Like many women, fitness pro, activist, author, actor, and model Gabrielle Reece is no stranger to sleep issues. “I’ve always had to dance around to figure out ways to sleep. It’s never really come easy for me. I had a bit of a bumpy childhood so I kind of — for lack of a better way to say it — slept with one eye open,” she admits.
Later, college life at Florida State University brought with it hard work, success in collegiate volleyball, and sleepless nights, but when Reece entered the professional beach volleyball world at age 22, restful sleep became even more elusive. “I can remember playing [volleyball] in my dreams or thinking about the next day’s competitions,” she says. Then, life threw more sleeplessness to both her and husband, big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton, with the birth of their children, which Reece admits still keep her awake intermittently because she worries about her “naive teenagers.”
With fitness central to her career and lifestyle, Reece has always been mindful of her body — what she puts into it, how she treats it. But sleep seemed to be the one cog that kept her well-oiled machine from running absolutely seamlessly. In fact, Reece uses the analogy of spokes on a wheel when talking about the interconnection between diet, exercise, and sleep: If one spoke breaks, the wheel won’t spin correctly. “If you don’t exercise, you might be tired and fatigued from mental stress, work, or traffic, but you might not be physically and muscularly tired to get the deep, restful sleep our bodies need,” she says. “Sometimes we confuse feeling a little bit wiped-out from these mental stresses as ‘I’m tired,’ but then when we go to bed we can’t get full, deep, restful sleep or fall asleep easily.”
Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason. Lack of sleep will make you cuckoo. Everything suffers when I don’t get good sleep.
As for food, that “spoke” needs constant attention as well. “Most people don’t metabolize coffee efficiently and, if consumed past 2 p.m., it starts to impact their sleep. And that’s just coffee — never mind caffeinated soda or high-sugar processed food.” Reece says.
Food and exercise are two spokes that can be adjusted on the wheel. But being a woman? That’s a permanent part of the wheel that also impacts quality of sleep, especially later in life. According to polls conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, woman are more likely than men to have difficulty falling asleep, experience daytime sleepiness, and encounter insomnia. Add to that, a 2017 study conducted by the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California at Berkeley found that deep sleep begins to decrease in your mid-30s and continues to deplete over time, and by age 50 you likely experience 50 percent of the deep sleep you enjoyed as a teenager.
Reece, now 48 years old, realized that the one spoke that needed fine-tuning for her own quality of life could be finessed with the help of technology. She partnered with SleepScore Labs as a brand ambassador for SleepScore Max, a non-contact sleep monitoring system that helps you track and improve your sleep habits, and she is now on a mission to help others learn more about how sleep impacts their lives — and what to do to get the wheel spinning with all spokes intact.
Here, Reece shares how she overcame her own slumber issues as well as her tips on how to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep when it seems out of reach.
First things first: What changes can women make to access better sleep?
You can work on your sleep environment — your “cave.” This means set your room temperature between 64 degrees and 67 degrees, keep the surroundings dark, and remove all electronics from your bedroom if you can. If you have technology in your bedroom, that light from a TV, phone, and alarm will negatively impact your sleep. Because if you’re on your device right before you go to bed, even if you put it on the “amber” setting, it impacts the quality and restfulness of your sleep. I also encourage good sleep hygiene.
What is sleep hygiene?
It’s the daytime habits and bedtime rituals that can positively impact sleep. For example: Try to go to sleep at the same time nightly. Honestly, as humans, we’re trainable: We can create a consistency to go to bed around a certain time each night, give or take 15 minutes, on the nights you can control. Your body then starts to anticipate what’s coming and will begin consistently gearing down into its parasympathetic mode, which means your body is now in its natural relaxed state to access restful sleep.
What do women overlook that takes a toll on their sleep?
Think about what you wear. Don’t sleep in things that wrap you up; you don’t want to be fiddling around or getting twisted up. Also, be mindful about water intake before bed. If I drink 30 minutes before I go to bed, I’ll be waking up to go to the restroom. The SleepScore Max made me aware of this, so I started drinking water much earlier before bed — because you do need to be hydrated for better sleep too. So even a minor annoyance like that was disrupting my sleep. Also, if you run hot (like my husband!) that interrupts sleep. Laird puts a ChiliPad cooling pad on his side of the bed, which helps bring down body temperature. For ladies going through menopause, this makes a nice addition to their sleep arsenal.”
All the necessary changes feel like tough adjustments to make!
You’re not really adding too much: You’re either opening a window, turning on the air, or wearing something breathable and comfortable. Just with any type of life change, just do a little at a time. It doesn’t have to be all at once. Inherently people are rebellious and/or habitual — that’s completely normal to all humans. But small, incremental changes are doable.
How did you improve your own sleep hygiene?
I resisted staying up late. We’re all so busy and, as a mom, the temptation is to stay up when everyone goes to bed so you can clean up or finish the day’s to-do list. I now try to leave it until the morning and just get to bed. The latest challenge for me is my middle teenage daughter will have schoolwork late or is just being a night bird, so my husband and I are managing helping her get to bed. Going to bed earlier was both the hardest and the biggest change I made that has noticeably improved my sleep right away. But my worst habit is reading or watching entertainment on an iPad before bed. I wear yellow-lensed glasses to help my eyes, but I still try to limit the electronics before bed and clear my mind.
When you don’t sleep well, how does it affect your day?
Sleep deprivation is a form of torture for a reason. Lack of sleep will make you cuckoo. Everything suffers when I don’t get good sleep: I don’t have the same energy to train, I have more unhealthy cravings, I have less patience and less of a sense of well-being. When I wake up tired, I tend to have a slower start to my morning: My shower is longer and colder to get my motor running. I also add in an energizing breathing routine and try to get my exercise in no matter what.
What was a big sleep hurdle that you’ve overcome?
For me, I’ve had to learn to train my mind — to put the thoughts and feelings in the right place so that I can rest. If you experience stress or a busyness of the mind like I and many other women do, you can put systems in place to help wind down before bed. Write thoughts on paper and save them for tomorrow. Or do breathing techniques … We tend to breathe incorrectly into our chests, which conversely puts our body into a state of fight or flight, triggering more stress. Proper breathing through the diaphragm physiologically puts you into your parasympathetic mode, which helps prepare you for sleep.
Since sleep has been an issue for you, when did you learn how to better your habits?
I’ve gotten so much better in the last five years with my sleep hygiene. And SleepScore has further helped Laird and me determine what’s going wrong with our sleep. Listen: Sometimes you think X is happening, but Y is really happening. Why not use technology as a quantifiable tool for sleep performance? I can analyze my scores and start to hone in on what was keeping me from sleeping and start to recognize the patterns. Here’s the secret: It’s like a food journal. Just as writing down what you eat brings awareness to what you’re consuming, the SleepScore brings awareness to how you’re sleeping. The immediate feedback makes you more aware of where you need improvement. For me, within five or six days of using the system, I saw patterns and I started living out my days thinking about what I could be doing that impacts my sleep and how to adjust it.
What if you’re getting good sleep scores, but you’re still tired?
That’s what’s interesting. If you still feel tired when you wake up, then you can look at other things in your life, like diet or happiness. Is it your job or your relationship that may be causing stress, which leads to poor sleep? We are whole beings. Sometimes we can say to ourselves that everything’s cool, but one situation, whether it’s work or personal, might need us to make a shift to positively affect others.
Speaking of one situation affecting others: You stress that exercise helps with sleep. What exercise tips can you lend our over-40 readers to help them get a consistent good night’s sleep?
I call exercise the cheapest therapy in the world. I’m 48 years old and — let me be clear — it’s not about feeling like you have to kill yourself every day. Rather, it’s about consistency over the long run. And the other thing is — especially women age 45 to 65 — we’re all athletes inside, whether we practice it or not. Can a woman age 45 to 65 say in her own private way, ‘Today for 30 minutes I’m not going to be somebody’s mother, wife, or grandmother. Instead, I’m going to spend 30 minutes or an hour tending to my inner athlete?’ And that doesn’t mean you have to be a CrossFit devotee. It just means tapping into that athletic side of yourself because I think we weren’t taught that as girls — especially older generations. It’s really fun to see women discover their inner athlete later in life. So sign up for a workout class — even if you don’t feel comfortable with your body, you can always find a class where there’s a welcoming, inclusive vibe — even Zumba! Seek out classes that are fun and that create a connection with your body as an athlete and a physical being.