I’ll be honest with you; I haven’t been sleeping well lately.
It started back in March when my husband and I were reassessing our long-term goals. Since we married nearly five years ago, we had planned to move to the pacific northwest from southern California. I would finish school, he’d work his trade, we’d finally get a dog to go with our cat, get comfy and stable and then have our first baby– wham, bam, thank-you-ma’am! Now that’s a five-year-plan!
…Only, it wasn’t happening. Thanks to COVID, we both lost our day jobs and were forced to work through part of our savings to keep ourselves afloat– the savings we had kept safe specifically for the downpayment of our new home. Daily violent protests throughout the country showed us that maybe NOWHERE was safe right now, but especially not the pacific northwest. Everything I thought was ready and waiting for me felt snatched away and swallowed by the chaos. The day before we moved into another apartment (instead of our dream home) with another roommate (instead of our dog; her name would have been Chester), I found myself lying in bed, blinking at the ceiling. When I finally dozed off, I snapped awake two hours later and could not fall back asleep. This pattern repeated ad nauseam until my alarm notified me that it was time to start the day.
“Everyone gets stressed and nervous while moving,” I rationalized internally, “and besides, there’s a lot to be stressed about. This will even out soon enough.”
But the stress didn’t stop. The apartment we moved to came with noisy upstairs neighbors, who have several small children that stomp at all hours to this day, and a roommate who woke up at 4 am for their work shifts. Everything seemed strange and foreign, and while I did my best to acclimate, the new sounds at odd hours were not helping. COVID was, of course, still going strong and uprooting any sense of normalcy.
Two months passed with no improvement. I averaged 3-4 hours of sleep a night, though I rarely slept more than an hour at a time. If I ever got more than 5 hours total, I considered it a triumph. Along with being exhausted, my depression began to spiral out of control. Compounded with stress from the pandemic and approaching election, my trouble staying asleep started to wreak havoc on my day-to-day life. My relationships were beginning to fray due to my short temper, and I was constantly finding myself feeling on the brink of emotional collapse. I knew this wasn’t normal and that I needed help, but I didn’t know where to start.
I was starting to get desperate. For the first time in my life, I was compelled to seek out a psychiatrist for assistance. Over the next five months, my medications were tweaked so that I could get enough sleep at night to be able to function normally during the day. Unfortunately, many of my mood-stabilizers would only work properly if I had gotten enough sleep, to begin with. All in all, I spent about 8 months readjusting to a somewhat normal sleep schedule. I still rarely sleep through the night and find that my internal clock is still inclined to wake me up at 4 or 5 am regardless of when I went to bed.
This month, just as I was hoping my dance with sleeplessness was coming to a close, my husband went into a manic episode, due to his bipolar disorder. He went nearly two days without sleep himself, resulting in paranoid delusions that culminated in a hospital stay. I had never seen him go through an episode myself, and couldn’t help but look on with a kind of sick fascination with what was happening.
“Sleep is so important,” I remember thinking as I held him, hoping to calm him as he panicked. “Sleep is so important and I don’t know why.” I wouldn’t know until a bit later that, even now, scientists are still not 100% sure why we need sleep either. All we know for sure is that we NEED it, with a capital N.
As my husband recovered, his new medication made his circadian rhythm do a complete 180; he went from hardly sleeping at all to sleeping 14-16 hours a day. I couldn’t help but think of how much our lives had changed in the past year because something that once came effortlessly and naturally had somehow gone wrong for us. I couldn’t help but worry– worry that this ordeal may have hurt us more than we thought, that it might change our future even more than it had already been altered.
I worried, what if this ends up hurting our chances of having kids?
I did what any normal, sane person would do when confronted with a scientific question, yet no scientific training. I went to the internet to research it myself.
Quickly, my fears were confirmed. Essentially, not only does poor sleep negatively affect your chances of getting pregnant, sleep deprivation causes problems with every step along the way, from menstruating, to conception, to birth.
A 2018 study showed that those with an NASD (or non-apnea sleep disorder) were almost four times more likely to have problems becoming and staying pregnant than those without a sleep disorder. Additionally, those who slept at least 8 hours a night had 20% FSH (follicle stimulating hormones, necessary to prepare the ovaries for the release of an egg) than those who slept 6 hours or less.
Interestingly enough, I started to notice that sleep seemed to be only part of the equation; staying rested in general and having a comfortable routine play an important role as well. Those who worked night shifts or irregular work hours were shown to have double the rate of miscarriage from those who maintained a regular daytime schedule, and those who work long hours in their first trimester have their chances of a pre-term delivery double.
It’s not just people with ovaries who should be getting a good night’s sleep, either, despite being disproportionately more likely to suffer from insomnia. A study published this January shows that sleep deprivation can cause structural changes in the testes, resulting in defective and deformed sperm. Thankfully, this same study showed that Vitamin C may be a “potential fertility enhancer”, as it both eases insomnia and enhances testicular structure and function.
Lots of stuff helps you get better rest, as it turns out. Spending at least an hour in the sun each day, turning off your phone an hour or more before bedtime, exercising, and nightly calming rituals can all help you get to sleep easier, which will, in turn, help you out on the fertility front. Sleeping between 10 pm and 7 am, cutting caffeine and alcohol five hours before you go to bed, and avoiding melatonin (surprisingly) can help even more. While you should honor your personal sleep needs, most agree that you should strive for the standard 8 hours of sleep a night.
I left my research session feeling like a bandaid had been ripped off me– the hard part was over, but now I had to deal with the stinging fact that if we didn’t get back into a healthy sleep routine, the consequences could reach far into our futures. We both spoke to our doctors and committed to improving our quality and quantity of sleep that same day.
My husband and I are still having trouble getting consistent sleep, but we do our best and have become kinder to ourselves in turn. Once something reserved for only “when all the work is done”, resting has become part of our routine, something to be relished and well as prescribed and taken daily. We indulge in tandem reading, or simultaneous hobby-ing. I calmly focused on my embroidery, my husband softly strumming his guitar. I’ve noticed that the days that we rest turn into the nights with the best sleep. I notice, and I hope that all the others experiencing sleepless nights have been treating themselves gently in these tumultuous times. As gently as we can.