6 Ways to Not Suck at Sleep

Life is sometimes a mean joke. I blog about health and wellness. Ironically, the only time I have to blog is usually late at night. 

I know, I know. I’m a health coach, I know better, I have to be up early tomorrow, etc. etc. etc. Admittedly, my own case is both cautionary tale, and the basis for my extensive experimentations with sleep aids. I endure bouts of insomnia resulting in a lot of time spent staring at the back of my eyelids, waiting impatiently for unconsciousness. (I’m going through one such streak now.) Sometimes it’s just easier to get up and write or run invoices, or whatever isn’t just wasting my time waiting for the Sandman.

When I can’t sleep, my workouts and recovery suffer noticeably. I have a harder time regulating the amount of body fat I carry. My productivity wanes. I make terrible decisions like getting a tattoo with a Chinese symbol in it, or making $400 online orders from Sephora. It’s not my fault– it’s science!

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Sleepy? You’re Not Alone

Hopefully I don’t need to tell you how much sleep deprivation costs us as a nation. (Hint: A LOT.) Simply getting behind the wheel after pulling an all-nighter is nearly as irresponsible as drunk driving.

Why Not Just Take Ambien?

That’s very 2008 of you to ask. But since you did… *takes out soapbox*.

Prescription sleep aids don’t actually induce a state meeting the medical definition of sleep so much as just render the consumer unconscious. When I worked the morning shift as a news producer, I was called into my news director’s office to be reprimanded for “appearing tired” at 3:00 am. In a moment of Good Cop / Bad Cop, she softened and gave me a sage senior news tip: Just take Ambien!

I was horrified for two reasons. First, earlier that morning I had written a health segment on a study linking sleeping pills to an increased risk of dying. (Not sleeping pills + a bottle of whiskey. Not sleeping pills and a lot of cocaine. Not sleeping pills and driving. Just. Sleeping. Pills.) Secondly, she had not clue that I had taken Ambien for this job. In fact, I’d taken it so long it had stopped working altogether. It was a massive red flag that made me realize I had News Stockholm Syndrome. Having the audacity to want to prioritize this basic biological function was a major factor in my decision to part ways with the news business.

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Let’s Put You to Sleep

When I’m good– really good– about sleeping, these are the things that put me down for the count:

1. Stop Over-Caffeinating. Duh.

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This one is REALLY hard for me.

I love coffee. I love drinking coffee when I first wake up. I love it in social situations. Coffee is the original pre-workout. I love drinking it when I’m trying to get “in the zone” to straight crush some productivity. I love it in cocktails. It’s absolutely necessary with dessert. I love it in body scrubs. There’s even caffeine in my eye serum. You get my drift.

I’m clearly team #DeathBeforeDecaf, but let’s call caffeine what it is: A stimulant. A really addictive stimulant that is likely affecting your Zzz’s.

This chapter from Caffeine for the Sustainment of Mental Task Performance: Formulations for Military Operations was even more eye-opening than a triple shot Americano, and it deserves a good read. TL;DR: Most of us process caffeine in about five hours, but depending on metabolic factors, it could remain in your system for up to 9.5 hours. And the effects are cumulative if you consume more than one serving. (And who stops at one serving?)

So if you suspect you’re drinking coffee too late in the day to clear it by bedtime, your hunch is probably right. I’ve cut myself off by 3:00 pm, and now I’m actually moving that deadline earlier in the day. *sobs*

What a buzzkill. Sorry!

2. Noise– The Right Noise

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When I’m irritated about not being able to sleep, my hearing sensitivity goes up 1,000%. I feel like I could walk over to my neighbors’ house and ask them to just stop breathing so damn loud because it’s keeping me up. But even my own heartbeat sounds like a jackhammer when I can’t get Zzz’s.

My apartment is home to two loud window air conditioning units, providing a so-constant-I-almost-can’t-hear-it-anymore HRRRGHHHHH sound. And thankfully that drowns out a lot of noise pollution form living in an urban area.

You can also get a little more strategic.

Meditation for Sleep

  • My dear friend and yoga zen master Jessica Mihm pointed me towards The Deep Yoga Nidra, a guided meditation by Swami Janakananda. If you can get past the guy’s goofy voice (admittedly, I snorted the first time I listened to it), he’ll lead you to a deep sleep by relaxing one part of your body at a time, starting with your toes.
  • The 10-minute “Sleep” function on the Headspace App. (There is a subscription required after the initial trial period.)
  • The Insight Timer App has fantastic and free sleep meditations. If you don’t like the first person’s voice, background music, what have you, keep clicking, because you have a TON of options on this app.

Stories, Music, and Nature Sounds

Another unique option is the Sleep With Me Podcast, a bedtime story narrated by a man named Scooter with an unparalleled gift for boring insomniacs to sleep. In a nutshell, he tells unfathomably bland stories with no endings, unresolved metaphors, pregnant pauses, and other sleep-inducing tactics. Scooter’s voice sounds like he is in a Grateful Dead cover band in his spare time and is too lazy to go to the Tai Chi classes he signed up for, but tells people at his co-op he does it anyways. I’ve never made it past the introduction of the podcast, so I can’t tell you how the actual stories are. That, folks, is what you call effective.

If you’d rather fall asleep to music or natural sounds, you need the following Spotify playlists in your life.

Last hour of the day, I ax the lyrical stuff and opt for:

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For actual sleep background noise, I love nature sounds.

Note for pet owners: I have to skip any forest noises featuring birds in the background, because my dogs sometimes start gruffing and growling at the recording. Also, as the former owner of a storm-fearing pooch, you might want to skip some of the rain playlists because they tend to have rolling thunder on some of the tracks.

Don’t like any of these? Go to Spotify, click “Browse” > “Sleep” and you’re going to find a ton of playlists to lull you to sleep.

ASMR

Some people experience a highly enjoyable tingling sensation from specific types of sounds. This is called an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (more commonly known by its abbreviation, ASMR), and it can help such people relax at bedtime. Common ASMR recordings will feature whispering, repetitive noises, role play, and empathetic statements. People who react positively to these recordings will refer to it as a “head orgasm”.

I mean, sign me up, right?!

Unfortunately, ASMR does not work for everyone, and definitely not me. Personally, I’d rather wear wet socks than listen to ASMR. It gives me the same visceral reaction as nails on chalkboard, and I am noticeably sweating just writing this. If I’m ever tortured, it will be with ASMR recordings. A side effect of recording whispering means that you are also recording the little smacking sounds our lips naturally make, and as someone who can’t stomach audible eating noises, this is completely unacceptable.

How about you? Test it out:

 

3. Darkness as Black as My Soul

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There’s so much LIGHT in the world these days. And I don’t mean that in an existential way. I’m talking about light pollution. If you have street lights creeping in through the windows, charging lights on your innumerable plug-in devices, and attempt sleepiness by staring at your Instagram feed, you are sending your body some serious mixed signals. Light = Wakey Time. Dark = Sleepy Time. That’s it.

Get blackout curtains. Don’t use your TV, iPad, cell phone, laptop, etc. for an hour before bed, as they emit blue light– a light frequency our bodies associate with getting the F out of bed.  (Helpfully, you can utilize blue light filtering apps and iPhone’s Night Shift feature to cut back on your exposure.)

Blackout curtains mess with my feng shui, so I stick this eye mask that doesn’t crush my eyelashes. If you’re going all-in on the sensory deprivation front, go ahead and get yourself a pair of good ear plugs. (I don’t because I live alone, and you know, murderers.)

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4. Experiment With Natural Sleep Remedies

Supplements: I’m a huge fan of magnesium supplements, particularly Natural Vitality “Calm”. I only take it if I know I’m about to get a full night of rest, because it puts me OUT. I have to take it as the absolute last thing in my bedtime ritual because I tend to get real groggy after it goes down.

I’ve tried melatonin before, but it did nothing for me. However, I know lots of people who swear by it.

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Teas: I often drink a cup of turmeric or chamomile tea. Nothing fancy. I’m not sure how effective it is for inducing sleepiness, but I like the ritual (see No. 4) of winding down for the evening with a warm mug. Author/blogger/experimenter Tim Ferriss swears by this one.

Right now I’m testing out another option suggested by Tim Ferriss, Four Sigmatic Reishi Mushroom Tea. While I can’t say it has noticeably helped my sleep quality, it is extremely helpful for relaxation in the last hour of the day. (I’m gonna warn you right now, it’s not cheap. But this link does include a 20% off promo code.)

Aromatherapy: At aforementioned Yogi Jessica’s suggestion, I put a few drops of cedarwood oil in a blob of shea balm and work it into my feet right before bed. My gym-weary hooves need the moisture, and the bottom of your feet just happen to be very effective at absorbing the oil. I’m also a big fan of lavender blends like DoTerra Serenity applied to the chest and neck before sleep. (Try to go through someone who isn’t going to harass you about joining the MLM scheme. #Sorrynotsorry, that’s what it is.) If you have an oil diffuser, that’s also a great way to go.

Breath work: I’m a born night-owl, so I find it really hard to get my central nervous system to give it a rest. All systems default to “go” after 10:00 pm.

If my body just won’t let the day go, I turn to breathing exercises to help me relax.

  • Pranayama breathing exercises have withstood the test of time for a reason: They work. There are many variations you can experiment with, and you can get very specific about the focus of your exercise (like coolness, anxiety, insomnia).
  • Dr. Weil’s 4-7-8 method is easy enough you can do it while your noggin is on the pillow.

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Not Booze. Yeah, sorry fam. I love a whiskey nightcap, too. This hurts me to write.

Alcohol will make you drowsy, yeah. But it will also interfere with the brainwave patterns associated with restorative sleep.

5. A Bedtime Ritual

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For all our human complexities, we’re pretty much all walking, talking Pavlov’s dogs. Our bodies respond well to predictability, especially once we’ve conditioned ourselves to go to bed under certain circumstances.

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Brain Dump

The beginning of my wind-down routine is the Brain Dump. Here’s how to do it.

  1. Take the jumble of information rolling around in your brain, sensical and nonsensical
  2. Write it down. Do not obsess over making it make sense, and don’t go down a rabbit hole. Just write it down. Buy cat litter. I miss my mom. Research excessive sweating in social situations. 
  3. Relax knowing it doesn’t have to be perfect– it just needs to be a brain backup.

There’s some evidence writing a to-do list can help you sleep, and I can personally attest to that. I’m forgetful. So when something enters my brain, I instantly panic about my ability to remember to do it at a more appropriate time. (I’m super guilty of pulling out my laptop to finish that task just so I don’t forget.) I rest easy knowing there’s a hard copy on a post-it in my day calendar. No need to obsess.

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5 Minute Secretary

I take 5 minutes to imagine I am Ms. Lindsay Alvestad’s personal secretary, and I pull out my planner (I use the SELF Journal and really like it), and open up my calendar app on my iPhone.

From there I take a couple minutes to take all the events scheduled in my iCal and write them into the daily planner. I write down all my tasks, and when possible– assign them to my open time frames. I already feel better knowing tomorrow is planned. I’m now in the drivers’ seat: I’m able to better respond if something unexpected arises, and on the flip side, I know when I have to have strong time boundaries.

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Get Myself Right

I shower, go through my absurdly lengthy skincare routine, and pull back my hair. From there I burn a couple sticks of calming incense, make the aforementioned tea, huff the essential oils, and do some light reading. At the end of a chapter or two, I fill out a page in my 5-Minute Journal (I’ve used the hardcopy and the app, and they’re both great.)

Then, the most important step of all: I get my ass into bed.

6. Don’t Sleep Like a Dumbass

I flail in my sleep. So much so, that I’ve put my rib heads out of place on numerous occasions simply by sleeping like an idiot. Sad fact: My chiropractor sees me for this more than anything else.

After a lot of trial and error, I’ve settled on side sleeping with four pillows. (I know, my poor boyfriend.) I fall asleep on my back, and when I move to my side, I have one pillow between my legs, one to wrap my arms around, one under my head, and one behind me so I can roll slightly back and take the pressure out of my bottom shoulder. Pillow fortress complete.

I will not drone on extensively about mattresses and pillow options, because it’s such a personal choice and it’s taken me a ridiculous amount of time to work myself into a solution that seems to work for me for the time being. Let it suffice to say, if you wake up feeling like you lost a beatdown, you need to start doing some research into your options for mattress toppers (this is the one I like), pillows suited to your sleeping positions, and mattresses. Don’t be cheap, and don’t buy based on marketing. This is a major quality of life decision and you should do some research.

I am very opinionated about sheets, however, because I’m a human furnace. I am firmly in the No Top Sheet camp. Get a duvet cover, stop getting tangled up, and instantly save time making your bed in the morning. I’m a sucker for these ones.

Bonus: Wake Up Well

90-Minute Rule: A little bit of simple math can help you wake up feeling better than the average bear.

Our feelings of restfulness do not depend on the length of our sleep time. Restfulness is dependent on the number of complete REM cycles we experience during a night. (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement, and it’s the stage of deep sleep where we experience dreams and rejuvenate our bodies and brains. )

REM cycles are about 90 minutes long. And if you get woken up in the middle of one, you’re gonna wake up feeling like a bear who just came out of hibernation. But if you can time your wakeup to fall on a 90-minute interval, you’re going to feel a whole lot better when the alarm goes off. Even if you sleep a little less.

So instead of shooting for the old 8-hour recommendation, try 7.5 hours and see how you feel.

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Wakeup Devices: I highly suggest using a wakeup light instead of an alarm clock. This device simulates a sunrise to gently bring you out of your REM cycle, before introducing noise to get you up at the desired time. It’s pretty rad.

This is the one I use.*

Small Steps

You might be tempted to implement all the steps above at the same time, but we both know how that’s going to turn out. Badly. And then you’ll be up at 3:00 am on Pinterest.  

Set yourself up to win. Choose one or two steps to work on at a time, and definitely experiment within that realm, because all of this is super personal and will need to be tweaked. And of course I want to hear what works for you!

And with that, my friends, I’m going the f*ck to sleep. Dueces!

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*I might make a little money off any purchases made using this link.

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