One of the saddest stories I read in the press recently was about a much respected trainee doctor who died in a car crash after fighting to stay awake. He was so exhausted after working three long night shifts that he fell asleep at the wheel and hit a lorry.
Now, I’ve never worked in a hospital, nor had to work a single night shift in my life. I cannot for one minute imagine what sort of mental and physical strain that would put a person under. But I have known what it’s like to be driving a car and be struggling to stay awake.
Back when my two eldest children were aged three and one, I worked in an impossibly stressful environment. At the time, my one-year-old son would wake up regularly every couple of hours at night. It was a toxic combination that left me as a PR account director who was underweight, cracking at the seams and forever trying and failing to get on top of the job.
I can still remember the regular sprint out of the office, battling yet again with the rush hour traffic, knowing that, yet again, I’d arrive after closing time to find, with a sinking heart, my two gorgeous little boys bundled up in their coats and waiting expectedly with a lone, grim-faced carer outside the locked doors of the nursery. And I remember one day reaching the motorway and realising with mounting horror that my eyes were closing. After frantic window-opening and turning the radio to full blare, I engaged every shred of concentration I could muster to drive the remainder of the journey. The memory makes my stomach turn. I simply shouldn’t have been behind the wheel.
Once I’d ditched the job and began my years of freelancing from home, the night time became my friend as I caught up on the work that I couldn’t get to during the day. You know those boxes of chocolates where you finish one layer and you’re gutted there’s no more pralines and then, hurrah, you pull out a whole new fresh tier? Well, that’s how I was with nocturnal working. If I couldn’t get every last bit of work completed during the day then… ta-dah! I could whip out a whole new source of time to get through more work: the night! Sticking two fingers up at my natural body clock, I used the blissfully uninterrupted quiet of the night to bang out page after page of copy, reports and correspondence.
Now that I’m a health coach, I see that cavalier attitude to sleep reflected every day in women who are chronically overstretched. They view the night as a child-free opportunity to get on with cooking, cleaning, ironing, polishing, form-filling etc etc. But forfeiting sleep exacts a heavy cost. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know the price we pay the next day: from a frighteningly short fuse and cravings for junk to hormones in freefall and ravaged cognitive skills that sabotage our work. And the long-term effects? Weight gain, depression, a heightened risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s.
It’s a subject that’s on my mind a lot this week as I’m reading The Sleep Revolution by one of my favourite role models, Arianna Huffington. I read Arianna’s last book, Thrive, a couple of years back and it imprinted on me a life-transforming lesson: count back eight hours from when I need to get up and go to bed at that time. So simple…and yet such a departure from the manic, artificially hyper life we’ve come to lead in 2016. Never-enough-hours-in-the-day, got-to-have-the-house-perfect-before-I-go-to-bed, i-pad-on-the-pillow, let-me-just-catch-up-on-Twitter/Facebook/anything, just-one-more-episode-from-the-box-set….
Sound familiar? Then make a switch that will save your health, your mind, your sanity. Join the Sleep Revolution and watch your life transform.
Try these tips to improve your sleep:
- Make sure your room is completely dark, free of clutter and cool (around 18 degrees).
- Try to choose a wake-up time you can stick to within an hour every day of the week to support your body’s natural rhythms.
- An hour before going to bed, switch off all electronic devices, including the TV. If you do have to look at a screen, wear special amber glasses designed to block out blue light (you can buy these online).
- Don’t have a TV in your bedroom and keep your iPhone/iPad out of your bedroom (if you’re telling yourself you need your phone to wake you up, invest in an alarm clock!).
- Consider taking a magnesium supplement, a powerful relaxation mineral, before going to bed.
- Have a hot bath and add magnesium-rich Epson Salts and a few drops of lavender oil.
- Finish dinner at least two hours before you intend to go to bed.
- Leave a three-hour gap between exercising and lights out.
- Try a ten-minute meditation or breathing practice to signal to your body it’s time to rest.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon/evening.