When it comes to deep sleep, I am in deep trouble

According to my wearable, I don’t get anywhere near as much deep sleep as I should. And I’m wondering if it affects my mental health. So I’m going to try one thing to see if it helps.

I’ve been casually tracking a bunch of fitness and health data for quite a number of years, using a variety of devices: Withings Pulse, FitBit gismos of various types and currently a Garmin Instinct — the one I’ve found that works best for me. And for the most part I don’t pay much attention to it. Life goes on whether I walk up ten flights of stairs, get to 10,000 paces or get eight hours of sleep.

The fitness data I care about is collected on my Garmin Edge bike GPS and tracked in Strava and Training Peaks. So I mostly pay attention to that.

But lately between COVID isolation and being self-employed from home, the low-level depression I’ve struggled with most of my life has gotten a lot worse. Who knew all those useless meetings and all those times someone crowded my door to chit chat when I was supposed to be working were actually keeping me sane.

There’s more to it than that, and that whole thing is an aside, but I do feel the need to improve the situation. Some time ago, while checking out the pretty charts in the Garmin Connect App I came across the sleep report. Quite how it does this I know not. But it shows you how much sleep you get each night. And more than that, it breaks down each night into light, REM and deep sleep as well as waking.

I’ve always been told I need eight hours per night. Thirty years ago I lived like I was the only human exempt from that rule, but in my mid 50s I have come to take it as a minimum. And I generally get there or beyond. I’m in the minority of depression sufferers who have no trouble sleeping.

However I understand there’s more to it than that. You need deep sleep (also called slow wave sleep). The way I understand it, this is the phase of sleep where your brain does a proper reset and your body regenerates cells and your immune system goes into cleanup mode.

And most of what I’ve Googled says between 15 and 25 per cent of those eight hours should be of the deep or slow wave variety. So between 72 and 120 minutes of deep sleep per night. Me? According to Garmin Connect, I averaged 13 minutes per night for the first half of 2023. It’s expected that as you age you’ll get less deep sleep, but only 1.7 per cent less every ten years. I also get too much REM sleep. These are classic patterns for depression.

I also understand that there’s a fair bit of chicken-and-egg around this: whether bad sleep patterns cause or exacerbate depression or whether bad sleep patterns are a symptom of depression caused by other things. The sleep coaches and the wearable people want you to believe it’s the former. The psychiatric crowd want you to believe it’s the latter.

So what to do. Not-be-Depressed™ is not really an option. Whether it came first or second the chicken is here. I got this top ten list from Women’s Health but I reckon it works for men too. Just with fewer pictures of salad and more brutish typography.

  1. Avoid caffeine where you can.
  2. Limit alcohol.
  3. Be smart about your napping habits.
  4. Get your exercise earlier in the day.
  5. Limit exposure to light.
  6. Put your devices away before bedtime.
  7. Commit to a consistent sleep schedule.
  8. Try the quarter-of-an-hour rule.
  9. Turn your brain off.
  10. Consider cognitive behavioral therapy.

Of these, five and six are the only ones that aren’t taken care of. I have heard different things about light. And since deep sleep happens early, I reckon morning light won’t interrupt it. Also I hate closed blinds. They make me feel boxed in and disconnected from outside which generally is my happy place.

So. No devices before bed time. This is going to be hard. Relaxing in bed with a laptop or a phone has become a huge part of my day. Whatever else has gone on — good, bad or indifferent — I can usually console myself with the idea that I’ll get some ‘me’ time before bed to distract myself or plan tomorrow or idle my brain.

But the blue light is apparently a problem. And so away it goes. Will it make a difference? We shall see. I am not sure whether I’ll try a week or a month. But night #1 netted me 23 minutes of deep sleep.