Saintly Thoughts on Sleep Hygiene

We often hear that Americans are not getting enough sleep. Electric lights (and now screens) are usually cited as the culprits, and Thomas Edison gets blamed for saying we should all sleep less. But the Catholic saints had the same opinion. The shorter their nights were, the more time they could devote to prayer and charitable work.

I just finished reading Father Aloysius Roche’s Bedside Book of Saints, and it’s clear to me that the saints would take issue with several ideas promoted by sleep experts today, including advice for insomnia sufferers looking for a better night’s sleep.

Good sleep hygiene, while useful for insomniacs today, would not appeal to the Catholic saints

We often hear that Americans are not getting enough sleep. Electric lights (and now devices with screens) are usually cited as the culprits, and Thomas Edison gets blamed for saying we should all sleep less. But the Catholic saints had the same opinion. The shorter their nights were, the more time they could devote to prayer and charitable work.

I just finished reading Father Aloysius Roche’s Bedside Book of Saints, and it’s clear to me that the saints would take issue with several ideas promoted by sleep experts today, including advice for insomnia sufferers looking for a better night’s sleep.

 

Most Adults Need 7 to 8 Hours of Sleep a Night

I doubt the saints would agree. The story is that Saint Macarius went without sleep for 20 days at a time but lived to the ripe old age of 90. Such a steady diet of sleep deprivation would surely be the ruin of modern Americans. We hear about the nasty consequences of sleep deprivation all the time: Insulin resistance will develop and later, diabetes. Stress hormones will flood our bodies and put us at risk for heart disease. Plaques will form in our brains. Dementia will set in.

Likewise, Saint Elphide, Saint Colette, and Saint Catherine de Ricci purportedly went for long periods without sleep.

Did they suffer as a result? No, says Father Roche. Going without sleep was “a miraculous privilege akin to that of those who lived without any other nourishment than the Holy Eucharist.”

Go to Bed and Get Up at the Same Time Every Day

Saints in the contemplative orders might agree with this advice, bound as they were to rigid schedules 24/7. But not Saint Catherine of Siena. She embraced insomnia, sleeping briefly every two nights. This she called “paying the debt of sleep to the body.” As if to say, “Sleep is a bother, but at least I can dispense with it every other night.”

Make the Last Hour before Bed a “Wind-Down” Time

The need for a “wind-down” period before bed would probably have puzzled the saints. Sure, life was full of mortification and risk-taking for the boldest among them, yet they had one big advantage over most of us today, says Father Roche: their minds and hearts were in a habitual state of tranquility.

“The Saints were free from the guilty worries and anxieties which undermine the repose of the worldly,” he writes. “They had that most restful of all pillows—a good conscience.”

So there would be no need to wind down at the approach of bedtime. On the contrary, the saints often did their best to stay awake. Saint Dorotheus kept himself up making mats. Saint Jerome tried to stay awake and when he found himself nodding off, he “dashed himself upon the ground.” (Readers undergoing sleep restriction, take note!)

Make Sure Your Bed Is Comfortable

The saints would have dismissed the notion of a comfortable bed as self-indulgent. Why sleep in comfort when there were other, more righteous ways to sleep: on the ground (Saint Martin of Tours), on the straps at the bottom of a chair (Saint Dominic), or sitting upon a stone (Saint Pachomius).

Saint Charles Borromeo normally slept in a chair. He was eventually persuaded to sleep on a mattress, but it had to be made of straw. His advice for people complaining about a cold bed was rather chilly, notes Father Roche:

“The best way not to find the bed too cold is to go to bed colder than the bed is,” the saint said.

Do Not Read in Bed

The saints would definitely have disagreed with this rule of good sleep hygiene. Pious reading was exactly what one was supposed to do in bed (when not praying).

And maybe Saint Jerome’s advice will be useful for at least some insomnia sufferers looking for a better night’s sleep: “Let holy reading be always at hand,” he said. “Sleep may fall upon thee as thou lookest thereon, and the sacred page meet the drooping face.”

Back to Nature? Not for This Insomniac

Artificial lighting gets a bad rap in stories about sleep these days. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we’re told, our forebears slept longer than we do today.

There are reasons to think this might be true: Exposure to artificial lighting at night delays secretion of melatonin, in turn postponing sleep. Light at night can also reset the body clock, altering sleep timing and giving rise to circadian rhythm disorders and insomnia.

Advice for how to avoid these problems usually runs along the lines of dimming lights in the evening and getting plenty of exposure to sunlight during the day. Count me as a believer here. But the back-to-nature solutions some are touting? Meh, I’ll pass.

Electric lighting can be helpful and harmful to sleepArtificial lighting gets a bad rap in stories about sleep these days. Before Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, we’re told, our forebears slept longer than we do today.

There are reasons to think this might be true: Exposure to artificial lighting at night delays secretion of melatonin, in turn postponing sleep. Light at night can also reset the body clock, altering sleep timing and giving rise to circadian rhythm disorders and insomnia.

Advice for how to avoid these problems usually runs along the lines of dimming lights in the evening and getting plenty of exposure to sunlight during the day. Count me as a believer here. But the back-to-nature solutions some are touting? Meh, I’ll pass.

Camping

Some folks claim that camping is a sure path to better sleep. What better way to detach from our worries and synchronize our body clocks with terrestrial time than to pitch a tent in the woods? There’s science behind this claim:

  • Two years ago researchers reported that after a week of camping, eight adults experienced changes in the timing of their sleep, going to bed and waking up an hour earlier than usual and feeling more energetic in the morning.
  • In a more natural setting reported on in June, scientists found that people living without access to electricity in a remote community in Argentina slept 40 minutes longer in the summer and 60 minutes longer in the winter than people living with electric lighting 30 miles away.

As persuasive as these reports may be, living closer to nature is not going to improve my sleep. For one thing, I’m naturally an early riser. The prospect of awakening still earlier does not appeal.

And what about the bugs? All it takes is a mosquito buzzing around my head to get me swatting at the walls of the tent, and even if I manage to kill it I’m still wound up. And if that doesn’t keep me awake, the camping mattress will. I have yet to find a mattress that’s comfortable for my back.

Glamping

glamping

Glamping, or glamorous camping, might solve the mosquito problem and would certainly provide a comfy bed. But even if I could afford to “glamp,” I’d still be out in the middle of nature, and for all its virtues (I will admit there are some) nature isn’t quiet.

Nocturnal creatures were not raised by parents like mine, who insisted that to do anything but tiptoe around and whisper after 10 p.m. was inconsiderate and rude. Without so much as a by your leave, animals at night will shriek, snarl, snort, hoot, growl.

Light sleepers and insomniacs, exactly how is this going to improve our sleep?

A Glass House

glass-house

Here’s another shelter said to bring circadian rhythms into harmony with nature, deepen sleep, and boost our sense of well-being: the all-glass house. Its lack of privacy might give pause. Yet the all-glass house has one advantage over many glamping setups I’ve seen: it blocks out up to 85 percent of external noise.

 

 

Let’s Cut to the Chase

The main reason these back-to-nature solutions aren’t my cup of tea is that I’m a naturally short sleeper, and even the longest days of the year are not quite long enough for me. Going to bed at sundown—even when that means 10 p.m.—is a recipe for a terrible night’s sleep: tossing and turning, thinking existential thoughts, pondering insoluble problems. Who needs that when with the flick of a lamp switch I can pick up a book and fill my brain with happier thoughts?

Yes, I could read by candlelight or lantern. But that’s not nearly as convenient or easy on the eyes as the incandescent light beside my reading chair. I could also entertain myself in the dark by listening to a book on CD. But then I’m apt to nod off too early, and a too-early bedtime spells a night of insomnia for me.

I hear that some lucky people can actually enjoy periods of wakefulness at night. They let their minds wander and manage to achieve a relaxed, meditative state. But that’s not me. Artificial lighting saves me from the gloomy thoughts that are always ready to waylay me at night.

No doubt I’m sending the wrong message here: for every one of me there are a hundred teenagers texting and peering at their iPads at night and seriously shorting themselves on sleep. Turn off your devices, you sleepyheads, and turn out the lights!

But hey, Thomas Edison, here’s one insomniac who still thinks electric lighting is cool.

Insomnia? Travel Can Be Just the Thing

I just got back from a three-week trip to Canada, and I slept fabulously most of the time. Insomnia caught up with me just two nights out of 20. That’s as good as it gets.

Sleep doctors claim that people with insomnia often sleep better on vacation. “Of course you slept better on your trip,” I can imagine them saying sagely. “You were away from life stressors, you were away from your bed and your worries about sleep. Why wouldn’t you sleep better in places where anxiety hasn’t taken root?”

I have a different explanation for why I slept so well on the trip.

Lunenberg togetherI just got back from a three- week trip to Canada, and I slept fabulously most of the time. Insomnia caught up with me just two nights out of 20. That’s as good as it gets.

Sleep doctors claim that people with insomnia often sleep better on vacation. “Of course you slept better on your trip,” I can imagine them saying sagely. “You were away from life stressors, you were away from your bed and your worries about sleep. Why wouldn’t you sleep better in places where anxiety hasn’t taken root?”

I’ve never completely accepted this explanation for my luck with sleep on trips. “Insomnia isn’t just a matter of context,” I imagine replying to those learned doctors. “I take my anxiety about sleep with me wherever I go, thank you very much!”

I have a different explanation for why I slept so well as we traveled through Canada. It lies in my husband and travel companion, whose idea of a good vacation is dawn-to-dusk activity and who—true to his nature as a firstborn—likes to direct the show.

Traveling Together

Don’t misunderstand: Eric and I are mostly in agreement about the nature of our trips. Active vacations are the kind we prefer. For road trips we pack along hiking shoes, bicycles, and bathing suits. We’d much rather take a walk or visit a museum than simply lie on a beach.

Where we differ is in the amount of activity we like. Eric has tons of stamina and endurance, and he moves into overdrive the minute we leave home.

  • Stop at a roadside motel because we’re getting hungry and sick of driving? Why spend a night along an ugly stretch of highway when in 45 minutes we could stop in town and take a bike ride before we eat?!
  • Take the metro to the botanical garden when it’s just a few miles away from the hotel? We could as easily walk (never mind that we’ll be on our feet for the rest of the day)!
  • Relax after an afternoon hike over hors d’oeuvres and a bottle of wine? But there’s still plenty of light outside. This is the perfect time for a swim!

You get my drift. While I like to insert some R & R in between activities, Eric never winds down.

Negotiating Plans

We have words about the pace we keep from time to time. I’m a firstborn too, and relinquishing directorship of the program doesn’t come easily to me, either. Occasionally my pitch for the R & R prevails, and other times I crack open a book and let Eric work off his energy by himself.

But, traveling with a partner, you’re together 24/7, cooped up in the same car and the same hotel room and dependent on each other in so many ways. On vacation it’s harder for me to resist getting sucked into the Eric vortex, as my sister aptly describes it. I go and do and see more than I would if I were traveling on my own.

The upside to this arrangement is its hypnotic effect on my sleep. By 11 or 12 my book has fallen to the floor and I’m out cold for the rest of the night. (Insomnia? What was that about?)

The downside is the exhaustion I return to at the end of these trips. You’ve heard of having to recover from a vacation? I’m there right now.

How does going on vacation typically affect your sleep?

Insomnia and Me: Squaring Off in Middle Age

I had my life organized so my insomnia was under control. I’d accepted—not very gracefully—the fact that I was going to have to get vigorous exercise not just 3 or 4 days a week but EVERY SINGLE DAY. This was part of the dues I personally was going to have to pay to be a member of the Recovering Insomniacs Club.

The exercise routine I came up with wasn’t bad. But then calamity struck.

SwimmingI had my life organized so my insomnia was under control. I’d accepted—not very gracefully—the fact that I was going to have to get vigorous exercise not just 3 or 4 days a week but EVERY SINGLE DAY. This was part of the dues I personally was going to have to pay to be a member of the Recovering Insomniacs Club.

The exercise routine I came up with wasn’t bad. Every day I forced myself to drop whatever I was doing at 5 p.m. to take a bike ride or head down to the basement for a session on the elliptical trainer. Sleep was more dependable as a result.

I even started looking forward to the workouts. Sometimes it took effort to warm up. But the surge of energy that usually came after 5 or 10 minutes, when my muscles were limbered up and working in sync, felt great. Not to mention the blissed-out feeling I had when I stopped. The extra slice out of my day wasn’t really such a big price to pay for holding insomnia at bay.

Trouble Strikes

Then I started having pain in my left knee. All weight-bearing activities that involved bending at the knee should be avoided for a few months, the orthopedist said.

“Oh, great,” I said to the doctor. “So now I can’t ride a bike?”

“Not until your knee gets better,” he said (a touch too cheerfully, I thought). “No jogging either, but the elliptical trainer might be OK.” Swimming was really the way to go, the doctor added–especially strokes with a flutter kick.

Swimming? Flutter kick? My heart sank. An hour-long schlep there and back to the pool in rush hour traffic? Changing into and out of a bathing suit every day? Showering and then washing and drying my hair in a locker room? The added expense? Why this, in God’s name, and why now?!

The grinding of my knee as I galloped along on the elliptical trainer made it clear that my Old Faithful was no longer an option. The facts were plain to see: I was going to have to become the fish I used to be in childhood. Otherwise my sleep was down the tubes.

A New Routine

I fumed over this turn of events for about a week. Then grudgingly I packed up my suit and towel, launched myself into rush hour traffic (listening to NPR to keep the road rage in check), and started swimming laps.

Swimming was OK. The water was cold at first but exhilarating by the end of the first lap. After 3 months, when I realized my knee problem was probably permanent, I started swimming at a wellness center newly opened up near my house.

Call it denial or a kind of middle-ager’s Stockholm Syndrome, but now I’ve decided I actually like swimming laps and look forward to it (if not to the 12-minute drive). Swimming in the lake outside my husband’s family cottage is even better. This photo was taken over Memorial Day, when the water was bracing. My sleep continues to be pretty good.

Swimming isn’t my first choice of exercise (and I certainly never chose my insomnia). But Stephen Stills got one thing right: If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

What sleep challenges have you experienced or did you experience in middle age?

Sleep Eating: It Finally Happened to Me

Parasomnias like sleepwalking, sleep driving, sleep eating, and sleep texting make me wonder: what would it be like to wake up in my car “high-centered on a rock,” as an acquaintance said he did, or to kitchen cabinets covered with the glutinous remains of barley soup?

What happened to me a few nights ago is the strangest sleep-related experience I’ve ever had.

fridgeParasomnias like sleepwalking, sleep driving, sleep eating, and sleep texting make me wonder: what would it be like to wake up in my car “high-centered on a rock,” as an acquaintance said he did, or to kitchen cabinets covered with the glutinous remains of barley soup?

What happened to me a few nights ago is the strangest sleep-related experience I’ve ever had. No, it had nothing to do with alcohol or Ambien (which can cause parasomniac behaviors like sleep eating)–that night I hadn’t touched either one. But I was feeling super stressed out and short on sleep.

A Rude Awakening

In the middle of the night I awakened feeling there was something in my mouth. I swallowed reflexively and then regretted it: whatever was in there definitely was not fit to eat. It felt like tiny bits of plastic mixed with sand and Kleenex. It tasted vile.

What on earth had I done? Taken a mouthful of garbage? Slept with my mouth open and some shiny-shelled insect crawled inside? Yuck and double yuck!

I rushed to the bathroom and spat into the sink. Then I rinsed my mouth with water several times, but the awful taste remained. Could what I’d swallowed be harmful? Exactly what would be the consequences of this disgusting midnight snack? I gargled with mouthwash and then returned to bed.

The curious thing is that I actually fell back to sleep. On any other night, my brush with sleep eating would have sent my body’s early warning system through the roof. Danger, danger! my hormones would have screamed. No way could I have returned to sleep thinking about the poison that just went down the hatch. But on this particular night, my need to sleep trumped even that.

Everything Is Illuminated

I saw exactly what had happened in the morning. The bottle of Omeprazole (a.k.a. Prilosec) capsules I keep on my bedside table was empty, the contents strewn all over my bed and on the floor. The capsule I normally take first thing in the morning for help with digestion had become an after-hours dining experiment instead. But rather than swallow it whole, I held it (or them) in my mouth like a cough drop—to revolting effect.

I must admit the experience shook me up. If I can take pills in my sleep, what’s next? Swallowing a refrigerator magnet? Throwing compost on the neighbors’ lawn?

Becoming a member of the Parasomnia Society does give pause.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever done in your sleep?

Animal Sleep: A Few Fun Facts

Envy is what I feel about the sleep of cats. They’re unconscious the second they close their eyes!

The sleep habits of some wild animals are even stranger.

cat-on-guitarEnvy is what I feel about the sleep of cats.

They’re unconscious the second they close their eyes!

Location doesn’t seem to matter, or comfort, or security.

 

 

Could a champion sleeper like my husband sleep with his chin wedged between boards or draped around the wheel of a truck? I don’t think so!

cat-on-wheel2Unlike us, cats sleep like predators. They blithely snooze away for up to 13 hours every day.

Sleep needs and sleep characteristics differ quite a bit from one species to the next:

  1. Giraffes sleep very little– less than two hours a night–and can go for weeks without any sleep at all. Large grazing mammals with relatively slow metabolisms seem to need the least amount of sleep. Other short sleepers are horses, donkeys, and elephants.
  2. Small meat-eating mammals with high metabolisms need lots of sleep. At the long end of the continuum is the brown bat, that sleeps nearly 20 hours every day. Bats’ wings aren’t strong enough to propel them into flight from a standing position. So they sleep upside down, which enables them to fall into flight when they sense danger.
  3. Like humans, all mammals experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when dreams occur. During REM sleep dogs bark and make running movements with their legs. Platypuses make movements similar to those they make when stalking and killing crustacean prey.
  4. Dolphins’ sleep is “unihemispheral.” While one hemisphere of the brain is asleep, the other is awake, enabling these marine mammals to swim to the surface and breathe even as they’re sleeping.
  5. Ducks that sleep at the end of a row, where they’re more exposed to danger, often sleep with one eye open—the eye facing outward–to better watch out for predators. Birds sleeping at the edge of a flock do the same.
  6. Some birds sleep on the wing. The bar-tailed godwit flies 7,200 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in eight days without touching down for refueling or sleep. The most likely explanation is that they’re able to fly with parts of their brain asleep while at the same time keeping other parts awake.

If you’ve noticed anything funny or unusual about the sleep of animals close to you, please take a minute to share it!

An Insomniac Goes Camping

For me sleep is fairly dependable almost anywhere after a marathon hike or bike ride, when it’s hard to do anything except pass out.

But some of the most miserable nights of my life have been spent inside a tent. Camping is where my two biggest nemeses—insomnia and a bad back—conspire to make the night a trial.

sleep-outside-tentThe renowned sleep scientist William Dement is big a fan of the great outdoors. In his book, The Promise of Sleep, he compares camping under the stars to the nighttime experience of our ancestors: “With the stars as our only night-light,” he writes, “we are rocked in the welcoming arms of Mother Nature back to the dreamy sleep of the ancients.”

Huh? The idea of spending the night outdoors does have a certain earthy appeal, and for me sleep is fairly dependable almost anywhere after a marathon hike or bike ride, when it’s hard to do anything except pass out. But some of the most miserable nights of my life have been spent inside a tent. Camping is where my two biggest nemeses—insomnia and a bad back—conspire to make the night a trial.

Disturbances in the Wild

I’m very temperature sensitive at night, and this can be a problem outdoors. In mid-range temperatures, I’m either roasting inside my sleeping bag or freezing under a sheet.

Quietness can also be hard to come by. Nighttime is dinnertime for many creatures, starting with mosquitoes. The nasty things are always buzzing a hair’s width away from my ear, and burying my head under a sheet to escape them creates that temperature problem, not to mention near suffocation. And how about the bigger scroungers of the night, the raccoons and the bears? Can anyone sleep with these creatures snorting and slavering around the campsite? I can’t.

The noise factor can be even worse in campgrounds. It may be easy enough to persuade the kids with the radio to turn the volume down. But what about the knife-toting bruisers across the way, who with keg and girlfriends get down to seriously noisy partying till 3 a.m.?

Bodily Discomfort

Then there’s the other question of what to DO when it’s dark and everyone else is sleeping. Reading is now easier with my Kindle and headlamp, but this is when my back problem comes into play. No matter how thick, those camping mattresses are a pain, literally. Finding a comfortable position for reading is a real challenge.

Then comes the moment when I’ve had enough of reading and fussing with positions and decide, finally, to turn off my headlamp and hang it up. Now the quest for comfort becomes a search for the Holy Grail. Trying to find a pain-free option, I flap from side to side like a tuna in a trawler struggling mightily for life: thwap, thwap, thwap. And I almost always wake up in the morning to a backache.

I like the idea of camping, and when I hear people like Dr. Dement rhapsodize about the stars and Mother Nature I feel envy that a night outside could inspire such appreciation for the wonders of the great outdoors. Me, I get stuck on the pedestrian discomforts of my body. I’ll pass on nights in the open and leave the camping to loftier, hardier folk.

How does camping affect your sleep?

Thoughts upon a Mattress

I just found out about a new kind of bed. Called the “component bed,” it allows you to “customize” your sleep to a degree never possible before.

But I can’t imagine that this bed would lead to sounder sleep or put the kibosh on my insomnia.

component-bedI just found out about a new kind of bed. Called the “component bed,” it allows you to “customize” your sleep to a degree never possible before. Not only can you adjust for different preferences in firmness on each side of a queen- or a king-size bed. You can also adjust for a different feel. Are you in the mood to sleep on water, on coils, or on foam? You get to choose.

“You’ll never have to settle for the same mattress night after night, month after month, and year after year,” the voiceover on the company video says.

An Older Mattress

I’ll lay out the details, but first I’ll say this new bed reminds me of an older innovation in nighttime comfort. About 10 years ago my extended family discovered the Tempur-pedic and went on a Tempur-pedic spree. Couple after couple succumbed to the lure of a mattress that purportedly would conform to their bodies, allow for different preferences in firmness, and make them oblivious to their partners’ twists and turns at night.

And in fact, the Tempur-pedic lived up to its claims in the eyes of the fam. Knowing about my sleep problem and wanting to help, they made a suggestion: what was there to lose by trying one out?

Absolutely nothing, my husband and I agreed. There was a money-back guarantee, so we had one delivered to our house.

And returned it at the end of the month. It didn’t work for the Princess and the Pea. The body-conforming foam top gave me a backache in the morning. As for minimizing the motion of my partner in the bed, what use is a jiggle-proof mattress when I’m sleeping under the same covers, that can be yanked this way and that way and completely off my back? There’s more to nighttime comfort than a mattress, as I think most insomnia sufferers will agree.

Back to the Component Bed

According to the claims of Münami Inc., this new bed is all about comfort and quality sleep. Here’s how it works.

The bed comes with three interchangeable twin-sized “component” mattresses (water, coils, and foam), one of which is placed on each side of the bed under a mattress topper. (The third component gets stored in a compartment underneath the bed.) You can change these components any time—every night, if it suits your fancy, sort of like choosing what you feel like having for dinner. Why stick with spaghetti if you can rotate between that and felafel and boeuf bourguignon?

But I have trouble imagining how this changing of components is going to add to my comfort at night. Visualize this if you can: at the approach of bedtime, after you’ve had an absolutely killer day at work, your partner gets it into his head that no, he can’t sleep on foam tonight, it’s got to be water.

So you take up positions on either side of bed. You strip off the bed clothes, unzip the mattress topper, peel it back, remove the foam mattress, do a deep knee bend to extricate the water mattress, stand up, heave it in place, roll the topper back down, zip it back up, and re-make the bed—sheets, blankets, bedspread, and all.

All this commotion at bedtime may not be a problem for dependable sleepers. But if you’re prone to insomnia like me, it would be a surefire setup for a bad night. In fact, to someone who rarely finds time to make her bed, let alone change the sheets, this component bed sounds like a giant pain in the neck.

Would you buy a bed like this?