Having just returned from a few weeks overseas I’m now in the process of nudging my body back into Australian rhythm – a sleeping rhythm that was already out of whack before I went away due to the usual Daylight Savings unsettling and an insane work / fatigue sprint.
I mentioned to a friend that I was working on getting my sleep cycles back into normality and was asked to share some tips. While I’ve let them slip of late, over the last few years I’ve tweaked and adjusted my sleeping habits frequently, trying to ensure get the best natural rest I can. Now I have a few body hacks that I’ve gathered together.
A lot of this is common knowledge. A lot of it I’ve picked up from resources on the web that are long forgotten, and some is just what I’ve found through trial and error. Don’t underestimate the cumulative effect of it all!
Caffeine is bad
If you drink coffee as a habit, part of a routine, it will have some effect on your sleep, even if that habit is just one cup every morning. I drank one every morning and sometimes one late morning, and when I dropped that habit I slept longer and more deeply, falling asleep faster. Friends have noticed this too (and were surprised by it).
If you are a coffee drinker and have trouble sleeping or falling asleep, consider a trial of cutting out caffeine for a while. Be patient! It takes at least a week for your body to get out of the caffeine expectation and a few more weeks for your sleep to settle properly. That time is haaard. You’ll be sleeping poorly but won’t have the support of coffee to wake you in the morning. Be prepared for that and the withdrawals – I’m serious. Headaches, shakes, heart palpitations, sweats, irritability…
You may try to offset them like I did: I replaced my morning coffee with a Berocca, a banana and a significant increase in my water intake through the day to both help with detox and for welbeing.
If you are too attached to coffee to let it go, make sure at least that you never have coffee after midday.
Of course Coke and other energy drinks with caffeine are exactly the same here. Cut them out completely if you can, or considerably reduce them.
And remember: many teas have caffeine too! If you drink a lot of tea, you may want to explore the broader world of tea and experiment with infusions (non-tea-leaf teas, herbal teas) or at least read more about the tea you like so you know its caffeine content.
Light and Circadian Rhythm – unnatural light is bad
The light wavelengths from screens and other electric sources screw with our bodies which need to see softer, redish (sunset-like) wavelengths towards the end of our day to trigger our brains to prepare for sleep, and brighter white lights in the morning to wake us.
There is a lot of literature on light effects on circadian rhythm, so I’ll stop rambling and list a few key points:
- consider using a tool like F.lux to automatically adjust the tint of your screen based on the time of day
- try to get away from your computer screen at least one hour before bed
- if you read (paper) books before bed, try to get a softer, reddish-orange light bulb, but find a balance that doesn’t strain your eyes of course
- if you can’t sleep at night, one of the worse things you can do is fire up that smart phone or computer. It exposes you to the lights that start your brain waking up, rather than sleeping
- if you can, sleep with your blind open so the natural sunlight helps you wake up. If you can’t (or need to wake before sunrise) exposé yourself to bright light when you wake up. In extreme cases, I know that people have had success with eating breakfast with a bright lamp shined directly in their eyes!
Waking up at the same time
To establish a routine (and get the most out of your sleep) it’s more important to wake up consistently at abou the same time than it is to go to sleep at the same time. What you do through the day can affect how tired you are in the evening and when you get sleepy. At night, go to sleep when you get tired – don’t force yourself to stay awake, but try to get up at the same time every day. Of course, if you’re not tired, you should encourage yourself to head to bed at a reasonable time so you can sleep.
For me, once upon a time that was 4.5 hours before dawn (I did that easiy for years). These days it’s more like around 6 hours before dawn, when I wake. I sleep with blinds open so the sun wakes me, and I also have an alarm not too long after sunrise just in case.
But in my experience and some articles I’ve read, a strict waking regime seems to go a lot further inestablishing a routine than a strict bedtime and flexible waking.
Sugar is bad
This may just be me – I’m particularly sensitive to refined sugar. Just like caffeine, the more sugar I cut out of my diet, the better I seem to sleep. I think it has an effect on my energy levels through the day which carries through to the evening. I’d be interested to hear if this is something that you experience too.
Timing your wake up – knowing your sleep cycle
Sleep cycle is generally about 90 minutes, and you usually have about 6 a night. It’s much easier to wake up and feel refreshed at the tail end of a sleep cycle rather than in the middle. For me, I know that I’m very close to that 90 minute block: I can sustain 4.5 hours of sleep for long periods of time, waking naturally with dawn, but waking at dawn after 4 (or 5) hours of sleep would leave me feeling extremely sleep deprived and drained.
Get to know your sleep cycles and how much sleep you need, and try to adjust your waking time to suit – or determine a waking time and calculate backwards to determine your ideal bedtime. Do you need 8 hours sleep? 7.5? 10? Want to wake at 7am? Now you can know when you should hit the sack.
Water or tea before bed
One tool to help me wake on time is to drink tea or water before bed. Personally I enjoy either a chamomile and jasmine tea, or a mug of warm water, or a few glasses of cold water. This does a few things: hydration, of course, and my bladder helping me to wake naturally in the morning (can you tell I’m a huge fan of a natural, alarm-free waking?); if I drink chamomile tea or warm water, this also helps to relax me and make me a bit sleepy.
In yoga and some eastern monastic environments, people are encouraged to sit up almost as soon as they wake. Then to either stand up and stretch or start stretching before they even get out of bed.
The most important thing is sitting up. Commit to waking. Don’t stay lying down, or under warm covers – you’ll just fall asleep again! Sit up and stretch, or better yet, get up and out of bed soon after waking. Stretch your body slowly at first. Wake up each of your muscles gently.
Getting into a morning routine of yoga or some other exercise (jogging, star jumps, whatever) can be really helpful to wake you up first thing and get your day started.
Your bed (and bedroom) is for sleeping
Don’t study on your bed. Don’t lay on your bed to do anything else. If you can help it, don’t use your bedroom for anything except sleeping (or… ahem… bedroom activities). This is mental association. We want your brain to know that when you think of bed, it should think of sleep.
I’ve already touched on morning exercise, but your exercise routine in general is an important part of your daily rhythm. For me, a jog at night about two hours before I want to sleep is great. It’s not so late that I’m pumped and unable to wind down and sleep when I want to, and after I’ve cooled down and showered my body is happy and tired which makes it easy for me to fall asleep.
For me, I try to take my evening meal at least four hours before I normally go to bed. If I eat too late I feel bloated and heavy and have trouble getting to sleep.
There is a lot of info out there, just Google it. To draw your attention to one particularly useful article though, check out this one from Lifehacker: How to reboot your sleep cycle and get the rest you deserve.
Above all, be gentle with yourself. If you start adjusting this stuff do it slowly. Try one thing, give it time, and if it doesn’t work then abandon it and try something else. Don’t try to force your body into something that it can’t do. Listen to your body, and of course talk to your doctor if you have serious sleeping problems – there are a bunch of medical reasons for poor sleep, none of which will be helped by any of the above!
Well I think that’s it. I hope you found it useful. If you have any other tips or tricks with sleep, let me know