Before the age of 40 I could count on one hand the number of times I didn’t sleep through the night. It was usually alcohol related, waking up at 4 in the morning after a big night, with my brain racing, and unable to get back to sleep. But after many years of almost trouble free sleep it suddenly started to fail me. And the consequences were quite grim. The greyness of sleep derived days, the anxiety about getting a good sleep the next night which almost guarantees that you won’t, and in the long term a lowness of mood and a dullness of mind which seriously effect your capacity to perform well as you are capable of.
It has taken me a long time and a lot of wrong turns to get a handle on it. It isn’t cured – when I take sleep for granted I tend to fall back on bad habits and break the cycle again, but I generally know what to do to get a good sleep. And the other day, I realised that I had had solid sleeps for the last couple of weeks. And few things feels as good as waking up after a great sleep.
So some lessons I have learned, and a checklist.
- There is not a single cause, and therefore there is not a single solution.
- Good sleep is a habit. When you get out of the habit it will take time and persistence to get back into a good routine.
- You need to make this a priority, and make hard choices, otherwise it will drag on for years.
- Studies show that it is natural to stir in the middle of a night sleep, connected to the end of one sleep cycle and the beginning of the next. The important thing is to be able to drop back off to sleep again at that point, and many sleep problems are caused by something getting in the way of that (See diet, stress and technology).
There has been much more written on insomnia in recent years, and the slightly odd phrase of the moment is ‘sleep hygiene’, which is basically means good habits for sleep, which I personally think is a better phrase anyway.
So here is a checklist.
Stress – It is no secret that stress messes with your sleep. But there is vicious cycle, because tiredness caused by sleeplessness means you lack the perspective and emotional resources to cope with even ordinary levels of stress. Stress is both a cause and a consequence of sleepless. But safe to say, get into the habit of switching off from stressful activities as early in the evening as possible. Certainly don’t check work emails. I actually find social media a bit stressful – all the politics and disagreements sets my pulse racing. Avoid arguments when you are tired – that is good advice anyway. Much better to set a time the next day or two to talk about things. And instead plan some winding down activities as bedtime approaches. And the good news is that as your sleep patterns improve you capacity to deal with stress should increase too.
Technology – There is some evidence that the type of light emitted by smartphone, iPads and laptops interferes with the production of serotonin, which is the hormone that helps you get to sleep. My phone and laptop now automatically switch to ‘night shift’ which reduces the blue light that they emit. However my experience is that the problem isn’t the light but the type of mental activity that technology encourages. All that instant stimulation, random web browsing or online shopping is the opposite of what you should be doing to prepare for sleep. My aim is to switch off the technology as soon as I can in the evening and certainly by 9pm. Then I will do something relaxing like read a book, or watch a film on the TV (which seems to be a different brain activity than up close on a device). I have to be particularly careful with this when I am tired, because the tiredness itself means my ability to make good decisions is less, and I’m much more likely to be distracted by the lure of the bright shiny technology. When I am tired I am drawn to the easy distraction of a smartphone. I need to be disciplined to put that down and that is easier if I have something else like a good gentle read in easy reach.
Environment – So I’ve found there are a number of factors that are important in allowing me not just to fall asleep but to stay asleep. The first and most obvious is noise. I have tried many earplugs and now have a good stock of great ones (These are my favourite). The second is light. I often wake at dawn, and it is very hard to get curtains to block out the light completely. A really good comfortable eye mask is the answer. And then temperature. I’m a warm sleeper, and I need to be careful I don’t overheat. Having a choice of two duvets – a summer on and a winter one helps a lot with that. There are some good tips on cooling a bedroom in very hot weather out there too.
Alcohol. This was a big one for me, and I was in denial for a long time. Alcohol is a soporific, it helps you fall asleep. But the bad news is that for whatever reason it makes it is harder for you to stay asleep. It seems that the older you get the ability of your liver to process the toxins that alcohol creates diminishes. And I consistently find that I wake up once the alcohol has gone from my system – usually after about 3 or 4 hours. Now for me I think that this may have been a major contributing factor, and I now drink very infrequently – and always struggle with sleep when I do.
Diet. John Steinbeck in East of Eden makes this observations about men, left to themselves living on fried food and no vegetables and getting terrible heartburn. Now I can’t say whether that is always true, but I certainly have a tendency to get lazy about food and eat too much junk and not enough vegetables. And when I do I struggle with heartburn, which I would experience more in the middle of the night which makes it harder to get back to sleep if I stir. There are off the shelf medicines to help with this, but they are only treatment and not cure, and eventually I had to get ruthless and go through my diet to see what was causing the problem. It turned out that significant contributing factors for me were Beer and chocolate and heavily processed food. I felt a lot better once I cut them down.
Consistency. One last piece of advice, which might be the most important of all, is a consistent alarm. This is hard, but effective. Decide what time you want to wake up, and stick to it without fail. Even if you have had a broken night, resist the temptation to catch up in the morning by sleeping in as late as possible. Get up at your set time and get on with your day, even if it is really hard. You will be much more likely to sleep well the next night, and that discipline is perhaps the best way to force your body into a good routine.
Getting to sleep. In terms of actually getting to sleep I found this military method quite helpful. It is a good distillation of the advice about switching off and relaxing, and gives some very practical advice on how to forcibly relax your body and by consequence your mind. I think it is something which takes time to learn, and isn’t going to fix the problem immediately, but nevertheless is beneficial from the start.
I no longer take sleep for granted, but there are few things better than waking up after a good, unbroken night sleep, and it is well worth making sacrifices in order to have that experience more of the time. I perhaps have had to become a bit of a sleep obsessive, but that has been a price worth paying in the end, and I hope that in time these things will become second nature.