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

Sleep 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!

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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. 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
  2. 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
  3. As long as my son wakes me several times a night, all that will not work, will it? :)

    Vollzeitvater wrote on November 15th, 2012
  4. 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
  5. On occasion I’ve told my husband that if I’m not tired by 10pm, then I haven’t done enough during the day.

    Of course, it’s not always cut and dry like that, but it’s a major contributor for me!

    Michelle Rollins wrote on November 15th, 2012
  6. I’ve had issues with sleep most of my life and Mark’s suggestions fall in line with just what I’ve learned by listing to my body. I’m also glad he mentioned the part about carbs before bed. If I don’t eat a small snack of carbs I can’t fall asleep or wake about 1.5hrs after falling asleep needing to eat. Carbs before bed can raise serotonin levels and blood sugar levels which actually help you fall asleep.

    Meghanne wrote on November 15th, 2012
  7. Good article and very informative.

    Ann wrote on November 15th, 2012
  8. I should have never read this blog. I got 4 hours of sleep last night….cripes!

    Doug wrote on November 15th, 2012
  9. Hgh peptides are the bomb for sleep and recovery

    Larry stroup wrote on November 15th, 2012
  10. I used to have problems waking up in the middle of the night around 2-3 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. Tried all the usual recommendations: don’t stay in bed, read by dim yellow light, sit in the darkness listening to soft music, take a warm bath, take melatonin, no alcohol or food within 3 hours of bedtime, and on and on. Finally, I tried eating a snack (cookies) when I couldn’t get back to sleep (the horror – just think of all that weight gain!) laid back down and BAM! fell asleep immediately and slept the rest of the night with no problem. Now as soon as I can’t fall asleep or wake in the middle of the night, I immediately reach for a snack, altho I choose better foods – nuts, yogurt. Works like a charm! And I’ve actually lost weight!

    Arie wrote on November 15th, 2012
  11. Ever since I invested in the stock market I sleep like a baby…wake up every 2 hours crying!

    skeedaddy wrote on November 15th, 2012
  12. My problem is not falling asleep, lately it’s been waking up early – around 4.00 to 4.30 a.m. and then not able to get back to sleep. I am new to Paleo, about 4 weeks in to it now so maybe it’s just my body adjusting. I have been going to bed early-ish for me (before 10) and getting to sleep with no problem, but then I wake in the middle of the night. Apart from cutting out the carbs a month ago, I have also been doing less exercise recently because I started to feel pretty rough from the middle of last week, which might be carb flu. Also, when I started to feel bad last week I thought well, if this is carb flu and I’m going to feel rough for a few days, I might as well sort out my caffeine addiction (not sure how logical that was, but now for the first time in my adult life, I have gone a week without tea or coffee instead of the usual 8 to 10 mugs per day – but I can’t sleep at night and I’m falling asleep at work. No alcohol and no weight problem – but I have been waking with a very dry mouth.

    Vic Isadude wrote on November 15th, 2012
  13. this is a timely post for me, recently I’ve been sleeping really well most nights (after several years of sleep problems) but do sometimes wake at 3ish and can’t get back to sleep. A snack seems to help. It’s particularly a problem if I have done LHT or other vigorous exercise, so inspired by this post and the comments I am going to try adding white rice on workout days. I can kind of feel a craving for it, my body maybe letting me know what it wants. (other than that I am pretty low-carb, bit of meat with lots of veg w butter).

    I have another tip for people who wake up in the night – go outside! I sit outside for a while until I start to get a bit cold, my body temperature dropping means getting into bed is a joy and this often is enough to send me to sleep.

    archaeologyboy wrote on November 16th, 2012
    • ag, plenty of rice for dinner but still awake for 2 hours….that didn’t work, i wonder what will?

      archaeologyboy wrote on November 16th, 2012
  14. There REALLY is something to what this article says. I had started switching my evenings from TV watching to reading about a week before this article. I got in bed and read, NO TV. I’ve heard it said, don’t get in bed till you are ready for bed. But I am reading for a couple of hours and then off to sleep, great sleep, the best I have had in quite some time, without my sleep apnea machine. I didn’t understand it till I read this. Thanks Mark.

    Shannon R. wrote on November 16th, 2012
  15. Well I am not going to read the hundreds of comments. But let’s just say late night EMF exposure via computer or smartphone was not mentioned in his article. That is a glaring omission. It really affects many people, who have no clue.

    Elizabeth Good wrote on November 17th, 2012
  16. I went on a.. half-blind is a good description.. drunken blunder recently at night and ended up somewhat coming to my senses in a place I had to climb out of, and decided to leave my backpack there. I went back for it sober and looked around with a flashlight and realized I’d literally stumbled on a bunch of herb drying. Wicked intelligence? Anyways now my night time ritual consists of lighting candles with matches and using them as low-tech lighters for the greens.

    Animanarchy wrote on November 20th, 2012
  17. ive always had touble sleeping… ive tried everything! and i mean everything… i find that the only thing that works is sleeping pills, i wish there was a way that i can sleep with out them… any one have any suggestions other than what was mentioned here??

    suzie wrote on December 14th, 2012
  18. This has probably already been addressed but have you any thoughts on shift rotation work? I’m as primal as I can be but work a rotating day/night shift emergency services job and am constantly catching up on sleep. Are there any suggestions for people that simply cannot sleep a regular schedule?

    AJ911 wrote on December 27th, 2012

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