Showing My Work - Finding A Way To Better Sleep
[Disclaimer: Nothing in this post is to be construed as offering or advocating medical or psychological advice. This post reflects nothing more than a description of my experiences based on my own research and advice from professionals. If there is anything in this post that resonates with you, dear reader, than great. But your mileage will vary, so consult your health care professionals.]
A couple of articles this past week prompted me to craft the collection of rough notes I have on the subject of sleep into a post. Sort of a PSA for anyone who has an interest. Given these articles, the topic seems relevant. It’s also an opportunity to reveal how an Agile mindset and systems thinking can be leveraged outside the workday world.
To mark the "shortest night of the year," June 21, AASM took the covers off a new survey about insomnia. It included 2,010 adults across the United States.
Of the nearly two in three taking sleep aids, 23% use prescription medications, 27% use melatonin and 20% use marijuana or CBD (cannabidiol). About 37% said their use of sleep aids had increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
[A] review article published recently in the journal Trends in Neurosciences contends that the folk concept of sleep as something that can be saved up and paid off is bunk. The review, which canvassed the last couple of decades of research on long term neural effects of sleep deprivation in both animals and humans, points to mounting evidence that getting too little sleep most likely leads to long-lasting brain damage and increased risk of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
The chilling quote from the New York Times article:
"If you’re asking your cells to remain active for 30 percent more time each day, cells die."
Well, OK, then! That get's my attention. Let's fix this!
As far back as I can remember, lack of sleep has been an issue. I grew up in a house with a great deal of fear of the primal variety. Early lessons centered around remaining watchful and cautious around an angry, unpredictable, and narcissist father. High school and college were years of working long hours to get passable grades while working multiple jobs to pay for it all. A four year stint in my late 20's working a night shift also had an adverse effect on sleep patterns. My 30's and 40's were spent caring for my first wife, Janet, during her very long battle with terminal breast cancer. Ten plus years working several jobs to pay medical bills while constantly on the alert for the next medical crisis followed by several more years dealing with the fallout from her death was undoubtedly the biggest hit of all.
"That which does not kill me, makes me stronger" may very well apply to how I've grown over the years in terms of maturity and character. But cumulatively, all this has led to an unknown amount of permanent damage to my physical well-being. By the time of Janet’s death, my once lean and strong Aikido black belt body had become overweight and weak. Blood pressure and cholesterol were a problem. And I wasn't sleeping for days at a time.
I had work to do.
It's late in the game of life for me. But for the past 10 years I've had the good fortune, in partnership with my second Number One wife, J, of being able to focus on changing course and perhaps reversing some of the physical damage. Fixing the weight and strength issues were relatively straightforward. Blood pressure and cholesterol proved to be a bit more gnarly and are a work in progress. Sleep, until recently, was the most elusive of all. I can attribute all of my recent success in this area to the phenomenal amount of research that has been conducted in the last 10-15 years related to biochemistry, nutrition, and sleep. It seems sleep research has awaken!
So that's the background. Might be worth considering your personal history regarding sleep. What was the result of choice and what from circumstance? Doing so will clarify the strategy you need for improved sleep - do you need to change your choices or your circumstances?
Detailing my lengthy history of this journey would be a tedious bore. Instead, I'm going to describe where I'm at now and include only enough history when relevant to the current state of things.
The Health News article calls out the cautious use of melatonin. I've heard from many people that melatonin isn't effective for them. I found the same unless I took 5-6mg about an hour before going to bed. This seemed to help, but I'd still frequently wake up over night and not feel rested in the morning. In addition, the sleep aid qualities of melatonin seemed to diminish if I used it regularly. So I learned to use it only if I felt I was in an extended patch (several weeks) of poor sleep.
I've since learned about research that shows melatonin can help us get to sleep, but doesn't help us stay asleep. That certainly fit my experience. And running in the background of my mind, thanks to my degrees in biology and biochemistry, is a healthy respect for the power of hormones. Melatonin is a hormone - a regulatory substance that usually has a subtle and long-lasting affect on our bodies. There are no studies I'm aware of on the long-term effects of melatonin use, so I've steered away from regular use out of an educated respect for the powerful influence hormones have in general. Based on recent research that suggests what some of the long-term effects might be, I've stopped using it altogether to good effect.
The subject of melatonin serves as a template for a more general strategy to solving complex problems, such as sleep issues.
Do the work to get to original sources of information. Reading the label on a bottle of supplements isn't going to give you the full story. Obligatory FDA warnings aside, you're just going to get the story that draws you into making the purchase.
There are at least two systems in play here. One is the general system of biology and biochemistry - what competent science researchers have discovered to be true about our generalized biochemistry as it’s understood today. Over time this understanding will change and for the better. So stay current. The second system is our respective bodies. The generalized view from science gets squishy when the variables in our environment begin to act on the general case. Start with good science and than keep a keen awareness on what your body tells you. Age, location, diet, environmental stresses (natural and artificial (e.g. work)), and many other factors begin to shift slightly how you, specifically, reflect the truth of the science. If the science is good, chances are it's going to be a good match. But in some important ways, it won't. I've often marveled at the extent to which Tim Ferriss has gone to determine what works and what doesn't for him. In my case, by paying attention, I noticed the actual effects of melatonin long before I was aware of the research that corroborated my observations.
Keep an open mind to new or contradictory information.
Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. If something isn't working, regardless the reason, shift.
Journal your experiments, discoveries, and progress. Make the map of your territory.
So how do I get to the original sources? I recognize I have an advantage over most people in this regard. With degrees in both biology and biochemistry (including study at the graduate level), I can read a research publication like most people read the New York Times. Learning to read this type of source material, however, is a learned skill. I taught my very-new-age-y psychotherapist first wife how to read science publications in response to her desire to better understand her cancer and proposed treatments. She became exceptionally good at this and it was, in my opinion, a significant factor in how we were able to work together and extend her two year terminal diagnosis out to ten years of good quality, given the circumstances.
Lacking this skill, a person needs to be critical of the popular sources they seek. Main stream news is useless. Actually, less than useless. Disregard the talking heads. What spills out of the major news networks is to knowledge what sewage is to water.
Name recognition is a reasonable place to start, but also read their critics. Mathew Walker, for example, is a Ph.D. researcher who has published a controversial book on sleep. I've read his book, "Why We Sleep," and listened to him interviewed multiple times. I've also read the criticism of his work - there are many - and subsequently read his responses. As a consequence, I've learned many useful things and have steered clear of others. Andrew Huberman and Peter Attia are both medical doctors who have a lot to say about sleep. So far, I've found them to be reliable sources but keep my ear to the rail regarding new research or when - to their credit - they're changing their thinking on any particular topic.
Finally, learn to read science publications. This gets easier over time and is well worth the investment. This skill casts a whole different light on just about everything you read and hear that claims to be “news.”
Where I'm At Today
I'm sleeping better than any other time in my life. The reasons for this are in the following densely packed, research supported nutshells:
A better understanding of and respect for circadian rhythms.
An unwavering priority placed on managing stress.
Exercise: Long walks, stationary bike, rowing machine, strength training
Investing in a hot tub
Playing live music (cello, piano)
As close to zero social media as possible
Zero main stream media news, regardless the bias that drives it (left, right, etc.)
Face-to-face social interactions
Non-computer hobbies - gardening, woodworking, playing a musical instrument - anything that simultaneously uses my hands and mind.
Eliminate processed food. I have a rigorous definition for what qualifies as "processed." For example, I consider products like "Beyond Meet" to be processed. One look at the combination of ingredients and it's clear that there is a complicated process required to squeeze all those things together. Plus, I trust what my body is telling me. Meat substitutes don't taste good and some of them actually leave me feeling physically uncomfortable several hours later.
More veggies, more fish, very little read meat. (J and I can't resist the occasional date night out to our favorite local burger joint.)
Eliminate (as in all) refined sugar (sucrose, fructose, sweeteners)
Sleep aid supplements
Exclude melatonin, as noted above
Magnesium threonate or magnesium bisglycinate
If any of this helps, great! I'd like to hear about it. But if all you do is lift my bullet points and twist them into a strategy for yourself, you're doing it wrong. Use them as starting points for your own exploration and discovery. This is important, so do it right.
As a bonus to paid subscribers, I'm including the detailed flow chart I created after listening to Share Parrish's interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman. There was a lot of information in this interview and this was the only way I could determine how what he was saying was connected and if it made sense. It does, in my opinion. This is also an example of the level of effort needed to get to and understand original sources of information and explanatory knowledge.
Best of luck…
Image Credit: My little Westie pup, Ginger. A master of The Nap.
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