Or, How Sophie Reclaimed Her Choice.
Want to be fearless and anti-fragile? Learn how to sleep like a boss becuase decades of research suggests the perfect predator, or outdoor enthusiast, gets 7-9 hours of sleep regularly.
7-9 hours of sleep every day. Period.
Don’t be all like the normal sleepless sheep and tap into your confirmation bias to ignore this article because you sleep 5-6 hours a night and wonder why things on your body hurt.
Keep reading for the story of Sophie…
She couldn’t sleep well either…
She’s got the same brain as you.
Be better. Teach yourself to make new memories, perform better, and reclaim your spark.
Imagine a poor Irish mother named Sophie back at the turn of the 20th century. She has 8 grubby cute kids to feed and the father is a drunk. Her options are very limited by the cultural norms of the time and she doesn’t have enough money to buy the food she needs to feed herself and all of her kids.
What are her options?
Try to work harder of course, earn more money to hopefully buy some potatoes and feed her lovelys. But she works in a steaming laundry 15 hours a day making pennies. She’s caught in the loop of poverty and exhaustion, she cannot see clearly because she’s so tired from scrubbing clothes for merchants with her scabbed red hands.
It’s a pity because she really is the nicest person with beautiful green eyes.
Maybe Sophie was the one with the drinking problem.
Her kids become thieves stealing bread and unfortunately she gets pregnant again because she’s Catholic and has to do what her husband wants in the bedroom. If she saw clearly, she would have ignored some far off pope and closed her legs to her smelly husband that couldn’t even provide for the family that already exists.
So stuck in this quandary she can either:
A. Pick her favorite strongest kids that massage her feet when she gets home and feed them fully so that they thrive and actually reach adulthood. But this requires she lets a few of them be starved and die off quickly (they were annoying anyways and were expensive to feed).
B. Distribute the food equally to all kids and watch in misery as they all wither away from malnutrition and turn to a life of crime and never fully grow up and maybe hoping secretly her husband will die from his own vomit after a particularly bad bender. But he doesn’t and this is the miserable life she will always lead.
Sophie’s choice is always hard for us humans. (Unless we are psychopaths, who usually do well when resources are scarce, but that’s not the point.)
This choice of scarce resources is not at all hard for our brains though. In times of scarcity our brains are excellent at shunting blood and energy away from certain “children” so that the “favorites” will thrive. There’s no debate, survival is top priority for our brain and less important “children” will be compromised without us even realizing it.
If different parts of our brain were like children, can you guess which children are kicked to curb and left high and dry without food?
So what kinds of things are considered scarce resources to our brain?
Certainly things like these all play a role:
- exposure to toxins
- healthy relationships
We are adapted for survival. This is the concept of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And most of us are not victims, we adapt.
However we are not infinitely adaptable.
It takes some time but eventually time gets the best of us all.
When the balance of stress and recovery is chronically out of balance, something’s gotta give. We will cope with insomnia. We will avoid or endure, but we wont recover in an adaptive way.
Sleep is our main form of recovery for our mind, brain, and body.
Neuroscience is getting much better at showing what exactly happens to our brain when we have insomnia and sleep deprivation. Fancy scanners have identified which children likely are going to get the boot from mom and be starved out of precious resources.
No Sleep = hungry brain
No Child Left Behind, Psych! Here’s the Losers in our Brain During Chronic Insomnia.
The part of our brain that makes new memories.
Result of sleep deprivation: You can’t learn anything new! All that physical training and exercise you did at 0500 before you go to work, you don’t learn anything new or store any of that fitness. It’s like you just exhausted yourself running up a sand dune, ending up exactly the same place after 30 minutes on the elliptical. All that studying for grad school or work for your online degree last night, waste of time. It’s like you never even read it.
Cells that clean up waste products and support and maintain the neurons (the so-called “brain cells”).
Results of sleep deprivation: Your brain vacuum doesn’t suck up the dust and dirt off the floor. It has a jackhammer attachment that actually cracks up the tiles and shreds the carpet so the floor is broken up instead of cleaned up. The vacuum goes haywire without sleep!
3. Frontal and Parietal Lobes.
The energy-hog parts of our brain responsible for decision making, problem solving, and executive function.
Results of sleep deprivation: The instant gratification monkey part of our brain kicks the shit out of the rational decision maker part of our brain and we excel at procrastination, self-sabotage, and impulsivity and then become filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread later.
Executive function is the ability to self assess and monitor behaviors to see if we’re reaching goals. That usually goes first without sleep. So it’s no wonder that the most sleep deprived are the most insistent that they are okay. They have no self awareness of their problem because that part of the brain is one of those very expensive children that always ate too much meat, so Sophie’s hand was forced.
Without rational thinking and acting impulsively, it’s quite the sustainable problem, one of our quirky human processes. This function is super adaptive for survival in the short term, but maladaptive for longevity.
Fear and Anger emotional center.
Results of sleep deprivation: We all know the loudest and most annoying unfortunately get the spotlight. Ugh, politics right? Our brain acts that way too when resources like sleep get tight. The volume on the amygdala turns up 40% with sleep deprivation, making us more irritable and angry and prone to make decisions and behave emotionally.
Unfortunately this means that Sophie’s most annoying child that cries and spits all of the time gets fed, but one of the nicer children that think rationally and plan for the future gets the axe instead. Hey, there’s only so much food to go around, right? The cycle of self-sabotage continues.
So how do we become a good sleeper?
What is it anyways? Insomnia? Simply put, it’s less than optimal sleep regularly. It’s a complex bio-psycho-social problem. Not solely medical, not solely genetic, not solely in your head, but a lot of different factors play a part and we have no way of determining exactly why some people are better than others.
The verdict is in! The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society developed a consensus in 2015 based on 5,314 scientific articles. 7-9 Hours are recommended.
What about sleeping in on the weekend?
Banking sleep on the weekend doesn’t do much for you. Shoot.
How about medicine from the doctor?
Medicated sleep puts you “out” but not into deep sleep. Sleep medications are basically amnesiacs. They make you forget that you were sleepless and waking up frequently.
There’s a 99.98% chance you aren’t part of the genetic elite super warrior race that can actually get away with 5-6 hours of sleep and have normal performance, much less peak performance.
For peak performance: 7-9 hours. Period. I’m talking to you military, fire, and medical! Our most sleep deprived professions.
Also, some of our most important professions for public health and safety, making it a policy issue. Sleep is the most integral function for recovery. Recovery from everything. Mental, emotional, and physical stress.
It’s a big mystery as to why we need sleep, but we know we do. People with brain damage that cannot sleep will unfortunately die. Sleep deprivation really is the best form of torture. The waterboarding thing, total waste of effort compared to sleep deprivation.
Chronic insomniacs are at higher risk for:
- 1. Higher sensitivity to physical pain
- 2. Wrinkling earlier
- 3. Getting fat
- 4. Having way less sex
- 6. Adverse health outcomes like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and depression
- 5. Dying earlier, OMG!?!
Let me explain, no, there is too much, let me sum up: Sophie’s Choice.
Our brain acts rationally and shuts down the parts of our brain during periods of scare recovery to stay alive. The catch-22 is that those parts of the brain are best suited to help us reverse course on insomnia, so it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of poor decisions, poor behaviors, increased anxiety, and less than optimal hormonal, cognitive, and muscular performance.
You might think an overhaul is required to self correct, but that’s often the worst thing you can possibly do.
Are there any hacks? No! And hacks are bullsh#;*t anyway. Shortcuts usually end up as long cuts. Crash diet anyone? The only good shortcuts are the ones that are:
- non-harmful to self and others
Is it Repeatable: Can I do this more than once or can I only do it once and then it’s broken for me? Otherwise it’s not sustainable and won’t help in the long term. You can’t build a life by creating habits around something that breaks after you use it.
Examples for insomnia:
- Staying in a luxury hotel away from your kids and farting husband to get good sleep.
- Getting a professional massage every night in order to relax enough to sleep (unless you are really loaded).
- Using sleep meds that only make you forget you were awake anyways and eventually the placebo wears off and they don’t work anymore.
Is it non harmful? What are the downstream effects of this shortcut? If i’m going to build my life around this and make sustainable habits, I want to know it’s not going to break my brain.
Examples for insomnia:
- Illegal Drugs
- Barbituates – Downers
Is it additive? Does it make me more secure and confident the more I do it?
Examples for insomnia:
- Alcohol to get to sleep. While initiating sleep might seem great, it has the side effect of addiction, poor recovery, and liver disease and the anxiety of the long term outcomes of alcohol over-consumption.
- Being a primadonna about your sleep, ignoring your social life completely to get better sleep and losing human connections.
The shortcuts to better performance is using nudges to get better recovery with sleep. This is really a long shortcut, the best kind.
Why nudge instead of overhaul?
To transform permanently, we don’t want to shock our identity and habits because it will never stick. If we nudge in a way that our system can bounce back from and maybe through repeated practice accept a new “slightly better” normal, results last.
Overhauls like “The Biggest Loser” are a total sham. People end up gaining back the weight they lost and usually gain MORE weight. It’s not how our change-resistant systems work.
Learning to sleep is learning. Just like anything else, drinking from a firehose rarely works but small sips of water throughout the day result in good health and hydration. Short academic 45 min lessons work better than 4 hour cram sessions.
Going to the gym everyday and working out by pushing yourself a little more each time results in better fitness than smashing yourself with weight you have no right to consider lifting.
Our systems are set up to want to stay where they are. For example, if we get cold, we get uncomfortable and reach for a sweater and eventually shiver to create heat. If we get hot we get uncomfortable and take off our sweater and if continuing to be hot, start to sweat and eventually cool off.
In an adaptive system:
First: the behavior is elicited,
Second: the physiological reaction occurs to bring us back to our resting temperature of 98.6 degrees F.
We subconsciously and consciously want to stay where we are (politics?). It’s the foundation of our physiology and psychology. Sleep is no exception.
Small nudges cause a positive adaption and a “new” normal where we are better off and have more competence.
Cast a wide net and consider all of the myriad of factors that go into this complex issue that can be tweaked, gently and systematically until our body adapts and we transform our sleep into something that is restorative and rejuvenate to adapt and be anti-fragile.
Nudge yourself and start with the lowest hanging fruit first.
2. environmental setup
3. physically relax your body
4. mindfulness- relax mind
5. gentle chemistry – melatonin, magnesium
6. check for apnea
7. psychological counseling
8. check for TBI
Check our next post for specific details on each of these approaches.
But for now, nudge yourself to act on the two most common habits you can change to crush insomnia.
1. Stop taking any caffeine after lunch.
2. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, stay within 1 hour either way on weekends.
****Here’s your first self-nudge. After the morning joe, hide the coffee pods in a back cupboard so they are hard to find, or unplug the machine and put it somewhere hard to find. Basically make it a pain in the butt to make coffee, so that your laziness will help you not keep yourself up at night with caffeine that sits in our system for hours.
And put the herbal teas in a cute little display box on the top of the counter or at work in the break room. Make them look enticing and “fancy”. Train that instant gratification monkey to enjoy an alternate that won’t make you anxious at 0300. And do this in the morning when you are fresh and more likely to do it.
Forge Your Outdoor Freedom.
Mountains & Sea, Please.
Author profile: Morgan Fielder is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and passionate hiker who believes in exploring the world on foot with good food. Follow her journey as she shares science-based hiking tips and advocates for sustainable tourism.