How sleep saves your life

The last couple of weeks has been another health learning curve for me. It has highlighted exactly how important sleep is for the human body (and mine in particular), and its a really worthwhile topic to talk about. I’m going to share what has happened to me, but I’d love to hear your experiences with sleep too.

I’ve always known I need sleep, and its usually something I do well and with ease. My body knows when it needs to recharge, and it just gets on with it (irrespective of what I might want to do at the time!). So summer can often be challenging for me – at the moment I live in a house which is north facing, so we get a lot of warmth. I’ve found it to be a beautiful thing in winter, as it keeps the house warmer and comfortable, and even helps keep my immune system ticking over, and ensures I don’t dry out and bleed anywhere (a chronic problem in our last place!), but it does mean it gets pretty warm in summer. Summers in Tasmania are pretty mild, but we always get a few 35-40oC days, and for those, the house doesn’t cool down enough for a comfortable slumber.

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This chick has not had a bad night’s sleep! Last week, I probably would’ve wanted to punch her for looking so good!

The heat was the first thing that got me. Two weeks ago we had a run of warm days, and that coincided with my headache that I mentioned on Facebook (it was too warm for me to sleep, and the sleep deprivation lead to a headache. All of my non-med options for headache curing failed me, and I ended up having to take my prescription meds, which knocked me around a bit, and I had to take a day to recover from the dopey-ness). Then at the end of that week, a local arts festival was on for 5 days, running into the weekend. I usually like the place that runs the event, they’ve done great things for my state, but this time it was all bad. The concerts they were running were on until 3am – a fact made most clear to me when they kept me up til that time despite considerable distance from my house. Here, we have the worst of the sleep disruption – I was getting a couple of hours from about 8:30pm until 11 or 11:30, then I was awake again until after 3am. While I understand lots of people can cope with few hours sleep, I’m not one of them. At all, and I never will be. My body likes its rest, dammit! Is it just one of those differences? Is my body so much smarter than me that it knows it needs extra repair time at nights due to my frequent and difficult to heal injuries and bleeds? Who knows.

By the time I’d been able to even get a few hours consecutive sleep, it was Monday again, and time to go back to work. And I had to that day – I was backing up the usual payroll officer who was on leave. Not the kind of activity that can be left alone until you’re ready for it, unfortunately. But by gosh was I feeling it.

How? Well, a bunch of things were bringing me down:

  • Fatigue, first and foremost, and all the usual things that come with it, like a slow brain, failing hand/eye coordination, words were tumbling out of my mouth like mixed up lego instead of ordered, structured thought.
  • I got moody as all hell. First, it was just a little snappy, a bit frustrated, but by the end of the Tuesday, I was filthy-angry. Literally for no reason, but I was fighting back the urge to yell at people, to physically hurt them. I was also fighting off the urge to hurt things, like my colleague’s computer when the payroll reporting was running at 1/10th of its usual speed. It was not unlike the worst of the PMS symptoms I had when I was a teenager. Very scary stuff.
  • A good dose of general digestive upset – gurgles, gas and typical cold constitution symptoms abounded (this is a TCM term, a Dr of TCM can correctly diagnose you). And I was getting food cravings for all sorts of things I don’t even really like, and haven’t eaten in a long, long time.
  • My eyes started to work like a drunk person’s. On the Monday and Tuesday when I was doing payroll at work, I had to break frequently as the computer screen was slipping about under my eyes, the numbers and entry points fluxuating and swimming about in a way a computer program shouldn’t be. Only I hadn’t had a drink since before Christmas.
  • Even though I’d felt too fatigued to exercise in this two week period, I started getting woken up by cramps in my lower legs. On one of the hottest days, I wore my Vibram 5 Fingers to work (just a commute shoe! They’re the most open shoes I have that are still comfy and protective), and I get a lovely ‘used’ feeling in my lower legs from wearing them that usually disappears overnight. Not when you’re not sleeping properly it doesn’t. 5 days later it had finally worn off.
  • I wouldn’t be me if some kind of physical stress didn’t cause a bleeding problem, and right on cue, during the 11-3am wakes from the music, I got the combination of spontaneous bruising all over my legs, bloody mucous coming out my nose when I woke up, and menstrual spotting. Exactly what I needed along with everything else, right?
  • The most worrying one was on Tuesday when I felt my immune system starting to fail. I woke up with sinus congestion, a dry, sore throat and a headache. Classic cold symptoms. Only, now that I eat good, nourishing foods, I don’t get those. Clearly, given it was missing out on that nourishing sleep, my immune system was worked to the bone and couldn’t fight off something I now delegate to the giant piles of veggies I consume each day.

All of that on its own is more than I know my body can and should take. Every one of those symptoms was a big ol’ warning sign telling me to stop, rest and recuperate. But I’m a human being, not just a body but I have a mind, emotions and of course, an ego, and did it come out to play when I was fatigued:

  • The old stories came back – feeling unsupported in trying to manage my health by everyone around me (and everything around me – what if my work got angry at having to have time off, or I was unable to get financial support if I needed it for missed work hours) not feeling like enough of a person (just a sicko), anger and frustration at my body not “just working” (even though, as I noted above, appearing to fall apart is my body working in this case!).
  • I couldn’t meditate. I was so exhausted, I couldn’t focus (on anything, but definitely not any of my meditation techniques) long enough to calm my mind. As soon as I tried my ego leapt in and took over, and before I knew it was 5 minutes and oodles of monkey mind chatter later and I was feeling more frustrated, exhausted and angry than I was before.
  • I felt annoyed at my own emotional/spiritual progress too – because had I not done any work on myself over the last few months, I wouldn’t have been able to recognise it and feel frustrated I was struggling to do anything about it.
  • So much guilt. R had to have a few days off during this time because he had a small medical hiccup. I should have been taking care of him like he has done for me so many times, not just in the last 12 months of acute bleeds. But no, I was also crashing on the couch.

So what did I do to get better? I took Wednesday, then Thursday off work, and I completely disengaged. I buried my mobile phone, using only my iPod/Pad for contact with R (he’s the only one who iMessages me), so I couldn’t be bothered by the outside world, or give my ego a chance to reek havoc (this is perfect for anyone, but especially introverts, who need quiet me time on the best of days!). I rested and napped on the couch, comforted only by Col Jack O’Neill, Capt Sam Carter, Dr Daniel Jackson and Teal’c (seasons 1-2 of Stargate SG1 if anyone’s wondering). I ate when I felt like it and waited until my gut said ‘feed me’ – my body is smarter than me, no point in arguing with it! But I also went as ‘clean’ as I felt comfortable with – no gluten (obviously, given my history with it!), dairy or refined sugars, and lots of warming, yummy foods with a lean to root veggies. I went lighter on my protein too, to ease the burden on my over-wrought gut.

I went back to work on Friday, but due to it being Australia Day Long Weekend, R and I had a little trip away planned. On the Friday night we bundled everything into the car (well, I brought half of everything – it turns out my brain-deadness was still lurking. I forgot underpants, and bathers, and other essential items! Oops) and headed to Bruny Island, a gorgeous place not far from where we live. As soon as we got on the ferry, we both felt a sense of calm and release. It was the best thing to top off my two days of rest. The fresh, sea air, the morning alarm from the menagerie of birds on R’s family’s property, as well as some me time spent on the rocks on the waterfront, drawing and reading, completed my healing process. I felt relaxed, happy and like me again. I could also meditate again. Oh the release, the calm, the gentleness that comes from that source of peace. I also finally got to exercise again yesterday – a beautiful morning yoga class with R at my local studio put me back in my body in a peaceful, positive way. It felt like home again.

So, what have I learned? I really, really can’t comprise my sleep. Ever. Ever ever ever. It turns me into a bleeding, ill, mentally and visually impaired ranting bitch who shouldn’t be around anyone. That person is not even really a person, just the manifestation of my ego when I gets complete control. A lack of sleep messes with my immune system, all of the beautiful things I have in place to manage my VWD, my relationships with everyone and thing I come into contact with, and, more or less, every bodily function. If I’m exhausted like I was last week again, I just have to take time out from the world, not matter the apparent cost. The longer term consequences are far worse than the short-term social or physical discomfort.

Sleep is so important for all of our body’s functions, and if like me, you have a bleeding disorder or another chronic condition, I have no doubt it plays a part in your symptom management, even if you don’t know it yet. My advice (even if you don’t have a similar diagnosis) is to find your goldilocks zone, the range of sleep hours you need to function, and stick to it! You’ll be more alert, have more energy, not get sick as frequently, you may even find it helps regulate your metabolism and helps you loose weight. Sounds like a good sacrifice for an extra hour of shut-eye, right?

I’d love to hear how you deal with sleep – do you know what your body needs, and do you get it? Do you go off the rails like me when you don’t? Comment below!

About Jenna @ MyMissingFactor

I'm Jenna Lovell. I'm here to inspire you to be healthy by sharing my story of living with chronic illness - lets take the taboo out of illness
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2 Responses to How sleep saves your life

  1. Manda says:

    I’ve always suffered from chronic insomnia, and from Year 10 to part-way through 3rd year uni in 2006 I managed to exist on absolute minimal sleep, until I went down like a lead balloon: a month of chronic gastro, followed by round two of Glandular Fever, and then the doctor’s best guess of post-viral CFS. Ever since, my sleep has been a real battle. It hasn’t seemed to matter how much I worked to improve my sleep health, it never really got any better.

    Now that I’m working about 40 hour weeks, well those hours officially logged, in a London primary school, my body craves sleep even more. I find getting to sleep stupidly easy, as I am practically a walking zombie by 7pm, but the health of my sleep isn’t good. I either sleep like a lead pipe and wake up feeling like I’ve been hit by one, or I sleep with some combination of extremely disturbing/emotionally confusing/violent dreams. Or better yet, I dream an entire school day and wake up to face the real version with exhaustion and sadness hanging over me.

    I also have a Mirena implant to manage severe dysmenorrhea which has come to the end of its life-span, after 5 years, and my hormonal situation is also shot to hell. I’m on a waiting list for a replacement under general anaesthetic, because the pain under a local is too hard to manage. It doesn’t help me sleep easy either, awaiting the onset of crippling pain and hormonal imbalances.

    I used to do yoga regularly, and I think I’m going to gently prod myself to return to it. My diet is pretty good, in what keeps me healthy and happy, but the lack of decent sleep is really affecting my ability to be positively active in exercise, self-motivate on any level, or manage my emotional situation/stress levels. I’m on a mild anti-depressant to help me with the latter, given another breakdown before Christmas, but I really want to be able to be in a place where I am able to manage myself entirely without drug assistance. Not to mention, quite obviously, being in better control of my bitchiness when I am cranky and worn down to the edges.

    Any advice is warmly welcomed :)

    • A couple of resources that would be worth trawling through would be sarahwilson.com.au (as a fellow AI sufferer she gets your issues!), and for a sciency look at sleep and its relationship to food, motivation, mood and exercise, whole9life.com is worth a look. SW has talked a bit about sleep hygiene – perhaps pick through her tips and set yourself up a 3-4 week challenge with them?

      I think the ‘gentle prod’ back to yoga is great, emphasis on the word gentle! Exercise will help with quality of sleep. You’ll also want to look at what you’re doing in the morning – how you wake up, when your first meal is and what’s in it etc all contribute to setting up the right kind of hormonal situation in your body for the day, and a cascading series of bad options from the beginning of the day will also do your end of day sleep harm.

      I’d maybe also consider getting some medical help – your usual docs might like to look at any problems that could be arising from your medications/combinations thereof, and I’d strongly recommend looking at natropothy/Chinese Medicine support (you know how much of a rationalist I am, but I swear this stuff is gold).

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