Battling the Insomnia Demon Pt. 2

Hi all. So, to recap, in Battling the Insomnia Demon I spoke about my efforts to curb my insomnia. Originally, I struggled with sleep onset insomnia – getting to sleep – which was resolved by taking small doses of melatonin. But then, when I would wake in the middle of the night, I would fail to get back to sleep, which is known as sleep maintenance insomnia.

I’ve since settled on Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder as a diagnosis. DSPS sufferers essentially have a “body clock” which runs longer than 24 hours. Our full waking day and sleeping night run longer than 24 hours, leaving us (when left unchecked) sleeping and waking later each day. This was the case when I was younger, and less apt to try to control my sleeping patterns.

Sleep researcher Dr. Piotr Wozniak suggests that disowning electricity aside, there are only two reasonable solutions to DSPS:

  • Free-running sleep with high productivity, good health, but schedules irreconcilable with the outside world
  • A stable 24 hour sleep cycle with god health, but decreased productivity

After my last blog post I took free-running sleep for a week-long experiment. This involved no sleep medications, good sleep hygiene*, and attempting to sleep only when tired, for as long as my brain deemed necessary. The result? Well.. I slept at most four hours per night and was awake for 24 hours+ at least twice.

*Sleep hygiene is essentially practising good habits to prepare us for a good night’s sleep. Things like: no TV before bed, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, minimizing noise light, stress, and heavy meals.

I decided to approach Piotr to discuss the subject.

“I am 99.6% confident,” he said, “that given total freedom, you can sleep like a baby. Perhaps you need just 4 hours, but your brain can excel given your [subjective, ideal sleeping time.] You need 1-2 weeks on a system to start getting consistent results.”

Adapting to any new system can take some time. We’ve trained ourselves to wake by alarm clocks, to wake at dawn. We risk breaking our ability to sleep naturally when we take sleeping medications. And despite our sleep schedules, we still retain the niggling energetic itch in our brain’s perception of daylight hours, no matter when or how little we’ve slept.

For any efforts to determine an individual’s ideal sleep phase, he writes, we need to throw away any and all interference, including sleeping medications, school schedules, clocks, parents, light, girlfriend, cat, etc. If we eliminate the chaotic elements that disrupt our sleep, a natural pattern should emerge, and from this, we can either constrain our sleep to match our life, or modify our life to optimise our sleep. Piotr encourages the latter, for overall health, productivity, and longevity, even if it puts us at odds with the machinations of society.

The rules for free-running sleep are as such:

  • Keep a meticulous log of every minute you actually spend asleep.*
  • Sleep only when you feel you will fall asleep quickly, whenever you need to, but don’t force it.
  • Eliminate all/as many sources of sleep interference as possible.
  • Avoid stress, caffeine, and alcohol, especially into the evening.
  • Don’t postpone sleep to far later than when your brain is ready for it.
  • Don’t nap beyond 7-8 hours after waking.

*A note from Piotr:

“Only true sleep should be logged. There might be some hazy points where you are not sure if you were asleep. You must decide/guess. Attempts without sleep have no place in the log.”

By following this system, we can track our sleeping hours (using software such as SleepChart), which will determine our propensity for sleep at certain hours of the day. We can determine our optimum time for sleeping, how long that comes after waking, and when we could expect to be awake on any given cycle.

After our natural sleeping cycle has been reasserted, if we wish for a ‘normal’, 24 hour sleep cycle, then we need to accept some constraints.

Piotr suggests the following:

  • Determine the length of the day. By free-running and tracking sleep we can determine the sleep we personally need, and subtract that from a 24 hour day.
  • Set a permanent bedtime, and permanent waking time, and stick to it.
  • Set a protected zone of 2-3 hours in which you avoid strenuous activity, TV, light, any real activity in the evening
  • Get strong morning light, even if it needs to be artificial
  • Eat less at night
  • Exercise in the morning

Piotr alleges that those whom have entrained themselves to this systematic procedure have resolved their sleep issues. They don’t get all the sleep they would wish to, but they are able to sleep consistently, and appropriately. Me? Until I’m in a position to trial eliminating sleep medication again, I’m going for a compromise of only trying to sleep when I feel ready to, with a little melatonin to instigate it. It’s far from perfect, but it works for now.

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