7: How to Get a Good Nights Sleep with Janet WhalenApr 03, 2023
When you’re not getting enough sleep, the negative impact goes beyond making you feel ‘just a bit tired’. It can affect your mood, your relationships, and your overall quality of life.
Obesity is linked to a higher risk of sleep disorders, including insomnia. It's not clear whether that's because sleep loss leads to weight gain or because the physical and metabolic effects of obesity keep you from sleeping soundly. What we do know is that insomnia is not just a night time problem, it’s a 24 hour issue.
I interviewed sleep and stress management coach Janet Whalen to share her expertise when it comes to sleeping better. A former insomniac turned great sleeper, Janet is passionate about helping women give themselves permission to sleep, rest and care for themselves after years of giving everything to work, family and others.
What is the relationship between sleep and weight?
It's tough to know what is a causal relationship and what's just a correlation. If we are carrying a lot of weight, we can have less energy and it can be harder to do some of the things that we need to do in order to sleep well, like exercise.
One of the key things that comes up for most people if they're not well rested and they didn't get good quality sleep, is that there is a weakened connection between two parts of our brain. These two parts need to have a significant connection throughout the day in order for us to be in charge of our intentions and they are called your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala.
You might say to yourself the day before that you know how you want to eat and move your body but then wake up in the morning and feel overly emotional because you didn't sleep well. The amygdala is in charge and you just can't stick to your plan. In addition, you’re craving things like starchy food, sugary food, and other things that maybe weren't on the plan, and it all goes out the window.
People who are obese are so quick to turn to a place of shame, thinking they’re not strong enough and that it's a willpower problem. Realistically, it’s because your foundations are not intact and you’re not getting the right amount of sleep you need to function optimally.
How do our needs for sleep change over our lifetime?
When we're born, we don't have a circadian rhythm because we haven't been exposed to light yet. That's why babies’ sleep is all over the place until they've lived in the world more. As a kid, you still need a lot of sleep, and as a teen, you might revert to almost needing as much as a toddler.
As we enter our twenties and our thirties, for some people sleep isn't that hard as they're busy figuring out their adulthood and everything else.
After having a baby, your sleep habits come undone because you're at the mercy of their sleep schedule, and not your own. Then you can learn all kinds of really bad perpetuating habits that can turn a couple of bad nights into 50.
As we get into our forties and fifties and perimenopause and hormonal changes start to take place, you might wake up more frequently in the middle of the night with hot flashes.
We probably need less sleep as we enter our fifties, sixties and seventies. People often think that elderly people need more sleep because we see them napping a lot, but that’s more likely because they're awake half the night. Your sleep need is just not what it was before at this age as you're not growing new bones and muscle like you were in your teenage years.
Are trackers good for looking at sleep?
It’s a big question right now because there's evidence that these devices are a little bit more accurate. There’s also a push in the sleep science world to make these devices more accurate so that people can do sleep studies at home. Having a sleep study in a sleep clinic is super uncomfortable and people don't always sleep the way that they would at home, as they worry what the results will be.
While this is the hope for the future, right now a lot of the sleep devices remain somewhat inaccurate. Some of them underestimate the amount of sleep you get by around half an hour or more.
However, the bigger issue is this idea that we should be focusing on and obsessing about data that we have no idea what to do with. Obsessing is part of what causes insomnia in the first place.
How can people better connect with the symptoms in their body like drowsiness and wakefulness?
We are so divorced from listening to our body’s signals for wakefulness and drowsiness. We’ve been told we need a bedtime but what does bedtime mean? Is it just an arbitrary time that you just picked? Is it after you watch the news with your partner? Because really, it should be when you're sleepy.
Having a wind down hour can be more beneficial than a strict bedtime routine. Think of sleep like a dimmer switch, rather than an on off switch. As the sun goes down, our retinas discover there's not so much light and that signals to our body to start creating melatonin a couple of hours before we're ready for sleep. All of this is a phased situation. We don't just snap our fingers and fall asleep.
So if you look at that hour before you think you're going to get sleepy, this is when you should start winding down. That can include watching television if it's going to relax you. Try to avoid looking at your device before bed because of the mental disaster it can create for you. You're probably reading stressful things and involved in a whole bunch of decision making, which you don't even realize. Every single button is a decision for your brain. Do I want to read that article? Do I want to buy that item? Then we create a stress response and we don't even realize what this constant attachment to our devices is doing to us.
We need to create a habit of taking that hour for ourselves. We're so used to bedtime arriving and thinking we can fall in bed and our body will do what it's told, but that's just not what works. One thing that's really common with busy, hardworking women is that they get to bedtime and they're so frustrated at having no time to themselves during the day, that they steal time back to themselves. This is called revenge bedtime procrastination. It’s important to put a boundary in place that can avoid this situation, like stopping work after 7pm.
Is extra sleep at the weekend harmful?
People often think they're being rewarded by this but actually it’s one of the most harmful things that we can do in terms of sleep.
Our circadian rhythm is a 24 hour cycle and our hormones, body temperature and sleep are all driven by that 24 hour cycle. We can try to fight that but we're not going to sleep well because of the cortisol and melatonin changes, as well as other hormones like adenosine. All of them are not going to work in the way that you need them to work to be able to sleep.
We have two systems, a sleep system and a wakefulness system. Your wakefulness system needs to be in gear for 16 hours a day. This means if you wake up at 10 o' clock in the morning, you're not going to be sleepy until 16 hours from then, so around 1 or 2am. If you think of this every hour you sleep in more than you would during your regular week, it's the equivalent of flying a time zone. If you're someone who's traveled several time zones, you know what that can feel like physically. And you're doing that to yourself every weekend.
That’s why waking up at roughly the same time each morning (within around half an hour) can make a huge difference.
Should I take a melatonin supplement?
Few studies show that it works. It can be helpful in a couple of populations, such as menopausal women and elderly people whose melatonin might be lower but most people don't need it. It has all kinds of side effects and people tend to take too much. 3-5 milligrams is the max dose but some people are taking 15 or 20, which can cause stomach upset, headaches, and feeling groggy the next day.
Your body's probably already producing enough, and it’s important to know that your body produces it a couple of hours before you go to bed, not at bedtime. It's not a sleeping pill. It's actually a hormone that's telling your body that you're preparing for your sleep cycle. It's a circadian rhythm balancer, but it's not going to actually put you to sleep, which people often misunderstand.
How do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep?
Alcohol is used as a sleep aid because it can make us feel drowsy. While it may help you fall asleep, your quality of sleep is going to decline pretty significantly. You will probably get less REM sleep, which is the most important two phases of sleep.
It feels good to people because the part that they're most scared of, which is not falling asleep when they want to, is taken care of. But you still feel rubbish the next day. Then you start thinking there's something wrong with you, and the cycle just continues.
When it comes to caffeine, one or two cups of coffee in the morning is not really going to prevent most people from sleeping. But you need to treat your own body as a bit of an experiment with yourself. For example, if you have two cups of coffee, and have more trouble falling asleep than not, you might want to drop it down to one and see what happens.
Top tips for improving sleep
- Have a consistent wake up time, seven days a week. This is the most underestimated and the most important tip. It can be within a half hour or so but recognize the truth of what happens when you vary it for an hour or more.
- Only go to bed when you're tired.
Both of these tips are so significant because they're connecting you with how your body feels. Focus on quality sleep first, rather than quantity. There's a huge range of how much sleep everyone needs, even within a certain age category. The only way to know is to try out some things and see what feels good to you and how you function during the day.
The symptoms of insomnia are rarely feeling super tired during the day. They're more emotional responses like frustration which might come out as yelling at your kids, for example. We need to start understanding that insomnia is a 24 hour problem. We need to work on it from the minute we wake up, and not save it until bedtime because then our brains go to work on all the stress that we didn't resolve during the day and at that point, it's too late.
More About Janet
Janet Whalen is a sleep and stress management coach for busy midlife women. A former insomniac turned great sleeper, Janet is passionate about helping women give themselves permission to sleep, rest and care for themselves after years of giving everything to work, family and others.
Janet's membership coaching program, "Permission To Sleep", helps her members sleep better without pills, potions or needing anyone's permission but their own. Janet is a Certified life coach with The Life Coach School, and was formerly trained at CTI as a Co-Active coach. She is also a certified CBT-I practitioner and a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher in training. Before she found her own sleep solution, she spent years as a marketer, and is now empty-nesting with her husband in Southern Ontario, Canada.
Connect with Janet:
Visit Janet’s website at janetwhalen.com
Go to janetwhalen.com/sleep to download the Calm Your Racing Mind At Night freebie
Follow her on Facebook and Instagram: @janetwhalencoaching
Join Janet’s free Facebook group: Facebook.com/groups/Permissiontosleep