April 07, 2023 Founders Note 011

011: I Dream of Sleep

Sometimes, when I’m struggling to fall asleep, I imagine what my life would be like if I won the lottery. I think about the logistics: Tell no one; hire the right attorney; do whatever it takes to remain anonymous; wait a year before making any huge purchases; and, obviously, take the lump sum. I imagine the excitement and freedom of being supremely privileged, unburdened by need or want. (This fantasy does not concern itself with the cultural narrative of everything going to shit for the winner – no, it’s all upside for me!) I imagine what I’d do with the money: secretly deposit huge sums in friends’ accounts, establish a luxury wellness resort for rescue dogs, see every corner of the world, and, of course, never fly commercial again. It’s my version of counting sheep. 

For as long as I can remember, sleep hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve struggled with falling asleep, staying asleep, and most importantly, feeling rested in the morning. Most days, sleep is something I both look forward to and approach cautiously, like meeting a new dog for the first time – is this thing going to be a wiggly love bug or Cujo?

I’ve met with sleep therapists and sleep doctors who taught me the basics of sleep hygiene, which, it turns out, is not about taking a shower before bed, but the healthy ways to orient oneself to sleep, like: stick to a consistent schedule even on the weekends, get off screens a few hours before bed, don’t do non-sleep things in bed (save sex), and create a wind-down ritual. But, as my mom tells me, “knowing and doing are two different things,” and that’s been true for how I’ve historically (and tragically) approached sleep. 

Sleep appears simple, easy, a passive act. How have I managed to make doing nothing so damn hard? 

My biggest challenge has been nonrestorative sleep (NRS), not feeling rested even after a solid eight to ten hours. One of the more frustrating effects of struggling with sleep is that it’s the precursor to struggling with being awake. So, my sleep doc attempted to work backwards through that equation and prescribed a stimulant to help me feel more awake during the day. This stimulant was supposed to make-up for what my sleep wasn’t doing naturally. I was told it’s the drug soldiers take at war to stay alert and to ease into the medication – start with half a pill and build to two. The next day, excited to finally be fully awake, I jumped straight to the two-pill dose and somehow managed a two-hour nap thereafter. I’d be a lousy soldier.

I’ve experimented with caffeine cessation, CBD drinks, Andrew Huberman’s supplement routine, meditation, wearables, cooling mattress pads, blue light blocking glasses, cushy pillow tops, eye masks, and spent the first six weeks of 2023 sleeping on the living room couch, convinced it better contoured to my body and was therefore a better option. I’ve sought relief from NyQuil, Trazadone, and a short trial of an Ambien-like drug that caused me to reply to a difficult business email in the middle of the night with an instruction to “fuck off.” (I later learned that, when taking this Ambien-like drug, some people wake up in the middle of the night and impulsively shop, commit crimes, or fire-off emails saying what they really want to say, all of which would have been good for me to know prior to taking the drug. I just assumed I’d tragically morphed into a truculent asshole.) Better to be sleepy than an asshole.

Sleep appears simple, easy, a passive act. How have I managed to make doing nothing so damn hard? 

Just as it was for our cave-dwelling ancestors, sleep is when we’re the most vulnerable, unaware of and unable to protect ourselves from threats.

I recently learned there actually may be something evolutionarily happening behind the scenes that makes shutting down difficult. According to Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a sleep specialist at Stanford’s Sleep Medicine Center, “Sleep is the most dangerous thing we do.”  

Just as it was for our cave-dwelling ancestors, sleep is when we’re the most vulnerable, unaware of and unable to protect ourselves from threats. It makes sense that the final moments before sleep are when we’re assessing the dangers that wait in the bushes. According to Dr. Pelayo, what waits in the bushes for the contemporary sleeper aren’t lions or warring neighbors but anxiety and his wicked brother, stress.

Dr. Pelayo and Candice Alfano, director of the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston at the University of Houston, suggest three practices that may help push through the anxiety that can accompany falling asleep:

  1. Establish a caffeine cut-off, ideally 10 hours before bedtime.
  2. Journal your to-do list or worries just before bed, which for participants in a 2019 clinical study, resulted in falling asleep faster.
  3. Be optimistic; give yourself something to look forward to (on the other side of sleep), like winning the lottery.

(Ok, to be fair, they didn’t specifically suggest my lottery fantasy, but I think I’m on to something.)

Not sleeping well still keeps me up at night. It’s a familiar routine. Part of me is holding out for a silver bullet solution, but the real solve exists somewhere between behavior modification, understanding my specific physiology, and contending with the persistent dangers lurking in the bushes.

On the upside, I’ll know exactly what to do when I finally win the lottery.

Brian McGrath Davis Co-Founder