Those who dare to dream must first go to sleep!
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, irritable and “off” because of it and looking to do something about your sleep troubles, welcome to the club!
Lately, I got into the habit of staying up late to work because inspiration would strike after 8 pm. What should have been days turned into months on this sleep schedule and while I was being somewhat productive, I was also throwing off my thyroid and gaining weight because of it. And to make matters worse, I was too tired during the day to go to the gym or put in my usual workout. My situation wasn’t really working for me but it took a minute for me to catch on that being a night owl doesn’t work for me.
Doing the research for this piece, I was happy to learn that there’s a lot we can do to cure insomnia and other sleep problems ourselves–from gadgets to apps, to better mattresses and even blue light blocking glasses that filter out the blue light from our electronic devices.
Think about it like this… my pain is your gain. Had I not created my own sleep problems, I wouldn’t have been inspired to fix it and from doing the research, find solutions others can use.
This article benefited most 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.
The most important thing I learned early into my research is that we can’t overestimate the value of sleep or its impact on our productivity and well-being.
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. When that happens over long periods of time, we run more than a few health and wellness risks.
Lack of sleep has been linked to everything from crabbiness to early onset Alzheimer (including increased risk for it in later years), cardiovascular disease and early death. It negatively impacts our wellbeing and our productivity.
In 2016, the Rand Corporation found that the US economy loses up to $4111 billion a year (or 1.23 million working days) due to sleep deprivation and when you and I stay up late to work, we aren’t accomplishing as much as we think, we’re actually losing.
Before we look at common sleep problems and options to address them, it will be helpful to know:
How much sleep you need
The method I used to find my answer is a simple and near-perfect way to figure out your personal sleep requirement.
Here’s how to do it:
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 experts recommend.
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 when I don’t get it (which, unfortunately, and not by choice has been my situation lately), I definitely feel the difference quality sleep makes.
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
- Food sensitivities, leaky gut, and GI-related problems
- Sleep apnea and obstructions
- Medical conditions such as asthma and medications
1. Poor sleep hygiene
Poor sleep hygiene includes lifestyle choices like smoking, lack of exercise, too little sun exposure, watching TV or using electronic devices right up to the minute we go to bed and going to bed at different times every night.
Professor Jason Ellis Ph.D. acknowledges that some people are natural night owls and feel more productive during the evening delaying their sleep time until closer to midnight and later. Because they still need the same amount of sleep as others and the demands of their lives (to get to work or school at an earlier time for example) doesn’t adjust to accommodate them, night owls are especially vulnerable to insomnia and the associated health risks.
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.
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 practice other routines 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.
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
If you’re a night owl, 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 go to bed around 1:00 a.m. it will take you approximately 6 weeks to hit an earlier bedtime target of 11:30.
Do not hasten 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. Mentally you might be ready to “get-it-done” but we increase the likelihood of permanently sticking to physiological changes when we honor our body’s rhythm. So in this scenario, your final four sleep time adjustments made over four weeks should look like this: from 12:30 to 12:15, then to 12:00, next to 11:45, and finally to 11:30.
Sleep habits for recovering night owls
Follow these better sleep habits to reset your behavior as well as your delayed sleep phase.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations.
- It’s recommended that most people stop drinking coffee by 2 pm. Night owls may want to stop earlier and limit their coffee consumption to one cup a day.
- Limit exposure to bright light in the evenings by dimming all lights around 8 pm.
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet.
- Night owls benefit from an early morning walk and since late-in-the-day exercise can delay sleep initiation, by avoiding stimulating activities after 6 pm.
- Set a time in the evening that marks the beginning of your “power down” period. Over time, this period 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.
- Turn off all electronic devices at least an hour before bedtime.
- Use music to send yourself off to bed instead of the TV. Music can be another cue to your body to get ready for bed. You can even do Spotify one better and make your own music by playing the guitar or another instrument.
- Dim all lights in your household and switch off modern-life mode by spending the rest of your evening preparing yourself and your home for bed. Night owls may want to do more than dim overhead lights while they’re resetting their circadian clock. Studies have found that using only candlelight during “power down” is even more effective.
- Since your usual activities are out of the question, you’ll need some new evening activities. The list of things you can do is endless and can improve all areas of your life: Listen to music, tidy up your space, water plants, get your skincare and haircare game on, read, get your clothes ready for the following day, spend time with your partner playing strip poker, etc.
- Turn your power down period into a bedtime routine as routines can initiate sleep earlier. The new cues of dimmed lights, relaxing music, etc., signals to the body that powering down is your goal in much the same way that increased brain activity, more light and work have signaled that night owls wanted more time to work, think, socialize and play.
- If you must watch a show or use your laptop, make it an occasional thing and limit the time to 30 minutes while wearing blue light filtering glasses like the Capra from Pixel Eyewear.
- Consider “journaling” to jot down the to-do list that can dominate our minds at the end of the day.
- A meditation or relaxation yoga practice is a hugely beneficial activity to add to your power down time.
- Look into the ayurvedic practice of Dinacharya which is based on the philosophy that human beings run on a biological clock dictated by nature and helps
2. Sleep environment (the bedroom)
Who knew that there was an optimal temperature for sleeping? That’s just one of the many things I learned about the impact of our sleep environment. Yours may be supporting or throwing off your sleep quality.
- 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, and if lavender mists (or something else) helps you to fall asleep, make space for them on your nightstand. Things like the right reading light to journal or read by should also get your attention. In other words, style your bedroom with the things that make you feel pampered and ready for rest.
- Dress for better sleep. Use a sleeping mask if you find it helpful and sleep in clothes that keep your body temperature within range throughout the night. Natural fabrics breathe better than 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 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. 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. Eating too many processed foods, especially ones high in sodium may also cause a disturbance.
- 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.
- 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.
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 number one and most ideal way to make melatonin is to observe the circadian cycle. Reset our 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
8. Gastrointestinal complaints
Gastrointestinal problems like constipation and leaky gut can disrupt one of the body’s essential nighttime housekeeping services. Taking antacids and pills will mask the problem during the day while at night, our bodies have a hard time processing foods.
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.
and 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, save yourself time and seek outside help stat. Did I mention that lack of sleep in our 20s and 30s can show up as dementia in our later years? Waiting and relying on Dr. Google to diagnose and treat a problem you’ve been struggling with for years may not be such a good idea.
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 symptom 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