Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
14 Nov

7 Ways You Might Be Inadvertently Sabotaging a Good Night’s Sleep

crescentmoonSleep is the cousin of death, wise men have said. Strange thought it may seem, though, avoiding this sometimes annoyingly-insistent-that-you-hang-out cousin will actually bring you closer to an early death. It’s not a pleasant thing to consider, but it’s the truth; bad sleep is associated strongly with early mortality, being overweight, having metabolic syndrome, and getting cancer. I’ve said it, your doctor says it, and anyone who’s ever had a bad night’s sleep and felt like death the next day will say it: sleep is absolutely essential to happiness, health, and longevity. On the positive side, there’s nothing quite so pleasurable as a good night’s sleep, from the initial application of one’s head to the pillow, to the insanely vivid dream-visions that descend upon you in the midst of it, to the peerless happiness and boundless energy you feel upon waking. Sleep’s the best, so you want to get it, and get it good.

You know it, of course. I harp on it enough. And chances are, you’re doing your part to get good sleep. But what if you can’t? What if sleep is bad, or inadequate, or unfulfilling? What might be causing it? Let’s find out.

You’re not getting any light during the day.

If you’ve read what I’ve written about blue light and sleep, you’re likely a champ with regards to blue light avoidance after dark. You’ve got the orange goggles. You’ve installed F.lux on all your computers (and you even jailbroke your iPhone to make it work there, too). You’ve set up black-out shades in your bedroom, and you’ve ditched the alarm clock with its blinking disruptive lights in favor of a personal rooster. And yet you still can’t get to sleep… what gives? Well, just as avoiding blue light after dark is important for normalizing your circadian rhythms and getting to sleep, exposing yourself to light during the day is also essential. Light’s entrainment capabilities go both ways. The whole problem with light at night is that it’s tricking your body into thinking it’s daytime. When it’s actually daytime, however, you need light. The whole daylong circadian cycle is important for sleep – not just the small snapshot taken right before bed. Try to get some sunlight on your eyes throughout the day, beginning (ideally) with the early morning. Right after you wake, go outside and take in the sun. Drink your coffee outside, or at least at a window facing the sun. At work, go outdoors for your breaks. Don’t say shut-in if you can help it.

You’re eating too late.

Remember the “early bird gets the worm”? The bird doesn’t have an actual alarm clock (trees don’t have power sources, duh!). By eating early in the morning, it has entrained its circadian rhythm to trigger early waking so as to obtain said food. This doesn’t just happen in birds, either. Rodent and primate studies show that feeding time is a powerful entrainer of the circadian rhythm, probably across species lines. In humans, the presence of C-peptide, which shows up after food intake and helps insulin do its job, strongly correlates with lower levels of melatonin. This suggests that eating depresses melatonin, the sleep hormone necessary for getting us ready to sleep. Couple that potential mechanism with the epidemiology of nocturnal eating being associated with negative effects on sleep quality, and you get a sneaking suspicion that eating late at night might be affecting some people’s ability to get a good night’s sleep.

You’re hewing to the popular advice to “stop eating carbs after 6 PM!”

Anytime I find myself thumbing through a Men’s Health or Shape or any other bad mainstream health and fitness magazine, I seem to stumble across this rule: no carbs after 6 PM. They’re usually imploring you to take this step in order to facilitate fat loss (which is false in and of itself), rather than to improve sleep quality. I’m all for the reduction in unnecessary carbohydrate from our diets, but if you’re going to eat carbs, sleep research indicates there’s absolutely no need to avoid them after dark or even right before bed. Heck, they can even be fast-digesting carbs, as one recent study showed that carbs with a higher glycemic index shortened sleep onset at night (people who ate the fastest-digesting carbs fell asleep faster than the people who ate the slow digesting carbs). So, if you’ve been avoiding all carbs after dark and eating them in the morning (to “provide energy”), you have probably been doing your sleep a disservice. If you’re gonna eat carbs, eat them at night. You should probably stop reading bad mainstream fitness magazines, too.

You’re exercising right before bed and failing to give yourself time to recover.

At night, your body reduces its temperature, and this drop in body temperature has been referred to as a physiological initiation of sleep onset and facilitator of entrance into the deeper phases. Since exercise raises body temperature, one wonders whether it could affect your sleep. In one study, researchers examined the effects of exercise on sleep with and without body cooling. Subjects ran for 40 minutes at 75% of their V02max on two occasions. The first time, the ambient temperature was raised, prompting a 2.3 degree C increase in subjects’ rectal temperatures. The second time, the ambient temperature was reduced, prompting just a 1 degree C increase in rectal temperatures. At rectal temperature +2.3, slow wave sleep (the deepest, most restorative portion of sleep) was increased. At rectal temperature +1, slow wave sleep was unaffected. This might sound like a big win for exercise-induced elevated body temperatures, but too much of a necessary thing isn’t always desirable. You want to maintain proper ratios between the various sleep cycles, and, as Dr. Emily Deans writes, spending too much time in slow wave sleep is typical of people with bipolar disorder and seasonal affective disorder, who often complain of lethargy, hunger, and weight gain. If you’re going to work out right before bed, give yourself time to cool off, perhaps with a cool shower, or move your workout to an earlier time.

You’re taking vitamin D too late in the day.

When you think about light and food and activity as entrainers of our circadian rhythms, that the timing of our supplementation with vitamin D might affect our sleep makes intuitive sense. Because what is vitamin D but an indication of daylight, of bright morning or afternoon sun emanating UV rays? If getting sunlight “tells” our body that it’s daytime, perhaps taking vitamin D sends a similar message. Although there’s no clinical trial showing this effect, Seth Roberts has been receiving accounts from readers who modified the quality and duration of their sleep by changing when they took vitamin D. Tara Grant, one of our biggest success stories and the first person to notify Seth, chronicled her experiences on her blog:

I looked aghast at the 10,000 units of Vitamin D I was taking. It was 7 o’clock at night! I was essentially giving my body 15 minutes worth of bright sunlight energy. No wonder I was waking up in the middle of the night! I was telling my body that it wasn’t really time for bed, it was still the middle of the day.

I’m not surprised, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this worked for the diligent, dutiful Primal eater who’s been doing everything right but who gets bad sleep. And hey, say you try it and it doesn’t work, it doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on your sleep? No harm done. It’s worth a shot.

You don’t have a nighttime ritual.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of ritual in our lives and our development as a species. What about the importance of ritual in sleep? Any parents out there know how crucial it is to establish a nighttime routine with children so that both child and parent get better and more regular sleep, and I’d argue that all humans – especially modern ones – could use some sort of nighttime ritual to wind the night down and get ready for sleep. It might feel a bit odd at first, because you’re consciously directing your focus toward something that normally comes natural. But today’s world is different. It’s got different stressors – and more of them. It’s got more stimulation – from lights, from sounds, from advertising, from the Internet. We need to force ourselves to unwind. So, about an hour to two hours before your desired bedtime, start winding down. “Winding down” will look different for everyone, since what winds me down won’t necessarily wind you down. What’s important is that you feel rested, relaxed, and calm. I like chatting with my wife about our days in bed with a good book at my side amidst dim, soft light; that seems to wind me down and get me ready to sleep. You might find a fifteen minute session of stretching does the trick for you, or cleaning the kitchen, or taking a warm shower, or praying to your deity of choice. Whatever it is, find it, and do it on a regular basis so that your body begins to associate it with the onset of sleep.

You’re still staying up too late.

I don’t care how orange your goggles are at night. I don’t care if you’re staying up late to read about health and fitness and evolutionary nutrition. You’re still staying up way too late. If you’re fighting yawns and relaying to your Skype chat buddies just how exhausted you are, why the heck aren’t you sleeping? Your body can try to get you to go to sleep all it wants, it can secrete enough melatonin to fill a shot glass, but if you consciously make the decision to stay up and do whatever it is that’s somehow so important, you’re not going to sleep and you will suffer for your lack of it. Your conscious self is the ultimate arbiter of your day to day decisions. Hormones and neurotransmitters and the like have their say and can nudge you in various directions, but you have to decide to close the laptop, turn off the light, shut down the television, and lay your head down to sleep.

That’s it for today, folks. I hope these tips hit home! Sleep is a tricky one to tackle, mostly because it seems like the realities of modern life run counter to our need and desire for it, but it doesn’t have to be (and, if we care about our health, we have to figure it out!). Feel free to leave anything you’ve learned along the way in the comment section!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I’d like to share a recent addition to my life that has made a huge difference with sleep.

    I recently bought a new product by Phillips called Hue. It is a wireless hub connected to special LED lightbulbs. It allows you, through your smartphone, tablet, or computer, to control the color and brightness of any of these specialized bulbs.

    I have mine set to emit a dim, orange-hued light in the evening, and the one in my bedroom has a bedtime setting that is even dimmer.

    Earlier in the day, the lights can be set to a bluer end of the spectrum, to better simulate natural light.

    I have found that this has really helped me on the sleep front. The starter pack is only being sold at Apple stores (of all places) right now, and while it is more expensive than regular bulbs, it has been very much worth it to me. The starter pack is the hub and 3 bulbs for $199. These are LED bulbs however, and use much less energy than the old bulbs, last longer, and produce virtually no heat.

    The software at the moment isn’t the best, but it works well for the basics. The good news is that it will only improve as people start developing for this product as it is open-source.

    Check out the website here: http://www.meethue.com/en-US

    Kurt wrote on November 14th, 2012
  2. And for the nocturnal folks, does the red hue of sunrise usually tell you it’s bedtime? It does to me…

    Knifegill wrote on November 14th, 2012
  3. My current routine works wonders for my energy and sleep at night:

    Breakfast: Meat+ a piece of fruit + some nuts

    Lunch: Veggies and protein

    Dinner: Sweet potatoes or rice, cooked veggies, light protein and a piece of tropical fruit. Throw in some magnesium and snooze!

    kishore wrote on November 14th, 2012
  4. Natural sleep is something I wonder about: I’m 100% compliant where nutrition, physical activity, play and stress are concerned, but my work schedule dictates that I wake up in the dark. I get up at 3:30am every day, and then walk 45 minutes in the dark to work. Is waking up in the dark every day a cause for concern? I am guessing that it’s okay, because I feel pretty good most of the time and I really enjoy my pre-dawn alone time.

    Scratch wrote on November 14th, 2012
  5. I just laugh every time I read Mark’s recommendation to wake up to the sun and get sunlight during the day. I live just north of Seattle in what’s called the convergence zone. Nuf said!

    Christine wrote on November 14th, 2012
    • Ugh, I thought I had it bad up here in the Northeast. I haven’t been affected personally by Sandy and Athena, but it’s made for some miserable, gray days. Top that off with “fall back,” and I pretty much guarantee that while I might still be going to work in the daylight, I’m coming home at sunset. At this time of year, my job is primarily indoors, so I’m just looking more and more into sunlight simulators because it is SEVERE how different my mood is when the sun is present.

      Deanna wrote on November 14th, 2012
  6. I don’t know how ANY of the test subjects managed to fall asleep while researchers were taking their rectal temperatures.

    mattoomba wrote on November 14th, 2012
    • Exactly! haha. Highway to nightmare zone.

      michael wrote on November 14th, 2012
  7. What about living on the west coast where it’s been dark and raining since fall started…I find it very hard and depressing at times. I’ve been thinking of going to tanning booths…any thoughts on that one? I’m definitely not getting enough light during the day.

    Eve wrote on November 14th, 2012
    • Get good rain gear and get outside whenever you can to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

      Kenny wrote on November 15th, 2012
      • I have a dog and I take long walks rain or shine. I also have an outdoorsy job, not a desk job…

        Eve wrote on November 15th, 2012
  8. What kind of cruel study opts to use rectal thermometers with all the technology today? haha

    michael wrote on November 14th, 2012
  9. Interesting I was just looking at the various posts put out today and yours was right in line with mine. Great read.

    Harry Clarke wrote on November 14th, 2012
  10. People are overstimulated. So right about winding down. Shut the TV/computer/Iphone off an hour before. Read a book. It’s surprising how quick you run out of gas.

    Brian Flynn wrote on November 14th, 2012
  11. I have a question about winter time sleep. It gets dark around 6 and light 630am. My husband doesn’t even get home till 7p and dinner then so we can eat together as a family. I’m sure this has been addressed before and I’d be happy for a link :) thx all

    Ashley wrote on November 14th, 2012
    • You must live closer to the equator, 6-6:30 with the sun is just setting! I say eat as a family if possible. If you have little kids, then maybe feed them and send them to bed. Nothing like a grown up dinner with your partner and quiteness.

      Paleo Bon Rurgundy wrote on November 14th, 2012
  12. Caffeine is the biggest disruptor of my quality of sleep…too much during the day causes me to have restless sleep, and I feel wired when I wake up. No caffeine = best sleep. Also if I’m having trouble sleeping, a bit of Niacinamide or Niacin (B-3) will have me sleeping like a baby. Magnesium works too – I find Mag. works on the muscles, while B-3 calms the mind/nervous system.

    Pam wrote on November 14th, 2012
  13. Or maybe the exercise-before-sleep test subjects couldn’t slumber due to the paranoid thought of more rectal thermometers.

    Amanda wrote on November 14th, 2012
  14. I believe that about Vitamin D. When i take my Fish Oil Capsules, that contain lots of Vitamin D as well, shortly before I go to sleep I can’t feel asleep for hours.

    Johannes wrote on November 14th, 2012
  15. Really grest article Mark…but I didn’t see “You have small children” on the sabotaging list (my default excuse for fatigue haha).

    We definitely need to stop overlooking the cyclic relationship between sleep and obesity (i.e. sleep deprivation supports weight gain, and then weight gain makes us more sleep deprived).
    Either way, it really is amazing how responsive our bodies are to such subtle (sub conscious) cues throughout the day

    Isaac Warbrick wrote on November 14th, 2012
  16. So, apparently segmented sleep (like waking at 3 a.m.) is perfectly natural. The important thing is that your sleeps are good quality. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/19/opinion/19ekirch.html?_r=2

    Mandie wrote on November 14th, 2012
  17. Regarding Mark’s first bullet point, I have to go to work before it gets light, then I work inside all day in a Hospital. Usually no chance to get daily sunlight on winter workdays! I invested in a Happy Lite to use in my bathroom on workday mornings when I’m getting ready. It works wonders!

    PracticeBalance wrote on November 14th, 2012
  18. I really struggle to get into a good sleep routine at college. I wanted to ask for the opinion of others. I can get to bed by around 10:30 – 11 on weeknights, but the weekends just really throw me off because I’m up so late. Would it be better to force myself to wake up early on weekends so that my schedule stays together, or is it more important that I actually do get the sleep on weekends but have trouble getting into a routine?

    Jordan Tuwiner wrote on November 14th, 2012
  19. When I was eating wheat, I could sleep 16 hours a day. When I was eating lots of rice and no wheat, and walking 5 miles every morning, I slept 8 hours a night but had no energy in the early evening. Now that I am eating primal, pretty strictly, I sleep seven hours per night and, work out 5 mornings a week, and never run out of energy until 10:30 pm, when I shut down. If I eat sardines in the evening (I never ate sardines before PB) I get such an energy boost that I often go to the gym.

    Jenny wrote on November 14th, 2012
  20. The Discovery Science channel once aired a show on sleep. If you need an alarm clock to get up, regardless if you are a morning person or not, it was a sign you did not get enough sleep.

    Mike Peraaho wrote on November 14th, 2012
  21. I struggle to stay awake after 8pm. But I wake up during the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep. I have no children, but I am getting older.

    Diane wrote on November 14th, 2012
  22. Wow, this article couldn’t have come at a better time, except that maybe it could have come three or four months ago when I first started noticing some real sleep problems. I have been trying to get enough sleep, but it’s been very disturbed sleep and I can’t figure out why. At least now I have some ideas, the first of which is taking all my vitamins in the morning instead of in the evening. I’m also more tempted now than ever to get myself a sunlight lamp for the winter so I get more exposure during the day. I try to be vigilant about keeping the lights low at night before I go to bed, I have a sunrise/sunset clock and I have f.lux on my computer. I want a good night’s sleep so badly now that I’m almost at orange-glasses phase. Thanks for throwing a few ideas out there!

    Deanna wrote on November 14th, 2012
  23. Good point on vitamin D – this had occurred to me too. In which case, what do massive monthly doses do to sleep?

    George wrote on November 14th, 2012
  24. The best answer I found to solving my sleep problems was the Buteyko breathing method. I do a 20 minute reduced breathing exercise every night before sleep, tape my mouth, and sleep wonderfully through the night. This never used to be the case before. I started Buteyko with eating primal food and no SAD foods has transformed my health and I finally look forward to going to bed at night. I used to dread it, knowing I would wake up with breathing problems throughout the night.

    Sarah wrote on November 14th, 2012
  25. I would add drinking alcohol late in the day – even in small quantities.

    Mark Cruden wrote on November 14th, 2012
  26. Wait – it is supposed to be light outside when I wake up and take a walk?

    /me slaps head

    who knew?

    FWIW, I would love to sleep in that late.

    Kai Ponte wrote on November 14th, 2012
  27. 1 to 3 am is liver time, if you keep on waking up around that time, it could be your liver is agitated…
    I find that if i over do the day, be it physical or mental, i am wide awake ready to rock and roll at 2am…..and hungry too..

    jacquie wrote on November 14th, 2012
  28. I on the other hand, can do virtually nothing to keep myself awake at night. I never have a problem falling asleep and fall asleep within 2-3 minutes of getting into bed. I get 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night; however, if I’m at a social function, this gets to be problematic as I’ve fallen asleep before at bars, movie theaters, at people’s houses, etc. It comes across as rude but I literally cannot help it and I feel horrible about it. It’s not a problem during the day since going primal, but I do wish I could stay awake past 9:30-10:00ish once in a while.

    Cara wrote on November 14th, 2012
  29. Check out organ’s time in Chinese Medicine

    jacquie wrote on November 14th, 2012
  30. Anyone have a recommendation for a bedroom clock? I’m looking for something that I can see in the dark, but that won’t light up the room. If LED, red would be best, I’m guessing? It doesn’t even have to have an alarm since I never use one. I just need to know if its 1am or 6am when I wake up.

    Amy wrote on November 14th, 2012
    • I use a little, battery powered travel alarm. It does not light up unless I push and hold a button. Then I can see the time. It is a soft white light, just enough to illuminate the time. If you do not mind having to push a button to see the time, that might be the way to go.

      b2curious wrote on November 15th, 2012
  31. So I got this study, where we are going to take many measures of your rectal temperature…Dont worry its for science!

    Bobert wrote on November 14th, 2012
  32. The comment about sleeping on a cruise ship and falling asleep to the gentle swaying of the ship got me thinking – can anyone think of a study about the effects of sleeping in a hammock on quality of sleep? It’s basically like being soothed and rocked to sleep all night long.

    Nelly wrote on November 14th, 2012
  33. I always need a bit on my stomach before bed. I usually gravitate towards toast, or some type of carb, also raw cheese, for the trytophane. I feel it is natural as when we were babies we slept better on a full belly.

    fran wrote on November 14th, 2012
  34. That Vitamin D thing might be my problem! That and I have a 7 month old. ;)

    gilliebean wrote on November 14th, 2012
  35. “people who ate the fastest-digesting carbs fell asleep faster than the people who ate the slow digesting carbs)”, but still maybe not as fast as those who would have eaten no carbs at all?

    Brian Kozmo wrote on November 14th, 2012
  36. As a long suffering insomniac I can attest to the despair of not sleeping at all. I have come to the conclusion that there is no solution. I have tried every supplement and excluded or included various foods without any success. I had a small paleo dinner last night so before bed I had 1/2 banana, a few activated almonds and some kefir- did not sleep a wink.

    Gez wrote on November 14th, 2012
  37. Wise man say, “Two things I do each day I hate: I get up in the morning and I go to bed at night.”

    Paula wrote on November 14th, 2012
  38. Hey mark,

    You talk about good sleep all the time, but you’ve never really discussed sleep apnea before. Im a technician at a sleep lab in central texas, and I can tell you that people with even mild sleep apnea can have great difficulty making it through the day without a nap. I think lots of MDA readers are slightly (or very) overweight and likely have some kind of sleep apnea.

    I think it would be useful for you to have a post about CPAP therapy (which is non-invasive, completely reversible, has no side effects, and effectively treats 100% of apnea patients.)

    Just some food for thought.

    Jackson Duhon wrote on November 14th, 2012
    • “I think lots of MDA readers are slightly (or very) overweight and likely have some kind of sleep apnea”

      I think you’ve got the wrong board. I’m down from 218 to 188 since going paleo.

      Kenny wrote on November 15th, 2012
  39. As long as my son wakes me several times a night, all that will not work, will it? :)

    Vollzeitvater wrote on November 15th, 2012
  40. Sunlight in the Arctic winters? Not a change! The sun comes up at around 8 AM and down at 11 AM at the moment, soon we got no sun at all. Does just go out for fresh air do the trick as well or is maybe a daylight lamp something usefull?

    Mina wrote on November 15th, 2012

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