Sleep and I have a dysfunctional relationship.
The fairy tale is supposed to go something like this: Early on in the relationship, we're infatuated with resting -- newborns spend roughly 16 hours sleeping each day, about half of which is in that deep REM cycle. As time goes on, we may take sleep for granted, skipping it to stay up all night studying for an exam or to enjoy the company of friends at a sleepover. But as we mature over time, we realize that sleep makes us a better person. It makes us less reactionary, healthier -- hey, maybe even better looking. And we settle into a cozy pattern of cuddling up to sleep for seven to eight hours a night, feeling its supportive strength all the way through our craziest days.
Well, if that's the functional version, then, like I said, I'm dysfunctional. Of course, not everyone is a good sleeper -- according to the American Sleep Association, as many as 30 to 40 percent of our population has experienced symptoms of insomnia over the past year. We see countless articles on good sleep hygiene and other natural interventions, but what if you have more than just one problem? At least 40 million Americans suffer from 70 different sleep disorders, in addition to the non-diagnosable daily factors that interfere with our sleep. What if you can't sleep because your partner's alarm rudely interrupts your last, precious REM cycle an hour before you actually need to face the day? What if you wake up through the night and can't get back to sleep? Or what if, like me, you're a night owl?
I've been one my whole life (I blame my Dad, a fellow owl). No matter how little sleep I get the night before, a light switch goes "on" inside me around 10 p.m. every night. I become more creative and energetic -- the ideas start flowing and I have at least three or four of my best hours ahead of me. This worked well for me in college, grad school and that brief stint of unemployment where my sleep schedule naturally shifted to a 4 a.m. bedtime and an 11 a.m. wake-up call. It's not that I struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep, I just like to do it a little later than most people.
But this, sadly, is the real world. And in the real world, people need to get up and go to work. So my days look a little weird. Each morning, the alarm clock goes off for 30 minutes as I reestablish my love-hate relationship with the snooze button. I bargain with myself, re-setting the alarm on my iPhone in two to three minute increments at the bitter end, as I sleepily negotiate that if I skip drying my hair the whole way through, then I can have a few more minutes.
The days are mostly fine -- I'm naturally energetic and stay focused at work. That's not the tough part. My most vulnerable moments with sleep are when I'm not busy. Need a co-pilot on a road trip? I'm not your girl -- I'll be dreaming by the second song. Want to watch a TV show in the evening? Unless it's truly riveting, I'm out before we hit the first commercial (riveting, of course, is relative and includes the Real Housewives Of New York City). Have a long train commute? I may wake up in the next suburb. And yes, I've been known to "accidentally" nap from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the couch.
On the weekends, I binge sleep, as a coping mechanism to stock up my sleep bank. It works pretty well for me -- I stay up late and then slate a solid 12 hours where I can sleep. Sometimes I nap on top of that. If I'm lucky, I'll binge two nights in a row, which allows me to get through the week on three to five hours a night. I function well, actually -- but I also know, as a health editor who reads about these topics all day long, it's not functional.
So it's time. Sleep and I need a therapist.
I decided on group therapy. Yesterday, the Huffington Post Media Group launched its new wellness initiative, The Great Wake-Up Program. For five weeks, 10 other sleepers throughout the company and I will partner with LARK, a company that couples sleep monitoring and coaching with an innovative "un-alarm" clock that gently wakes you up with a vibrating wristband synced up to your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch.
Those late nights and I have had a good run. But I'm ready to make a commitment toward improving my relationship to sleep, which has undisputed long-term benefits. We trivialize sleep in our society, rewarding those who seem to get through the day on just a few hours and what feels like an IV drip of caffeine. But in reality, people with chronic sleep deprivation put their health, productivity, cognitive performance and mood on the proverbial back burner.
The new program tracks our sleep habits for the first week. I kicked if off last night -- er, this morning at 2:30 a.m. -- with a bit of performance anxiety (hey, someone is tracking how long it takes for me to fall asleep, how many times I awake through the night and how long it takes for me to wake up in the morning). But after a few extra minutes, I fell into my all-too-brief slumber.
After evaluating my sleep patterns like this for a week, the LARK experts will begin a four-week coaching program, addressing my personal sleep issues to help me get on a better, healthier track. Along the way, I, along with the various sleep experts and other participants, will be blogging on our collective progress in an attempt to spread this message that we really can work on the way we approach sleep -- resetting our body clocks and making appropriate adjustments along the way.
So tell us, what kind of relationship do you have with sleep?