you here (I have included some snaps from the book below, too):
Wake up at the same time, every-damn-day.
This is absolutely key.
And, that’s right: Bye-bye sleep-ins! But, fear not, following this program has meant that I’ve not felt the need for a sleep in, not once!
When you have a fixed wake-time, your brain becomes ‘trained’ to knowing your waking time, and will self-regulate the rate at which it goes through your various stages of sleep – spending more time in REM sleep if you need it, or more time in Deep sleep….our self-cleaning brain is quite incredible!!
Commit to the 90min Cycles – AKA: Quality over Quantity
As above, your brain knows best.
If your wake time is 6:30am, a 5 cycle sleep would mean being asleep at 11:00pm. You wake up with your brain having cycled through all of the stages of sleep, feeling refreshed and energised.
If you can’t sleep by 11:00pm, don’t lay there berating yourself for not being able to sleep: intentionally stay awake until 12:30am.
Do something restful like read a book, listen to peaceful music, do some gentle yoga, journal or meditate. You will no doubt feel the natural lull to sleep at the next cycle of 12:30am, which means you’ll have a 4 cycle (6 hr) sleep, and will still wake at the end of your sleep cycles, your brain in the right mode to get up and get adulting.
And if you don’t fall asleep at 12:30am, stay awake until 2am….and so on.
Of course, regardless of the quality of sleep, quantity long-term is still important, and I would not recommend too many night’s in a row of 3-4 cycles of sleep (6 hours or less). Nick Littlehales recommends having no more than 3 nights of 4 cycles or less in a row. But again, everyone’s brain is different!
Naps (or, their fancy name “CRP – Controlled Recovery Period”) are your friend
But you need to be sensible about when you have them, and aim to schedule in a 30 or 90min nap at the time that you naturally ‘dip’ in energy with your circadian rhythm, usually between 12:30 – 2pmish for day time workers, or the opposite 12.30 – 2am for night shift workers.
Factor in the 90mins before and after sleep as part of your ‘sleep routine’
This doesn’t mean that 90mins before sleep you turn off all of the lights, get into pyjamas and turn off every sound-making device! But, you do start to wind down, get your bag ready for the next day, wash your face, clean your teeth, ensure your room temperature is comfortable. By this time you’d have consumed your last food and fluid for the day and your body is winding down to sleepy-time.
Likewise with waking-time, assign your fixed waking time based on allowing 90mins of “waking” time. Getting out of bed, aiming to get some sunshine (opening blinds + curtains, flicking on your natural evolutionary “Wake up” switch), having a nourishing breakfast, doing some movement and so forth. This amount of time might incude your commute to work, but your “working” wake cycles should ideally start 90mins or more after waking.
Take breaks every 90mins
That’s right, keep the 90min cycles throughout the day. Make a concerted effort to take a break from your task, your screen every 90minutes.
Do some gentle movement, have a snack, make some tea. Honour your body’s natural ebb and flow. You will be MUCH more productive, and it works with the “how to eat an elephant” philosophy: taking it one small chunk at a time.
This has helped me feel more present, focused and clear on precisely what I am doing, rather than floundering around in a big 16 hour block of time.
Know your chronotype
Evolution dictates that we do have “morning people” and “night time people”, and it can be helpful to know where you fall. Nick Littlehales refers to days of old, a couple living on an island were best suited to having one AM and one PM chronotype: the AM would rise early with the sun, arrange breakfast and prepare the hunting gear for the day. The PM rises later and off they go to hunt and gather for the day. Upon returning in the evening, the PM would prep the fire, get dinner prepared and cooked whilst AM is starting to wind down. They eat, and AM falls asleep while PM stays awake to check for predators and stoke the fire, eventually falling asleep….and so the cycle goes.
I always used to think I was a “night owl”, working best of an evening, and feeling a bit slow in the morning. But, having followed this program for a few months now, I don’t think that’s quite right: I think I am a bit of a combo (and this is quite common, too).
It is helpful to know your chronotype so that you can play to your strengths.
We have these socially-accepted arbitrary work times (9-5pm) which doesn’t factor in chronotypes – we are seeing more and more companies, like Amazone and Google – at the forefront of workplace health – working to the strengths of their worker’s chronotypes: early shifts for the AMers and later shifts for the PMers. Everyone working at their most proficient and capable.
Be mindful of Caffeine and Alcohol consumption
These 2 socially-favoured beverages to help wake up and wind down respectively, can still be enjoyed, but best enjoyed in moderation, and with mindfulness.
After a few weeks of following this program, I felt the need for either really diminish, as I started to really feel, and work with, the rise and fall of my natural cycle.
Move your body
Being fortunate enough to have a great place I know which offers a range of movement classes (heh.) I ensure that I attend at least 1-2 classes per week of Pilates or Yoga, as well as regular walking and bike riding.
Keep your sleep sanctuary clear and calm
Creating a space for sleep is so important. Your bedroom should be a place for sleep and intimacy. Part of a good sleep routine is the conditioning of walkig into the sanctuary of your bedroom and feeling the cool calm, cosiness. Your brain feeling switched on to sleep-mode.
I previously had piles of books next to the bed and hadn’t really considered that they inadvertently stimulated my brain – all those books I haven’t read, all the good ideas and inspiration, another thing on the list to do…..
Next to my bed I now only have:
A salt lamp for a nice warm glow
The one book I am actually reading.
An aromatherapy diffuser.
It is Simple. Clean. Calm + Cosy. It is Gezellig.
We are creatures of our evolution – and the most powerful running rhythm between us is our circadian rhythm. This is supported by exposure to light and darkness.
When you wake in the morning, and throughout the day, do your best to get regular sunlight (or, get yourself a day light lamp to mimic this exposure)
By the same token, ensure you’re reducing your exposure to light, namely blue light (like your computer or phone screen) when you’re aiming to wind down to sleep.
I could go on and on (because I am just so AWAKE, ha!) but I hope this has given you a bit of insight into polyphasic sleep cycling (AKA: The R90 Sleep Program)
This may sound all a bit “controlled” and limiting, but I can only speak from my own experience: the joy and energy of waking up (more often than not without my alarm) in the morning, feeling energised, focused and excited for the day, is incredibly satisfying.
I’d love to hear how you go with sleep, and if you give this program a try – let me know how you go!