I am a lifelong insomniac. For as long as I can remember I’ve had what you might call a fractious relationship with sleep. Unlike my wife, who will be sound asleep half an hour after hitting the hay, I’ve gone through phases when I’ve not had more than an hour’s sleep each night for almost a week. Boy was that an odd week at school.
Over the years I’ve tried all sorts of things to get a handle on my sleeping patterns and, while I occasionally lapse into bouts of no sleep, they are much fewer and farther between than they used to be. So for the benefit of those who might also be struggling with Somnus I thought I’d jot down some of the things I’ve tried in the past, and a few of the approaches I use to manage my sleep.
I’ve split it into two broad categories, the physiological approaches which are relatively easy to try out, and the psychological issues which tend to be much harder to deal with.
(The Wikipedia article on sleep is really well written and does a good job of explaining the biology and cultural aspects of it all)
Before We Begin
First Up: Remember Everyone is Different
Don’t try to force yourself into some kind of idealised model of what sleeping should entail, the classic eight hours from 11pm until 7am. There are many people from history who got by (or at least claimed to) on very little sleep. There are cultures around the world that stay up late into the night, and those that sleep in the day. There are people who get all their sleep in one block, and those that survive on a diet of power-naps. Some people are Larks, others are Owls. As we go through life our sleeping patterns change: children nap a lot, teenagers need more sleep and find it hard to rise in the morning as their brains are being radically rewired. As we get older we find it easy to rise, but harder to stay awake in the evenings.
In pre-industrial societies, where artificial light was/is in short supply, it was much more common for people to sleep in several short bursts of a few hours during the night.
So don’t worry too much about forcing yourself into a particular ideal of sleep. Of course most of us have commitments of one form or another, work, partners, kids etc, which mean that we have to fit sleep into a certain routine, but within that there is always some scope for flexibility.
You will probably have to experiment to find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and it’s likely that you’ll need to try different things at different times. Just because something works for someone else, doesn’t mean it will help you. That goes for everything in this article.
Second Up: Insomnia is not all Bad
While I’m not exactly a fan of my insomnia, it has been the cause of some of my most productive and creative periods. Many of the insomniacs I know are widely read, productive, and creative, partly because they have those extra few hours of wakefulness, uninterrupted by the outside world, to read, write, create, or just cogitate. The late nights can be a haven from all the interruptions of the day.
If you can learn to manage your insomnia you may just find that it becomes a useful tool that occasionally lets you get stuff done that you might not otherwise. However that means you need to learn to understand your mind and body, and to watch out for the signs that indicate a bad night ahead, when it might be easier to simply go with the flow rather than trying to force your body to do something it’s not in the mood for.
Lets start with the easy stuff, the physiological approach.
Maximise Your Expose to Light During the Day
Left unregulated our circadian system would have us waking and sleeping on a not-quite-24-hour clock. Rather than let us slip out of synch with the day the body uses light to entrain our internal clocks with the passage of time. However this means that the artificial light we are all exposed to screws up our circadian clocks. This is especially the case if you are a late riser. Use light to wake yourself up in the morning, and get as much exposure to it as you can during the day. Make sure your office is well lit, especially in winter, and try and get outside during daylight hours if at all possible.
You might want to consider one of these alarm clock lights which some people swear by. I went the cheap route: I put the cheapest, weakest, most defused CFL bulb I could find in my bedside lamp, then plugged it into a cheap digital timer switch. It comes on slowly (cheap CFLs take a while to warm up) about 10 minutes before any of my alarms go off and tends to gently “pre-wake” me. It also ensures I’m waking up in some light, which seems to trick my body into getting going quicker. Waking up in a lit room also makes it psychologically easier to rise, and harder to nod off again.
Minimise Artificial Light in the Evening
Artificial light causes something called phase delay, lengthening your circadian rhythm later into the night. Because the photo-receptors responsible for this are more sensitive to blue light computer screens and TVs are particularly bad for this. Unless you use LED lighting extensively your household bulbs are probably towards the redder end of the spectrum, but laptop and smartphone screens generate a purer white light containing a lot of blue wavelengths and are probably worse than TVs simply due to their proximity. Minimising your use of such screens later in the evening may help. I have a somewhat flexible moratorium on the use of gadgets after about 9pm. If I’ve got something to do that needs my laptop I try to do it early in the evening, and leave other things until later. I’m in the habit of reading either an actual paper book, or something on my Kindle, for the hour or so before I go to bed, with just a reading light on. I leave my laptop firmly shut and my phone unmolested.
If you regularly use a computer, consider something like F.Lux. F.Lux reduces the colour temperature of your screen as night draws in. This has two benefits: it reduces eyestrain caused by staring a bright screens in a dark environment, and it also reduces the amount of blue in the light being projected into your eyes, therefore reducing the disruption to your circadian rhythm.
Exercise and Healthier Living
Over the years I’ve found that the more exercise I get during the week the less but the more soundly I sleep. This isn’t a case of exercise making me tired, in fact it tends to have the opposite effect on me, a run in the morning is a great way to wake me up properly. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Exercise is good for the brain, it releases endorphins and tends to help with mental wellbeing and reduce stress. Regular exercise also has other positive physical effects, from lower blood pressure to improved insulin response (which reduces sugar highs and lows). All of these can help you sleep better. I’ve also found that eating less but better makes me wake up easier in the morning and get going.
I honestly have no idea why all this works for me, this is just my anecdotal experience, but it does seem to. The fact that it makes me more energetic and focused during the day probably helps. I’ve found that a good night’s sleep tends to follow a good days wakefulness.
Proper sleeping pills can only be prescribed by your doctor, and to be frank you probably want to avoid them if at all possible. Most sleeping pills don’t induce good quality sleep, it’s more like being knocked out, doing you much less good than a proper night’s sleep. They are also sometimes (always?) addictive.
Sleep aids, in contrast, are designed to ease you into sleep by making you drowsy. They won’t put you to sleep, but they can help, sometimes, when used in moderation. Sleep aids like Nytol and the own-brand equivalents are essentially just drowsy antihistamines. Taking them on a regular basis won’t help you, you’ll just develop a tolerance and they are not particularly good for you. However they are a useful thing to have in your cupboard as part of an overall strategy, for those evenings when you just know you’re not going to sleep easily.
There are herbal sleep aids, which I’ve tried, but I couldn’t detect any significant effect despite repeated use. Probably worth a try, because they are safer than the non-herbal versions, but YMMV.
Vitamins and Supplements
Your body normally produces vitamin D in response to sunlight, so during the winter you produce less of it. For some people, like me, this has a fairly noticeable effect. I sleep for longer, find it harder to wake up, and consequently my sleeping pattern get’s screwed up. I’ve found that taking vitamin D definitely helps me regulate my sleeping during the winter months. I’ve also accepted the fact that I need to go to sleep earlier during the winter.
While it doesn’t directly help with regulating sleep, I’ve found that the herbal supplement St John’s Wort helps prevent the lows caused by the lack of sun during the winter and so indirectly helps with my sleep.
Kick (or at least reduce) the Caffeine
An obvious thing to do is cut out the caffeine later in the day. I generally find that having caffeinated coffee after about 2-3pm seems to affect my sleep patterns.
While cutting down in the run-up to bed sounds obvious, you might also want to reduce earlier in the day. I talked earlier about how a good night’s sleep tends to be linked to a good day’s wakefulness, and this is a good example. If you are the sort of person who can’t function without coffee then your natural rhythms are dependent on chemical stimulation to work properly. Try giving up, or cutting down on the coffee and see if it helps stabalise your sleep patterns.
Remember that after continued caffeine actually stops having a net positive effect. Rather than your cup of coffee being the reason you can get up in the morning, it’s the absence of the caffeine that makes it so hard in the first place. Going cold turkey might not be fun, but it might help.
Understand Your Body’s Rhythm
Your body’s natural sleep cycle is controlled by your Circadian system, a biological oscillator with a period of about 24 hours (24 hrs and 11 minutes, +/- 16 minutes, to be precise, apparently). This biological clock regulates a bunch of hormones and neurotransmitters which in turn regulate your body and brain. The key effect of the circadian system is to lower your body temperature during the night, which is probably the reason why we feel hotter on a hot summer’s evening/night than we might have done earlier in the day.
There are all sorts of factors that affect our circadian rhythm, from age to genetics. This isn’t just a case of habit, it’s biology, chemistry and neuroscience. Attempting to force your body into a rhythm it’s not happy with is unlikely to be successful. Working out what your body naturally needs is probably the first step in getting to grips with sleep.
Many insomniacs focus on the problem of getting to sleep in isolation, but in reality how you wake up and what you do during the day can be just as important. Sleep isn’t just a thing you do, it’s a fundamental part of your daily cycle, affected by everything else you do, from what you eat to how you wake up.
I’ve found that working with my natural sleep rhythm works much better than trying to force it into something it isn’t.
As part of this, how you wake up can be as important as how you get to sleep. One of the most effective things I’ve done to improve my sleep is to wake up better. I have a sequence of things that wake me up, starting with my bedside lamp, followed a quite radio tuned to Radio 4, and finally a loud electro-mechanical alarm clock positioned the other side of my room. The whole sequence takes about 10 minutes, during which time I wake up gradually, and am almost always conscious before the final alarm goes off. The result is that I am woken gently, rather than being shaken awake by an angry alarm clock. Positioning my alarm on the other side of the room simply means that I have to get out of bed and get going, stopping me from hitting the snooze button and dropping of again.
Recently there has been a report that having a lie-in, often seen as a great way to catch up on lost sleep from during the week, can actually have the opposite effect to what you were after. If you lie in for a significant amount of time you body clock starts to drift later and later, by the time you get to Monday morning your body clock is so far off that you simply can’t get up. If you need to make up for lost sleep you are much better off going to bed a little bit earlier.
It’s fair to say that most of the people I know who suffer from insomnia are either natural worriers or tend to over-think things. One of the reasons I sleep a lot better now is simply that I’m a lot less prone to worrying about things that don’t really matter. This is mostly just the product of getting older, age has a way of putting a lot of things in perspective. I still tend to over-think things, but it’s a lot less of a problem than it used to be.
Of course I can’t tell you how to stop worrying or stressing about things but there a few things you can do to try and manage your runaway brain.
The main thing is to have ways to offload worries, thoughts and ideas in a way that reassures you that they will be dealt with the next day.
Have Something to Dump Ideas and To-dos Into
This could just be a notebook, it could be a to-do list app on your phone. Either way, have something ready for when you are lying awake and suddenly remember something you’ve got to do tomorrow or you come up with a clever idea, or the solution to that problem that’s been bugging you. Recording it somewhere lets you relax knowing you can do something with it tomorrow.
Ideally, try to write down a concrete action, not just a vague note. It could be the first step in solving your problem, or doing something with your idea.
Decompress Before Sleep
I’ve taken to reading for about half an hour before bed to give my brain a chance to unwind and stop thinking about problems or ideas. It doesn’t have to be a book, just do something quiet and relaxed. Listen to some chilled out music, or an audio book. Ideally it should be something that doesn’t involve staring at a bright screen. Try to ignore or silence things that can interrupt you like twitter, or email.
Have Something to Distract you While you are Falling Asleep
Insomnia is probably the reason I’m a Radio 4 listener. I first started listening because it gave my brain something to focus on that wasn’t my latest worry or interesting idea. I was focusing on something that was both external, and limited. Left to my own thoughts I’d spend the entire night going in circles round a problem, or contemplating the deep mysteries of the universe. The radio focuses my mind and stops it wondering off on its own.
All you need is something with a sleep timer. So that I don’t disturb my wife I now have a pillow with a built in speaker plugged into my iPhone and use the TuneIn radio app. It’s not perfect but it works well enough. If you’re on your own then a normal radio alarm clock will do.
So there’s lots of stuff there that you can try. Some of it’s worked for me at different times in my life, and even different days of the week.