Getting a good night’s rest has been a roller-coaster ride for me the past few years. Like some kind of masochist, I somehow happened upon reading a ton of articles about the benefits of good sleep while my son was an infant and it was impossible for me to sleep well. The result was that I became nearly obsessed with good sleep. Once my son started sleeping through the night, I tried to really up my game in terms of getting a solid 8 hours a night. Keyword here is “tried”. Every night when I’d try to go to bed early, I’d toss and turn and wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. I read everything on sleep I could find, tried what felt like every sleep hack under the sun, and even went so far as to visit a sleep specialist as a diagnostic. Some things helped a ton, some things didn’t seem to help at all. Ultimately, my struggle is with the act of falling asleep, not necessarily staying asleep, and it was diagnosed as a very mild case of sleep-onset insomnia.
Fast-forward a few years and I now have a healthy relationship with sleep. I still don’t consider myself to be a particularly good sleeper, and still find a full 8 hour night elusive, but I feel more in control of the situation. I do still live with a 3 year old after all. Most of the time, I feel like I’m getting enough sleep which is most important to me.
After chatting with a friend about sleep troubles, I thought it would be valuable to share what has worked for me. Here’s the list of things that have helped.
Back to Basics:
- Consistent Routine – following a consistent schedule is super helpful and so intuitive, I almost forgot to list it, but this is the first thing recommended to me by the sleep specialist. Attempt to go to bed at the same time every night and attempt to wake up at the same time every morning. Also, do your best to follow the same steps each night leading up to bed. This will help your mind/body know that it is time to shut down for the day. Pavlov anyone?
- Darkness – Do you find that you tend to sleep better in hotels? It’s probably because hotels often do a great job of blacking out the light. Turn off all of the lights, get some blackout blinds, wear a sleep mask. Do whatever you need to do to immerse yourself in total darkness because even the hint of light can adversely affect your sleep. I personally haven’t found a sleep mask that I like, but I block out lights like a ninja.
- Reduce Distractions – If your spouse snores, give them a gentle nudge. If the problem persists, be less gentle. Ideally, you’re not distracted by outside noises. I have not had a great experience with ear plugs, or white noise machines, but those do seem to work for some people. If my wife is snoring too loudly and we can’t get it to stop, I personally have better success leaving and sleeping in the guest bedroom.
- Exercise – I train most days, but on days I don’t train, I make sure that I at least go for a nice walk or two to use up some of that excess energy. Moving throughout the day, helps to burn up that excess energy for me. I find that when I’m working on my computer for hours on end or simply watching football all day Sunday, I end up having more trouble falling asleep that night. I do avoid exercises that result in an elevated heart rate later in the evening as those tend to energize me and keep me up at night. My rule of thumb is that I have to train before my last meal of the day.
- Sun Exposure (Vitamin D) – Most of us are deficient in Vitamin D, which is a critical nutrient in facilitating sleep (among tons of other amazing benefits). Sun exposure is the best way for humans to absorb vitamin D, as it’s not a vitamin that’s readily available in our diets, and when ingested, is not always absorbed well. Given my work schedule and climate, I struggle with this one, but do notice that I sleep better on days when I’ve had a decent amount of sun exposure.
Next Level Hacks:
- Avoid Blue Light at Night – At least 2 hours prior to bedtime, I don a pair of blue light blocking glasses. Blue light tricks your body into thinking it is day time, and is emitted a bit from most lights, but in large amounts from screens (TV, Computer, Phones, etc.). If I don’t have access to my dorky shades, I do my best to avoid screens, or at least dim them as much as I can.
- Turn Off Your WiFi and Baby Monitor – This one had a surprisingly noticeable effect on the quality of my family’s sleep. I thought to try this after attempting to use my cell phone right next to the baby monitor. The interfering frequencies caused interruptions in my phone call, and I started to think about what else these frequencies could affect. I view WiFi, Baby Monitors, and similar devices essentially as low-level stressors. I don’t think they’re harmful in low doses, but why subject yourself to these when you don’t have to? You don’t need WiFi while you sleep after-all. The simple act of turning off my WiFi seemed to set a calm over my entire house. My son seemed to sleep better immediately after we removed his baby monitor too!
- I imagine an EMF canopy over your bed could produce the same benefits, and possibly even more if you live under a Cell Tower.
- Earthing – Maybe a little hippy-dippy for most people, but I love this hack. It’s particularly effective for combating jet lag. Have you ever gone to the beach and felt totally relaxed. Maybe fallen asleep there, and/or had a great night’s sleep later that evening. It could very well be due to expending more energy walking in the sand/playing in the water, or the additional sun exposure, but may very likely also be due to the increased intake of negative ions. When we connect our skin to the earth (sand, grass, etc.), we absorb negative ions though our skin. The largest pores in your body are located in your feet, so going barefoot over the earth is a perfect way to soak up those negative ions. If the ground is damp or your feet are wet (a la at the beach), your absorption of negative ions increases. Could this be another reason for why your feet sweat, so absorb more negative ions? Due to weather and social reasons, most people won’t be able to do this every day, but a good 20 minutes of feet to earth will do wonders. The book Earthing is also a good, quick read on the subject, although some of the testimonials are a little over the top for my taste.
- Regarding jet lag – the hippy explanation would be that you are connecting with the Earth on that new part of the world, but I’m assuming that being trapped in a flying, WiFi-enabled, box for hours on end leaves you more positively ionized, and the negative ions help to bring you back down.
- Mindless Mind-Games – Much of my onset insomnia is due to not being able to turn my mind off. My head hits the pillow and my thoughts are off to the races. I’ve heard suggestions about reading Fiction before bed, but that didn’t help me. Oddly, what I think does help me is playing solitaire. It requires enough of my attention to where my mind doesn’t wander too much, but doesn’t require too much of my brain that it revs me up and keeps me awake. I do play on my phone, but only if I’m wearing my blue-light canceling glasses.
- Magnesium – I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention magnesium. This is another mineral that the majority of us are deficient in, but definitely aids sleep. We add essential infused Epsom salts to my son’s baths and I can physically see him calming down. Epsom salt baths are one of the best ways for the body to absorb magnesium. You can also take a Magnesium supplement, but just yesterday, I read that you should be careful of which version of magnesium you try. I’ve been using Magnesium Citrate, which this blog lists as a lower quality version, but I did seem to benefit from it anyway, so I imagine using a higher quality magnesium, could be even better.
If you’re Desperate:
- Essential Oils – I wasn’t a believer in Essential Oils until I used a Young Living essential oil blend called Rutavala to support sleep. I rolled it on my feet, neck, and chest and slept like a baby. I add essential oils to the “If you’re desperate” section because I like to reserve these as a “magic bullet” when I’m in a pinch. I use these for sleep if I break routine and haven’t followed my own advice (above) and need help calming down. If that’s the case essential oils are the first thing I reach for. I will say that I have plenty of friends, who supplement with essential oils for sleep every night, so I don’t think there’s a concern with using them every night, I just prefer to keep them as a round in the chamber if you will.
- The following are essential oils that have helped me relax for bedtime:
- Homemade Sleep Roll-on Blend – Lavender (10 drops), Stress Away (10 drops), Nutmeg (10 drops), and Geranium (10 drops) topped off with a carrier oil (almond oil).
- Idaho Balsam Fir
- Idaho Blue Spruce
- Click here to find out more about therapeutic grade essential oil
- The following are essential oils that have helped me relax for bedtime:
- Cold training – I started cold training using the Wim Hof Method about 2 years ago. Over the course of 10 weeks you progress from ending a shower with 30 seconds of cold water, to taking a full on ice bath. There are a whole host of health benefits, but one of them was that I found that I had an easier time falling asleep on days where I had completed cold training. I have a similar experience with cold training as I do with exercise in that I avoid doing it right before bedtime because it can be energizing. Nowadays, I don’t do cold training every day, but do take a cold shower a few times a week. In the “If you’re Desperate” section because not everyone is willing to subject themselves to such extremes, but I can attest, that once you train your body (and mind) to handle it, it can be really quite pleasant.
- Earthing Sheet – If you feel that you aren’t getting enough negative ions and aren’t able to spend time earthing, they do make earthing sheets. These are sheets that plug into the grounder in an typical outlet (the third prong of a standard U.S. 3-prong outlet) that you sleep on. The idea is that you get the benefits of negative ions, while sleeping. I love sleeping on an earthing sheet and think that it gives me good dreams. We don’t use this all the time though because the sheets are more coarse than the amazingly comfortable bamboo sheets my mom got us for Christmas.
Things to Avoid:
- Caffeine – I’m a coffee lover. Unless I’m taking a coffee sabbatical, which I do a couple months a year, I drink multiple cups a day. But I refuse to drink caffeine after 12pm. Most people can metabolize caffeine in 6 hours, so at a minimum, you’d want to avoid caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime, but more me, a noon cutoff seems to help even more. I might be more sensitive, but I’ve even noticed more struggle falling asleep when I go crazy and eat multiple bars of very dark chocolate.
- Alcohol – When I’m super drunk, I fall asleep (or pass out) rather quickly, but I always wake up at least once during the night, and wake up in the morning feeling un-rested (even if I’ve been in bed for 8+ hours). While it helps you to crash, alcohol disrupts your sleep cycles greatly. When I drink, I just have to go into it knowing I won’t sleep as well. If I’m just having a glass or two of wine, I do better when I finish drinking at least 2 hours before bedtime (day drinking anyone?).
- Blue Light at Night (see above)
- High Intensity Exercise Close to Bedtime (see above)
- Don’t overly stress about it – Last but not least, my attitude towards sleep might be the biggest leap towards a healthy relationship with sleep. I simply don’t allow myself to get frustrated with it anymore. In the past, if I was being aggressive and tried to go to bed early, in an attempt to get more sleep, it always takes much longer for me to fall asleep and it usually doesn’t work. I end up getting frustrated that I’m not falling asleep. I’ve gone so far as to hit and yell into my pillow (sorry to my wife). This obviously makes things worse. If I end up feeling myself get frustrated, I change scenery and leave the room. I stop trying to fall asleep, and watch a mindless show, or read Fiction for a bit. After I’ve calmed myself down, I try again. On extreme occasions, I will simply just try to fall asleep in the guest bed. The point is, if I’ve been trying to fall asleep for 20 minutes or more, I remove myself from the situation, put myself into a better situation, and try again later when I’m in a more positive place.