Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
Since you’ve gone Primal all sorts of strange questions pop into your head. And since you’ve gone Primal life has definitely changed. You wore Vibrams to your last shareholder meeting. The idea of skipping two, or heck, three consecutive meals, seems perfectly reasonable, and your idea of a frozen treat is that local, pastured lamb you’ve got sitting in your chest freezer, deconstructed. You’re even toying with the idea of ditching shampoo. Sheesh. To outsiders, you’re that weird caveman guy who eats steak for lunch and keeps a jar of coconut oil at his desk and thinks he’s living in the Paleolithic, but really, you’re just someone who’s discovered that keeping an ear, an eye, and a foot in our ancestral past makes living in the present that much more fulfilling – and healthy.
But how far do you go? What about sleeping? (Here come those questions…) Should we care how and upon what type of bedding Grok slumbered?
Primal is often about correcting a deficiency, or righting a “wrong.” Heart disease, diabetes, obesity are real, pressing issues for modern man that are not being addressed by our modern diets, so it makes sense to look at the lifestyles of populations (of any era) that did not suffer from these afflictions. If we can establish that modern patterns of sleep are giving us fits – that there is indeed a modern wrong that needs righting – perhaps it makes sense to look to traditional methods of sleeping for relief. So, is sleep an issue for us? Does modern sleep need correcting?
Probably. If you ask Wikipedia, we’ve identified at least seventeen common medical sleep disorders. These are real medical afflictions with fancy polysyllabic names, which make me think that sleep, at least for a significant portion of the population, is dysfunctional. Besides, we’ve all heard the complaints that people have about sleep. They toss and turn, they wake up in the middle of the night, they can’t find a comfortable position, they snore, they wake up with aches and pains. If you ask your coworkers or a random acquaintance how they sleep, I’ll bet half will reply, “Badly.” Why is this?
It’s tough to pin down a single cause for our collective sleep woes. Is it the chronic stress disrupting our hormonal balance, or the SAD? Are thoughts of work weighing heavily on our minds and preventing sleep from taking hold? Or have we forgotten how to position our bodies atop unsuitable bedding? Is it all of the above?
I’m sure it all has an effect, and I’m all about eating the right foods, managing stress, and enjoying life, but today I’m interested in the effects of modern sleep posture and modern bedding. It’s the (seemingly common) tossing and turning that really sets off a red flag, for me, because that seems like the manifestation of your subconscious self actively and vociferously searching for a comfortable position in bed. For the sweet spot. You know what I mean – that perfect position in bed, where your joints align and your spine feels right as you slip effortlessly off into the dream world. Why don’t we find that all the time?
As I’m writing this post, my dog – happy, lazy hound that he is – sleeps. He’s been sleeping for the past two hours without moving. He looks a bit like this. Same position, in fact. But he hasn’t moved at all. Oh, his paws have twitched a few times and his tail has mysteriously wagged, but he’s the picture of comfort. This dude is sleeping well. He found the sweet spot. He always seems to find the sweet spot, no matter where or when he sleeps. Dog bed, hardwood floor, backseat – it doesn’t matter. He makes it work.
I wonder how it comes so easily for animals.
In her book on posture, Esther Gokhale (I’m always tempted to type “Grokhale”) discusses the right way to lie down. Whether you’re in bed, on a cot, or on the floor, the key is to lengthen your spine. You touch ground with your sacrum, lay your palms on the ground, and slowly lower yourself back, taking care to actively lengthen your spine – vertebrae by vertebrae – by pushing through your hands. The result is an oddly awkward feeling; you really do feel longer than normal. It takes a few minutes to get used to it, but it’s an incredibly comfortable way to lie down. The first time I tried it, I fell asleep (inadvertently) in ten minutes. In fact, her method of “stretch lying” was my biggest takeaway from the book, simply because I wasn’t expecting to learn how to lie down. Posture? Yeah, I see how modern posture is dysfunctional, but I figured lying down was pretty basic stuff that no one could mess up. My sleep is better than ever since adopting her method of lying down. I no longer have to find the sweet spot to get my joints aligned and my spine supported. I am the sweet spot.
Dogs don’t need the Gokhale method, of course. They don’t need to pay attention to spine lengthening or support. They just do it naturally. Look at that canine in the picture again and note how everything lines up effortlessly. Babies and tots are able to sleep just as easily because their ideas of posture aren’t tainted (they don’t even have “ideas” of posture; like dogs, they just lie there… it’s very Zen).
What about bedding?
Research tends to show mixed results when looking at people’s preferences for bed firmness, with some experiencing more pain with firmer beds and less with “medium-firm”. Conventional wisdom (for millennia, in fact) holds that firmer beds are best for back pain (think ascetic monks lying on mats), but the recent research mars that assumption.
Honestly, from my investigation I don’t think the bedding matters too much as long as you’ve got the right sleep posture. I may risk belaboring my analogy further, but I’m going to look at the dog again. He sleeps anywhere and on any surface. He seems to show a preference for lying on something (whether it be a random towel or his fluffy dog bed), but he sleeps just as well on the hardwood floor. Maintaining that perfect sleep posture seems to be key to his success.
I’ve had similar experiences. As long as I’m mindful of the length of my spine, I can stretch out just about anywhere and be comfortable. I figure we were born without beds, so we probably come naturally equipped to flop down and sleep on the ground. At the same time, I prefer sleeping in my bed above hunkering down on the cold hard floor (although the company might have something to do with it), and I suffer no ill effects from it.
Still, I know you guys love to hack just about anything you can, so tomorrow I’ll discuss some alternative sleep postures (and maybe some bedding options).