If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, you’re not alone. More than a third of all Americans can relate. And if you’re tired of feeling tired and looking to do something about your sleep troubles, welcome to the club!
My sleep story
I am trying to get a lot done for work and home before 2018 ends and in late August, I used that to rationalize less sleep for a couple of weeks. But you know how it goes with these things. Yes, 2 weeks turned into months. For the first few weeks, I accomplished some goals but I mostly shuffled papers. I managed to set up a blocking scheduling system, which I had wanted to do. I drafted a program for my 2019 meditation class, cleaned out some old papers, and did some brainstorming around my new coaching program. My new block schedule worked well except for one area—research. I set aside 4 hours for it but never felt like I used the time well or learned what I wanted to. The more productivity I lost, the more I skimped on sleep to make up for it. Some nights I only had 4 hours sleep.
After six weeks of that, I began to feel more and more exhausted during the day and was yawning a lot. In mid-October, when I started to have bursts of energy around 9 pm, I figured that was the solution so I stayed up until 2 and 3 a.m. Soon, the daytime tiredness began to feel different. It was my hypothyroidism returning with a vengeance. Tiredness due to hypothyroidism feels like a hangover x 10! It goes beyond the physical and messes with you all over. I weighed myself and had gained 7 pounds (even though I was still walking and trying to eat well). That was when I decided to put the book on hold! By now I had wised up to the fact that my problem was largely research-related so it made sense to step back and try to figure out why and try to fix that. I decided to get back to my regular sleep schedule but now I had another problem: insomnia.
The sleep lesson
I share this for a couple of reasons. First, even when we know better we can still make dumb decisions about our health. The project I’m working on is important. I wanted to have it done for January when many people are looking to work on goals. The book and income from it was part of a larger financial plan for 2019. All good rationalizations. When the stakes are so high, sometimes we do that. And sometimes, we don’t have a choice or feel like we do. New mothers and entrepreneurs fall into these categories
My sleep situation taught me that too little sleep can throw off your entire physiology. I didn’t know I could trigger insomnia so easily and quickly. I’m a champion sleeper so I thought I could just go back to my routine when I was ready, with no problems. The experience reminded me how all our systems are interrelated. Our biology is pretty sophisticated, and we’re not always able to manipulate it at will.
There was a really nice benefit from my “sleep experiment.” That’s what we’re calling it, work with me 😉
Insomnia made me research how to reverse it and from that research, I’m learning a lot! I’ve discovered two things will forever change how I view sleep:
1. If you don’t get enough sleep, you WILL fail at changing habits;
2. Too little sleep will cause your motivation to drop SIGNIFICANTLY.
Due to my sleep situation and the research path it set me on, I’ve added sleep as a core requirement of my program and ebook. Before my sleep situation, I recommended three daily habits as the cornerstone for productivity: a brain-beneficial diet, movement, and meditation. Because so much of what I’m learning about sleep ties in perfectly with my work, I’ve added it as the fourth core habit. The moment I did that, the program felt better—as if sleep was a missing habit all along.
Why is sleep so important
The most important thing I want you to take from my experience and what you’ll read next is that we cannot overestimate the value of sleep:
When it comes to health, there is one criminally overlooked element: sleep. — Shawn Stevenson, author of Sleep Smarter.
During sleep is when our bodies take care of very essential housekeeping like cell renewal and brain regeneration. When we don’t shut down the operating system that is our brain, our glympathic system — the brain’s waste disposal — doesn’t get to finish its job. During sleep, pathways form between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain to help us remember new information. Sleep deprivation leaves the brain exhausted so it can’t process information quickly.
Lack of sleep has been linked to everything from crabbiness to early onset Alzheimer, impaired immunology (raising the risk of cancer), cardiovascular disease and early death. Too little sleep negatively impacts our wellbeing and our productivity. It can even change our personality.
In 2016, the Rand Corporation found that the US economy loses up to $411 billion a year (or 1.23 million working days) due to sleep deprivation. Their study also found that the United States was the global leader in economic losses from bad sleep habits.
When you and I stay up late to work, we aren’t accomplishing as much as we think. Sleep deprivation for more than a few days is risking a lot.
Before we look at common sleep problems and options to address them, it will be helpful to look at:
How much sleep you need
The method I used to find my answer is a simple and a near-perfect way to figure out your personal sleep requirement.
Assess how much sleep YOU need
For a period of 7 days, go to bed at the same time every night and wake without an alarm clock. Allow yourself enough time to get 9 hours of sleep. Use a tracker to jot down your sleep times. By the last two days of the test, a natural sleep cycle should start to emerge. Most people will fall in the 7 to 9-hour range.
When I did the exercise, my pattern began to emerge during the last three days. I found 7 hours and 25 minutes to be the magic number that leaves me feeling rested and on my game.
Download this handy 2-page tracker and find other helpful sleep information on The Sleep Foundation‘s website.
Because what we do during the day contribute to sleeplessness, use the tracker to not only help you figure out how much sleep your body needs, but also to help pinpoint habits and behaviors contributing to your insomnia and impacting your sleep quality.
Common sleep problems
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most common causes of sleeplessness and what you can do about them:
- Poor sleep hygiene (including irregular sleep schedule)
- Environment (bedroom temperature, noise, outside light, etc.)
- Sleep disturbances such as waking up to go to the bathroom
- Melatonin dysregulation caused by our modern lifestyle
- Major life stress (financial and other worries)
- Mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD
- Inflammation and pain including leg, back and neck pain
- Digestive problems including food sensitivities
- Sleep apnea and obstructions
- Other medical conditions such as asthma and medications
1. Poor sleep hygiene
Poor sleep hygiene is more than just what you do before bed. Lifestyle choices like smoking, lack of exercise, and too little sun exposure affect our ability to get a good night’s sleep. Watching TV or using electronic devices right up to the minute you go to bed is very unhelpful because it lowers the body’s production of melatonin (more on that later). Going to bed at different times throws off the body circadian clock. All these things that we do and some choices we’re unconsciously making, fall under poor sleep hygiene.
Follow Shawn Stevenson on IG (@shawnmodel) and check out his book, Smarter Sleep to further your sleep hygiene education.
About night owls
Professor Jason Ellis Ph.D., author of The One-Week Insomnia Cure, acknowledges that some people are natural night owls and feel more productive during the evening. Because they still need the same amount of sleep as others and the demands of their lives (to get to work or school, for example) doesn’t adjust to accommodate them, night owls are especially vulnerable to insomnia.
Night owls are also vulnerable to the social impact of their behavior. They will show up later for work and are often perceived as lazy. Their sleep deficit makes it more likely that they’ll have difficulty being organized, will make more work mistakes, seem forgetful and not on top of things. It’s a leading cause of depression and suicidal thoughts in exhausted med students.
The solution is a bit of bio-reengineering to close the sleep schedule gap by gently moving your body to an earlier bedtime. You also want to develop other strategies and habits to help you feel sleepy sooner such as moving your TV time to the weekend. And you absolutely must stick to a consistent bedtime schedule.
You may never go to bed at 10, but you should shoot for 11:30 or 12, which is possible if you reprogram your cycle.
In The Doer’s Program, we help you build, among other things, better sleep habits and provide the structure and support to change for good.
Close the sleep time gap
Gradually adjust your bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments weekly to increase your total sleep time. This means that if your sleep deficit is 90 minutes and you now go to bed around 1:00 a.m., it will take you 5 – 6 weeks to hit an earlier bedtime target of 11:30 p.m
Do not rush the process. Except for the first week when a 30-minute adjustment might work fine (adjusting from 1:00 to 12:30 a.m. in one step), stick to 15-minute increments. So in this scenario, all five adjustments should look like this:
WEEK 1 From 1:00 – 12:30
WEEK 2 From 12:30 – 12:15
WEEK 3 From 12:15 – 12:00
WEEK 4 From 12:00 – 11:45
WEEK 5 From 11:45 – 11:30
Good sleep hygiene habits
Habits especially beneficial for recovering night owls are marked with an asterisk (*) and habits specific to night owls are marked with two asterisks (**). In addition to the adjusted bedtime schedule, recovering night owls should follow those habits (**) to reset their behavior.
- Go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends. *
- Stop drinking coffee altogether (if eventually, limit to one cup a day for now). **
- Exercise regularly (a 15-minute walk in the morning is highly recommended).
- For a 5-minute workout routine see Shawn’s video. **
- Set a time in the evening to mark the beginning of your “power down” period. This will become a cue to your household (if you live with others) and to your body to start producing melatonin and get ready for sleep. *
- Dimming all lights around 9 pm or at least 90 minutes before bed. **
- Turn off all electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime (sooner for recovering night owls). *
- While they’re resetting their circadian clock, night owls should consider using only candlelight. Studies have found that using only candlelight resets the circadian clock faster. **
- Turn your power down period into a bedtime routine.
- If you must watch TV or use your laptop, make it an occasional thing and wear blue light filtering glasses like the Capra from Pixel Eyewear
- You’ll need some new evening activities (consider these):
- listen to music,
- tidy up your space,
- water plants,
- get your skincare and haircare game on,
- get your clothes ready for the following day,
- spend time with your partner playing strip poker.
- Consider “journaling” to jot down the to-do list that may dominate your mind at the end of the day.**
- Add a 5- or 10-minute meditation or relaxation yoga practice.
- Look into the ayurvedic practice of Dinacharya which is based on the philosophy that human beings run on a biological clock dictated by nature.
2. Sleep environment (the bedroom)
Who knew that there was an optimal temperature for sleeping? That’s just one of the many ways our bedroom or sleeping environment can impact our sleep.
- Set the right temperature. According to Christopher Winter, MD, director of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine Center in Virginia, the proper sleep temperature for most people is between 68 and 72 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Dress your bed for restful sleep. When you’re using a duvet (I just learned this myself), there should be a sheet between you and the duvet. Shop for the right pillows and sheets, and of course, a good mattress.
- Style your bedroom for rest and relaxation. Paint colors and wall art should be soothing, the room should be clutter-free, curtains and drapes should block out the light from outside.
- Eye masks, ear plugs, and lavender mists should have a space in or on your nightstand. The right reading light to journal or read by is also important.
- Dress for better sleep. Sleep in clothes that keep your body temperature within range throughout the night. Man-made fabrics like polyesters, for example, which can heat up during the night and cause you to wake up.
- Find your best sleep position. Per the experts, sleeping on our back is best but ultimately, your comfort is key.
3. Sleep disturbances
Pay attention to what gets you up during the night. If your cortisol levels are high at night, this may cause sleep disturbance. If you’re getting inadequate amounts of magnesium this may cause sleep disturbance. Overeating processed foods, especially ones high in sodium may also cause a disturbance. If it’s to go to the bathroom, try these hacks:
- Stop drinking liquids 2 hours before bed.
- Have your hormones and mineral levels checked by your doctor 2x per year.
- Experiment until you come up with the right cutoff time when you should stop drinking liquids to prevent waking up during the night.
- A frequent need to urinate at night is called nocturia. Nocturia in younger people is often helped by adding a pinch of Red salt to the water we drink during the day which adds essential minerals and electrolytes that help the body utilize the water instead of it passing through the body.
- Insufficient amounts of other minerals such as magnesium can disrupt your sleep.
4. Melatonin dysregulation
Melatonin, commonly known as the sleep hormone, regulates our sleep-wake cycles. Our bodies release it when it’s dark, which is why people generally sleep better when they use blackout blinds or eye masks. Because darkness is your body’s cue to go to sleep when you continually push past this cue (the drowsiness you feel around 10 pm) to stay up and watch one of the Jimmys, interact with your phone or do work, you unintentionally throw off your sleep cycle.
The blue lights from the various screens we use interrupt our body’s production of melatonin.
Many people experiencing insomnia or delayed sleep phase live dependent on external aids to go to sleep and then to stay awake. They use melatonin supplements or other sleep aids to get to sleep and energy drinks and stimulants to stay awake instead of addressing the underlying cause: a system out of step with nature.
Taking supplements and adhering to a schedule that doesn’t serve us makes us feel in control. The problem is, we don’t know better than nature. We don’t want that because the melatonin produced in our pineal gland is far superior to any we can ingest through diet and supplements.
How to get your melatonin
The ideal way to make melatonin is to observe the circadian cycle by resetting your sleep clock.
The production and release of melatonin from the pineal gland occur with a clear daily (circadian) rhythm, with peak levels occurring at night. When it floods the bloodstream, this form of melatonin does at a better job at cleaning out the cobwebs and repairing our cells because of this form of the hormone is more readily recognized by the body.
The second-best source of melatonin is to get it from foods. Most foods contain even trace amounts of melatonin and these categories of foods have an especially high concentration: foods rich in tryptophan, calcium, magnesium, Vitamin B6, and from healthy oils.
Tryptophan makes serotonin which is then converted into melatonin. To get yours, consider these foods that are loaded with tryptophan (of course, choose the ones that meet your dietary preferences):
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Seafood (sardines, shrimp, salmon, tuna, cod)
- Seeds and nuts (flax, sesame, pumpkin, sunflower, cashews, almonds)
- Legumes (kidney beans, lima beans, black beans split peas, chickpeas)
- Fruits (avocado, apples, bananas)
- Vegetables (spinach, broccoli, turnip greens, asparagus, onions, seaweed)
- Grains (wheat, rice, barley, corn, oats)
Calcium helps the brain make melatonin. A lack of calcium can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night and have difficulty returning to sleep. Calcium-rich foods include:
- Dark leafy greens
- Cheeses and yogurt
- Fortified cereals
Magnesium is a natural relaxant and often referred to as the sleep mineral. A lack of magnesium can make it difficult to stay asleep. Magnesium-rich foods include:
- Dark leafy greens (baby spinach, kale, collard greens)
- Nuts and seeds (pine nuts, pecans, walnuts)
- Wheat germ
- Fish (salmon, halibut, tuna, mackerel)
Vitamin B6 also helps convert tryptophan into melatonin. Vitamin B6 deficiency has been linked to lowered serotonin levels and poor sleep. Foods rich in B6 that you want to include in your diet asap are:
- Sunflower seeds
- Pistachio nuts
- Fish (tuna, salmon, halibut)
- Meat (chicken, tuna, lean pork, lean beef,)
- Dried Prunes
- The only oil Vurb recommends is Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Melatonin superfoods: These are recommended by 80% of the top wellness and sleep experts as having the highest amounts of melatonin or sleep-enhancing nutrients and benefits. Expect some repeats on the list.
- Tart cherries
- Mustard seed
- Oats which also regulates blood sugar levels
- Pomegranate and other foods that fight inflammation
- Goji berries are said to have some of the highest concentration of melatonin
5. Major stress
Sure, stress is a part of life but there are so many things we can do to better manage it. Major life stress benefits most from support, a change in circumstances or a shift in perspective.
You have to seek out support by looking into support groups, seeing a therapist, and asking family and loved ones for help. A change in circumstances may mean leaving a soul-crushing job or relationship and making lifestyle adjustments to make them work for you. Living with a problem and refusing to make changes means the stress can’t let up.
For me and a lot of people that I talk to and meet with, changes and shifts in perspective start with giving real consideration to our priorities. Often, it pulls us out of autopilot.
When we operate on autopilot, we often pursue a life we don’t even want or we act from a place of fear.
A great example is believing that you must put in 80 hours a week at your job and work late hours AFTER you get home in order to be competitive or safeguard your job. Without stopping to think whether your approach, your current employer or career path is the right one for YOU, you’re more likely to operate on autopilot.
A better option for someone who loves their work may be to spend less time at their desk and more time building soft skills and a social network. This approach will make you more competitive not just in your company but in your industry because you would be making contacts that you can leverage both for your employer or for yourself.
The skills you develop away from your desk might help you become a speaker or industry expert. By networking more, you’re more likely to meet potential partners (you can’t find time to date any other way, right?). And have you considered whether delaying your fertility or your love life is the right path for you?
As you look to manage chronic stress, keep in mind that much of your actions are driven by fear. Be open to thinking outside the box for a life-altering solution that best serves you now and in the future.
6. Depression and psychiatric concerns
The most effective long-term treatment for people with chronic insomnia associated with depression and psychiatric concerns is cognitive-behavioral therapy. CBT can help you address the thoughts and behaviors that prevent you from sleeping well. It includes techniques for stress reduction, relaxation and sleep schedule management and can help with anxiety and mild to moderate mental health concerns.
These are some CBT therapies for sleeplessness to explore:
- Gratitude practice
- Reframing (learning to identify and dispute unrealistic or unhelpful thoughts)
- Various forms of psychotherapy including talk therapy
- Muscle relaxation exercises
- Sleep hygiene retraining
7. Inflammation and pain
Chronic pain makes it difficult to go to sleep and if you wake up during the night, to go back to sleep. An anti-inflammatory diet and medical help are some options to consider. Whatever the reason, back pain, leg cramps, there is a root cause. The best approach is always to get to the root of a problem and especially in this case.
8. Gastrointestinal complaints
- Gastrointestinal problems like constipation and leaky gut can disrupt one of the body’s essential nighttime housekeeping. Taking antacids and pills will mask the problem during the day while at night, our bodies will have a hard time processing those foods. Constipation, bloat, and similar symptoms results.
- See your doctor or a nutritionist for help identifying food allergies. In severe cases, you may have to go on an elimination diet or eat simple foods for a while to isolate the cause of food sensitivities and discomforts.
- Don’t eat a large meal before bedtime. If you are hungry at night, eat a light, healthy snack: 1/2 banana with almond butter, pistachios, Goji berries. Avoid carbs, ice creams, and anything processed.
9. Sleep apnea and obstructions
For sleep apnea and obstructions, a sleep clinic may be your best stop. At these clinics, they hook you up to gadgets and monitor you overnight in an effort to diagnose your sleep disorder via brain activity and other indicators. You can find a sleep team at an AASM accredited sleep center near you when you use their location search.
10. Medical conditions
According to the Sleep Foundation, a medical condition or their symptoms may cause discomfort impactful enough to disrupt sleep. Some common conditions include.
- Nasal/sinus allergies
- Endocrine problems such as hyperthyroidism
- Respiratory problems
- Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease
Getting asthma and other medical conditions under control may require outside help. If it’s keeping you up at night and you have health insurance, get help stat. Did I mention that lack of sleep in your 20s and 30s can show up as dementia in your later years? Don’t wait for these problems to correct themselves. And if you have insurance, don’t rely on Dr. Google to diagnose and treat a problem you’ve been struggling with for years.
This article benefited from the work of Professor Jason Ellis, Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research and author of the book The One-Week Insomnia Cure, and from sleep organizations like The Sleep Foundation.
Christine is a lifestyle coach living in Los Angeles. She believes the way we live predicts our future health and motivation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about working with Christine.