Commentary: Trying to renew a relationship with sleep

By Jim Russell
Empire Press Correspondent

Sleep feels like a stranger I’ve never been able to befriend.

I’ve read a book by Arianna Huffington called “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time.” The book’s compelling evidence about the value of getting more sleep and the consequences of sleep deprivation has convinced me to spend more time with sleep than I do.

Since I retired 15 years ago, I wake up after three to five hours usually feeling rested. I then work at my computer or read for two to three hours until I go back to sleep for two to four more hours. Frequently, I will nap once or even twice a day on an average of almost seven hours. The interlude is creative for me so segmented sleep is productive and meditative.

My sleep follows a scientifically recognizable, but largely unstudied, pattern called “segmented sleep,” according to Huffington, that’s been recognized for ages. Homer in his book “The Odyssey” has called the segments “first sleep” and “second sleep,” separated by an interlude of several hours.

Huffington says studies show it’s an almost universal pattern in the animal kingdom and it becomes more common as we age, according to Greg Jacobs, an insomnia specialist at the University of Minnesota. Writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson have rhapsodized about their creativity during those quiet interludes.

Huffington’s book has motivated me to get eight hours of sleep with or without segments, because every hour over six is tied to better health. Huffington quotes Harvard’s researcher Allan Hobson who said, “Sleep is by the brain, for the brain and of the brain.”

Her stories, research and personal experiences promote the benefits of sleep on learning capabilities, brain development, nutrition, personal immunity, aging, well-being, creativity, moods and relationships.

Sleep makes us safe and more responsible.

“Twenty-four hours without sleep is the equivalent of a blood alcohol of 0.1 percent, at which point you are more than legally drunk,” Huffington’s book says.

Huffington lists numerous ideas and techniques people have found successful, many of which I’ve tried, such as reducing exposure to blue light from electronic devices that restricts melatonin. I take melatonin.

Other techniques are worth trying, with Huffington’s caveat that she has worked at it for years like many of the people in her stories.

A few weeks ago after a “first sleep” that left me feeling tired, I tried a Native American 4-7-8 breathing technique advocated by physician Andrew Weil. Take a deep breath for four counts, hold for seven counts, and then breathe out for eight counts while making a “whooshing” sound. When I was sleepy again, I turned on my sleep apnea machine and put on my mask. It didn’t work until I held my breath for three counts and breathed out for three counts. Soon, I felt that sleep was on the way. I slept for eight hours.

I’ve only succeeded with it a couple of times since. I’m writing this paragraph after 45 minutes of no progress toward sleep, while my mind refused to count, and I concentrated on solving several issues bothering me that I wanted to mentally fine tune. Frustrated that I couldn’t sleep but feeling I resolved ways to solve the issues that made me more settled, satisfied, competent and aligned with my values, I got up to write this. Huffington would probably tell me more sleep would have done the same thing and allowed me to solve them easier.

Obviously, I’m using nighttime in bed to resolve problems rather than using awake time, nourished by energizing sleep, to solve them more effectively and soothingly. That scares me into continuing efforts on better, longer sleep for my health.

I’m ready to go back to sleep.

Epilogue: I read spiritual literature briefly and fell back to sleep quickly for a total of seven hours, at the end of which I was dreaming about an issue someone else was going to resolve.

Maybe someone else could add hours to my sleep. A hypnotist maybe?

Let me know if you’re working toward better sleep, too, and what you’ve learned.