Sleep problems are ubiquitous these days — and they have a profoundly negative impact on quality of life. The good news is there are four simple changes you can make in your life to improve your sleep dramatically.
Step 1: Get the phone out of the bedroom
If you do nothing else, the single most impactful change you can make to your sleep is to take the phone out of the bedroom. If you live in a studio, get the phone out of the bed area. This makes a difference for several reasons. First, the light. Our circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle) is cued by light. When we see blue spectrum light, it tells the brain, “Good morning, the sun is rising, wake up!” This causes a hormonal cascade, including the release of cortisol (our stress hormone), which makes us feel awake and alert. Conversely, darkness tells the brain, “The sun has set, get sleepy.” This causes a release of melatonin, which helps us fall asleep and sleep deeply. When you keep the phone on your bedside table, you inevitably look at it right before bed. This is the moment you’re winding down and hoping you’ll be able to fall asleep quickly and easily, but the blue spectrum light from your phone is setting you up for cortisol release, followed by an hour of tossing and turning, feeling tired but wired.
The phone is sleep-destructive for another reason: it’s addictive. These little devices are ingeniously designed to hook us into giving them our undivided attention, blissfully unaware of the passage of time as we scroll. Say you have a goal of falling asleep by 11 p.m., ensuring you get eight hours of sleep by the time your alarm goes off at 7 a.m. You take an innocent final peek at your phone at 10:50 p.m. — and the next thing you know, it’s 11:24 p.m., and your chance at getting eight hours of sleep is shot. Maybe you curl up in bed to watch one quick episode of something on Netflix, but the show leaves you thrilled with suspense, needing to watch one more episode to see what happens. Say this happens night after night. That’s weeks, months, years of sleep deprivation, all because the phone is on the bedside table.
The final issue with the phone is that we associate it with stress and reward. Whether our nightcap of choice is Instagram, Netflix, work email, news, Facebook, Reddit, or whatever else you find yourself drawn to before bed, these activities put the brain in a state of stress or reward. Either way, that’s the wrong juju right before bed.
Step 2: Cut out caffeine
I don’t make any friends talking about the relationship between caffeine and sleep. I know we all love our coffee — the smell, the taste, the warmth, the feel of the cup in our hands, the barista with the perfect hipster moustache and the forearms. If you struggle with sleep, keep your coffee ritual, but switch to decaf and drop the caffeine from your life. Caffeine is a powerful drug. It has a half-life of three to six hours for most people, which is a nerdy way of saying that even if you drink just one cup of coffee at 9 a.m., there’s still some caffeine buzzing around your brain at midnight. Some of us are especially sensitive to caffeine, and it can be contributing to anxiety, urinary frequency, impatience, having a short temper, and, of course, insomnia.
If you’re struggling to fall asleep or you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re a caffeine consumer, do a trial completely off caffeine to see if it improves your sleep. (It will). If you go cold turkey off caffeine, you’ll be tired, irritable, and headachey. Instead, do this gradually. Reduce from a couple cups of coffee a day to one, then down to half-caf and eventually black tea, then green tea. After you have gradually weaned down, switch to caffeine-free herbal tea. If you miss the coffee ritual, get decaf.
Step 3: Earlier bedtime
In the insomnia treatment orthodoxy, the importance of bedtime goes overlooked all too often. I used to think all bedtimes were created equal. I could sleep eight hours from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. or 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., and it was all good. That turns out to be wrong. The body functions best when the entire circadian rhythm, including wake-up time and bedtime, is in sync with the sunrise and sunset.
It was only when I had a baby that I was exposed to the concept of “overtired.” That is, you’re so tired that your body secretes cortisol (stress hormone) to maintain wakefulness, and suddenly you’re tired but wired. For many of us, this second wind of energy hits anytime we stay up past 11 p.m. or so. The way to prevent overtired is to crawl into your cozy bed earlier than you think (around 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.) This is especially true if you struggle to fall asleep or you find yourself waking up throughout the night. Pilot early bedtime for a week. See if it takes the drama out of falling asleep and allows your body to fall into a deeper sleep.
Step 4: Ditch the sugar
In my book, middle insomnia, or the tendency to wake up in the middle of the night, is a blood sugar issue until proven otherwise. If you wake up at 2 a.m. and then again at 3 or 4, consider the possibility that you’re going into blood sugar crashes that stimulate you awake. It’s much like feeling hangry, except that hanger while you sleep means a stress response that wakes you up. Remedy this by rehabilitating your diet. Ditch the sugar. While you’re at it, do your best to ditch refined carbohydrates. Eat more substantial real foods, like healthy fats, vegetables, starchy tubers, and well-sourced meat/fish/poultry. Oh yeah, and that glass or two of wine? That’s sugar — no wonder it wrecks your sleep. If you want to sleep through the night, unsubscribe from the sugar-based products this world addicts you to, eat real food, and sleep deeply.
Your body wants to sleep, and it knows how to sleep. But sometimes we need to get out of our own way to allow our bodies to take the sleep they need. Bring consciousness and intention to your choices with the phone, caffeine, bedtime and sugar, and you’ll be well on your way to better sleep.