March 4, 2024


“Wdon’t you go to sleep when normal people do?” This is a question I am asked on countless occasions. The last time was in a radio interview and I was about to make my usual self-deprecating remarks about the joys of not being normal, when I took a breath and replied, “Because I don’t want to.” It really is that simple. Going to bed at 5pm and getting up just after midnight suits me. I enjoy the peace and quiet. My productivity levels increase. It’s just a shame that other people find it so hard to accept. I’m not quite sure why. I do exactly what everyone else does, I just do it about seven hours earlier. Around the time most of the country is pouring milk on their Weetabix, I’m chopping garlic and frying mushrooms for my lunch. While you sit down with a glass of wine and a movie, I have long gone to sleep. A week of sticking to the same pattern and it became my new routine.

The day always starts with a 01:00 breakfast before a long walk with my dog, then I start my work day. Working from home makes it all too easy to slip into the world of permanent loungewear, so I try to make an effort and dress like I’m going to an office. It may feel strange to turn on my computer and start writing in the dark, but it doesn’t seem like the rest of the world is waking up for long. My office overlooks the town and I see lights appear as the new day begins. I break for lunch around 8:00 and then go back to my desk. One rule is no naps! I still get an afternoon dip, like everyone else, but it usually happens mid-morning and a quick snack does the trick. If I give in, my sleep pattern becomes even more erratic. Another thing I have to be strict about is reading emails after my day is over. When everyone else is at their desks chatting away, it’s tempting to join in, so around 2:00pm I shut off all the technology, read for a few hours, and then went to bed.

Of course, this upside-down life is fine when you’re operating as a one-man army, but when I have social obligations or book events, I have to slip back into a “normal” schedule. I have found that the only way to do this successfully is to treat it like jet lag. Sleep well the night before, pull through and eat lots of carbs the next day. Fortunately, many of my friends are abroad, which makes it easy to organize Zoom calls.

I always have an unusual relationship with sleep. When I was little, I adopted a childish logic that equated it to staying awake with a grown-up, but as I got older, I enjoyed getting up early. There was no typical teenage habit of lying under the duvet until lunchtime and I liked to be ready for the day as early as possible, perhaps influenced by my father who always sat quietly next to each dawn when it broke.

It was when I started training as a doctor that my atypical sleeping habits became embedded. A daily five-hour round trip to the medical school in Leicester meant that I had to wake up even earlier than the crack of dawn and as the course became more and more demanding and the clinical situations I saw more and more distressing, I had those few hours of solitude. morning has become an integral part of good mental health.

This habit continued long after I left the halls, but I often still had trouble falling asleep. I would have long periods of insomnia, or I would find myself falling asleep, only to wake up a few hours later, still exhausted, but unable to doze off again. My body was tired, but my mind was usually uncooperative, and insomnia followed me for most of my adult life. That is until about 12 months ago, when a particularly nasty virus (no, not that one) saw me go to bed at teatime. I woke up eight hours later completely refreshed. A week of sticking to the same pattern and it became my new routine. Now I have unlimited energy. Twice the work is done. I have no trouble falling asleep (or staying asleep) and, more importantly, my mind feels settled. Apart from a scattering of international friends, my social media timelines move at a snail’s pace and without incoming phone calls and emails, I can get on with my writing without interruption. The silence is uplifting and the solitude has become a comfort.

Walking my dog ​​in the early hours of the morning is also a joy. The landscape is so different at night and without any disturbance we wander through a quiet world that feels as if it belongs only to us. I initially set an alarm to make sure I was up on time, but now my body wakes up naturally. The answer to my sleep dilemmas kept staring me in the face. It only took me a few years to realize that I’m the kind of person who needs to go to bed at the same time as a little toddler.

In recent years, sleep has become quite the hot topic. Depending on the definition you use, insomnia affects up to 40% of the population and even if we do manage to fall asleep, our watches immediately let us know how well we did, with the quality of our sleep converted into a handy percentage (there is no pressure). Apps rush to help us with recordings of falling rain and distant whales. Bedside lights mimic sunrise and sunset. Behind the giant doors of Peloton and Headspace endless hours of sleep meditation await our choice. It’s no wonder the promise of good sleep is such a big earner.

Insomnia is a crippling condition and continued lack of sleep affects not only our mental health, but also our physical health, because it is when we rest that our bodies and our minds do all their housekeeping. Muscle recovery, detoxification, energy restoration work quietly in the background once we’ve dozed off. The body’s natural circadian rhythm, which is caused by darkness and light, orchestrates the release of hormones, especially melatonin (the “sleep hormone”) which, among other things, regulates the body’s insulin levels. Even more significantly, while we sleep, our thoughts repair and the brain’s neurons reorganize themselves, flushing out the toxic byproducts that accumulate during waking hours. It’s even been suggested that sleep helps us turn short-term memories into long-term memories, uncluttering our synapses and clearing away anything we no longer need, making room for new information.

If all of this happens during sleep, and the hormones involved in the process rely on darkness and light, then an upside down sleep pattern like mine, where I have trained my body to work permanent “night shift” could have any adverse effect on me physical health? There are studies that suggest this is possible. In 2019, 27 scientists from 16 different countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France, to evaluate whether night-shift sleep patterns could lead to an increased risk of developing cancer.

After examining the limited evidence, which centers mainly on breast, prostate and colorectal tumors, and analyzing the results of animal studies, they rated night shift work as 2A: “probably carcinogenic to humans”. It was mainly based on disruption of the 24-hour “natural” body clock, exposure to artificial light and its suppression of melatonin production. If this is indeed the case, this is a worrying conclusion. More than 3 million people in the UK are night workers, an increase of 5% in the last 10 years, in addition to the many thousands of insomniacs who, rather than choosing this particular lifestyle, find it has chosen them. The Great Britons Sleep The survey estimated that one in three of us suffer from sleep problems at any one time and a staggering 10% describe it as a chronic problem. Then there are people like me, who decide to stay awake at night.

Will these findings change my sleep routine? No. They won’t. Having walked miles of hospital corridors, especially when I specialized in psychiatry, I know one of the most common risk factors in so many diseases is stress. Anxiety, low mood and stress have a huge impact on physical health, not only with a direct effect on how our bodies function, but also through the coping mechanisms we use to try to alleviate our suffering.

My coping mechanism was a change in sleeping habits and the therapeutic benefits far outweighed any potential downsides. Rather than fighting insomnia and feeling helpless, I embraced it, and while I’m in the privileged position that my choice of waking hours doesn’t affect anyone else (my dog ​​is ready for a walk at any hour of the day or night ) as more of us now work from home, small adjustments at the start and end of the day can make a big difference.

It’s always a risk that you’ll be asked why you don’t go to bed when other people do, but fashions change. In the Middle Ages, for example, sleep was biphasic. Everyone had “first” and “second” sleep, with a little break in between to do homework and chat with their friends (a period known as “the watch”). This habit died out when artificial light became commonplace, but it still exists in more remote parts of the world and is still routine within the animal kingdom. In the 17th century, the idea of ​​sleeping eight hours straight would have been extremely strange indeed.

The main message with insomnia is to try a different routine and listen to your body rather than the clock. There are downsides to being up all night, but they are few. When I walk my dog ​​in the depths of winter I need a torch to light my way and it can get a little hard underfoot, but as we pedal through the fields I realize my dad was right . He has always been a firm believer in plowing your own way and besides – I strongly suspect that the antidote to most of life’s problems lies in a beautiful sunrise.

Joanna Cannon is the author of A Tidy Ending, out now in paperback (£8.99, HarperCollins). Buy a copy for £8.36 guardianbookshop.com



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