A lot has happened in the new year! I got engaged and am already planning for an April wedding. I got a new job with a Healthcare Technology company in LA, and my fiancé is making strides in her professional organizing company. We’re a month in and killing it already!
One problem…I can’t stay sleep.
I’m one of those “night owls.” My mind and body tend to come alive at night. Maybe it’s part of being an introvert, or maybe it’s just that I love that everything/everyone is so incredibly quiet. I can easily hang until 3-4 in the morning, reading, listening to music or playing some Xbox with friends in all parts of the country. If this sounds like you, I have to be completely honest and tell you that living that way is not OK.
Somewhere along the way, I’d forgotten or simply started ignoring even the simplest sleep hygiene practices in favor of having a little more alone time late at night. Jumping back into a regular work schedule gave me an incredibly rude awakening. Up until a few nights ago, I couldn’t get to sleep when I wanted to, and I couldn’t stay sleep through the night. All these big plans to wake up early in the morning, hit the gym, shower, eat breakfast and walk to work went down the drain as I struggled with sleep.
The ins-and-outs of sleep hygiene I pretty much already know, but it’s always good to have a refresher, so I dove back into sleep research. Needless to say, within a week of applying a few of the simpler steps, I’m sleeping much better now. Here are the issues I quickly needed to fix.
Staying Up Late
Gonna be completely candid here, I’m a gamer and this happens mostly because I like playing Xbox late into the night. You (like most people) probably think staying up late is totally fine as long as you get at least the recommended 7-9 hours in the end. Unfortunately, there’s a small detail missing that could cause big problems in the long run.
Yes, 7-9 hours is usually recommended (8-10 for teens), but have you ever woken up after getting the recommended amount and still felt dead tired? Could be due to various reasons, but the most likely culprit is what time you actually get to sleep. Between the hours of approximately 10pm – 2am, your body gets the highest quality most regenerative effects from sleep.
Basically, if you’re missing out on these peak sleep hours every single night, you’re never starting your day at 100%. You’ll be in a perpetual state of sleep debt, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever be able to keep up with your sleep needs. Sleep is when your body heals and detoxifies, so not giving your body the chance to do its job, every day, for long stretches of time…it’s a recipe for poor health, poor healing and possibly even disease.
Poor Bedtime Rituals and Signaling
You’ve heard it a billion times, “We’re creatures of habit.” It’s absolutely true, and it’s also absolutely a double-edged sword. Whether good or bad, your habits will majorly influence where you end up in life, and of course with your sleep.
The things you do in the hours leading up to bedtime are likely similar if not exactly the same almost every night. Barring nights out on the weekends or random weeknight adventures, you could probably recite from memory everything you usually do in the hours before you get ready for bed. When I’m off the sleep hygiene wagon, my ritual usually looks something like:
Xbox for an hour or so
Passively listening to whatever Netflix show I’m binging while I’m on social media
Checking out some clips on YouTube from shows I like
Looking at the new feature set of memes on the iFunny app
Laying down for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour trying to fall asleep
Notice how everything above involves some sort of screen, which is literally the worst thing for you if you want any sort of quality sleep. “Blue light” is a pretty popular buzzword these days, and for good reason. We all have devices that emit various hues of light, which is fine at the right times. Blue light triggers hormonal reactions that signal to our body that it’s daytime and it’s time to get up and get moving. Being on the computer, watching TV or on your phone late at night is going to trigger the same response.
There are those of us who often have to work late into the night, and for those people there are plenty of solutions that can lessen the effects of blue light. I personally have a blue-light-filter coating on my glasses and I’ve set both my phone and computer to activate blue light filters starting at 7PM daily. FYI, these solutions only solve half the problem. You may lessen the amount of blue light you’re seeing, but your skin also has photoreceptors meaning you may still suffer ill effects of the light when trying to sleep.
The ideal solution is to put away your devices and turn off (or really dim) the lights 2-3 hours before you plan on going to sleep. Try reading something non-fiction. Usually puts me out like a light (NPI).
The foundation of this is very simple, but for some people there’s also a genetic factor involved. Did you know caffeine has a half-life of about 6 hours? This means it takes 6 hours for your body to eliminate HALF the amount you ingested. In 12 hours half of whatever is left after the first 6 hours is eliminated. This continues every 6 hours until caffeine is out of your system.
This is an especially important point for people with caffeine sensitivities and trouble sleeping. If you drink 1 cup of coffee, after 24 hours you’ll still have caffeine in your system – somewhere around 10-12 milligrams to be exact. Simply put, if you’re drinking coffee every day, there’s likely never a moment where it’s not in your system.
It’s also worth noting that some people have different sensitivities. You probably know someone who can drink an espresso right before bed and still sleep like a log. While they’re probably not getting the greatest quality sleep, it’s still pretty impressive. Then there are the other folks, who drink a small amount early in the day and are still wired from caffeine aftereffects when they lay down hours later. Genetics could be playing a part in that.
I recently took the 23andMe genetic test and ran my results through Dr. Rhonda Patrick’s Genome Analysis Tool. It actually gave me insight into two different factors regarding my sleep. Apparently I have a gene mutation that disrupts the regular function of my circadian rhythm (aka my internal clock) and I’m on the spectrum of people who aren’t really affected much by the effects of caffeine. Basically I have to be more diligent with my sleep hygiene than the average person and I can handle a bit more coffee than most.
Knowing where you fall on these spectrums might help you strategize on how to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, every night.
Not Working Out Regularly or at the Right Time
This one is kind of obvious – it makes you tired. But there’s also a little nuance here. Yes, a good high-intensity workout will make you tired. But doing it at the wrong time could have the complete opposite effect.
When I wasn’t sleeping well, I opted out of morning workouts because it was more important to have a cushion of time in case I needed an extra hour or so. That left the option for either post-work (crowded) or late evening (close to bedtime) workouts. Neither was ideal. The worst option of the two is the late evening, because working out too close to bedtime can disrupt sleep, lower sleep quality and increase your sleep latency (time from laying down to falling asleep).
Why? Your body has a specific pattern when it gets close to bedtime. Body temperature starts to fall and that’s the signal to your body that it’s time to get ready for bed. Working out actually raises your body temperature and it stays elevated for a good amount of time after. It’s the same as when you’re in a hot room trying to fall asleep. It’s hard because it’s hot, your body is having trouble cooling down and the cool-down pattern is getting all jacked up.
Ideally, you’d want to workout in the morning. Another part of the body’s wind down pattern is something that happens throughout your whole day. Two hormones in your body work on a curve: Cortisol and Melatonin. I’m sure you’ve heard cortisol referred to as, “the stress hormone.” That’s half true. When you’re stressed, cortisol does rise, but that doesn’t mean it’s the enemy. It’s an essential hormone. In the early hours of the morning, cortisol starts to rise and when it peaks, it’s a signal for you to wake up. A challenging workout in the morning will help elevate that curve.
The curve is balanced so the higher it is on one end, the higher it is on the other. Working out in the morning could help your body properly signal a balanced amount of melatonin as it gets closer to bed time improving both latency and quality of sleep.
Not getting enough sunlight early in the day + sunglasses
May sound counterintuitive, but sunlight is extremely important for sleep. Your eyes have photoreceptors that help the body balance the right hormones at the right times. It’s the blue light thing + the cortisol/melatonin thing all over again. So often we try to stay out of the sun, block the sun, cover our eyes, etc. It’s messing with how your body is supposed to naturally interact with pure, unfiltered sunlight.
Getting at least a half hour of sun a day is the absolute recommended minimum. Your body needs this for hormonal balance, and a host of other critically important reasons. Also, covering your eyes with sunglasses that have an improper UV coating could cause more trouble than they’re worth. Your eyes will naturally adjust to block out sunlight, but when you put on a dark pair of sunglasses without the right UV protection, your pupils will dilate (expand) and let in more of the harmful UV rays you’re trying to block in the first place.
The Right Food at the Right Time
There are a few factors that tie food and sleep together. The first being timing. When you eat is just as important as what you eat. When the sun starts to fade, your body starts to wind down and get ready for sleep and this includes digestive processes. Mid-night snacking is a no no.
If you’re eating late, your digestive system has to kick back into gear which is another one of those signals telling your body, “it’s not time to go to sleep yet.” Not only that, if you’re eating carbs or sugar late at night, you risk having a sugar spike in the middle of the night which could affect the quality and amount of sleep you end up getting. If you absolutely must eat late at night, try eating something high in healthy fats, as they digest slower in the body and will be less likely to cause any spikes that could affect your sleep.
For a long time, it was thought that melatonin was made and secreted by the pineal glad. Now, we know that the gut actually synthesizes much more melatonin than the pineal gland. Simply put, if you want better sleep, you need to have a better diet – one that supports your gut bacteria to be specific. While research is ongoing and uncovering more around the gut-brain connection, it’s clear that a diet healthy for your gut bacteria has positive effects on melatonin production and overall sleep quality.
Eating prebiotics, probiotics and fiber-dense foods will help support healthy bacteria, but this also means staying away from things like refined sugar – which feeds bad bacteria – and antibiotics and excessive alcohol which indiscriminately kill both good and bad bacteria in your body.
At night, our bodies do exactly what they’re programmed to do, and if we keep interrupting our natural sleep patterns, we open the door for poor performance, brain fog, serious diseases and a bunch of other brutal effects on the body. Hopefully these tips can help you have more peaceful and restful sleep moving forward.