When I was a kid, I was addicted to caffeine.
I drank three to five Dr. Peppers a day, often continuing well into the evening. On top of that, I believed in ghosts and aliens, and would keep the lights on in my room at night in the belief that it would protect me from ghost attacks and alien abductions.
In hindsight, all of this may have contributed to my insomnia.
For most of my life, it was rare for me to get to sleep before 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. Since I usually couldn’t sleep in too late—either due to obligations or simply because the daylight woke me up—this meant I was sleeping only four hours most nights. Of course people need eight hours of sleep a night, and my health suffered. I was tired, depressed, irritable, out of shape and chronically low on energy.
This continued right up until last year. Two years ago, I decided to stop moaning about my insomnia, and start doing something about it. I started researching the science of sleep, and by fixing my habits, I was able to gradually fix my insomnia over the course of a year.
Here are the 10 changes I made:
I made my bedroom pitch black.
The first thing that jumped out at me when I started my research was that artificial light at night can disrupt your circadian rhythm. Darkness signals your body to sleep, and the darker your bedroom at night, the better. I realized this was a problem for me, because I get a lot of light coming in through my blinds at night.
The best solution would be to install blackout curtains, just like the ones you see in a hotel. I ended up doing the next best thing however: hanging several black bed sheets over my windows, effectively blocking all of the light from getting into my room. I also had to block out other sources of light as well, particularly the portable fan in my room—it has a bright blue light, which I covered up by tying a dark shirt around it.
The goal here is for not even a single photon of light to enter my room, and while I didn’t quite reach that goal, I came close enough.
I finally kicked my caffeine addiction.
Blacking out my room made it a little bit easier to sleep, but I knew I needed to finally get over my caffeine addiction once and for all. Withdrawal symptoms had always caused me to give up on quitting caffeine previously, but I discovered that this happens largely because caffeine depletes your brain’s supply of the amino acids L-Tyrosine and DL-Phenylalanine.
By supplementing with phenylalanine for a few days (either one would have worked), and drinking a lot of water, I was able to kick my addiction within a week while suffering almost no withdrawal symptoms.
I blocked all blue light from reaching my eyes at night.
In reading about the effects of light on sleeping patterns, it also became apparent that artificial light before going to bed can be a problem—particular light in the blue wavelengths. To stop blue light from reaching my eyes at night, I did a few things: I started keeping the lights down in the evening as much as I could, I installed a program called f.lux that dims and reddens my computer screen at night, and I wore amber-tinted goggles for the last hour or two before bed.
I started eating saturated fat at night.
Along the way, I realized that proper nutrition has a lot to do with how well the body is able to get to sleep and stay asleep. I found several bloggers online claiming that eating more saturated fat in the evenings helped them sleep, so I decided to test it out for myself. I found that eating more saturated fat did indeed help me both to get to sleep faster, and also to stay asleep longer. I also found that adding a small amount of sugar made the effect more potent.
My usual routine in the evening was to eat a couple of sausages or slices of cheese, dipped into a small amount of honey or agave nectar. The more fat the better, but the sugar is best kept to a small amount. I also found that, as a vegan option, coconut oil could be a somewhat effective substitute for animal fat.
I do Iso-lateral exercises—or just stay on my feet all day.
Exercise is supposed to help people sleep, but I found the benefits inconsistent. Some days I would do some light calisthenics and sleep great that night, other days I would thrash myself at the gym, only to have trouble sleeping later on.
This one took me a long time to figure out, but it turns out that the type of exercise that helps me sleep is exercise that specifically taxes my sense of balance. I sleep much better if I spend eight hours a day on my feet, which partially explains why I sleep so well when I travel. This is a tough hurdle to clear, but I found I can achieve the same effect either by standing on one leg to exhaustion four times (twice on each leg), or by doing workouts which incorporate iso-lateral movements—that is, movements which work one side of the body at a time, such as lunges.
I traded my alarm clock for an app that works with my sleep cycle.
When you sleep, your body cycles through four distinct phases of sleep. Ideally, you would wake up from the lightest phase of sleep, but this doesn’t always happen, particularly when alarm clocks come into the picture. However, there are several smartphone apps which avoid this problem by using your phone’s accelerometer to wake you up from the lightest phase of sleep. When I have to use an alarm clock, I use one of these apps to avoid the grogginess that comes from being woken up out of deep sleep.
I keep my bedroom cool.
It gets colder at night. I know this isn’t a big revelation, but it has big implications for sleep. Our bodies use cold as a signal that it’s time to sleep, and we can disrupt that signal by keeping our bedrooms too warm. I find it helps me sleep if my bedroom at night is cooler than the temperature was during the day, and if it’s as cool as it can get without being uncomfortable. Generally this is somewhere in the 64-70 degree range.
I got more magnesium.
After adding more saturated fat to my diet, I started looking at the micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals. The most important for sleep turns out to be magnesium, which also plays a major role in regulating mood. Adding more magnesium to my diet in the form of leafy greens did help me sleep, but I found that supplementation often produced a more noticeable effect.
I get the strongest effect from drinking powdered magnesium fizzy drink supplements such as Natural Calm, about 30 minutes before bed.
I read a novel before bed every night.
While most of the changes I made focused on the biological side of things, I also needed to find a way to quiet my mind in the evenings, as I was too often kept awake by incessant mental chatter. Watching TV before bed didn’t seem to help, while video games actually made the problem worse.
Reading, on the other hand, turned out to be a great way to relax my mind before bed. However, it matters a lot what kind of books I read: non-fiction books, particularly how-to books, encourage me to think about the future and what I’ll do with the knowledge I’ve gained from the book. Novels, on the other hand, entertain me, relax me, and take my mind off of life’s worries, and as such are the ideal way to unwind before bed.
If all else fails, cold showers at night knock me right out.
If keeping my room cool helps me sleep, will intense cold knock me out? It turns out the answer is yes, although it isn’t fun. Taking a cold shower lasting at least five minutes produces a strong sedative effect that dramatically reduces my time to sleep, but I’ve never been able to get used to it. I’ll occasionally take a cold shower about a half hour before bed, and only on nights when I know I’m going to have a hard time getting to sleep.
If you suffer from severe insomnia like I used to, you will definitely benefit from implementing some of the changes that I made. If you want to test them for yourself, I suggest trying one at a time so you can see what works. If you test out just one of these tactics every three days, within a month you’ll have put a serious dent in your insomnia, if not fixed it altogether.
Author: John Fawkes
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Jacob Stewart/Flickr