For the past two months — no matter how busy I get — I’ve promised to sleep eight hours a night. Extra work to do? Sorry, I need eight hours. Great TV queued up? Nope, there’s Zs to catch. A night of partying awaits? Fine, I’ll go out. But the next morning… I’m sleeping in.
I’ve been calling this project a “sleep diet,” but really it’s about more than losing weight (though I’d happily drop a few pounds). Sleep, as I’ve learned way too recently, affects literally every single part of your life. Want to be more creative? Sleep is the secret. Need a better memory? Get your rest. Crave better sex? Or Lower Stress? Or, yes, to shed fat? Sleep is the key. It will even help you live longer, which is a pretty big deal.
And yet… for a million reasons large and small, Americans aren’t sleeping. Nearly 35% of us get less than six hours, according to the CDC. And it’s affecting us in myriad ways, large and small.
My own sleep diet was born out of the fact that for the six-month span before starting this new regimen, I was suffering from a serious sleep deficit. A few book deadlines, an intense job, and a newborn baby left me worn down, heavier around the midsection, and perpetually fatigued. Worst of all, I was often irrationally cranky — a first for me and a quality I didn’t like seeing in myself.
So I decided to combat it with one of my favorite activities: Sleep. I’d heard about the “sleep diet” as a weight loss method and when I started to look at the other big benefits, the evidence seemed undeniable. But the project wasn’t going to be without work — to achieve optimal sleep I’d have to cut out all sorts of behaviors which had become very common:
- Eating before bed.
- Using my phone or computer in bed.
- Having an irregular bedtime.
- And — the ultimate millennial move — sleeping with my phone within arm’s reach.
Still… as tough as some of those parameters sounded, I was committed to taking them on. Here’s how it went down:
WEEK 1-2: The Humblebrag Phase
I’m a big believer in putting your dreams out into the universe and “faking it ’til you make it.” Which is why I told literally everyone I met about my sleep diet during the first week.
When a friend asked how I was doing — “Well, I’m on a sleep diet.”
When my boss asked me to work late — “I am working. I’m getting more creative by taking part in this sleep diet.”
When my baby needed a 4AM diaper change — “Listen, son, I’m on a sleep die –”
Okay, that one didn’t fly. But the others did. Soon, I was back up to six hours a night, with a 20-minute nap around 3pm. My cell phone was across the room with all its notifications off and I wasn’t eating before bed (which made me feel better all on its own). I still worked in bed for an hour or two every morning, but I was staying away from screens at night, which is an exercise I feel like everyone should take part in. Less nighttime screentime made me happier in general, and I got back to reading books before bed instead of checking Twitter.
Still, it wasn’t enough. The real sleep diet — buzzed about on weight loss blogs all over the internet these days — asks you to actually sleep 7-8 hours per night, plus a short nap. Clearly, I’d have to redouble my efforts and, after handing in copy edits on one book and pushing the release date on another, I was ready to get focused. Most importantly, my son started sleeping better. He’d wake up once most nights, sometimes twice, but compared to where things had been his first four months, waking up twice in a night for 15 minutes felt like a breeze.
WEEKS 3-6: The ‘Life Is Wonderful and Everything Is Amazing’ Phase
For four glorious weeks in April, I did it. I slept seven to eight hours per night. I napped. I turned my phone off and stayed off screens. I re-gave up coffee, an addiction I’d only acquired over the past year or so. And here’s the fact of the matter: I saw dramatic changes right away.
- I was in a better mood.
- I binge ate less.
- I was calmer, kinder, more zen. Like, I legit started meditating.
- Seriously, a way better mood.
- I actually felt like working out.
- I had the energy to pick my favorite hobbies back up: surfing, skateboarding, and swimming.
- Did I mention the mood thing?
And I did start to lose weight and feel better about myself. Was it because my body was regulating my hormones better, as sleep scientists assert? That seems reasonable. Or maybe it’s because I was moving more, since I had more energy. I was having sex more too — a proven benefit of more sleep — and we all know that sex burns calories (that sentence alone is a great argument for some shut-eye).
All I know is that my body felt better and I had my swagger back. Whether that’s hard science or soft science, I dug it.
WEEKS 7-8: The fall off
I’m not going to talk much about these dark days. I did some traveling. The baby stopped sleeping well. I had a big work project due. In short: I fell off. Dramatically.
Suddenly I was back to scrolling my phone before bed and eating pasta and parmesan at 10PM. It wasn’t good. I started to panic. Projects were piling up. My days were jammed. Finally, my baby got sick. Forget eight hours or even six. For two weeks I was getting roughly three hours per night with no naps.
It. Felt. Miserable. I was groggy and cranky. I wasn’t exercising and the spirit of play that had returned to my life evaporated. But in the end… maybe I needed that. Because the ultimate selling point for sleeping better, more consistently, and with clear parameters like no late night eating or phone usage is this: Not sleeping is absolutely miserable.
Over the past few months, I’ve been on both sides of the conversation. And I know which one I like more. I know that I like myself far more when I’m getting eight hours (with a 20-minute nap around 3PM). So starting tonight, I’m getting back on my “sleep diet.” Not just for the weight loss (though that’s a solid perk), but because it makes me happy.
In fact… I think I’ll get started now.