This episode features interviews with Cory Walts, Director of the Haverford Fitness Center, and Derek Hopkins, co-owner of Prana Das Yoga, located across from campus in Haverford Square. We also hear from two OAR interns, Tania Ortega ‘19 and Alejandro Wences ‘19. This episode features the track “Sleep the Clock Around” by Belle and Sebastian.
Peter Granville: For performance enhancement and personal wellness, sleep is one of the best tools available.
Lilly Alonzo: But how does sleep work? And how can we get better sleep? The answer lies in your habits – but also in your mindset.
PG: I’m Peter.
LA: And I’m Lilly.
PG: Welcome to the Haverford Compass.
LA: We don’t need to tell you that sleep is important, but the benefits of sleep can be striking. We sat down with someone who’s seen firsthand the benefits of sleep in the students he works with.
Cory Walts: I wrote some notes down, so I hope you don’t mind if I look down at this.
PG: Oh sure, that’s fine.
CW: Good thing it’s a podcast, you won’t see me.
CW: My name is Cory Walts, and I am the director of the Fitness Center here at Haverford College.
PG: Cory describes sleep as the number one tool for performance enhancement in athletes and non-athletes alike.
CW: The benefits of sleep related to performance, whether it’s athletic or scholastic, to me there’s three things: there’s mental well-being, physical feeling, and enhanced performance. So, in terms of mental well-being, I’ve seen this and there’s research about it. There’s enhanced mood, so people are just more pleasant to be around if they’ve slept. I’m sure everybody understands that. There’s reduced anxiety, and that leads to reduced stress. There’s also improved physical feeling. People that get more sleep are of course rested. They’re recovered too: if they are involved in a regimented training routine, and they’re taxing their body through strength training or running, or also studying, that is a taxing component to your body and your body needs to recover to retain that information or retain that physical training. So the recovery is enhanced. There’s just a greater enthusiasm for life that I’ve seen. Body composition is also been improved with more sleep. There’s been research that has shown that metabolism of carbohydrates improves with enhanced sleep. And there’s also, because of all of what I’ve just said, the stress and the recovery, there’s a reduced chance of injury if someone has slept more. And finally, this all leads to enhanced performance. So, I’ve seen it, the research has shown it, physical skill will improve with better sleep, and also memory retention. So whether that’s athletes, or just the student, whatever you’re trying to retain mentally, that’s going to basically stick in and seep into your body and be sustainable with sleep. So when you’re in school, and when you’re in class, there’s so much information that you’re trying to digest, you don’t truly digest that and retain that until you sleep. Sleeping kind of locks all that information in. So that’s kind of all the benefits of sleep right there.
LA: To recap, Cory is saying that sleep improves mental health, physical well-being, and overall performance. And this is not just anecdotal evidence – research on sleep confirms how much it helps us.
PG: But even if we know sleep is good, it can still seem pretty mysterious. Why do our brains want to fall asleep when they do? Why is it that you can feel groggy even after you’ve gotten nine hours of sleep?
LA: The answer lies in the body’s day-to-day regulatory systems, our circadian rhythms.
PG: That’s right, circadian rhythms. We’ll talk about two important ones today.
LA: The first circadian rhythm works to ensure that, when it’s nighttime, we’re sleeping.
PG: Right – evolution designed us to be asleep at night because it was pretty dangerous to be roaming around at night, unable to see and exposed to predators. So our brains try to lull us to sleep once we’ve stopped perceiving this thing called “blue light.”
LA: Now, the sun produces blue light, so by responding to blue light in this way, our brains align their sleep schedules with the sun.
PG: Or so they think. Technology has a unique effect on this circadian rhythm. Your phone and laptop also produce blue light, and your brain doesn’t know that your iPhone is not the sun.
LA: So if you’re staring at your phone right up until bedtime, then your brain will think it’s still 6pm. It will need some time to correct this misunderstanding and drift off to sleep. The result is lost quality sleep time.
PG: So that’s the first circadian rhythm. Now, the second rhythm has everything to do with the fluids in your brain.
LA: When your brain works and works throughout the day, it produces waste toxins that hang out in your brain. Only during sleep can your brain clear away the toxins.
PG: You can think of it kind of like a party, and your brain is the host: it can host the party, or it can clean up from the party. However, it can’t do both at the same time.
LA: So your brain is constantly monitoring how high those toxin levels are. When these levels are low, there is no need to sleep. When they’re high, your brain will make you drowsy.
PG: It’s saying “This place is disgusting! I need to clean up. Alright, sleep. Now.” Ideally, those toxin levels peak exactly when you’re going to bed. When they don’t, though, you feel crummy.
LA: If you don’t get enough sleep to clear out the toxins, your brain wants you to go back to bed all day. If you try to go to bed before the toxin are high enough, then you struggle to fall asleep.
PG: So let’s talk about ways to improve sleep given what we now know. First off, reducing technology use before bed is critical. Cory recommends no screen time 30 minutes before bed. You can also download apps like f.lux and use night shift settings to reduce blue light exposure from your screens. That being said, putting the phone away before bed is still the best.
LA: You should also have a consistent sleep and wake time. Try not to vary your bedtime by more than 20 minutes a day. You may have to structure your day around your sleep.
PG: We actually talked about this at length in the last season of the Compass, and Talia Scott tells a great story about how she was able to make regular sleep a fixture of her schedule.
LA: Combine these two suggestions — reducing technology use and having a consistent bedtime — then you start to develop your own “sleep ritual.”
PG: After the break, we’ll speak with someone who thinks what you need for good sleep is a good sleep ritual.
PG: On today’s episode, we have been talking about sleep. And I’m here with two OAR interns who have been tracking their sleep in interesting ways.
Alejandro Wences: My name is Alejandro. I’m a fourth-year.
Tania Ortega: My name is Tania Ortega, and I’m a senior.
PG: Starting with Alejandro – what did you do to track your sleep?
AW: So I’ve been using an app called Sleep Cycle, and for me it’s been very useful for two reasons. One is it tracks me when I go to sleep and when I wake up based on the movement of my body as I sleep, and what I really like about it is that it tries to track the certain cycle that I’m in. So, in this night, it says that I’ve gone through two or three REM cycles, so to say. So what I really appreciate about that is that it shows what healthy amount of sleep I’ve been getting. And here I only slept like, 5, 6 hours. So it kind of makes sense why only three REM cycles went through.
PG: Very good. And what recommendations would you give to students with regard to sleep?
AW: I do recommend time management, because it goes back to whenever I don’t plan my day very well, I end up staying up a lot later, and because of that, I don’t sleep as well as I hope to do. Because, the next day is usually busy and I have to wake up at a certain time that I just do my work.
PG: Great. And what was the name of the app you used?
AW: Sleep Cycle.
PG: Okay, Sleep Cycle. Thank you. Now, Tania, what did you do to track your sleep?
TO: I used my note-taking app on my phone – just a standard note app. And then I wrote down the date, the times that I fell asleep, which my phone usually tells me. It tracks when I used my phone and it asks each morning, “Were you asleep between XYZ hours?” And it tracks that based on what time my alarm was set, and what time I started to use my phone. So I would use those times, and then I would take some brief notes as I was walking up campus from my apartment, in the mornings.
PG: What did you learn from the experience?
TO: I learned that I need a minimum of six hours. I can do between 4 to 6, not more than two days. Past two days, it’s not sustainable.
PG: Thank you both so much. I really appreciate your experimentation, and these are very valuable insights. Thank you.
AW: Thank you.
TO: Thank you.
Derek Hopkins: My name is Derek Hopkins, and I’m one of the owners here at Prana Das Yoga.
LA: Prana Das Yoga is a yoga studio just across from us on Lancaster Avenue. Derek joined us to discuss what a good sleep ritual looks like.
PG: If someone comes to you with difficulty sleeping, what do you say to them?
DH: Difficulty sleeping… if somebody generally comes to me and they have a problem with sleeping, often one thing I’ll say right away is, “What’s your sleep ritual?” And mostly people will come back and say, “What are you talking about? I don’t have a sleep ritual” or they didn’t even think of having a looking-forward to the sleep, rather than “Oh, I’ve gotta just kind of get sleep in, after I’ve done my day” or “after I’m done watching these TV shows, I’ll just go to asleep.” It’s sort of like a natural thing that we do, but we don’t tend to put much thought into the experience of going to sleep or the experience of waking up. And I think that, from there, I sort of crack the code a little bit and we dive a little deeper in, question-wise.
LA: As you examine your own sleep ritual, you can ask yourself, what do you typically do right before bed? What is your sleep posture like? Do you have a habit, like reading a book, that clears your mind before bed?
PG: Derek also says late-night eating is a common way that people unwittingly harm their sleep quality.
DH: Another thing I talk about is food – what you’re eating. Especially late-night eating, that’s like a big deal. The body processes all the food we put in it. So the purpose of sleep is to restore and rest the body, but when you eat food right before you go to sleep, or a half hour, an hour before sleep, your body, when you go now to sleep, your body is not going to sleep. It’s spending time to digest the food, and so your organs and things like this are working as you’re going to sleep. And then you’re waking up feeling so tired, you’re like “gosh.” Even on night when you have nine hours of sleep, you wake up feeling exhausted, and that has a big deal with it. So we talk about sleep, we talk about the food, and we take it from there.
PG: Derek also suggests that you set up your environment in a way that’s special to you and encourages you to value your sleep.
DH: You know, that’s a big part of it. Experiment. See what works well for you. Surround yourself with uplifting things, and nice things, and things that can smell good. There’s these meditation mists that you can spray on your pillow. It gives you that aromatherapy vibe. So I think it’s like your own personal altar. It should be one of the greatest places that you want to spend time in, because we spend a third of our lives sleeping. So, something that’s just real special to you.
LA: Derek is saying here that we should treat sleep as something special. But in college, the opposite mentality is actually promoted. Students brag about how little sleep they get. It’s important to actively resist this mindset.
PG: Cory had some thoughts about this mentality and how it promotes a vicious cycle.
CW: I’m going to ask you guys a question right now. What happens to a light bulb when it’s on for weeks at a time, consistently?
LA: It burns out.
CW: It burns out. So that’s the same analogy to any person, especially at college age with so many stressors. So, you will burn out if you’re constantly on. And the best way to turn off is to sleep. But to turn off, that means you can’t study. That means you can’t attempt to do more. It’s a very short-sighted viewpoint. But I understand it. There is empathy there. I think it’s relatively new in today’s society. I would think 50+ years ago, maybe even less, that wasn’t as common of a thing. People weren’t trying to do more, more more. More wasn’t always better – better is better. So again, if you sleep, you’re going to get all of those improvements that I just said, so you want to really focus on the time you have, be efficient in the time you have. That means putting away technology and studying when you’re trying to study, and allowing time for sleep so that that information can be retained. But if you’re up all night, it just doesn’t stick. You’re on Instagram, you’re on Twitter, you’re on whatever it is. And you’re just wasting time, then the sleep will suffer and you’re just pushing it back, and it’s a vicious cycle. So one night of bad sleep will get you up late the next day, late to bed the next day, and so on and so forth. And it’s hard to get out of. So again, I understand it, but I really encourage people to treat sleep as a tool, or a friend, not the enemy. And something I was talking to Peter last week about is, just think of that feeling you feel when you’re in the morning and you just love to sleep. And you wake up, and you’re just, “I don’t want to get up, I love to sleep.” Well think of how good sleep feels, and put that on the front end, try to get excited about going to bed. Again, it’s not easy, but you will see the benefits. And once you see the benefits, you will be addicted to the sleep.
LA: Thanks for joining us today. To recap, you can improve your sleep by reducing technology usage before bed, having consistent bedtimes and wake times, developing a sleep ritual you enjoy, and making sure not to judge yourself too harshly if you slip into that vicious cycle of little sleep.
PG: Big thanks to Cory and Derek for speaking with us today. If you haven’t already listened to Episode 3 of Season 1, check it out. On that episode, we discuss time management strategies that make time for sleep.
LA: Next week, we’ll tackle stress. We hope you’ll join us.
PG: All this talk of sleep reminded me of this crazy dream I had. Back this past Halloween, Ben Hughes in the OMA was dressed as Robin Hood, in this little funny green tunic and he had a bow and arrow. Anyway, so then I had this dream a couple months later where we’re in Stokes and there’s this big monster – I don’t know how to describe it, but a big monster. And everyone’s trying to kill it, and no one’s able to. So I’m hiding out in my office. And then it starts slinking by, the monster. And then out comes Ben and he has his Robin Hood costume on and he has his little bow and arrow, and then very dramatically he pulls his arm back, shoots this little dinky arrow, and then the monster’s dead.
LA: That’s all it took.
PG: That’s all it look.
LA: Ben comes and saves the day.