Battling the Insomnia demon

I’m going to take another departure from the Charlie Eagles series tonight.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve struggled with varying degrees of insomnia.

As a kid, I preferred late nights. My parents would often catch me reading books into the early morning. I always wanted to stay up late to be involved in whatever adults were doing, and it was a pleasure waiting for my Mum to get home from work at 2-4 am. School days were awful, as a result, but I didn’t enjoy my school experience enough to see the difference.

Into my late teens, I’d pull all-nighters and sleep through days, sometimes falling into something akin to DSPS (Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder.) DSPS sufferers have a circadian rhythm set to a period longer than 24 hours, leaving them rotating sleeping hours around the clock, if left unchecked.

But despite these interests in sleeping alternative hours, whenever I made a sincere effort to sleep regular hours, even when required by work or school obligations, I could never get to sleep “on time.”

After trying the majority of pills out there, I found melatonin, which resolved the problem for a little while. Melatonin is as natural as they come: it’s the body’s sleep chemical, developed in response to sunlight as received by the eyes. The caveat is next day drowsiness, especially on the typical dosage levels. I found I may as well have not slept for the effect on my brain the following day. Cutting the dose dramatically solved my sleep onset problems, to a large extent. I could guarantee at least 2-3 nights of solid sleep per week.

But recently, melatonin hasn’t been as effective. It began with my waking up in the early morning and failing to get back to sleep. It doesn’t help that I’m a university student which brings quite bit of anxiety about being incapable of effective (or sometimes any) study on the proceeding days.

The past week or so, it’s all gone to hell. I haven’t been able to sleep consistently, or for very long to the point I’ve had to request extensions and take time off in an attempt to solve it.

Having more sleep-deprived time on my hands than I’d care to, I have had the opportunity to do some further research.

First, I discovered the tale of Uberman. This is one of several alternative sleep cycles, allegedly practised by great, creative minds. On the Uberman schedule, you would sleep 30 minutes every four hours, theoretically adjusting the brain to compress sleep to just the “essential” dream sleep. Perfectly well rested and with many more hours in the day. Sounds fantastic, right?

Dr Piotr Wozniak and Professor Edward Gorzelanczyk of SuperMemo write that it’s an internet fad, especially attractive among insomniacs who see it as a potential solution to their woes, or supremely driven individuals seeking to get every productive second out of every day. In reality it may be the worst option for both, potentially destroying the brain’s capacity for REM sleep. These two state that sleep cycles can be shifted, but ultimately not altered in nature. Uberman adepts, sending in sleep  logs for research demonstrate in their inevitable accidental oversleeps a consistent adherence to a natural rhythm. It’s also apparently simply not possible to train your brain to jump straight to core sleep. Success stories are few and questionable.

Diving further into the veritable goldmine of their sleep research, I discovered an practice so simple and intelligent, you wonder why the world is so crazy as to not to be doing it.

That idea is free-running sleep. Sleep when you’re tired, whenever that is, let go of alarm clocks and set sleep times. It reminds me of how sleep might have been practiced before the modern age: in the natural way! Anyone with a working life, familial obligations etc. may struggle to adhere to such a proposal (especially if they possess a deviant sleep phase) but simply stated by Dr. Wozniak: “It is very difficult and usually very unhealthy to force your body and your body clock to do what you wish. It is far easier to do the opposite: adapt your life to your body clock.”

Consistent sleep loss literally damages your brain, and is linked to the development of chronic illness. I wonder are we so desperate as a society to achieve and keep up, only to destroy ourselves in the process? Especially those of us with creative, intellectual minds whom live by those minds. We should be protecting and fostering that intellect. Are the consequences not far greater in long-term reward?

But coming back to now. I’ve begun using the freeware SleepChart software developed by Dr. Wozniak to log my sleeping hours. Together with free-running sleep, it should help me to identify when my best quality sleep is achieved, to understand where and what is wrong in my sleeping patterns, enabling me to take an educated guess at when I should attempt to sleep, when I can expect to be awake, and to organise my life accordingly for maximum productivity. I also predict that, letting go of the anxiety on when I can sleep might contain my immediate insomnia so that I can get back to working effectively!

Fellow insomniacs with broken sleep rhythms could also use SleepChart to simply identify when the best time to go to bed is, to ensure being able to get to sleep, and then still live by an alarm. There are two caveats here: Wozniak writes that to establish a baseline you need to the flexibility to free-run sleep for a while first. Secondly, using the alarm clock will ensure that sleep deprivation, to some degree, will likely still continue.

For me? The symptoms of poor sleep have cost me dearly in work, study, and life for years. Missed opportunities, being let go from jobs due to performance issues, social issues from struggling to mentally engage with the world around me. Sleeping well on a consistent basis would be invaluable. I basically look and act like the narrator from Fight Club right now. So I’m going to try free-running sleep and see what happens.

The free-running sleep algorithm, as written in Dr. Wozniak’s Good sleep, good learning, good life is as follows:

Free running sleep algorithm

  1. Start with a meticulous log in which you will record the hours in which you go to sleep and wake up in the morning. If you take a nap during the day, put it in the log as well (even if the nap takes as little as 1-3 minutes). The log will help you predict the optimum sleeping hours and improve the quality of sleep. Once your self-research phase is over, you will accumulate sufficient experience to need the log no longer; however, you will need it at the beginning to better understand your rhythms. You can use SleepChart to simplify the logging procedure and help you read your circadian preferences.
  2. Go to sleep only then when you are truly tired. You should be able to sense that your sleep latency is likely to be less than 5-10 minutes. If you do not feel confident you will fall asleep within 10-20 minutes, do not go to sleep! If this requires you to stay up until early in the morning, so be it!
  3. Be sure nothing disrupts your sleep! Do not use an alarm clock! If possible, sleep without a bed partner (at least in the self-research period). Keep yourself well isolated from sources of noise and from rapid changes in lighting.
  4. Avoid stress during the day, esp. in the evening hours. This is particularly important in the self-research period while you are still unsure how your optimum sleep patterns look. Stress hormones have a powerful impact on the timing of sleep. Stressful thoughts are also likely to keep you up at the time when you shall be falling asleep.
  5. After a couple of days, try to figure out the length of your circadian cycle. If you arrive at a number that is greater than 24 hours, your free running sleep will result in going to sleep later on each successive day. This will ultimately make you sleep during the day at times. This is why you may need a vacation to give free running sleep an honest test. Days longer than 24 hours are pretty normal, and you can stabilize your pattern with properly timed signals such as light and exercise. This can be very difficult if you are a DSPS type.
  6. Once you know how much time you spend awake on average, make a daily calculation of the expected hour at which you will go to sleep (I use the term expected bedtime and expected retirement hour to denote times of going to bed and times of falling asleep, which in free running sleep are almost the same). This calculation will help you predict the sleep onset. On some days you may feel sleepy before the expected bedtime. Do not fight sleepiness, go to sleep even if this falls 2-3 hours before your expected bedtime. Similarly, if you do not feel sleepy at the expected bedtime, stay up, keep busy and go to sleep later, even if this falls 2-4 hours after your expected bedtime.

Cardinal mistakes in free running sleep

  • do not go to sleep before you are sleepy enough – this may result in falling asleep for 10-30 minutes, and then waking up for 2-4 hours. Ultimately you can experience an artificial shift forward in the entire cycle!
  • unless for natural reasons (no sleepiness), do not go to sleep well after the expected bedtime. This will result in missing the period of maximum circadian sleepiness. Your sleep will be shorter and less refreshing. Your measurements will be less regular and you will find it harder to predict the optimum timing of sleep in following days
  • do not take a nap later than 7-8 hours from waking. Late naps are likely to affect the expected bedtime and disrupt your cycle. If you feel sleepy in the evening, you will have to wait for the moment when you believe you will be able to sleep throughout the night

So far? I went from two nights of broken 5 hours sleep to a solid 7 hours last night, with dozing for 4.  I felt like I’d regained some level of ability to think coherently today.

But tonight, I may have messed up the rules. On the basis of the idea ‘only sleep when you’re certain you will’ I believe I waited through my peak drowsiness and missed the window. I went to bed at midnight, roughly 18 hours after getting up, which seemed like a solid plan. I’m writing to you now at 3.. wait, it’s now 4 am. But let’s see what happens within the next week.

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