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COLUMN - "Don't Ask Brian: Get back to sleep"

Updated: Apr 1, 2020

By Brian Mickelson - Jan. 27, 2020

I have been on the losing end of a battle with sleep since I was a child and the consequences have been painful at times. Bruising, even.

As a very young boy I fell out of my bunk and hit my head on the corner of a chalkboard affixed to the wall near my bed. Big cut on the noggin. Not many years after that I slipped out of bed in a sleepwalking trance, unlocked and opened the front door, and ran to cross the busy road our family lived on in Northern California. Luckily the creak of the heavy door woke my father who ran out just in time to grab me before I met the cars passing our home in the night.

I was fine sleeping away from home at the houses of my friends, but really had a hard time at my first Boy Scout camp. Homesickness kept me awake most nights as I’d cry into my pillow and miss my family. Finally, I stole some stuff (some Cracker Jacks and a canoe) and was able to go home early. Well, I was told to go home early whether I wanted to or not, which I did.

As I grew older, I would walk or talk in my sleep periodically, but usually more often if I was a little stressed or having a new experience. As a religious missionary in Texas that made quite a time for my companions. At one point my first companion woke up to find me kneeling on the corner of my bed on one knee, while the other leg was trying to push me forward while I yelled, “C’mon Elder! Let’s get going! We have stuff to do!” In my dream I was kneeling on a skateboard and trying to get us moving down the road. On my bed, in reality, I just looked like an idiot and woke up my buddy.

On my honeymoon I got up out of bed, walked around to my sleeping wife’s side of the bed, shoved her over to my original side and said, “Move over,” then went straight back to sleep. We’re still married so it must not have bothered her too much. Luckily my good looks and sharp wit keep her attracted to me.

We all need to sleep, and according to Dr. Matt Walker, we need to sleep longer and more consistently than we typically do. A lack in quantity and quality of sleep affects your memory, ability to learn, mood, and can have long term effects related to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly cancer. My own anecdotal “research” tells me that when I go a couple nights in a row without adequate sleep I’m grumpy, moody, impatient, more of a procrastinator, less likely to be engaging with the other humans, worse at eating, and less likely to exercise.

During the night we each slip through multiple sleep stages which include light sleep (promotes mental and physical recovery), REM sleep (helps with moods, learning, and memory), non-REM deep sleep (helps with physical recovery and memory and boosts the immune system), and multiple short periods of being awake (though we rarely remember most of those moments). Obviously when these stages are truncated or interrupted we don’t enjoy all of the benefits of sleep. Multiple nights or weeks in a row of missing out on sleep? The consequences are multiplied.

I’m not a doctor or a scientist (or an expert on literally anything), but here’s what the actual experts say to do to improve your sleep:

Set a schedule – go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.

Exercise 20 to 30 minutes a day but no later than a few hours before going to bed.

Avoid caffeine and nicotine late in the day and alcoholic drinks before bed.

Relax before bed – try a warm bath, reading, or another relaxing routine.

Create a room for sleep – avoid bright lights and loud sounds, keep the room at a comfortable temperature, and don’t watch TV or have a computer in your bedroom.

Don’t lie in bed awake. If you can’t get to sleep, do something else, like reading or listening to music, until you feel tired.

I’ve been tracking my sleep with my FitBit. I’m not sure how precise the measuring is, but it’s all I have so I’m using it. I used to track in the high 60s and low 70s with some regularity (less than 60 is “poor,” 60-79 is “fair,” 80-89 is “good,” and 90-100 is “excellent,” though I wouldn’t know).

Over the last few months, with a bit of effort (see the list above) and no medication, I’ve moved to regularly getting a sleep score of about 80, with a number of nights in the mid 80s range. Has it changed my life? Well, not dramatically. But I will say my low-level anxiety has all but disappeared, my mood is consistently happy, and my energy level is high for the most part. It has been worth the effort to tighten up my sleep hygiene, and I’d bet it would help you too.

Now, get back to bed!


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