5 Effective Sleep Tips You Haven't Tried Yet
I hate the person I become when I don’t get enough sleep. The entire day is covered in a brain fog—my decisions come slower, my temper flares, and I stop checking email for fear of picking up more work. And while I’m dead tired at night, I’m so worried about the unproductive day I’ve had that the anxiety keeps me up.
I’ve spent many sleepless nights researching sleep remedies, and I’ve heard of all the same ones you have: establish a bedtime routine, sleep in complete darkness, don’t drink coffee or alcohol at night, keep your bedroom cool, reserve the bed for sleeping, etc. These are all good tips that can help. But if you’ve tried them all and still can’t sleep, here are five lesser-known strategies I’ve tried that have done wonders for me.
Control Your Light Environment
As I mentioned above, sleeping in complete darkness can help insomnia. But the light we experience when we’re awake plays a big part in controlling our sleep rhythms as well. The morning’s sunlight promotes good moods and wakefulness, while the night’s darkness tells our bodies to relax and rest. Unfortunately, in the modern world we don’t spend enough time outside in the morning and spend too much time in front of computer monitors at night.
The best way to fix this problem is to take long walks in the early mornings and stop surfing the web in the evening. That doesn’t quite fit into my schedule, so I was really excited when I read about the Philips goLITE in Tim Ferriss’ new book, The 4-Hour Body. The goLITE is a palm-sized box that generates a soft blue light that mimics the natural spectrum of sunlight that triggers wakefulness in our body.
I’ve been using the light for over six months. At first I felt uncomfortable shining this blue light in my face for 15 minutes every morning—while the light is soft enough to be unobtrusive, it is definitely noticeable and takes a bit of getting used to. After about the third week, though, I started seeing the positive effects. Now after every session I feel energized and excited, ready to take on the world. I liked it so much I also bought an extra goLITE for my parents.
As for controlling your light environment at night, the best solution is to turn off bright lights and avoid watching TV or using computers. But if that’s not possible, make sure you dim down your TV and install f.lux. It’s free software that changes the color of your computer screen at night to a soft, orange hue. At first I thought it looked ridiculously ugly, like an orange Popsicle threw up all over my desktop. But the softer color is really easy on the eyes and doesn’t affect visibility. I got used to it very quickly and now when I use other people’s computers at night, I’m shocked by how bright their screens appear.
Wake Up to Fun
Most people associate mornings with hectic schedules and going into a job they hate. It is no wonder people don’t get excited about getting out of bed. But what if your mornings are filled with exciting activities instead?
Now I try to wake up one hour earlier than I have to and use that hour as my personal “play time.” Some of the things I treat myself to include:
- Finding a pickup basketball game, playing online video games, or watching a good episode of my favorite TV show like Buffy or Community (or both at once when I’m in a daring mood).
- Taking a walk around the block while listening to a favorite audiobook or music.
- Adding a scoop of ice cream and two strips of bacon to my otherwise healthy breakfast.
Now I can’t wait to get up! I jump out of bed with a smile on my face, and the physical activities raise my metabolism for the rest of the day. Before you object that you don’t have time in the mornings for shenanigans, just remember you probably already have a “play time”—except you’re doing this at night right before you go to sleep, which probably keeps you up way later than you would like.
Take Melatonin at the Proper Dosage
Melatonin is a popular sleep aid, but when I first tried it, I had very mixed results. For the first two or three days it would knock me out completely, but after the third day I noticed a steep drop in the melatonin’s effectiveness. After some extensive research I found out that I—like most Americans—was taking melatonin at too high of a dose.
According to MIT neuroscientist Dr. Richard Wurtman, the optimal dose of melatonin is 0.3 mg, and taking higher doses will cause the hormone to stop working in a few days. Unfortunately, the most popular melatonin brands usually market tablets in 3-5 milligrams, which is 10 to 16 times stronger than the optimal dose. Dr. Wurtman explains that manufacturers market higher-than-optimal doses of melatonin because MIT holds a patent on melatonin at doses of up to 1 mg.
Melatonin worked wonders for me when I started using it at the correct dosage level. I take it about an hour before sleep and usually wake up feeling very refreshed. Please keep in mind, though, that melatonin is not a long-term solution to insomnia. I only use it as a last resort and never use it more than a week at a time.
Always Reset Your Internal Clock When You Travel
When you travel, it can take you up to a week to fully adjust to a new time zone. Two years ago I learned a neat trick that allows me to adjust to the new time zone in only one day—I stop eating 16 hours before the time I want to wake up. When I wake up, I have a large breakfast, and my body recognizes that time as my new “morning.”
For example, if you want to start waking up at 5:00 am in the morning, you should start fasting at 1:00 pm the day before. When you wake up at 5:00 am, have a huge breakfast, and your body will adjust to 5:00 am as your new morning wake time.
According to the Harvard Medical School, we’ve developed this food-dependent clock because:
…it is adaptive for animals to have a secondary “master clock” that can allow the animal to switch its behavioral patterns rapidly after a period of starvation to maximize the opportunity of finding food sources at the same time on following days…. The shift is a survival mechanism in small mammals that forces them to change their sleeping patterns. One starvation cycle is enough to override the traditional light-based circadian clock.
This strategy has worked so well for me that not only do I use it when I travel, but I also do it every time when I need to re-sync my sleep schedule after it gets disrupted. For example, if I partied all night on Friday and slept in on Saturday, I’ll use this trick on Sunday to reset my schedule so I can get back to my regular sleep pattern for the rest of the week.
Track Your Sleep Habits
I get a lot of flak from my friends when I tell them I keep a sleep journal. No, it doesn’t have pictures of rainbows or unicorns. It is a very manly notebook where I record when I go to sleep and wake up, the environment I’m sleeping in, and the type of sleep remedies I’m trying.
By carefully tracking the details, I’ve learned a great deal about myself. For example, I’ve learned that I sleep better when I take a cold shower 30 minutes before bed, and if I talk on the phone within an hour of bedtime, I have trouble falling asleep later.
The sleep journal is also a great place to jot down thoughts. When I wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea, a weird dream, or a problem my brain can’t solve, I write it down in the sleep journal. The act of writing down my thoughts purges them from my mind and allows me to go back to sleep.
Recently I’ve supplemented my sleep journal with a Fitbit tracker—a small motion sensor that tracks when I fall asleep and how often I wake up at night. Here’s a recent report about my sleeping habits from Fitbit:
Fitbit then compares my data with the average user:
I’m pleased to learn that my sleep efficiency is 90%. (This means 90% of my bedtime is spent in restful sleep.) However, Fitbit did point out that it takes me about 14 minutes to fall asleep, which seemed longer than usual for me. I checked my sleep journal and realized that this was the week I switched from listening to classical music before bedtime to listening to NPR News (I wanted to get an update on the debt crisis). The sleep journal and Fitbit let me know that listening to the depressing news might be keeping me up later than I expected.
I really enjoy the process of recording my sleep and trying to figure out which of my activities affected my sleep pattern. Not only does it help me identify good sleep remedies and sleep habits, but it also makes me feel like a scientist! Instead of feeling anxious about my insomnia, I now treat the rogue sleepless night as an opportunity to learn more about my body and psyche.
Don’t feel like you need to try all these tips at once—consider starting with one suggestion and keeping a sleep journal to see how it helps. Hopefully you’ll be back to bed in no time!
What keeps you up at night, and what are some of your favorite remedies to get a good night’s sleep?
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Editor’s Note: Will is not a physician. Nothing in this post should be considered medical advice.