Photo by Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr Creative Commons
It seems that almost everyone has trouble sleeping from time to time — and for those with chronic sleep problems, it can get pretty painful. At some point several years ago, I unwittingly embarked on a four-year string of fitful or all-out sleepless nights. And when I really dug in to figuring it out, it easily took a year before I started experiencing full nights of sleep night after night. Once I got a taste of falling asleep within a few minutes, sleeping straight through to morning, waking up ready to go and enjoying (relishing) an entire day feeling alert and energized, I was hooked. The tricks and tweaks that work for me aren't exciting or new, but now that I know what it feels like to be well-rested on a regular basis, I have become fiercely protective of my nights. Which may be rule No. 1 in getting a good night's sleep: Once you know what works for you, stick with it.
For anyone who's curious, the staid, tried-and-true tricks that worked for me are outlined below. Please note that when I was tinkering with my sleep, I just made a list of ideas that seemed to have potential and then adjusted (or ditched, in some cases) them until I found a system that worked for me. These are ideas I came across in reading or just thought to try, and in no way should they be construed as medical advice. An insomnia-addled editor whose greatest expertise swings from website optimization to 19th-century literature hardly qualifies as a medical expert. There are five points in bold, in no particular order.
No caffeine after lunch. For the first couple of years, I stuck with this vigilantly, but one afternoon, feeling dangerous, I decided to risk some green tea and discovered that it, as well as white tea, is perfectly safe sleep-wise; though I still call it quits on any non-herbal tea by about five o'clock.
Everyone has a different caffeine tolerance, and if you've been drinking a pot of double-strength brew every day since your 12th birthday, I would definitely recommend gradually cutting back rather than going cold turkey. I've never been that into hyper-caffeination, but some of my coffee-junkie friends become noticeably less pleasant if they go too long between cups — and that's just from being off by a couple hours. Another warning: Though never in the pot-a-day club, I used to drink far more caffeine, and having cut back, am now much more attuned to its effect on my system. One mug of full-strength coffee just about puts me over the edge (this is actually physically uncomfortable), and anything beyond that makes my brain jig around just thinking about it.
*I've also noticed that having a glass of wine or other alcohol right before sleep pretty much guarantees that I'll be waking up every few hours. However, sticking with one glass and wrapping up 90 minutes or so before bed seems to be enough to ward off any ill effects.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This is a biggie, and by far one of the least titillating (especially for a 27-year-old). Everyone has a different schedule, both work-wise and biologically, but with a traditional 8-to-5 gig, I'm in bed by 10 p.m. and up about 6:30 a.m. I'm usually asleep within 20 minutes or so (and sometimes get under the covers a little before my revised turn-into-a-pumpkin hour), so I clock pretty close to eight hours every single night.
This is challenging in two ways. First: Saturday mornings! But experience has shown that if I play lady of leisure and doze past 7:30 a.m., I’ll be wide awake come 10 p.m. and a vicious cycle will have begun. On weekend mornings when “regular sleep schedule” isn’t that enticing, I lure myself out of bed with the promise of a chai latte at the local coffee shop. Works every time.
Second, getting home at 6:30 p.m. and going to bed at 10 p.m. leaves precious little time for the rest of my life. The few times I’ve stayed up because I just couldn’t make myself put down a book, I’ve been fairly miserable the next day, and outright trollish around 3 p.m. However, how you spend your time is key. It’s probably all in my head, but I’ve noticed that the occasional exception for a good evening with great people (be it dinner or anything else) has almost zero negative effects. Maybe it’s the residual buzz from being with my favorite people, but the next day is always fine (though rolling in at midnight a few times a week would quickly put an end to that — I’d be dozing right about the time business starts in California).
Quiet your brain. This one takes the most practice (even after you’re getting good at it), but has wicked wonderful effects, from better sleep to better focus during waking hours and being a calmer, happier person in general. This is also the item that you would probably need the most help with in learning how to do it, either from books or some kind of practice (such as meditation). This simple (not easy) practice will help you be master of your thoughts and turn them off when it’s time to sleep — which is important, because it’s darn near impossible to drift off when dozens of lists, worries and ideas are zipping around your gray matter at warp speed.
Personally, my Iyengar yoga practice has been by far the biggest help for me in learning how to wrangle all that mental noise into submission. And don’t trick yourself into thinking you’ve got it down and get lazy. I’ve been consciously practicing for three years and still have weeks where I fall off the wagon, and it’s always work to get back into mental shape. The more you practice, the better you get, and if you find after making progress that you’ve suddenly gone backwards, it’s a good sign that it’s time to reinvigorate your efforts.
Exercise outside. Long brisk walks around the neighborhood hills are better than any sleeping pill (OK, I avoid all pills unless it’s just ridiculous not to take them, but I’d still wager this is true). They mean time outside, time unplugged, and they burn all that fifth-gear energy that bristles in first gear all day while I sit at my desk. More important for this post, though, is that regularly getting outside and doing something physical makes for a great crash at bedtime. Maybe Frisbee golf is your passion or you’re doing serious physical work around your farm, but there’s something about fresh air and physically wearing yourself out that makes sleep particularly sound and sweet.
Cut the sugar and other processed foods. There might be some great physiological explanation for this, but this post is getting long enough already, so the quick and dirty is that for some reason, cutting sugar, refined carbohydrates and other processed foods — in general and especially after 5 p.m. — seems to help me sleep better. It could be as simple as the fact that doing this makes you feel better overall anyway, which just helps your sleep that much more. I also wouldn't be surprised to find that the effect on your blood sugar is key, but really don’t know. I do know that wolfing down a candy bar or potato chips (no, organic junk food is not exempt) as a late-night snack doesn’t do me any favors once it’s time for lights out.
Finally, a few simple sleep environment tips: Making the bedroom as dark as possible is a huge help — no distracting lights, plus a full darkness that's a good cue to go to sleep and makes the sunrise an effective cue to wake up. Another trick is only using the bed for going to bed. Doing work in bed just dilutes the effect of being in bed as a cue to go to sleep. Finally, for me, keeping work and all electronics (minus a cell phone for an alarm) out of the bedroom is key. Just seeing a stack of papers, calculator, computer or television makes me feel like I should be doing something other than sleeping, and they're constant reminders (staring at you while you're trying to nod off) that there are always things that can be done. Remember that when it's time to sleep, the only thing that needs to happen is sleep, and that's where your attention should be.
I’m sure that some of you have figured out your own tricks for kicking insomnia or just sleeping better in general — what are they? Share your ideas, tried and pending, in the comments section below.