Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sleep Debt

"Recovery doesn't come in a can. Recovery is sleep."
- Dan John

In any class of 20 students, if I ask 'How much sleep did you get last night?', it is rare that more than 3 students have slept at least eight hours. Usually, a clear majority of them will have gotten less than 7 hours of sleep. There's always a reason, and in the mind of an adolescent, it's always legitimate or grossly unfair (remember the entitlement post?). Those sleeping habits will follow them into adulthood.

Americans, in general, have no patience for cooking, eating, sleeping, or bathing. We do not enjoy them. We resent the inconvenience and disruption to work, our social life, and 'down time' they cause. They are things to "get done". Rather than enjoy them, we view them as unnecessary distractions from the things we want to do, the things we have to do, and the things we feel compelled to do.

Most of us experience "sleep debt" occasionally. To make up for the sleep debt, we may eat poorly because fast food is quick, easy and pumps us up (temporarily). The "nutritional debt" makes it more difficult to repay the sleep debt. For example, when we lose sleep because of stress or work, we drink caffeine and sugar to power through the day. The caffeine and sugar wreaks havoc on our energy levels, causing them to spike and plummet. ...and the caffeine makes it harder to sleep. It is a vicious cycle and the only way out of it is rest and recovery, and/or breakdown. We 'sacrifice' sleep and good food, but it's not really a sacrifice - there is no clean break and no finality. Problems will surface eventually. Repressing debt does not make it go away. Eventually our debt must be paid one way or another; repress the sleep and nutritional debt long enough and payment will be extracted physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Like most people, I wish I could get more, but I rarely suffer from an inability to fall asleep. Even under significant stress, I can usually switch off quickly and get restful sleep. I have only two pieces of advice that may or may not be useful for people with sleep issues:

*Examine Your Dietary Habits*
I firmly believe that better sleeping habits start with an improved diet and quieting an overly active mind. Caffeine and other stimulants, even when stopped early in the day can impact sleep negatively. Give it up, if you can - at the very least, stop intake 8 hours prior to bedtime. Poor nutrition can leave your body and mind hungry even if the stomach is not empty. Eat better and more frequently - reduce the highly processed, the pre-packaged, and "fast". Eat a light dinner if it is close to bedtime.

*Reduce The Noise In Your Mind*
We have become addicted to distraction. It assaults us on all sides in the form of text messages, 100+ mind-numbing channels of television, YouTube, emails, gum, cell phone calls, faxes, endless playlists and MP3 shuffle, and yes, even blogs... When the distraction ends and we are left alone with our thoughts, we cannot relax. An inability to turn off thoughts and anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep and impossible to go back to sleep if you awaken in the middle of the night.
Do yourself a favor and begin to unplug COMPLETELY an hour or two before going to bed. Turn off your computer, television, cell phone, iPod, and the light.
If you find yourself swimming in thoughts and worry, acknowledge the thoughts and then release them. Like good meditation, good sleep requires you to be present - make a decision to stop the inner dialogue and give yourself permission to enjoy the restful eight hours ahead.


Unknown said...

Hello Boris,

I like your blog very much and enjoy reading it, so excited for the next entry. Thank you for this and thank you for you video series about the squats. This is really a labour of love dedicated to strength sports.
Thank you again!

A question regarding the current entry: You say take a light meal for dinner. What did you thing about the Ori Hofmeklers's "Warrior Diet" where the dinner is the most important meal and where the dinner and the carbohydrates in it should make you sleepy. I am excited to hear your opinion and maybe it is actually worth a new blog entry ;-)

best regards and best wishes
from Germany

Gubernatrix said...

Terrific post Boris! So clearly and simply explained! I am particularly guilty of the second issue: I regularly lose out on sleep because I can't (or won't) get my brain to switch off. I'm often on the computer late at night; sometimes I'm writing and I don't want to lose the train of thought (which I think is justified) but sometimes I'm just idling around from site to site not really doing anything except keeping myself awake.

I shall implement your idea about switching things off an hour before bed and starting that wind down process.

Boris said...

Thank you.
If you are on a diet that 'restricts' carbs, then more at night will help you sleep. A big meal right before bedtime can make sleeping well harder, but it's an individual thing.

Thank you.
I don't 'work on' ideas as I'm trying to go to sleep, but once in a while good things just kind of show up... Keeping a journal near the bed is a good idea for writers. (When I remember) I do this and if there is a phrase or an idea that pops in my mind, I can jot it down and then let it go quickly.

Let me know how the unplugging works for you.

Josh said...

Boris, with my condition, my tics make it nearly impossible for my body to relax to the point where it can drift off to sleep.

I don't know if I've had 6 hours in a row in the last 10 years. I have tried to establish a routine of:

no caffeine after 12 PM, no exercise within three hours of bedtime, a light dinner, and no electronic screens for the last two hours of the day.

Any advice? I know you're not a neurologist, but other than sleeping pills--which I hate--I've never made any headway with this.


Boris said...

I'm not sure I can give you any advice that you haven't heard or tried, but meditation before trying to sleep might not be a bad idea. Clearing the mind is something that I've tried (with varying degrees of success) for just about everything.
When I was younger (and sometimes still even now) the mind got to racing about things (usually about people that pissed me off, things I wished I would have done, etc) and it was very difficult to calm down. Focusing on breathing, and catching and releasing thoughts to the point where I'm mentally able to 'catch my breath', helped put me in a more positive (or neutral) frame of mind to start moving towards sleep.
I don't know if any of that will be helpful to you Josh. I'd like to hear more about what specifically about your condition makes it hard for you to sleep. Does your mind race when hit the sack?

Josh said...

Boris, my mind does race at times, but that's not the problem with sleep. The tics make some part of my body tense up every 2-3 seconds. When I'm trying to sleep I might be curling my toes, making fists, biting my lip, throwing my head from side to side--any number of things.

I can't relax mentally because I can't relax physically. I'm always waiting for the next thing to happen to me, and that's why meditation has been difficult as well. My focus is broken every few seconds.

Anyways, I didn't really expect you to fix this, but since you fixed my squat, I thought I'd chime in and hope.

The best treatment is truly doing the C&J long cycle at 5 AM. By 10 at night I'm pretty wiped out.

Boris said...

Do you have tics while doing intense physical exercise? If not, I wonder if they can be controlled in other areas (like sleep) as well. As you said, I'm no neurologist, but I think there could be something in meditation to help you.

Weeds in the garden make good mulch for flowers.

Keep me posted in things you try. The subject of sleep is really important to me and I'd be curious to know if you find some answers.

Robertin75 said...

Boris, please send me an email to

I'm interested in getting some skwat t-Shirts.