04/07/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sleep Challenge 2010: Lessons Learned

I must admit that when I first thought of sleep as an empowerment issue for women, it took me a minute to see just how fantastic an idea this was. In my research and practice I always thought of sleep as a physical, mental health and emotional issue. I knew that better sleep helped save marriages, reduce depression, and increase performance. I also saw the devastation that sleeplessness and sleep deprivation brought, and how truly crushing it can be to people, families, and even society (think Three Mile Island or the Exxon Valdise). When Cindi and Arianna accurately defined sleep as an empowerment issue for women, I recognized that empowerment is exactly what sleep can do for everyone.

Many of my patients, friends, and the people I meet, believe that they have failed at sleep. They wonder what happened? How did it get this way? And most importantly, why can't it change/stop/get better? But to be empowered means that you can take responsibility and control of something you once thought uncontrollable, gain strength, and overcome the barriers in your way.

I also thought that the idea of a challenge was great, because that is exactly what it was going to be, and a tough one at that. Why? Because sleep is affected by so many areas of life. It can sometimes be so hard to determine what to attack first and where to start that many people never do! We all have challenges to our lives and health. But few challenges are on an every day (or night) basis. A challenge implies that there will be obstacles in our way to reaching a goal (work load, social commitments, our favorite TV show). Amazingly, many people know what they need to do to be healthy and have healthy sleep. But so many people think that these goals are out of reach, too difficult, or simply do not want to try it alone.

The Sleep Challenge 2010 is a unique and fun social activity that gives everyone a chance to get the rest that they need, working together for a common goal. With what we learned, we all have the ability to now have a strategy, formulate a plan, train (with our friends), and meet our own personal challenge in a way that is truly empowering.

So what have we learned, watching these two now Wise Women of Sleep?

Lesson 1: Nothing (not even caffeine) replaced the need for regular, quality sleep. And you can see results in just two or three nights once you make sleep a priority!

I thought I had a busy schedule, but I was exhausted watching these women. They work hard and keep long hours, and get a lot done. While they were both getting pretty exhausted, they had not quite yet gotten to the point of taking prescription medications to help them sleep. They did, however, rely on the single most abused substance that people turn to when sleep is not a priority: caffeine. They seemed to be sleeping less and less, and when sleep finally came it was based on exhaustion, not the need to just rest and regenerate. Burning the candle at three ends was the norm and not an easy habit to break.

But once our intrepid and determined challenge participants committed to making sleep a priority and not something that came when they could no longer see straight, BOTH saw an immediate improvement in SEVERAL areas of their lives. Creativity improved, attention spans lengthened, exercise was more efficient, food choices were wiser, even a couple of pounds melted away!

Lesson 2: Sleep is not an on/off switch, and just like stretching before a workout, your body requires time to power down before sleep. Try to do anything for seven to eight hours without a good warm-up and you decrease your chances for success.

Both Arianna and Cindi seemed to treat sleep as an activity that started when the light when off. They had a tendency to do a lot right before bed (have to fit it all in, right?). Between parties, family obligations, late night work, meetings and phone calls, their time before bed was anything but relaxing. Power down. Prepare yourself, your space, your mind and your body.

Lesson 3: Your mind is a terrible thing to turn on -- right before bed, or just after getting in bed! Scheduling a time for thoughts allow for clear thinking and some new creative outcomes.

Cindi and Arianna discovered, like so many people that just because the light went off, it does not necessarily mean your brains will follow. From upcoming meetings, to social events, to party planning, to worries about family, their thoughts both before and during sleep were preventing Cindi and Arianna from settling their brains for better rest. Schedule time for yourself to think about your day, make lists, run through whatever you find yourself thinking about AFTER you get into bed. If you have to, make an apppointment for yourself, with yourself (but not at 11 p.m.).

Lesson 4: There are many things on the market to try and help with sleep, but nothing beats the right bedroom environment (and a nice hot bath or massage)!

While a bedroom makeover was not on the list for these ladies for this month (talk about a potential anxiety increase!) Cindi and Arianna found out how environmental factors: snoring bed partners, TV, internet, Blackberries, computers, etc., could all contribute to their poor sleep. Or, worse, they could serve as distractions to keeping to the sleep schedule or sleep hygiene they knew would work.

Lesson 5: Having dreams is not just important for your aspirations, but also important for your health.

Dreaming played a part for everyone with the sleep challenge, because now they were actually 1) getting enough sleep to dream, and 2) waking with the ability to remember these dreams.

Lesson 6: Personal Empowerment can come from taking responsibility for your health and sleep. No one has ever failed at sleeping, many have just forgotten the basics.

One of the most rewarding areas for me personally to see was the amazing response these new super sleepers got wherever they went over the last month. From the awesome emails from readers of their blogs and mine, to the questions and encouragement they each received wherever they went (including the Golden Globes and Dignitary dinners), sleep is universal, and it is not just empowering for those taking the challenge, but for all those following it as well.

But wait, the Sleep Challenge is not over, it has only just begun. This last month has simply gotten us all "in shape" for sleeping. Cindi and Arianna have shared the rewards and the empowering effect getting enough sleep has had on the quality of their lives. We must continue to remain aware of changing and keeping new habits for better rest and better health. If you started your own challenge - and I hope many of you did, keep going. Enlist a friend to help you stay on track. AND spread the word. Tell everyone how much better you feel, and how simple (not necessarily easy) the challenge was.
Take the challenge - everything you do, you can do better with a good night's sleep.

Sweet Dreams,

Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™