How to sleep well

The entire day has been one big blur. All you wanted to do was sneak off and find an unoccupied meeting room, curl up in a corner and get some get some sorely needed shut-eye. You resisted. Night is here and you’re ready for your reward. The bed feels like your own private slice of heaven as you lie down to cash in. And then, finally… nothing?

Your mind is going a hundred miles per hour. Why can’t you sleep? Did you remember to lock the door? What about the cat, did you remember to feed it and what about that bill that was due yesterday? And what did your boss really mean when she said that thing? You count the minutes as the hours pass with sleep eluding you. Looks like tomorrow will be more of the same.

Sound familiar? 

A surprising amount of people I talk to seem to experience some issues with their sleep. They don’t get enough, or the quality of their sleep is poor. When that happens, you’re not at your best. You’re not even you. Instead, you’re sending some poorly crafted knock-off version that kinda looks like you — only worse — out into the world to act as your stand in. To meet with your family, friends and colleagues.

I’m no stranger to this. For years I let a cheap knock-off be my stand-in out in the world, and I didn’t like the results he produced. Still, I struggled to sleep. Some nights I had trouble falling asleep at all. Others I would practically pass out as I hit the bed, only to wake up a couple of hours later knowing I was in for a long night.

Advice from well-meaning friends and acquaintances was frustrating. “Have you tried this and that?” they shared with the best of intentions, while proclaiming that it worked great for them. It felt like gloating to me, and I resented them for it. I’ve tried everything, I told them. And I really believed it. I believed I was a victim of dumb, genetic luck that destined me for a lifetime of poor sleep. That it was all out of my hands.

I was wrong.

Now, in my defence, I didn’t lie when I said I had tried this or that. I tried everything. Once. And then, when it didn’t help immediately, I discarded it as useless. Only that’s not how the human body and mind work. How well we sleep, I’ve since realised, is the result of many small choices. Want to sleep well? Then you need to stack good decisions. Day after day, week after week.

Unfortunately there’s no quick fix. You can get some medication — I did that, too — but it doesn’t fix anything. The only way to consistently sleep well, is to be consistent in the behaviours that affect your sleep. If you build your lifestyle to implement as many of the suggestions to come as possible, I am convinced that your sleep will improve.

But it won’t happen overnight. 

None of my tips are revolutionary. If you struggle with sleep, chances are you’ve seen them before. I’m here to tell you they do work. Not overnight. Your way out of this is cultivating habits that facilitate sleep. That, like most other things worth doing, takes time and effort.

Caffeine

Look, I get it. You think you’re different and that caffeine isn’t the source of your problems. Maybe you are and maybe it isn’t. But caffeine disrupts sleep. From the third linked study:

To avoid reductions in total sleep time, coffee (107 mg per 250 mL) should be consumed at least 8.8 h prior to bedtime and a standard serve of pre-workout supplement (217.5 mg) should be consumed at least 13.2 h prior to bedtime.

Caffeine is a stimulant. To understand how it works, you need to know about two things: Adenosine and receptors. Receptors are stations all around in our bodies that respond to certain chemical signals. Adenosine is one such chemical signal — a messenger, if you’d like — that signals (among several other things) to our brain that we need to sleep.

That’s good. We want the brain to know when we’re tired and it’s time to sleep, so that it can start getting us ready for sleep. The thing about caffeine, though, is that it blocks the body’s adenosine receptors. Caffeine calls up these receptors and starts sweet talking to keep them occupied. When adenosine calls, it’s straight to voicemail.

The result is that the brain thinks “well, well, well, not much adenosine around here so best get to work” and fires up neurochemicals you’ve probably heard of, like dopamine and norepinephrine to really get the party started. The function of these brain chemicals? Alertness, attention and energy.

If you want to go to bed at 10PM, it means that your last cup of coffee for the day should be no later than 1PM. Let’s say noon to be sure. And remember, coffee is not the only drink that contains caffeine. Tea often does, too. Energy drinks are even worse, in that their caffeine content tends to be significantly higher. Soft drinks, especially cola drinks, are a “hidden” source of caffeine that many don’t even consider.

Do you consume caffeine after midday? Ditching that habit is your first step to better sleep.

Screens

You didn’t think I’d leave this one out, did you? Blue light, or “screen light” as it’s sometimes called, is next on the list. I know, you want to watch TV and keep scrolling on your phone in the evenings. After all, it’s how you relax. Unfortunately, it’s still impacting your sleep.

Light has various properties, such as wavelength and frequency. Human eyes interpret these properties as different colours. Near the lower end of the range visible to humans — the electromagnetic range — is blue light. It is light in the form of fairly short waves with high frequency. Throughout thousands of years, human bodies evolved to use light as a signal for sleep regulation. All visible light has an impact, but blue light has a particularly strong signal effect. TVs, phones and computers are all lit up by blue light.

Our brains, amazing and fairly simple all the same, think “well well, well, well, the sky’s blue so it’s no time to sleep” and so on. In the presence of blue light your brain will literally suppress the release of the hormone, melatonin, that’s responsible for making you feel tired and ready to go to sleep. But the main function of melatonin is to act as a signal for regulating our circadian rhythm — which is what happens when throughout the day.

That’s why well functioning sleepers can watch a late night movie on one occasion and it probably won’t degrade your sleep quality all that much. Their circadian rhythm can withstand an evening of blue light exposure. Persistent exposure in the evenings to blue light, however, can throw your circadian rhythm out of whack. The result is, of course, problems sleeping enough and well enough. Check out these various studies which all reach similar conclusions: Screen light is bad for your sleep.

Do you watch TV, scroll on your phone or use other backlit electronic screens in the hour before going to bed? Ditching that habit is your second step to better sleep.

Exercise

More exercise has become a cure-all for any and every ailment. And for good reason. “Americans aren’t exercising enough” is the lede in this Time article from last year. Europeans aren’t much better, as Euronews Health reported last year that almost half of all EU citizens never work out. Couple that with the fact that it’s consistently backed by science that regular exercise can improve sleep, and I could basically leave it there. If you’re not exercising regularly, you should do so. Improved sleep is just one of the many benefits you’ll enjoy.

But, based on my personal experience, I want to offer some additional guidance. I commonly received the suggestion to exercise when discussing my troubles with sleeping. From health care professionals and laymen friends alike. My only problem was that I was fairly active at the time. Already exercising several days per week, it didn’t seem like this was the solution to my nocturnal woes. With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that it was certainly a contributing factor — but in an entirely different way than I had expected.

When we exercise, we bring up our heart rate and our core temperature rises. We may even get our sweat on. In response to this new strain, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. Sometimes dubbed the “stress hormone”, cortisol makes us more alert and helps us handle the strain of exercise by doing things like mobilising energy stores, regulating blood pressure and reducing inflammation.

Those are all good things. But when it comes to sleep? Cortisol release in our bodies usually coincides with our sleeping pattern — and it plays a crucial part in regulating our circadian rhythm. In a healthy sleeper, cortisol levels will rise during sleep and peak around or just after you wake up. It is literally the stuff that gets you out of bed in the morning.

If you don’t already see where I’m going with this, I’ll be straight: Late evening workouts that stimulate cortisol release can be bad for your sleep. Like leaving you awake and restless for hours and hours afterwards bad. Given that most of my workouts were in the evenings, exercise was, in all likelihood, contributing to my troubles with sleep rather than helping. Even today, with a well-established and functional sleep pattern, a single intense workout in the early evening is enough to have me awake for hours beyond when I usually fall asleep.

Intensity of the exercise matters. I can get out for an easy jog in the evening without any disturbances to my sleep. As such, I would urge you to look at your exercise regimen, and consider whether or not it is aiding or detracting from the quality of your sleep. But please don’t misinterpret it as a call for inactivity. Never forget that regular exercise is the cheapest and most reliable medicine against a whole host of the ailments most of us face over the years, sleep troubles included. But timing matters.

Diet

Look, I’m sorry, but I need to tell you that what you eat affects your sleep. Don’t shoot the messenger, it’s just science. The good news? I have managed to establish healthy sleep habits, and I don’t exactly have the healthiest of diets. But that’s not to say it doesn’t matter — the studies I shared explicitly state that it does.

So let’s take a look at what we can do with our diets to improve the volume and quality of our sleep.

  • Protein: Repeated studies have shown that getting enough protein is beneficial for sleep. What’s enough? Well that depends on your lifestyle. If you’re in the gym lifting, aiming to build muscle, you should be looking at getting as much as 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight every day. Whereas the general recommendation from the World Health Organization for a sedentary person is as low as 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. To make sure that a lack of protein isn’t negatively affecting your sleep, you should probably aim for no less than 1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight, and adjust upwards with 0.1 gram for each weekly exercise session.
  • Fat: Avoid fatty meals and snacks in the hours leading up to bedtime. Try to reduce intake of saturated fats and increase intake of unsaturated fats.
  • Carbohydrate: One study found that a meal rich in carbohydrates of a high glycemic index three to four hours before bed can shorten the time required to fall asleep. Something to consider. But stay away from sugary (and fatty, as mentioned above) snacks in the hours after. These can result in restless sleep and frequent wake-ups during the night.

Timing

Perhaps the most pivotal point to alleviating my problems with sleep. I’ve already touched upon the importance of the natural rhythm in determining how well we sleep. There is just so much going on in our bodies before and during our sleep, that I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to sleep well consistently, you need to be consistent about when you sleep.

There are several approaches to achieve this. What they generally tend to agree on is that getting up at the same time every morning is crucial. And my experience lines up with this as well. It was only when I started enforcing a strict regimen of getting up at the same time every single morning that I was able to overcome my problems.

An extra hour or two, or maybe even three, because you couldn’t fall asleep at a proper time may seem like a good idea in the morning. It isn’t. It will only perpetuate the cycle of long and wakeful nights. So find out when you need to be up to handle your obligations in life, and get up at that same time. Every single morning.

How to handle the evenings is a point of contention. Some insist that you should go to bed at the same time every night. Others point out that lying sleepless in bed can cause anxiety around not being able to sleep, and worsen the situation. I don’t know what’s right. Perhaps it depends.

I can tell you what worked well for me, however. I’m exceptionally prone to bedside anxiety if I can’t sleep. And not just anxiety related to sleep, but everything that was, is and could be wrong. So what I found to work was staying out of the room until I got to a point where I was reasonably comfortable that I could fall asleep within a short time. That usually involved reading a book. Because I knew that when I reached the stage where I had a hard time focusing on reading, I was likely ready to sleep. 

Your evening mileage may vary. But I strongly encourage you to set a fixed time to get up every morning.

Other

Here are a couple of other things I’ve found to affect my sleep quality and duration. Most of them are no-brainers. You’re probably already familiar with them, but I’d like to point them out either way.

  • Alcohol: One or two units can help you fall asleep. Regardless, alcohol is detrimental to the overall quality of your sleep. You’re definitely better off staying away from it most days.
  • Nicotine: A stimulant, just like coffee. Steer clear to enhance your stay in the land of dreams.
  • Water: Makes you have to go to the toilet. Also when you’re sleeping, which means you’ll wake up. Try to avoid drinking much, if anything, in the two hours before going to bed. Goes for anything else you can drink that isn’t covered by the aforementioned points, for that matter.
  • Light: We sleep better when in the dark. Get a sleeping mask if you can’t make your room completely dark.
  • Temperature: Cold is better than warm. Keep the room chilled if you can, and use appropriate blankets to regulate.

Closing notes

I didn’t write this to shame you for what you’re doing wrong. Nor do I have anything to sell you. I wrote it because I know just how much it absolutely sucks to not sleep well. And to tell you that there’s hope.

These days, I sleep well most nights. And I do it despite ignoring at least some of my own advice every single day and night. It’s not about perfection. Nobody gets everything right all the time. But remember what I wrote at the top: Sleeping well is a result of consistency. Start by picking out one or two points on the list above, and work on getting them right as many days as you can.

You probably won’t see results, on account of being too busy sleeping to notice.


Responses

Respond to this post with a webmention or a comment using the form below.

Want to discuss in private?

 

Email

 

me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *