Wednesday, February 10, 2010

What you don't need for sleep

In an earlier entry, I talked about the minimum requirements for sleep. Sleep is one those critical elements of life that we know little about. When you talk about where "home" is, you are really talking about where you are going to sleep tonight. If you can work out where to be safely unconscious for 7 hours, then all the other functions of a home are negotiable.

In this entry, I’d like to explore sleep in more detail by discussing the things you may think you need but really don’t. Everyone has their own perceived sleep requirements. They insist, "I can't sleep without X." Turns out, most of those sleep requirements are imaginary, and you'll do fine without them if you only have the courage to try. Over the course of my travels, I’ve slept in many contorted positions and unusual circumstances. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences where I've hardly slept at all, and many surprising ones where I slept soundly in spite of rough-seeming conditions. You don’t need a Martha Stewart-style tuck-in bed with a special mattress in a heated room. However, you do need to both listen to your body and be willing to push it a little.

To understand the requirements of sleep let’s talk about the things you don’t need:

You Don't Need: A “made” bed. The traditional bed from the Middle Ages – with sheets and blankets tucked in under the mattress – is absolutely the worst for retaining heat! In a made bed, you are trying to heat the entire surface area under the sheets. Since you are essentially a lump under two flat panels, heat is always escaping out the sides. As soon as you turn over, you encounter a new expanse of cold sheets.

A sleeping bag retains heat much better! No heat escapes out the sides, and when you turn over, your bedding stays with you. If you buy cheap sleeping bags (like the $10 one at Acme™), then you don’t even need to wash them; just throw them away when they get rank. (Not to mention the time saver of never having to make your bed in the morning.)

You Don't Need: Active heating. At night, your body generates a lot less heat than during the day; consequently, you need more insulation. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you need central heating – or any fuel-burning heat at all! Anything that can be accomplished by outside heat can also be accomplished by just adding more layers of insulation, as close as possible to your skin.

Start with wearing all the warm clothes you have, including sweaters and jackets. Then you sleep in a sleeping bag, not in drafty blankets. If you are still cold at night, you can insert the first sleeping bag into a second one, maybe with a third draped on top. Finally, it helps to be sleeping in a small enclosed space, like a car or small tent. The smaller this space is, the better your body heat will keep it warm (so a car or one-man tent work better than a van or cabin tent).

In my experience, there is no low temperature that can’t be addressed at night by simply adding more insulation, provided it is dry. You don’t need to use any fuel at all! (I have done zero degrees F but can't speak with authority about temperatures lower than that.)

The situation is different during the day, when you are moving around and can’t carry all that insulation with you. To type on a keyboard, for example, the ambient temperature has to be warm enough so your fingers will work. (At this moment, I am lying in a car with the heater turned on.) When you are out of your cocoon and need to get things done, you may indeed need an active heat source, but if your body is still bundled up well you probably don’t need as much heat as you think you do. Wearing more clothes is always cheaper than turning up the thermostat.

As for having a human sleep partner to warm you up... that heat source is overrated! To begin with, your partner is a localized heat source. He/she does not heat or insulate you on the other side. Furthermore, your sleep position is rarely in sync with theirs. If you insist on sleeping naked with this person, then you’ve lost as significant layer of insulation (warm clothing). It may get complicated emotionally, but strictly in terms of heat retention, it is far more efficient to sleep alone.

You Don't Need: Special Mattresses. You can’t sleep for long on a hard, flat surface. I’ve tried many times, and it doesn’t work. The problem is that your body is bumpy, not flat, so there will be narrow pinch points where it comes in contact with the hard surface. After a while resting on these pressure points, the blood circulation gets cut off, and it begins to hurt. To sleep well, you need some minimal padding, but you don’t need Memory Foam™, a water bed or a Serta™ Sleep Number™ Bed. You just need enough padding to distribute a point of pressure onto several square inches. Then you will turn over several times throughout the night so that this wider area doesn't become sore.

You may protest: “But I have a very delicate back, and I need this special mattress to protect it.” Rubbish! For millennia, humans have been sleeping without special mattresses and have gotten by. You have to ask yourself whether your back problems aren’t caused by your cushy mattress and posh existence (not to mention your rich diet!). Like any body part, your back is going to work best if it is exercised – put through a little stress – and maybe one way to do this is to sleep with minimal padding.

In my experience, a half-inch of hard foam is sufficient, but a full inch is better. An air mattress is luxury, indeed! Car seats are fine. Sometimes the grass under the floor of a tent is sufficient. In a pinch, you can use blankets or a sleeping bag as padding underneath you. You can look around you for available materials. After sleeping on cushy Memory Foam for years, it might take a while to get used to anything else, but it is something your body can adapt to, and eventually you’ll be sleeping just as well.

You Don't Need: Lots of Space. When sleeping in cars, I have often squeeze myself into some very confined areas. It's like living in a tight space capsule. I have curled up in the fetal position in the back seat of some tiny European cars and still slept well. You don’t need a queen-size bed to toss and turn on. In fact, the smaller space might actually be better. It is certainly better for heat retention, but I also find that I go to sleep faster in a confined space.

You do need to be able to lie level, with your head at about the same level as your feet. If any body part is significantly lower than the rest, blood will pool there and it will eventually become uncomfortable. (You can sleep sitting up on occasion, like in airplanes, but it is rarely optimal sleep and it may be damaging to your cardiovascular system over time.)

When sleeping on a big flat bed, there is a preferred sleep position your body usually reverts to. Some people usually sleep on their backs, others on their stomachs, etc. If you sleep in a confined space, you may be forced into a different position. This may take a few nights to get used to, but your body will adapt. (I traditionally sleep on my stomach, and I end up that way on a hotel bed, but I can sleep just as well on my side, which is how I usually do it in a car.)

One thing you do need is the opportunity to change position during the night. It is normal to “turn over,” or change sleep position, several times throughout the night. This prevents bed sores on the part of your body that is bearing your weight. This is one reason that sleeping in a coffin wouldn’t work: You have to have enough space to turn, or your body will protest and wake you up in the middle of the night.

You don’t need an infinite number of sleep positions, however; only two! You need your "primary position", and you need a "relief position" to give the pressure points of your primary position a rest. You sleep in your primary position until it becomes uncomfortable; then you shift to a secondary position. After a few minutes in the new position, the pressure points recover, and you can turn back to your original position. So, when choosing a confined space to sleep in, you don’t just need to be able to fit; you also need to be able to turn to a second position, resting on different parts of your body.

You Don't Need: Quiet and Darkness. Your brain needs protection from sensory input to sleep well. It is hard to sleep in a noisy or brightly lit area – or when CNN is blaring at you from a screen overhead. (It is also a significant danger to your hearing to sleep in a noisy place.) There is no reason, however, that you can’t create your own quiet and darkness locally when the environment would give them to you. Quiet is created locally through use of foam earplugs (available in the firearms section of Acme). These are rolled up and insert all the way inside the ear canal, so they are barely protruding from the ear. This cuts nearly all sounds down to murmur. To create artificial darkness, you can use a $3 sleep mask (from the suitcase/travel department at Acme). If you don’t have one, you can use a wool cap or a shirt pulled down over your eyes.

Earplugs are handy accessories even when you’re not trying to sleep. Cuts down the noise of everyday life! For example, if you find yourself in a waiting room with a TV blaring, just insert your earplugs and you’re in heaven again!

You Don't Need: A Full Night's Sleep Every Night. College students learn quickly that you can get by without much sleep if you need to. Most people can pull an "all-nighter" and still be reasonably functional in the morning. The one thing you can't do is repeat all nighters several nights in a row. Eventually, the sleep deficit is going to catch up with you.

Without sleep, the first thing you lose is your creativity. Sometimes, lack of sleep is intoxicating, but like other forms of intoxication, you can't expect your judgment to be there too. After more than 24 hours without sleep, you start to go seriously insane, with effects resembling schizophrenia. You really don't want to push it.

But if life or travel circumstances present you with a sleepless night, you don't need to panic. You'll catch up on it later. You want to avoid bad sleep if you can, but if your night gets washed out, you'll make do. Sometimes just a few catnaps is enough to keep you going. You might not be good for much while awake (no creativity), but you'll survive. Knowing this, can give you some flexibility when planning ahead. "I'll get good sleep on Monday and Wednesday, but Tuesday could be rough."

One of the useful functions of sleep is just to help you pass the time in a boring location, when your brain is functioning poorly so you can't get anything done. If you are trapped in a city overnight, and the subway doesn't open until morning, sometimes the best thing to do is give up. Just walk around for six hours and try to make some use of your time. The point is, you can probably catch up on sleep later.

In the course of my normal life at present, I pass back and forth across many time zones. Like airline pilots, I have learned to get used to it. As long as I get 7 hours of sleep in each 24 hour period, I'm fine, and whenever I have a chance to catch more sleep, I take advantage of it. Sleep, I find, is something like a bank account: You can make larger withdrawls on occasion, as long as you are prepared to bank more sleep later.

You Don't Need: Privacy. When looking for a place to sleep, it is reasonable to seek privacy. After all, when you are unconscious you can’t protect yourself from thieves, predators and others who would do you harm. Privacy is the best policy whenever you can get it. For most animals, sleeping and hiding go together.

But you can get a good night’s sleep in public places if you need to. Airports are places I often find myself sleeping, and if you can do it inside security, there is very little risk. With earplugs and eye covering, I can often sleep just as soundly at Gate A19 as in any hotel. For a catnap, you can also sleep on beaches and public parks during the day. You can also in airport outside security if necessary. The enormous value of sleep often outweighs the vulnerability of it.

To sleep comfortably in a public place, you have to pass some significant emotional hurdles. Sleep is a big, dark question mark to most of us. We don’t have a clue what is going o there, so it’s frightening to do it in public. Are you going to sleepwalk or blurt out something embarrassing in your dreams? Are you going to look stupid while you sleep, so people laugh at you? Closing yourself in a private room avoids any such risk, but unfortunately, this kind of privacy can be expensive, both in money and time.

There is no easy solution here. You just have to get to know your sleeping self and be comfortable with it. Once, I set up a video camera to record myself sleeping in a normal bed. I saw that I turned about every twenty minutes and always rotated in the same direction, wrapping myself in my sheets like a mummy. It was very interesting to see myself sleeping, and it contributed to my sleeping self-confidence.

As I have become more relaxed with my waking self (no easy feat in itself), I have come to terms with my sleeping self. My dreams as a child were bizarre and terrifying, and I walked and talked in my sleep. Sleep was frightening! In middle age, however, I have no fear. My dreams today are pretty much an extension of my waking state. I dream about the same things I am thinking about during the day, making sleep a fertile extension of my thinking time. I get lots of things done during sleep, and I don’t have any nightmare unless my life really is a nightmare when I’m awake. Thus, sleeping in a public place (as long as it it safe) isn't really a problem for me.

Males do have a special problem in that during REM sleep, they—um—“expand”. In other words, sleep is nature’s Viagra, and there is a chance this non-sexual boner may be evident to the general public. (For the record, the same thing happens to females at night, but it’s not visible.) You can address this risk by covering yourself with a light airline-style blanket, which you may need anyway to keep warm

I'll always seek our privacy when it is available, but if it isn't I'll make do. The important thing is to adapt to your environment and get some sleep whatever way you can.

And Finally, Some Philosophy....

When people have difficulty sleeping, it usually has more to do with life circumstances than sleeping circumstances. Obviously, if you are under a lot of stress during the day, your problems are going to join you at night. If you are repressing things during the day—that is, refusing to deal with problems directly—then it is likely they will emerge in your nightmares.

It also appears that sleep becomes more irregular as people age. So what's the big deal? You simply sleep when you can and get up and do things when you can't. The only thing that makes irregular sleep a burden is your insistence that it take place during certain hours. Sometimes, the best guarantee of insomnia is the mantra, "I must get some sleep!"

And if you need an alarm clock to wake up, you are cheating sleep. Sure, work and travel may demand an alarm occasionally, but if you can manage to sleep without it, according to your body's own rhythms, then you'll have your head screwed on straighter when you rise.

When you hit the sack and sleep doesn't come, it is easy to blame your bed. When Garrison Keillor mentions the Sleep Number™ bed, you may be duped into thinking some special product like this will solve your problems. There are no lack of marketers willing to sell you something to improve your sleep. Like any other placebo, these products may work if you think they will, but they don't address the underlying problems. They can't fix your head!

Once you get your head around something and decide you can do it, it is amazing how previous barriers get brushed aside. If you are on a mission to climb a mountain, you'll find a place to sleep, and you'll sleep well, because working toward a purpose is more effective than any sleep aid.


  1. The philosophy in your last two columns outweighed the useful information that set up the philosophy! Thank you!

  2. I've seen you mention ambient temperature for typing a couple of times. I took to fingerless gloves while in Alaska; the hands are still somewhat stiff from cold and restriction, but you do get to type with your actual finger tips.

  3. Good research on the sleeping position, very informative post. The thing i like most in this post is "You Don't Need: Lots of Space" where you mention sleeping in car. I love sleeping in car usually I do sleep in car when I am traveling or on the tour instead of booking a bed.

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