Busting Myths About Insomnia With Sleep Expert W. Chris Winter

chris winter

“We always want to be at our best and our healthiest, and that requires great sleep. But we don’t want to be terrified if something happens to knock us off our sleep game.” —W. Chris Winter

If it seems like problems with sleep is the talk of every town, there’s a good reason.

According to SleepFoundation.org, almost half of all Americans say they feel sleepy during the day between three and seven days per week.  35.2% of all adults in the U.S.7 report sleeping on average for less than seven hours per night.

“The average adult needs about eight hours, but that’s the average,” says sleep specialist and neurologist W. Chris Winter. “There are people who require less, and there’s individuals who need more. It’s sort of like, how many calories do you need to eat? [It can depend on] whether you’re a distance runner or if you’re fairly sedentary, your metabolism, your body size … Sleep is kind of like that, too.”

And Winter prefers to think of staying rested as a long game – or at least one that lasts more than one night at a time.

The 7-Day Sleep Debt Pay-Off

“One of the things I like to tell people is to think of your sleep like a credit card,” Winter explains. “If you’re someone who needs eight hours, you can kind of think of yourself as needing 56 hours a week instead of eight a day. So let’s say tonight you go to the midnight screening of Top Gun: Maverick, and you get home late but you’ve got to go to work the next day. What I like to say is that you have six days to make up for, let’s say, the four hours that you lost. For the next six days, you’ve got to get your eight hours plus additional hours to make up for the night of the movie.”

That’s not to say that you should necessarily keep hitting the snooze button the morning after a late night. In fact, Winter suggests that it might be a good idea to resist the urge to sleep in, even if you have the luxury of a day off or late start.

“I always tell people that if you can get up at your normal time, get up, walk your dog, get a little something to eat, see some sunshine,” he says. “And then maybe take a little nap later on so you keep that morning routine consistent, but you’re also making up the sleep that you lost.”

But what should we on those nights when there’s a lot on our minds, and sleep just won’t come? One pitfall that people can fall into, Winter says, is to lose sleep over the fear of losing sleep.

Change Your Focus From Sleep to Rest

“Sleep is sort of like an athletic event, like shooting basketballs,” Winter explains. “The more pressure you put on yourself to make the shot, it can start to change the way you approach it. When you put yourself under a lot of stress – I’ve got to sleep well tonight or else the presentation I’m doing tomorrow will not be good, or the film I’m working on is not going to be great – you run into trouble. What I like to have patients focus on is what you can control. And what you can control is going to bed. If it’s your bedtime, you can control staying off your phone and cutting yourself off from the next episode.”

Even if the clock is ticking as you lie awake, Winter explains that these moments in bed do not amount to “wasted time.”

“The second thing is that I think we undervalue the power of resting,” he says. “There’s this idea that if you get into bed and don’t fall asleep quickly, it’s a problem … But if you’re in a dark room, and your eyes are closed, and you’re relaxed, and you’re thinking about your significant other or something that’s really positive in your life – that’s really restorative. We can always rest. Sometimes sleep is a little bit more elusive.”

Despite Winter’s perspective that one a rough night of sleep isn’t worth sweating over, he emphasizes the importance of maintaining sleep proper hygiene.

“There’s a lot of evidence that says that even after a couple of nights of restricted sleep, there are physical and mental effects,” Winter explains. “Something like after three nights of restricted sleep, your maximum bench press drops by 20 pounds and you’re likely to make three times more mental errors than you would if you had good sleep.”

No One Sleeper Is the Same

Of course, as is true for all hypothetical scenarios, there is not a one-size-fits-all result.

“I think of these people on a spectrum,” Winter explains. “There is an individual who is so terrified they’re not going to get the right amount of sleep that they really struggle and put themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure to fall asleep, which has dire consequences. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s somebody – I always call her Ginny Trauma Surgeon – who has this belief that as long as she gets an hour of sleep on-call, she can successfully take your spleen out, no problem. There’s this military-like mentality of, ‘I don’t need sleep, I can do without it.’ And some people are genetically programmed to be better able to cope with sleep deprivation than others. It doesn’t mean that they’re operating on their A-game, but they can do it.”

If there’s one principal message you get from listening to Chris, it’s that balance is key.

“We always want to be at our best and our healthiest, and that requires great sleep. But we don’t want to be terrified if something happens to knock us off our sleep game.”

Find our full conversation with W. Chris Winter below.

If you routinely find yourself struggling to sleep, there are some things you can try to help yourself wind down. Dr. Michael Breus, also known as The Sleep Doctor, shared with us his top four tips.

1: Try A Weighted Blanket
If you’re unfamiliar with weighted blankets, they’re similar to a regular blanket, except they’re filled with beads or pellets to make them heavier. As well as helping with anxiety, weighted blankets are often used as a sensory tool to help those with autism or behavioral struggles calm themselves when they’re in distress. If you want to try a weighted blanket, it ideally should weigh around 10% of your body weight— 15 pounds for a 150-pound person, for example. 

2: Incorporate Relaxation Techniques
Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, guided imagery, or meditation can be super helpful in managing your thoughts each night— combine my Power Down Hour with the 4-7-8 breathing technique as a starting point. Make yourself comfortable and give it a try!
• Inhale for 4 seconds
• Hold your breath for 7 seconds
• Slowly exhale for 8 seconds
• Repeat

These techniques promote better sleep by helping your mind relax and your body unwind before you drift off each night. Taking a few minutes each night to clear your head and let yourself relax can really work wonders on an anxious mind, which will also help you feel much better each morning.

3: Follow a Consistent Sleep Schedule
Consistency is key when it comes to creating a healthy sleep schedule and getting the quality rest you need each night. Irregular sleep patterns can disrupt your circadian rhythm, affect your mood, and potentially make you more vulnerable to depression. To ensure you get the proper rest you need nightly, make sure you go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. 

4: Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
Proper sleep hygiene can also go a long way in helping you sleep better and improving your mood.
Make sure to avoid consuming caffeine too close to bedtime— consuming caffeine within six hours of going to bed can reduce your sleep time by up to 41 minutes. If you enjoy caffeinated beverages, consider drinking their caffeine-free varieties after a certain hour.

Same goes for alcohol: try to avoid alcoholic beverages a few hours before bed. Alcohol usage is often associated with sleep disorders, such as circadian rhythm abnormalities, insomnia, and even snoring.
It may also be helpful to take a look at any medications you’re taking— medications containing stimulants can affect how you sleep at night if you take them at a certain hour. If your medications do negatively impact your sleep, consult your doctor to see what action they recommend. Do not attempt to change your medication dosage or schedule without your doctor’s consent.

Also, try to stop using your electronic devices at least an hour before bed. Your devices, including your phone, your computer, and even your TV emit blue light, which inhibits the production of melatonin, potentially making it more difficult for you to fall asleep and stay asleep.

For some people, a consistent journaling practice at night that helps you process your day can be very helpful in reducing racing thoughts. Even simply making a list of things you need to do and things you don’t want to forget before bed can give you peace of mind. Sometimes it’s the easiest things that make the biggest difference— if your mind races, start with the list and if that doesn’t help, just try journaling what is making you anxious and a few suggestions for what you might do in the future to help overcome the anxiety. 

For more on The Sleep Doctor, click here.

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