Monday, March 29, 2010

Taming the night owl: my sleep challenge

I love the night – always have done!

As a child, I would read under my duvet for hours with a flash light. In the dark, ideas seemed to flow more freely, allowing me to travel strange and wondrous worlds inaccessible during daytime hours.

In my teens, staying up late seemed sophisticated and grown-up. One time, my father (a fellow night-owl) found me at 1 a.m. penning a school essay on the topic of “Existentialism”. He sat down next to me on the edge of my bed and we talked about The Meaning of Life until 3 a.m. How cool was that!?

Throughout my youth, I would cheerfully ignore my mother’s tedious admonitions: “sleep is the best medicine” (boring!), “every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after” (phooey!), or “early to bed, early to rise makes you healthy, wealthy and wise” (yeah, whatever). She would retire at 10 p.m. every night to get her 8 hours’ shut-eye while Dad and I watched old Westerns on television.

Over the years, my nocturnal life took on new and increasingly exhausting forms: student parties and late-night exam revision, burning the midnight oil to catch up on chores after long workdays in the office, or arguing with my husband. (In our early years of marriage, whenever we reached a certain level of fatigue almost anything could trigger a fight. We dubbed these our “eleven-o’clock-fights” as they always seemed to take place after that time. Eventually we banned potentially inflammatory topics between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.)

And finally, the ultimate sleep-killer: motherhood and on-demand breastfeeding. Baby Number One – a fitful sleeper who rarely snoozed more than two consecutive hours for the first year – transformed me into a moody mess.

Babies Two and Three – delivered in a convenient double-pack – turned me into a sleep-deprived wreck. Yet, by the time they weaned themselves at 10 months, I had become so used to the chronic fatigue that I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be rested, alert and fresh, and so no longer missed it. I soldiered on in a daze, hoping fervently that coffee and anti-wrinkle-cream could compensate for my 5-hour-a-night sleep habit.

Eight years later, I still love the night. When the daytime hurly-burly of school runs, work deadlines, grocery shopping, meal preparation and dish-drying lies behind me and the last child has gone to bed, I feel the night beckoning me to explore the many temptations she has to offer: perhaps a few emails to friends, some pages in a good book, a spot of internet surfing, maybe a late-night recipe-test-run? The possibilities are endless, as is the wide-open mental space. No telephones, no doorbells and no squabbling children can disturb me now – I am at one with the night.

When he’s home, my husband – a sensible early-bird like my mother – marches me off to bed at 10.15 p.m. to make sure I get enough sleep. (I fondly call him the “Sleep Police”.) But when he’s away travelling for work, about three to four days most weeks, I go back to my nocturnal perambulations.

However, all good things come to an end, and my varied and stimulating nocturnal life is one of these – for sleeping as little as five to six hours a night is taking its toll. My mother, at 72, has fewer wrinkles than me; I am forgetful and often too tired to exercise; and thoughts of stimulating foods – such as chocolate, bread and dried fruit – are never far from my mind (or my waistline).

It wasn’t until I wrote my anti-cancer nutrition guide (mostly between the hours of 9 p.m. and 2 a.m....) that the importance of regular sleep really hit home. Not just because I needed to be rested in order to be creative, but also because I discovered that lack of sleep has a direct bearing on cancer.

The exact link between cancer and sleep is not clearly understood, but epidemiological research suggests that night-time shift workers have a higher risk of cancer than those who get their regular seven to eight hours of shut-eye. (More on this in my next post.) While I'm no shift worker, I do spend a lot of nocturnal waking time in front of a computer screen and hardly ever get 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Giving up two to three hours of productive alone-time each day may be the hardest part of my Anti-Cancer Challenge. Yet, if I am to remain productive and healthy over the long term, I need get regular doses of high-quality sleep. This week I will describe how I plan to do this. Meanwhile, do tell me how you manage to fit healthy sleep habits into your busy lives!

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