I am an outside salesperson. I drive four hours or more a day. I get sleepy when I drive. It doesn’t have to be a long drive, I just get bored and fatigued whenever I’m behind the wheel. When my body stops moving, I start shutting down. I’ve always assumed it goes hand in hand with my very convenient ability to fall asleep immediately when I lay down at night. I used to treat this with soda, distracting myself to stay alert. When I stopped drinking cola, I started using coffee. When I realized I was addicted to coffee, I quit and started on chips and snacks. When I got fat, I started on nuts and fruit and when I had to give those up I tried vegetables and other things I could snack on that were healthier. I tried metering out my snacks so I would eat less, but I knew the one constant was that if I drove I would have to keep eating.
I’ve tried music, talk radio and audiobooks to keep my mind alert but in my twenty-five years or so of driving the only thing I’ve found that works is companionship. If I’m talking to somebody either in person or on the phone, then my mind reengages. This has lead to some interesting coping habits of arguing with myself when there is nobody to speak to or having creative debates. Mostly though, it always comes back to food.
I read a couple of books recently about willpower and the brain (Brain Apps: Hacking Neuroscience To Get There, and The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It) and started to learn a bit about the way the brain works, how you build willpower, what your brain uses up when it exerts willpower and how to replenish it. It turns out that fat is one of the best things for getting energy directly to the brain and picking up a quick boost of mental reserves or willpower when needed. I know this seems to be a return to the norm for me. Eating my way to alertness, but in this case it was slightly different. I’ve recently started a Ketogenic diet, where my diet is 70% fat. This diet doesn’t allow for casual snacking. Every bit of food that hits my mouth has to be accounted for. One of those snacks is called a fat bomb. It is a little bon-bon of hardened coconut oil with a bit of cacao and essential oil in it. (I make it sound so delicious, right?) The premise is that your body begins to fuel itself with fat instead of carbs, which in my case, works well with my brain experiments. I know that the rides to and from customers are a time where temptation to snack is strongest. I also know that resisting temptation requires me to give the brain some fat to burn. Before I head out for the morning, I made sure my brain had a good breakfast with lots of fat and I made sure to carry a couple of these fat bombs with me for the times in the day when I knew temptation would be at its worst. I also agreed not to eat them while driving. That helped me to start disassociating the snacking from the driving.
These books also both focused on the effects of sleep on the brain. The research was eye opening (Pun intended). The amount of damage I do to my brain with less than eight hours of sleep a night is fairly horrific. The amount of increased risk for people who are already prone to neurological disorders that is compounded by getting even six instead of eight hours of sleep a night is alarming. I have always been a night owl. I go to bed when I’m tired, usually between midnight and two and wake up at five in the morning. It never seemed to matter how early or late I woke up, my body was always sleepy, so I didn’t worry about not getting enough sleep. In my mind, if I was still going to be tired after eight hours of sleep, then I was just not a morning person and there was no point in missing out on the productivity of the evening. I love those evenings when everybody is asleep and the house is mine alone. I write my books, I play my video games, I watch the shows that my family doesn’t want to watch with me and generally revel in that very precious commodity for any father and husband, private time. It was hard for me to accept this was one of the things that was slowly killing me. I was increasing my chances for the Alzheimer’s that runs in my family, decreasing my ability for reason and concentration, tanking my already disturbingly bad memory and dramatically lowering my focus. Getting less than eight hours of sleep a night has the same effect on your mind as binge drinking the night before. I had stopped drinking years ago to be better to my body, but I was putting the same strain on it by not giving it time to recuperate each day.
The list of things your body doesn’t get to each day with less than eight hours of sleep goes on and on. I knew sleep was important, but we all reach a point where the knowledge of how damaging something is, becomes so damning that we can’t pretend we don’t know anymore. I reached that tipping point. I wasn’t happy to reach it, but I knew enough to know that if I didn’t do something, I would have no excuse later on when something happened. I made a drastic change and started going to bed each night at ten and getting up at six. It took a lot of reshuffling as my days suddenly were several hours shorter. I had to prioritize and make sure the time I had was spent productively. Going to bed so early is still very foreign to me, and I still wake up at three or four every morning thinking it should be time to get up. I benefit greatly from my army-given ability to sleep whenever I lay down, though. It has been a couple months of pretty dramatic change and some very active experiments to see if I could hack my body to be what I needed it to be. I think the results are encouraging.
I eat purposefully now and the Keto diet has hacked my body to burn fat instead of carbs. I started at one hundred and seventy pounds with a goal of seeing if I could hit one hundred and fifty-seven pounds. This had always eluded me and was the gateway to the mythical “normal” bmi for me. I hit and exceeded that goal already and will probably end up settling around 145 or so. A bit on the high end of normal but comfortably away from hitting overweight, even if it lapses a bit. I don’t generally get hungry anymore. I used to get hangry if I didn’t eat every three hours. These days I generally eat a meal every twelve hours.
I get my eight hours a night now and I can feel the difference. I wake up naturally, ready to get started with the day. I don’t dread mornings any longer and I don’t spend the first few hours of each day in a fog or angry. I get right to my to do lists, enjoy a ridiculous breakfast that contains about half my calories for the day and can do mental calisthenics first thing in the morning. My memory is improving. My energy levels stay constant throughout the day, I have less aches and pains, and I just feel healthier. This is the best part though.
I don’t snack when I’m driving and I don’t get sleepy behind the wheel. Of all the changes I have experienced, this one is the most life changing. Little by little, I’ve taken control of the things that could rob me of control in my life down the road and that were stealing my freedom to do and be what I wanted. Sleep, diet and a little bit of informed neuro-hacking have made a huge difference in the quality of my life. I’m not advocating anybody follow my particular pattern. Everybody is different and each person is punishing their body in different ways. I’ve been working hard for years to improve my health and this was one of the hold outs that I hadn’t figured out yet. For me, it was a pretty great use of a time of year that can be difficult for people to get though.