I was chatting with some friends during the UFC fight on Saturday, and they both mentioned the same problem. Neither could fall asleep for at least an hour, night after night.
Many people I meet seem to have the same issue. They lay down, ready to get a good night’s rest, and wind up tossing and turning endlessly. Entirely too soon, the alarm clock sounds and they’ve lost out on precious time to restore themselves.
This stands out to me because I fall asleep instantly, night after night. Why do I seem to be (almost) immune to this common problem?
It’s because of the system I have around me that promotes sleep. I’m going to break that system down right now, so you can get the same benefits of health and relaxation that I do:
- Avoid screens for 30-60 minutes before bed time. The glowing, the clicking, the distraction, the endless stream of largely pointless information…none of this is conducive to winding down for the day. Instead, I like to read a physical book or magazine or chat with my wife. Although occasionally, I find a BBC nature documentary by David Attenborough lulls me right to sleep.
- Lower the lights. About 30-60 minutes before bed time, I dim the lights, generally to the lowest setting. This helps the wind down process. That gradual winding down gets me in the mood to sleep.
- No screens in the bedroom. Ever. Extra points if you turn your phone completley off a solid 30-60 minutes before bed. It’s so freeing!
- Sleep mask. A recent addition to my routine that has cut my middle of the night tossing and turning to almost 0. I didn’t think light affected my sleep much, but turns out it did!
- Humidity. In this drier part of the year, dry nasal passages tended to make it harder for me to breathe. Then, I’d wake up. When I got a humidifier, the problem was solved. And sure enough, if I forget to turn it on before bed, my labored breathing comes back!
- Physical exhaustion. I work out 5 times a week and also walk 4-8 miles in a typical day. This means that when I lay down, I’m exhausted and grateful to be off my feet! That goes a very long way to helping me sleep. It’s hard to sleep if you’re not really tired.
- Meditation/journaling. I usually do these in the morning, not the evening. But, they could easily be used at night if you’re struggling to relax. If thoughts are keeping you awake, you can get up and write them down. Then, they’re preserved and you can pick them all up tomorrow! But more likely you’ll never look at it again. 🙂
- Temperature. 60’s is generally best. But, my wife would turn blue if I kept the bedroom that cold. So, I’ll often sleep with just a sheet, even in the New Jersey winter. I find I fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer.
- Bed. Not as important as you might think. But, I’ve taken no chances here either. I bought a Tempurpedic memory foam mattress 11 years ago and it’s still as good as the day I bought it. It wasn’t cheap: $1700. But there are memory foam mattress toppers you can get for far less. I’ve gotten great sleep in much less expensive beds, and as long as you’re comfortable, so can you!
- Shower before bedtime. The gradual lowering of your body temperature after you come out of a hot shower promotes sleep. If you want to take another in the morning, you always can and I sometimes do.
- Remove stress from your life. Easier said than done, I know! But you can gradually work toward a lower stress existence. I often found my work in tech stressful, so over a period of years I transitioned to running my own investment business instead. And I’m sleeping better than ever.
A lot of this system came out of the superb book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD. He directs a sleep lab at the University of California-Berkeley and knows as much as anyone about the subject. He helped me enormously. If you want to understand sleep and improve your sleep, get this highly readable volume ASAP.
What I Don’t Do
Ambien. Dangerous and doesn’t provide real sleep. Unconsciousness and sleep aren’t the same thing.
What About Melatonin?
Not helpful for sleep unless you’re jet lagged according to the Walker book, but if you feel like it’s helping you, go for it! I do actually take 5 mg a day at around 8:30 pm generally, but I made that decision based on its possible ability to prevent COVID rather than sleep benefits.
And finally, when you get to lay down after a long day, enjoy it! Avoid anxiety over whether you’ll fall asleep.
Walker recommends an 8 hour “sleep opportunity.” I love that phrase because it focuses on what you can control (laying down), rather than what you cannot (falling asleep). If you’re there ready to rest, you’re doing what you can do.
Don’t worry too much if you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because that’s normal. Just keep giving yourself that opportunity to rest!
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Photo: “Baby sleeping POV” by robscomputer is licensed under CC BY 2.0