“Sleep… chief nourisher in life’s feast” — Macbeth (2.2.46-51), William Shakespeare
In her new novella Sleep Donation, celebrated writer Karen Russell paints the horrific picture of a society wracked by an epidemic of insomnia. The condition is terminal for sufferers, and the only way they can recover is to receive “sleep donations” delivered from a van, as though sleep were a commodity measured out like pints of blood.
Russell’s venture into the world of disturbed sleep has abundant precedent in literature, commercial fiction, and film. Shakespeare refers often to sleep in his plays and sonnets. Readers of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol will recall how Ebenezer Scrooge attributes the ghost of his departed business partner Marley on Christmas Eve to his bout of bad sleep:
“You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato.”
And who could forget the film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the 1956 original, and the 1993 and 2007 remakes), in which people feared going to sleep lest they be consumed by giant alien pods?
For years we’ve been hearing that scientists don’t understand why we need sleep. Until recently, the truth of the matter had bypassed all the results of brain scans and neurological studies. But we seem to be getting closer to some insight. In a 2013 article in Science Magazine entitled Sleep: The Brain’s Housekeeper?, researchers report a cleaning effect of sleep on mouse brains after the mice awake from a sleep. Sleep actually “channels between neurons that allow an influx of cerebrospinal fluid. The fluid flushes out detritus such as amyloid proteins, which accumulate as plaques in Alzheimer’s disease, twice as fast when mice are sleeping as when they are awake.”
On an anecdotal level at least, we can project these findings to understand why our problems seem so much easier to deal with after we’ve gotten a good night’s sleep. In effect, we’ve emptied our brain’s trash can.
Attacked as we are in a digital and media worlds by one last distraction before we try to call it a night, emptying our brain’s trash can is becoming increasingly difficult. The temptation to check your email before you lay down your smartphone on the night table is just too much for anyone to bear. And the compulsive desire to say up and watch Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman probably won’t help you either. If you must watch a favorite show, it’s best to record it.
There are other ways we can prepare ourselves for a sleep that can refresh and revive us. Let’s look at five very critical ones.
We really are creatures of habit. Your body doesn’t understand that Wednesday night is an exception for you because you want to catch up on a movie you saved to watch. Your body has its own internal clock, and it’s up to you to regulate it.
Exercise Vigorously Every Day
If you tire your muscles naturally through exercise, you’ll toss and turn less each night because your muscles will crave less movement. But exercising too late in the day could bring about the exact opposite effect and keep you up all night.
Once You Turn in, Concentrate on Relaxing Rather than Sleeping
Don’t try to will yourself to sleep. If you concentrate on letting parts of your body relax, one at a time continuously from toe to head, your body will take over and let you go to sleep without willful intervention.
Hide the Alarm Clock
Rolling around to check the time is a sure distraction to a good night’s sleep. It gives you one more thing to think about, and creates worry and anticipation about the day ahead of you. If you must set the alarm, make sure you keep it in the drawer of your night stand where you can’t see it at night.
Restrict the Use of Your Bedroom to Only Sleep (and Sex)
Your computer and TV do not belong in your bedroom. They call out to you for schedules other than what your body requires for a decent night’s sleep.
Finally, just let go of your day. Remember what the Dalai Lama advises us: “Sleep is the best meditation.”