5 Effective Sleep Tips You Haven't Tried Yet

by Will Chen on 9 August 2011 (46 comments)

This post is sponsored by Tempur-Pedic because we think you deserve to get your best night’s sleep every night.

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.

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Andrea Karim's picture

During a recent attempt at making our bedroom feel lighter and brighter, I took down the hideous striped curtains that were hanging in our south-facing window. My husband was peeved, since occasionally the moon will shine very brightly into the room at night. Other than that, though, having no curtains has been a blessing for me - the early morning sunlight helps me wake up long before I would if the room were darkened by curtains. Mind you, our climate is so mild that leaving the upper windows uncovered isn't such a big deal, although it might be tougher in warmer areas.

Will Chen's picture

"since occasionally the moon will shine very brightly into the room at night"

Damn you romantic moon!

FWIW, the goLITE also has an alarm mode. I set it to go off in the mornings so instead of waking up to annoying buzzard sound, I can wake up to simulated sun light. It sounds great in theory, but I have to admit the light doesn't wake me up every single time.

Andrea Karim's picture

There's "romantic", and then there's blinding. ;) I actually don't have any problem sleeping in a room that has a light on - I kind of prefer it to complete darkness.

Everyone says that you shouldn't read in bed, but I find that that is the fastest way to set me to sleep. And I don't tend to dream about whatever I am reading, oddly enough.

Guest's picture

I think the most effective way to help you sleep is to drink some alcohol, that will knock you out pretty quick.

Andrea Karim's picture

That was a tried and true favorite of mine, too, except that although booze helps you fall asleep, you don't get high-quality sleep. It also depends on how much you drink - I have this tipping point (three glasses of wine) after which I can't sleep at all.

Lynn Truong's picture

Ear plugs definitely help me. I guess I'm a light sleeper and with the windows open during the summer, the outside noise -- cars, helicopter, drunken phone call -- disturbs me.

Reading helps too, but of course not one of those can't put it down ones that make me stay up all night.

Will Chen's picture

Yes, your Hunger Games recommendation did NOT help my sleep. I've put an X next to your name in my sleep journal. :p

Guest's picture

I'm a huge fan of the radio apps on my iPad. I set the timer and drift off listening to BBC radio and it always does the trick. The key was finding the app with the time function.

Will Chen's picture

I love BBC radio! There's something really comforting about a British accent.

Guest's picture
Steff

That f.lux program is amazing! Within seconds of downloading it I felt my eyestrain disappear and my body begin to wind down. I knew the computer screen simulates natural light and will keep me up, but I'm in grad school and I often end up doing homework late at night; so I figured there wasn't much I could do about it.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

I'm glad to hear f.lux worked out for you. It really is an amazing little free program.

Grad school is an amazing experience, but it can really take a toll on your body. Take good care of yourself! Best of luck in grad school.

Guest's picture

I think the one thing that people really over look is keeping their bedrooms dust free and clean. Check out if there is dust on your bedside table and remember that you are breathing that in through out the night. A room full of dust mites can also impeded your sleep.

Great article! I am definitely going to try the time zone eating trick as it usually takes me 3 days to get use to a new time zone

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

That's a great point Ingrid. I haven't dusted my bedside table for--um--longer than I care to admit. Thanks for the reminder. =)

Keeping your sleep area clean not only has physical benefits, but it also gives you a sense of calm. If my bedroom is messy, I feel really stressed and frazzled.

Guest's picture

Hey I made the community buffy video you linked and I really thank you for promoting it.
-Mike

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

That video is amazing Mike. The scenes you selected are perfect--the moped one is an especially nice touch. I'm really grateful to people like you. Your hard work keeps fandoms of great shows like Buffy alive long after the they are off the air.

Guest's picture

Good stuff, Will...people should also watch what they eat (or don't eat) before bed. Avoid snacks that are too large, too heavy, too high in protein without carbs to offset, and also too high on the glycemic index.

As bad as all those things can be, going to bed on an empty stomach can be just as bad.

A small, healthy, proper snack before bed can make a huge difference in how easily you fall asleep, the quality of your sleep, and how you feel the next morning!

Sean Folkson - Founder, NightFood, Inc.
http://www.NightFood.com

parentingsquad's picture

That's a good point Sean. Tim Ferriss mentioned in his book that some people are too tired to get up in the morning because they are experiencing low blood sugar levels. He recommends having a small snack like almond butter and celery sticks, apples, or yogurt.

I've started eating a banana before bed time. Some people claim banana helps with snoring.

Guest's picture
Guest

Great tips...i'm a sleeper, and it really gives the best out of me to a world you wont like, if u didn't get enough bedtime. It makes you look fresh and attractive in a healthy way and open-minded to any challenge comes forth

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

Very true. I feel like a completely different person when I get enough sleep. I feel like there's nothing I cannot accomplish!

Guest's picture
Will

I can't believe you actually recommend adding a scoop of ice cream to breakfast!!!! This is the exact opposite of what you want in the morning to wake up. A good breakfast consists of protein (eggs, yogurt, nuts), some carbs (not pancakes) and healthy fat like avocado or more nuts. Consuming too much sugar in the morning is what makes you crash. If you aim to keep your blood sugar level more consistent throughout the day you will reduce grogginess and be healthier!! The best thing you can do is completely remove sugar from your breakfast and limit it throughout the day. Please don't add to our obesity problem by encouraging unhealthy snacking before you even get the day started.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

You are right in everything you say! Ice cream is just an example of a treat you can have in the morning. You can also replace that with a healthier protein shake or fruit cup.

I like ice cream and I used to eat a scoop at night. I switched it to the mornings so there's no net gain in calories consumed during the day. I just moved it to a time that would entice me to wake up.

Ideally, I should switch out ice cream with another treat I like even better that has less calories--Taiwanese shaved ice treats. But they are harder to make and I don't have time in the mornings.

Guest's picture
Muriel Mason

I worked the 11PM to 7AM shift and have to sleep during the day. I can never get more than 3 hrs of sleep at any one time because my family does not understand that I need to sleep during the day. The late in the evening I get about 3 hours of sleep from 7 to 10PM before I need to get ready for work. I am always tired and even on my 2 days off, I never geet enough rest. I will have to quit this job because my health is now suffering. I tried to have my hours reduced to part time but the employer will not let me do this. So I will need to retire. I am 73 years old and I thought I could work a while longer but I can't.

Guest's picture

First thing you may want to do is fire your family. Working overnights is hard enough, what part of needing to sleep during the day are they not comprehending? Have you tried a baseball bat? maybe that would help them understand?

Just kidding, of course. Simply sit them down and explain to them the health ramifications of you not getting enough sleep. Also, take matters into your own hands my using an eyemask and blackout curtains to ensure you're not getting too much light when you sleep, and use a sound machine and/or ear plugs to control for sound. As long as you do those things, if they'll just stay out of your room, you should be able to get some better sleep.

In all seriousness, this is too important to be polite about.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

Sean is right. Your family is being really inconsiderate.

ಠ_ಠ

I understand they probably love you a lot and are only bugging you because they want to spend time with you. But you have to make them understand that this is affecting your health.

Maybe you can provide a different way for them to communicate with you, like instead of having them wake you up to talk to you, have them write you emails or record videos.

Guest's picture
Keith

if you're prone to depression, stay as far away from melatonin as possible.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

That's a good tip. Thanks for sharing that important warning.

Guest's picture
Will

I have not seen any responses regarding exercising... I usually sleep much better when I exercise. Do not exercise right before bedtime. Get a good sweaty workout right after work; you will look forward to resting at night after a hot bath and a nice meal. Having highs and lows in physical activity shakes up that sedentary lifestyle and your body will appreciate the low recovery time when you should be sleeping.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

Very good tips. I always sleep better after some cardio in the morning or afternoon. But if I exercise after 6:00 pm, I get too wound up to sleep at my proper bed time.

Guest's picture
Guest

thank you will. I will tell and forward this article to all my friends concerning the internal clock readjustment. they will get a kick out of it. also, I surprised at MIT's patent on 1mil<. is anything sacred nowadays?

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

You're very welcome. I hope the stuff I learned through my own pain and suffering can do a little good for other people suffering from insomnia. Yeah the patent system is pretty crazy. A long time ago I worked on cases involving drug companies suing each other to prevent cheaper generic cancer-treating drugs to come to market. Yes, you read that right--people suing each other to keep cancer-treating drugs from reaching patients. Yuck. Humanity disgust me sometimes.

Guest's picture
Sheila

I frequently have difficulty staying asleep all through the night. I am interested in trying the fitbit tracker. How much do they cost?

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

The Fitbit costs $99. I think generally there's a lot more you can do with your sleep that doesn't cost that much money--like keeping a sleep journal, preparing a serene sleep environment, controlling light at night, etc. Make sure you do those things first before getting the Fitbit.

Guest's picture
Guest

Hi, What would be your advice to the night-shifters? I work in the hospital three nights not always in a row, and have to sleep during the day time. I wake up at about 11 am to go to the BR, than force myself to sleep more, wake up again at around 2 pm restless, with aching body. Finally sleep one-two more hours before to go to work. Many times leg cramp wake me up. I take Leg Cramps homeopathy pills and they help a little bit. I cannot change my job at this time.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

First of all, thank you for working those hard hours at the hospital. People often don't realize how much effort goes into keeping a hospital running. In fact, most people don't think about hospitals until they get really sick. I've spent my share of time in hospitals taking care of relatives, and I really appreciate the hard work people put in there--from janitors to doctors to nurses to volunteers.

The most important part about shift work is that you have to be consistent with your sleep schedule. You can't sleep during the day time on your work days, and then switch to sleeping at night on your off days. That will create so many problems for your body. You'll be tempted to "catch up" on sleep but really it is better to stick to the same schedule. I know this advice sucks because it means you'll be out of sync with your friends and family during your off hours. But it is for the best.

I know there's a drug called Provigil that doctors prescribe for some shift workers. Scientists don't fully understand how that drug works with your brain chemistry, so personally I would stay away from that, but that's an option you would get if you went to the doctors about this problem.

I get leg cramps too! They are the most painful things in the world. They generally go away if I drink lots of water and eat 1-2 bananas a day.

Guest's picture
Guest

Some good advice. But what suggestions do you have for shift workers???

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

The most important thing is to keep your sleep schedule consistent (see the reply above).

Guest's picture
Abdallah M

Fist of all.. Thanks very much for f.lux.program. As a slower in reading English, and also spend more time to translate the unknown words, because of I'm not good enough in English. it really make me feel more lazy to finish an article like that. But before i feel tried of reading I downloaded the f.lux. and active it.. It was weird at first but I didn't recognize that i finished all the reading of the article without feeling tried or bored. So I think u make me realize that the high light monitor tiring my eyes and then my mind, the program make me feel relaxed and able to get excited instead of feeling bored .

I'm agreed with u of the time zone. It happened with me that I became like sleep all the day and woke up all the night and it hardly to change it back.. because i always wake up at sunset and eat breakfast.Then I start to feel activate and I stay all the night without any sleeps. Its like u become a vampire or a night creature.then when the day light come over feel like my eyes get burns and I must sleep.and it became a bad habit to me. anyway mostly if I need to change it again.. i have to keep up 2 days.. until the night come then I sleep. so it would be changed. But that is so tiring. You helped me how to make it more easy to changed it without tiring..

sorry for make that long.. but also 1 more thing.. when I have insomnia I do some sport or exercises like push up or abs or when jump with a rope to make me exhausted then go take a shower and sleep. :)

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

You're English is very fluent! I'm glad f.lux was able to make reading Wise Bread more enjoyable for you. It can certainly make a big difference. Now when I use other people's monitors, they give me a terrible headache after a while.

Exercise is a good tip. It works for a lot of people. For me, though, I can't exercise too close to bed time. I get too wired up.

Guest's picture
Guest42

I would add a cool shower in the summer or a warm one in the winter before crawling in bed and my personal favorite is to find an old tv show on Netflix (Twilight Zone) that reminds me of being a kid. The black & white ones are great because the images aren't shifting every 7 seconds and they're fairly calming as they've got a darker image to them. The comment about removing the curtains has helped out as well. We just moved to a place where we can do that and with the curtains down and the windows open, I go to sleep to crickets and cicadas and wake up to the sun. It's so much nicer. Thanks for the license to wake up early and eat ice cream while watching sci-fi by the way! ;)

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

Wouldn't Twilight Zone be too scary? =)

Going to sleep with the soothing summer sounds of crickets and cicadas sound lovely. Some people pay good money for a recording of that to help them sleep. You're so lucky.

Don't let anyone take away your morning ice cream. You only live once!

Guest's picture
Alex

The clock has just hit 4:01 am as I write this comment. I think tomorrow I may get some Melatonin as suggested!

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

I hope it helps. But it is definitely not meant as a long term solution though. Make sure you try some of the other tips as well. Good luck Alex.

Guest's picture
Aaron

These are great Will. However, I discovered inadvertantly that my sleeplessness was due to sleep apnea. I think a lot of people may have this undiagnosed disorder. Untreated apnea can cause all sorts of health concerns - so it's worth a check-up or sleep study to see if you have it.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

That's a really good point Aaron. A lot of people dismiss sleep apnea because they think it is just loud snoring. It is a really serious condition. Do you have fairly severe apnea where you have to wear the mask?

Guest's picture
Skye C.

I particularly loved the tip about making mornings fun. Adding some ice cream or bacon to a healthy breakfast would certainly get me out of bed! I find that going to bed at an early time helps me sleep the best, which I'm sure is an age old idea. If I'm finding it hard to fall asleep, if I go to bed early, I'm able to get more sleep than if I went to bed later and couldn't fall asleep, and therefore maximize the amount of rest that my body is attempting to get.

Guest's picture
Sarah

For me, staying asleep is not the problem. It's falling asleep. I can lay down with my eyes closed for 2 hours sometimes and still be very awake. But once I'm out I feel for the sorry SOB who wakes me. Just wish I could fall asleep faster.

Funny enough, I have no problem sleeping in the sun. I love a good nap in my car at lunch time. I just set my phone alarm and I'm out in 5 minutes. I was a day-sleeper as a teen too. On the weekends I often stay up and do extra chores or reading until 3am, just because I feel so relaxed and peaceful at that time.

Is it possible that I am just night person? A true blue night owl who'll never get used to sleeping at night and waking in the morning. Are there people who just naturally sleep better in the day and are more productive at night?