(this post is a repost - I posted virtually the same thing last Friday - but mid-post it froze and then the site froze ... so - we're trying it again)
Aaaaah sleep. Such a beautiful thing - there's even this lovely verse about it in Psalm 127:2. And - if you're not getting a great amount of sleep - such an illusive thing.
We all know someone who doesn't get a lot of sleep - for whatever reason. Not all that long ago - I was an acute insomniac myself - sleeping less than even half the recommended 8 hours per night - night after night - for years. When I finally got my hand on a Fit-Bit almost 4 years ago - I bought it specifically to help me figure out how to get my sleep sorted out. I was horrified to realize that I was averaging less than 3 hours per night. It took a long time - and loads of articles, TED-talks, books, studies, and experiments - lots and lots of experiments - for me to get my sleep to the - but I'm happy to report that these days I average over 7 hours a night. You can go consume all that media yourself - or you can read my list below. I'm not a doctor, or a sleep-researcher (obviously!) - but what follows is a comprehensive compilation of what you can do to hack your sleeplessness and get some more Zzzzz's.
Again - I'm not a doctor - you should discuss your sleeplessness with your doc. Especially if you have anything else going on that might complicate your health.
There are different kinds of insomnia - and varying degrees of severity. Some people sleep like champs. The average adult has one or two nights of restless/poor sleep per month - that's not insomnia. Some folks regularly fall asleep easily - but wake up far too soon - and then can't fall back asleep again for a tragically long period of time. Some folks take an hour or more to fall asleep. Some folks toss and turn - sleeping some part of every hour of the night - but without a restfully beneficially long-enough stretch to get any REM sleep. Then there are the people who wake up hours and hours before they need to - and can't ever go back to sleep. What you need to know about all of these is that they really, really stink. When my sleep was at its worst - I experienced all of these - and despised them equally. A few years ago I started doing everything I could to increase my sleep average from 2 hours and 52 minutes per night in the beginning to 7 hours and 15 minutes today. I'm still working towards 8. Sleep problems are a big, big headache (literally) to your head - and even more so to your health. These tips helped me - and maybe they can help you too.
So - in my opinion sleep problems can be looked at two ways: what you have to do to train your body to predictably become sleepy when it's "sleepy time". These are all the things that impact your circadian rhythms - and you want these hormonally controlled cycles to work for you - not against you. Sleep problems also fall into the category of sleep-hygiene - which the American Sleep Association discusses here. If you've been having a hard time sleeping for some time - you might have to "retrain" your body to know when it's time to sleep (aka: get those circadian rhythms lined up in your favor - AND start setting up your own sleep hygiene routine - and stick with it. If you're looking for tips on how to sleep better when switching from day shift to night shift - this post isn't focused on that - but the sleep hygiene tips will probably help.
Again - don't be nuts. Don't take risks with your well-being. This is my list of what I did - and as I said - it added more than 4 hours per night to my sleep. The first few items deal with circadian rhthyms and the rest are about sleep hygiene. Tips that are bolded are especially recommended by nearly every expert - so maybe start with the bolded ones. Other wise - start with the tips easiest to incorporate. I don't recommend attempting to try all of them at once - there are too many. But you can surely experiment with which ones are most effective for you - and just keep adding until you're a snooze-pro.
- Pick a consistent time to go to bed - 7 nights per week. Don't mess around - especially if you're deeply sleep deprived or dangerously exhausted. You can vary that bed-time by as much as an hour in a pinch - but if your sleep schedule is really out of whack - tough it out - you'll be happier quicker. If you don't know what time works best for you - that's okay - pick a time for now - and tweak it later. This bed-time stays the same - and nothing goes on your schedule until at least 8 hours after bed-time. Block it all off. Block that time off - 7 days a week. That means if you have to be to work by 8 Monday through Friday - and you wanted to get up at 7 - you need to go to bed no later than 11pm Sunday night through Saturday night. In a pinch you can go to bed as early as 10 or as late as 12 - and get up as early as 6 or as late as 8 ... but block off 8 hours.
- Stay in bed - at least resting - if not actually sleeping for all of this period. There are some exceptions - like if you still have two hours to sleep but you're so wired you're glued to the bedroom ceiling - get up. But otherwise - if you're relaxed, groggy, peaceful - stay in bed. Think sleepy thoughts. You're training yourself to be asleep at this time. Even if it doesn't seem to work the first few days - your body will eventually oblige. It wants 8 hours of sleep.
- As soon as you can after your wake-up time - get up and get outside for some pre-noon blue wave-length day-light exposure. Expose as much of your skin as is reasonable - because this isn't just about your eyes - it's also about vitamin D - and your skin is a big deal on this one - being the original way you get vitamin D. Twenty or so minutes is ideal - more is okay - but there's no need to go bonkers here. Three hours of pre-noon light probably won't help you sleep better - especially when you get fired for not showing up to work. Screens are a no-no right before bed because they emulate this pre-noon blue natural light. So staring at screens too much before bed can screw up your circadian rhthyms.
- Okay - the rest of these are sleep-hygiene related. Get your heart-rate up. You don't have to do Rocky Balboa's work-out - but a brisk walk where you sweat a bit and your heart gets pumping will help your body process a lot of cortisol - the stress hormone. Even if your life is lovely - if you're not sleeping well - that alone leads to too much cortisol. A nice walk will help you dump it. Again - about 20 minutes is ideal. Longer will not necessarily purge more cortisol - though it might benefit you in other ways. You can pair-up this one with number 3 - and save time. Or pair it up with number 11 and work-out with a friend. Fantastic!
- Limit your caffeine to never if you can. Seriously - this will really help. If you can't or don't want to walk away from caffeine - then at least limit your intake to the morning. Caffeine commonly stays active in your system for 12 hours - if you're particularly sensitive - then it could be active for even longer. Some people tell me they have a hard time sleeping or staying asleep at night - and admit that they drink caffeinated soda in the evening - or enjoy one of those froo-froo coffee-house beverages. I used to do all these - but limit my caffeine to one cup of joe in the morning and no more caffeine the rest of the day.
- Journal your feelings - especially the ones that keep coming back up - stress about a relationship, worry about money, dread about a deadline, regret over something in the past - whatever it is - if it keeps coming you - it's asking for your attention. You don't have to write a new Shakespeare play (although if you can - props to you!). You can use the bullet journal method and spend minutes (or less). The point is not what method you use - but that you get the lingering emotional burdens and sticky thoughts out of your precious noggin' so there's no room for anything in there when you go to bed tonight - except for sweet dreams.
- Practice yoga. Or if yoga weirds you out - practice pilates. Or tai-chi. Or ball-room, square or swing dancing. There is something about the way these activities effect your brain-body connection - and reduce cortisol. Basically - these connect you to your body better - make you more aware of it - and help you respect it better. You don't have to do this one daily - but two to three times per week sure helped me. I bought a cheap wii-fit on craigslist and used that for yoga, stretching, pilates and dancing.
- Meditate. You don't have to dedicate your life to this. 10 to 15 minutes a 3-4 days per week could work wonders for your sleep. This isn't about a spiritual practice - this is about attempting to attempt a meditative state - that is one in which you slow your thoughts down - you slow your heart-rate down - and you slow your breathing down. You might be surprised how just breathing as slowly as 3 or so breaths per minute impacts your sleep. This isn't any kind of hard-core meditation - but it's enough to - again - impact your brain chemistry in multiple beneficial ways. You can access tons of information on-line or via a phone app to help with this - much of it free. I meditate almost every day these days. I LOVE it.
- Another point about meditation - if you snore - or other people say you snore no despite your loathing hearing this - consider getting a sleep study - maybe you have sleep apnea. This is a BIG HAIRY DEAL. Sleep apnea - untreated - is a health-ruiner. Fix that. There are also breathing exercises you can engage in that regardless of where you land in terms of sleep apnea - you can breathe - literally easier - and probably improve your sleep. Granted - if you read my Origin of the Grace Habit posts about a month ago - you know I had real problems breathing. Back in the day - this meant that people staying at my house thought: I ground coffee-beans in the middle of the night, ran the vacuum sweeper in the night, ran the food-processor in the wee hours, or my favorite - kept a chain-saw in my bedroom ... all of that racket was just me snoring. Like a troll. Breathing exercises - such as the classic one where you inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 4 counts, exhale for 8 counts, hold for 4 counts - and then repeat. These days I have a snazzy app called "Apnea Trainer" - which is actually the opposite of what it's named. It's designed to help train free-divers - you know - those whackos who want to drive without oxygen tanks to brain-squeezing depths - to expand their lung capacity. I take breathing exercises really seriously. There are therefore - these days - no more chainsaws in my house. I suspect that it's just an aspect of how humans age - that we engage (generally) in less high intensity cardio - which means that the muscles God gave us to support that - go as flabby and slack as the rest of us - and we snore like bears - especially if we no longer weigh what we did in high school.
- Limit napping. Naps can be such a double-edged sword. When my sleep was at its worst - I also drove a lot ... all over the Midwest ... through corn-fields. Help! So very very sleep inducing. But - in general - you have the ability to healthfully sleep so many hours a day (all things being equal - too much sleep poses a different set of problems). So if you - a healthy adult human, nap for say - more than an hour ... you are probably dipping into your allotment of sleep-time for the coming night. Bummer. If you need a nap - for whatever reason - limit your nap time to the middle of the afternoon - and for 60 minutes or less.
- Socialize with friends. Again - not every day - but "enough" - whatever enough is for you. If right now - reading this - you feel like "I'd love to have more time with my friends" or you feel lonely - then you need some more friend-time. That's cool. Okay. Now go get it. Either find some activities you can add to your weekly routine and a buddy to do them with - or join a new group. I started story-telling a couple of years ago. Perfect for me. Again - having enough social time can be a really important way to reduce stress and increase your sense of well-being. You might want to try a couple of different new things - take a class, volunteer, learn a new hobby, ... there are so many ways.
- Limit your processed and fatty/sugary foods - especially in the evenings. Processed foods - fatty foods - sugary foods - can all do a number on your body's chemistry. They can keep you up with an uncomfortable over-full stomach/bloated sensation - they can lead to digestive issues (think IBS etc.), or lead to an increased inflammatory response - which can easily lead to you tossing and turning at best - or interrupted sleep due to generalized discomfort at worst. Not cool.
- If due to your having been a professional hockey player, or professional gymnast or professional MMA fighter - or something else similar - you wake up regularly - due to muscle and/or joint soreness - you might want to consider a small glass of tart-cherry juice. This is a specific kind of cherry juice - is frequently sold as a concentrate and must be diluted before drinking. It's not the tastiest beverage - but it's far from awful. This is not a kids drink - it IS tart - and it is pure - no added anything. Studies have linked just a glass (mixed per the recommendations on the bottle) of tart cherry juice with reduced joint paint and inflammation. This can - especially when taken before bed - improve sleep. Bonus!
- This tip may be a one-time thing - but spend some time tweaking your bedroom. If you love it - this may mean just giving it a quick cleaning. Or - maybe it's time to wash all your bedding, flip your mattress, replace that tattered window shade that lets too much light in. Maybe you'd like some new sheets - or a sound-machine, or one of those little thingies that spritzes the room with deliciously sleepy making lavender scent. Maybe your pillows need washing - or replacing. Maybe you need an extra. Maybe a new stuffed animal - or some new art for the wall - or whatever. It's worth it to make your room a place that invokes peaceful calm and rest just looking in there at it.
- While we're at it - research shows people sleep best in a room around 60 degrees. Consider making your room cool too while you're at it.
- While you're at that - what about what you wear to bed - is it time for new pajamas?
- As the day draws to a close - consider limiting your intake of highly processed and/or fatty and sugary foods. Processed foods can contain chemicals and preservatives that interfere with your body's ability to wind down and naturally shift over to your sleep cycle. Fatty foods often cause increased incidences of indigestion as we get older. Sugary foods can cause an inflammatory response and impede your body's ability to sleep pain free.
- A couple of hours before bed - stop eating. You'll sleep better on a not-so-full stomach - and you'll digest your last morsels more efficiently if your a few hours into the job before laying down.
- Establish a pre-bed routine - this routine can help your circadian rhythms signal your brain that bed-time is approaching. Keep the same routine night after night - and soon you'll be yawning through it in anticipation of laying your head on your pillow. Your routine doesn't have to be complex - just yours. I like to shut off electronics, plug in my phone, make my coffee for tomorrow morning, brush-teeth, wash face, let the pooch out, maybe stretch a bit - especially if today involved hard work (in the garden for instance) or lots of sitting at the desk and working without moving much)
- Make your last drink of the night an hour or so before bed. Let your last drink be water or - if your glass of diluted tart-cherry juice. Don't keep drinking right up to the moment you crawl into bed - unless you like getting up in the dead of the night and wandering off to the bathroom.
- An hour before bed - stop working. If you still have tasks left to get done - make a list. Shut off all screens.
- Some people have found it helpful to take melatonin to help them sleep. Melatonin is not a sleeping pill - it's a hormone your body naturally produces during sleep. There are different strengths available - start with the lowest and cut the tablet in half - increase by halves until you have the right amount for you. If you want you can take your Melatonin with your last drink or with your last meal of the day.
- Right before hopping into bed - take a very hot shower - and then turn the water as cold as you can for as long as you can. This will simulate your bodies natural drop in temperature that occurs before your normal bed-time. This is especially helpful if your room isn't quite cool enough for you to fall asleep easily.
- If you have trouble shutting down your brain in order to fall asleep - consider listening to a sleep meditation. There are many of these - and many are audio only - which is even better since the last thing you want is a screen on in your room as you're trying to fall asleep. I can't recommend a specific one - but there are many good ones and most are free. Some people recommend a good fiction book. For some music works. You know yourself - if you cannot fall asleep once you pick up a book - you know that's not the way to go. If you can't listen to music without dancing - perhaps dancing in bed will not work for you. I fall asleep reading a book - and I have a small light that's automatically set to go off.
- Sleep experts are unanimous: no pets in your bed. You and they will sleep better if you sleep in your own spaces and don't interfere with each other. If you cannot abide this idea - then train your pets to not wake you. There are many helpful hints on how to do this - but they all come down to - don't reward your pets with attention, games, play, cuddles or food in the middle of the night.
- Once your alarm has gone off - or your 8-9 hours of sleep is done - get up. Over-sleep is not good for you either. While we all have a night or two here or there when we'll sleep a little longer - regularly or habitually sleeping as long as possible is not good for you either and can lead to a host of health issues too. If you turn to sleep as a way to escape problems - the truth is you're inviting health problems on top of whatever it is compelling you to crawl into bed. Talk it out with a friend - or ask a friend to help you find a counselor who can help you unpack what's going on and find more ways to cope than morphing into Rip Van Winkle.
- If after a week or two of trying these tips you're still struggling with sleep - or if you've had serious problems sleeping for a while - go see your primary care provider and enlist their professional help in determining what the problem is. No one has ever improved their health by ignoring sleep problems. Your difficulties sleeping could be a warning shot. Take good care of yourself!
Hope this helps you get your 8-9 hours of sleep! If you have a tip I missed - by all means - pass it along!