I’m a polyphasic sleeper – not by choice

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It was the preferred sleep method of Leonardo da Vinci, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison – now Silicon Valley types are at it to boost productivity. Polyphasic sleeping i.e. snoozing in short bursts instead of sleeping all night, may have fuelled some of the greatest minds in history, but to Hettie, it feels more like a form of torture…

Since becoming a mum, my sleep pattern has consisted of waking roughly every three hours. Once around 1am, again at 4am and 6.30am. This would be acceptable if I was compensating for my sleep deficit with naps during the day. But as a working mum with my own business, i’ve found this to be impossible. 7pm onwards is my window to get some uninterrupted work done. As for ‘sleeping when the baby sleeps’ – this is my time to get on with the ‘rest of it’. This is coming from someone who could barely keep her eyes open after 10pm pre-baby and needed a solid 8-9 hours just to function.

I often leave my laptop at midnight, wired, managing an hour’s sleep before the next feed at 1am. A 20 minute wake period is followed by another sleep until 4am and another 20 minute wake period until 6.30am. My Fitbit tells me with glaring honesty that I’m averaging between 6 – 6.5 hours sleep per night. “Not getting enough rest?”, pops up a message at the top of my screen . “Sleep debt can increase your risk for weight gain, memory loss, diabetes, and heart disease”. Startling but true, I’m definitely ready to start making some improvements.

Sleep analysis – what’s really going on

Armed with my Fitbit results, I decide to meet with a sleep psychologist to face up to the facts. The tiredness is taking its toll. After a six month honeymoon period of feeling like superwoman, I’m now often irritable and my craving for sugary foods have hit an all-time high. Perhaps the sleep debt has finally caught up with me?

“Your quality of sleep is always better when you go to bed early as opposed to sleeping in”, explains psychologist and sleep therapist Hope Bastine. “This is because our circadian rhythm sends signals to release melatonin when darkness falls around 9pm. REM also happens earlier in the sleep cycle”. She tells me to go to bed earlier to compensate for getting up in the night. “I suggest somewhere between 9:30 -10pm. Factor in how long it takes you to fall asleep – judging from your Fitbit not long because you’re shattered!” You don’t say.

Analysing my Sleep Score

The good news is that my ‘sleep score’ average of 75 doesn’t seem too bad. What is a sleep score you might be wondering? With the huge database of sleep that Fitbit have amassed, they have developed their own sleep scoring system, which ranks your sleep from 1-100 based on three core components: time asleep, deep and REM sleep (aka the quality of your sleep) and restoration.

“Napping for you during the day is essential to get that score up”, Hope says, “You will feel better and increase the speed of your reaction time and performance. Your body is working hard, burning lots of calories breast feeding so if anything you need more sleep”.

With Fitbit Premium, a new health and fitness subscription service on the app, in addition to your daily score which everyone gets, you will also get detailed reports about how all those three elements add up to 100. Plus you’re able to view your heart rate during sleep and access a range of guided programmes including how to improve sleep patterns.

Why does sleeping heart rate matter?

“Heart rate slows down during sleep. It’s normal for your sleeping heart rate to be below your daytime resting heart rate for much of the night. Otherwise, something, a bad dream perhaps or maybe that last glass of wine, could be disrupting your sleep”, says my Fitbit. Or a thunderstorm in my case…

Room temperature is key

“There is a strong correlation between waking and body temperature rising”, Hope explains. “16 – 18 degrees is the ideal temperature for the average woman – this should be even lower when ovulating”. Not that I have any idea where I am with my hormones right now given that breast-feeding has suppressed my menstrual cycle – but 16 degrees feels pretty cold!

What about those sugar cravings?

“Sleep deprivation causes a decrease in the hormone leptin”, Hope says, “so you don’t feel full or know when to stop. Dinner must be light and completed two hours before sleep time. It must be high in magnesium (any green veg), tryptophan, (chia, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cheese, milk, tofu, edamame, fatty fish) and prebiotics (almonds, onions, garlic, artichoke, chicory, asparagus). Sweet potato, kiwi or cherries are also good.

Isn’t cheese supposed to give you bad dreams?

A myth apparently. To the contrary, being high in tryptophan, cheese stimulates happy hormone serotonin that relieves stress and induces sleep. “Breakfast also needs to be high in serotonin”, she says and recommends figs with porridge or eggs with avocado or salmon.

What about alcohol?

Red wine may help me to feel drowsy but it shouldn’t be used as part of my pre-bedtime ritual. “The liver can process 1 unit per hour so if you’re going to have that 175ml glass of red (2 units), it has to be 2 hours before going to sleep”, Hope says. But she advises that i avoid it altogether if i’m serious about improving my sleep quality.

Bring on the serotonin…

My oxytocin may be flowing thanks to all the breast feeding but I could seriously use some more serotonin. Low levels of which are associated with depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, weight gain and other health problems. “As a sleep deprived mother who is run down and not eating well due to the requirements of your new role, naturally your energy levels are depleted”, says Hope. She suggests adding in supplements of Magnesium Glycinate (preferable otherwise any MG- 250 mg) with B6 or 5-HTP (1-2 capsules) 1 hour before bedtime to boost my serotonin.

What about exercise?

“Exercise regulates resting heart rate but make sure you’re not doing it too close to bed”. Two primary chemicals involved in making exercise feel good are endorphins and cortisol – produced by the body under stress. However good that stress feels, it’s still stress after all. Between 4-7pm is ideal and must be completed 3 hrs before sleep, unless it’s yoga that is, which has been shown to produce anti-anxiety hormones GABA.

Photo: Pexels

Screen time

I might feel the buzz of dopamine with those dedicated work sessions but by sacrificing my sleep in the process, I’ll actually be creating an imbalance of dopamine long term. “Blue light makes our brains think it’s daytime so try to have at least a half-hour break before bed” says Hope. Fitbit makes setting bedtime reminders easy to do – you can also put the Versa 2 into ‘Sleep Mode’ so that the screen’s brightness is set to dim for the duration you are in that mode. And it means that any late night/early morning notifications will not cause the watch to vibrate or the screen to turn on. This is a game changer of a feature for those daytime naps, when everyone else is in work mode. 

Sleep ritual

“You must plan 60 – 30 minutes before bedtime to stop all work and do a pre-sleep ritual” says Hope. “Try a hot bath with magnesium salts and write your to do list. Even better, listen to a sleep mediation. In the morning, get at least 15 minutes sun exposure (expose as much skin as possible), or use an SAD light for at least 30 minutes. Because it’s winter take D3 supplements”.


The verdict…

A polyphasic sleep pattern may have been thrust on me against my will but at least by tracking my sleep, i’m able to fill in the gaps. The latest smartwatch Fitbit Versa 2 makes me feel better equipped because I’m able to establish boundaries, such as turning the world off when I need to have those essential daytime naps. It also feels reassuring to have something else taking control of my sleep for me. I wouldn’t dream of keeping my baby up past her bed time, why should I keep myself up past mine? In the absence of a sleep psychologist, the Fitbit Versa 2 is the next best thing that can be worn on your wrist all day and all night to get you proper insights to help manage your sleep.


By Hettie

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Main image: Stocksy

This is a partnership feature with Fitbit

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