Ah, sleep: is there anything quite like it? So easily discarded and discounted when nighttime attractions present themselves and yet so dearly missed and pined after the next morning. You’ve heard me say it enough, so I’ll keep it short. A good night’s sleep is the foundation for a healthy, happy, productive existence. Good sleep keeps us lean and thinking clearly. And without good, regular sleep, we just go through life in a scattered daze, everything foggy, slightly confusing, and less enjoyable. We’re not really ourselves if we haven’t slept. We desperately need a good night’s sleep, every night.
So how do you get one? What would a day of optimal sleep promotion look like?
Let’s start from the beginning. Let’s start with the morning.
Use a dawn simulator alarm clock. These are alarms with lamps that slowly and gradually brighten as your wake time approaches. It’s not the same as having the majestic sunrise beam into your room and very soul, but these contraptions have been shown to improve sleep quality. Another advantage: waking up won’t be so jarring.
When you wake up, get up. Do not hit snooze, sleep for five minutes, hit it again, sleep for five more, and keep doing that until you can will yourself to rise and stumble off to begin your day. You may think you’re effectively chipping away at sleep debt with those little bits and pieces of “sleep,” but you’re really just fragmenting your sleep (PDF), which leads to “sleepiness-related daytime impairment,” compulsory afternoon caffeine infusions, and less productivity. If you hit snooze today, you’ll probably end up sleeping badly enough to have to hit it again tomorrow.
Upon getting up, you expose yourself to bright light. Ideally, this is the sun. If it’s still dark out, you can use the brightest artificial light you have. 10,000 lux lamps are best (and in fact are used to effectively treat Seasonal Affective Disorder), but anything is better than no light at all. Our bodies, brains, and biological clocks expect bright light during the day, and meeting those expectations has been shown to improve sleep (as well as alertness and productivity during the day), even if the light is artificial.
Before “the day” starts, you get some physical activity. Go for a short walk (great way to get some light, too!) with the dog, do a light stretching or movement routine for five minutes, have sex, dance to your morning playlist as you get ready for work, roughhouse with your kids, swing a light kettlebell for a few minutes, read your email on the treadmill, ride your bike around the block, whatever. You don’t even have to work up a sweat or anything if you don’t want to. Just move a little. There’s some evidence (albeit uneven) that morning activity can improve sleep later on that night.
Brew your coffee, tea, or legal stimulant-containing beverage now if you’re going to have any today. Caffeine has a half life of up to six hours, so having that Americano after lunch could disrupt your sleep tonight.
If you eat breakfast, eat a good portion of animal. Meat (and not just turkey) is a good source of the amino acid tryptophan, and high-tryptophan breakfasts have been shown to improve sleep quality. Steak, eggs, and whey protein, anyone?
Work hard, be proactive, and stay focused. Getting as much work done as you can before noon will take the mental load off the rest of your day, allowing you to relax a bit. Procrastination will only make you stressed out, and stress is the enemy of good sleep.
While you’re working, take a minute to install f.lux on your computer. F.lux is a free program that changes your computer’s color spectrum automatically according to the time of day. When it’s dark out, an f.lux-enabled computer gives off very little sleep-disrupting blue light.
Last call for caffeine. If you do go for coffee, grab a cup of good green tea to go with it; green tea contains L-theanine, which can partially counteract the sleep disturbances caused by caffeine. Primal Calm also contains L-theanine, as well as other stress-modulating ingredients, so that’s another option.
Sometime after lunch, meditate for twenty minutes. Several studies have shown that meditation practice can improve sleep, including cyclic meditation (a kind of yoga-meditation fusion) and mindfulness meditation. There’s even evidence that meditation can decrease the amount of sleep you need to function.
When and if you nap, do it closer to midday than to your bedtime. A nap taken too close to nighttime can interfere with your sleep.
Go for a barefoot stroll in the grass, dirt, sand, or the natural surface of your choice. Even a quick walk on the lawn outside the office works. Though earthing is controversial, its proponents may be overstating its benefits, and the studies connecting it to better sleep may not be the best-designed, who doesn’t feel better and more relaxed after letting the leaves of grass trace their way between your toes, feeling the cool damp earth underneath, or tromping an uneven unsteady path through soft white sand? It certainly doesn’t hurt.
If you plan on drinking, do so around this time. Alcohol too close to bed – even just a couple glasses of wine – can impact sleep. You’ll sleep, but it’ll be poor quality sleep fraught with frequent disturbances. This validates both happy hours and day drinking, in a way.
Eat most of your carbs at dinner. A recent study showed that eating carbs, even high-glycemic ones, at the last meal shortened the sleep onset. In other words, packing your carbs into dinner can help you fall asleep faster.
Eat animal fat and/or olive oil at dinner (and lunch, and breakfast). Both animal fat like lard or beef fat and olive oil (or macadamia nuts, for that matter) are excellent sources of oleic acid, a precursor to the sleep-inducing oleamide.
Dim the lights when darkness falls. If it’s dark outside, your body needs to start winding down, and excessive artificial lighting will get in the way of that.
Turn off the screens an hour or two before bed. Smartphones, laptops, computers, TVs, tablets – they all emit melatonin-disrupting blue light directly into our staring, transfixed eyeballs. If you miss the entertainment factor, play board games. Heck, start a board game night and invite people over.
Use blue blocking goggles after dark. These, coupled with the f.lux you installed earlier, should block out the harmful blue light when you need (or “need”) to use electronics. I like this pair, while this pair fits over glasses.
Clear your mind. Meditation can work here, again, or you could make a to-do list for the following day so that you don’t lie awake obsessing over everything.
Rub your body down with magnesium oil or lotion. I go for the softest areas, like under my arms or along my rib cage. If it stings, you know it’s working. Bonus: it gives you (or me, at least) really cool, really vivid dreams. Some people are paradoxical responders who actually sleep worse on this stuff, just so you’re aware.
Read some dense fiction in bed, in actual physical book form (nothing against ebooks at any other time, but they represent a light source that can disrupt sleep). Don’t read easily digestible stuff like an old John le Carre spy novel. Instead, go for something like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian that has you parsing paragraph-long sentences. Great book, but you’ll be asleep in no time.
Eliminate, remove, or cover up any sources of light in your bedroom, even the tiny blinking ones. Black-out blinds over your windows, duct tape over your blinking lights, and towels under doors may be warranted to achieve true darkness.
Guided meditation can help you get to sleep. Search iTunes for “guided meditation” and a bunch of podcasts will pop up. Just don your blue blocking goggles before using your phone to play one.
Take a tablespoon of honey, preferably raw, right before bed. Seth Roberts has shown through rigorous self-experimentation how it might very well improve sleep, perhaps by keeping liver glycogen full.
Middle of the Night
Improve your aim and reduce your reliance on lights. If you get up in the night to urinate, don’t flip on every light as you pass them. Most people can adjust to the darkness if they let themselves.
Don’t check your email just because you woke up. It’s not that important (if it were, they’d call), and whatever you read is only going to keep you up. Also, blue light!
Make sure to eat enough salt throughout the day, since a depletion of bodily sodium stores can trigger overtraining-like symptoms, raise blood pressure, and impair the quality of your sleep. I won’t give an absolute amount, because that will differ based on size, activity level, stress, and many other factors. Just salt your food until it tastes good. So much for total salt avoidance, eh?
Exercise regularly. Regular exercisers report getting better sleep than people who don’t exercise at all, even on the same number of hours. In people with sleep disorders like insomnia, exercise can make things worse in the short term or have no effect at all. Working out once probably won’t help once. It’s over the long term (4 months) that exercise can improve sleep quality in insomnia patients. Exercise also increases sleep quality in sleep apnea patients.
Exercising at night is generally fine. Get it in whenever you can fit it. However, really intense pulse-pounding glycolytic work an hour before bed (like Crossfit or HIIT) might impact your sleep onset, simply because your cortisol is momentarily elevated. Proper cool downs should help get you back to baseline, as should food and a cold shower.
Align your life schedule with your chronotype. This isn’t possible for everyone to do perfectly – we all have to pay the bills, and that often means working on someone else’s schedule – but even small strides in the general direction of our genetic chronotype can help.
Obviously, not everyone needs to do or try every suggestion on here. I just combed through the research and put everything out on the table so you could pick and choose and experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. We’re all different.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know what works for you and what does not work. I can always use better sleep, so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for new tips.