Sleep Challenge 2010: Meet the "Vampire Hormone" (Yes, You Have It)

2010-01-07-Cindi250.jpgJust one of the startling things I’ve learned over the last two weeks of the Sleep Challenge is that apparently, when it comes to good health, what you do in the hour right before you go to bed really matters. So: What were you doing last night? And was it good for you or bad for you? And what is a vampire hormone?! Let’s find out here...

I’ll start by confessing right off the bat that I’ve never had a “bedtime routine” of any kind, and that in fact, when our sleep challenge doctor first suggested it, I kind of rolled my eyes. Was I supposed to drink a glass of warm milk and get my husband to read me Goodnight Moon? ( And frankly, the whole business of trying to go to bed earlier is difficult enough as it is—now I had to build in an extra half-hour to an hour for the pre-bed warm-up?

But over the last two weeks, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how some of the things I used to roll my eyes at (like acknowledging that my body needs seven-and-a-half hours of sleep a night, for one thing) have actually turned out to be true. The Sleep Challenge is making me feel more energetic, and lots of you are saying it’s working for you too. So I silenced my inner skeptic and listened up.

“You have to do things during the day to set yourself up to have a good sleep,” says Michael Breus, Ph.D. “Just like if you’re going to go for a run, you’ve got to stretch, you’ve got to put on good sneakers, you’ve got to have the right equipment—then you have a good run. And the same holds true for sleep. I have a warm-up routine before I sleep...but a lot of people are doing stuff they don’t even know is screwing them up.”

Some of the things you shouldn’t be doing in the hour before bed: drinking coffee (duh). Drinking alcohol (oh). Exercising (who does that?). Using your blackberry or your laptop (the TV’s OK, as background noise). Eating just about anything, since your body’s not meant to digest lying down. Even if you can fall asleep right after doing all those things, your body won’t rest and repair as thoroughly as it would otherwise.

And here’s one key thing we’re all supposed to be doing: dimming the lights about an hour before bed. Why? Because your body is better able to produce melatonin—the compound that helps you sleep, and sleep well—in the dark. “Melatonin is not produced in the presence of light—it’s actually called the vampire hormone,” explains Dr. Breus. “So if women are taking off their makeup at the end of the day, don’t sit in front of a big bank of light. Because guess what? You just told your brain it’s morning.”

I tried to do the lights-down thing last night, running around my house hitting dimmer switches 45 minutes before I was supposed to go to bed. (Come on out, vampire hormone! You do look like Robert Pattinson, don’t you?) And it worked; I fell asleep far quicker than I usually do, and slept sounder too. The question now is: Who has time for a pre-bed routine every night? Can I really make it a habit? I’m not sure (and neither is my husband, who walked into our half-lit kitchen and asked whether I was planning a séance). And committing to not using a computer for an hour before bed is a near-impossibility for many of us. But...I’ll try.

So: What did you spend the hour before bed last night doing? Watching TV? Walking the dog? Running around checking things off your to-do list? (I can cure you of that right here!) Oh—having sex? (Doctors recommend it.) Tell me; I’ll run some of your comments here next week.

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