sunday life: in which I learn to sleep

This week I went to the foundations of a life better lived and road-tested sleep. You know, to see if this mortal coil is sweeter with it.

I’ve spent vast tracts of my life not sleeping. I went for five months in my early twenties on 2-3 hours a night. It turned me, almost literally, into a teapot. Then I had a phase where I’d wake at 3.25am. I’d fret and turn the pillow over and over looking for the cool side until the Currawongs drawled that lonely, first-light wauk-wauk-waaugh, a sound that sends us insomniacs into a tizz. It heralds the point of no returning to sleep. Throw in the blanket. Day is officially here.

More recently I’ve been a sleep procrastinator. I’m sure someone in a white lab coat will coin a term for this fast-growing affliction soon. Something with an ‘e’ in front, like e-somnia, because technology is definitely the villain here. Most nights I put off going to bed by preening my electronic devices – cleaning out my inbox, checking Twitter and clearing Facebook. I’m actually scared of going to bed. I don’t feel things are in order, so this e-fiddling lulls me into a false sense that I’m getting ahead for tomorrow. But it’s like getting blonde streaks in your hair; once you start, you have to keep going and going.

I know there are millions of e-somniacs out there, because they’re all on Twitter and Facebook at the same god-forsaken hour as me, updating with messages like, “Hello 2am, what a strange hour you are” and “Favourite midnight snack: porridge with maple syrup”.

And I know all this is not good for us because cave men didn’t do it. And, as a very wise sleep retreat convener told me on Tuesday, we have a prehistoric body that still responds to prehistoric body-clock cues.

So, yes, this week I’ve been on a sleep retreat at Gwinganna in the Gold Coast hinterland. For those too fatigued to make it to the end of this page, a few drop-into-your-next-water-cooler-chat factoids: eat turkey and pepitas to sleep better; please don’t eat avocado, cheese or rice (!) at night (they contain tyramine which blocks melatonin production), nor grapefruit. Go to bed by ten. If you don’t, your body will ache (body repair occurs between 10pm and 2am). And get 7-8 hours. Or you’ll get fat. There that woke you up! Sleep debt causes cortisol to rise, which shuts down metabolism (more on this in a few weeks).

However, the real secret to perfect, age-restoring, fat-fighting, cancer-preventing sleep is….got your fluorescent highlighters ready?…routine.

It’s really not a sexy revelation, is it. But I’ve just had a solid week of rigid, wholesome, wrapped-in-hessian routine and I can’t tell you how liberated I feel. And I lost 2kg.

I’ve taken what I learnt, added my own frosting and here, dear reader, the cupcake of routine goodness that now works for me: rise at 6am. Slide straight into your sneakers. Exercise straight from home – none of this driving to the gym business. It invites procrastination or piking. A simple 30-minute walk is perfect. Then I meditate. By exercising first, I find, my mind is settled ready for meditation.

I then shower, take a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar (to wake digestion) and eat porridge. According to Eastern traditions, a hot, dense breakfast is the best way to ground your energy; cold foods, such as muesli, require heat to digest, which saps energy from your system at that hour.

At night, it’s simple. Eat by 7pm. Computer off by 8pm. In bed by 9.45pm. Repeat for a week and watch your skin glow, your phone manner become more attentive and sleep strike you like a blow to the head with a fat doona.

Lots of very successful people have routines. I know this because I used to read the RSS feeds late at night from, which chronicles famous people’s routines in ablutive detail. See if you can see a pattern here. Winston Churchill and Truman Capote cite haphazard routine, a few hours sporadic sleep and highly toxic tendencies. The closest Churchill got to routine was a daily whisky at 11am.

At the other end of the spectrum, C.S. Lewis, Michelle Obama, the delightfully Zen writer Haruki Murakami and Benjamin Franklin boasted routines of rising early, exercising, and eating and retiring at regular times. Franklin even wrote a flow-chart. 7pm: “Put things in their places. Supper. Music.”

I don’t need to spell it out, do I? Or finish with a concluding line that says, yes, sleep is making my life sweeter and less achy? Or admit, yes Mum, you were right, your frenetic daughter with a shemozzled set of life systems could do with a dull routine? Do I?

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