Once upon a time, sleep was a given. There were not legions of studies and entire fields of science dedicated to getting people to sleep and figuring out why some people can't sleep. We are diurnal animals whose activity occurs mainly during the daytime. And then we fall asleep. As sure as the sun rises, right?
And then we became civilized animals with artificial light, 24-7 production schedules and purveyors of beeping, buzzing gadgets.
I am a lover of gadgets, clean water and sanitation. Civilization and I are totally fine with each other.
But there are now six known disorders that deal specifically with disturbances to the sleep wake cycle and don't include things like sleep apnea. One of them is jet lag disorder. I know, sounds made up. Definitely a real thing. I am relatively certain our primitive ancestors did not have a fear of jet lag disorder.
Something is definitely going on with our sleep. As a Western society, we have never slept less than we do now. It is well established that sleeping less than 6-7 hours a day can contribute to metabolic changes that increase hunger hormones, decrease satiety hormones (i.e. you eat more and are less satisfied) and reduce fat loss. According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 40% of Americans sleep less than seven hours per night. In the 1970s, it was 16%.
In many ways, I am grateful for my birth year: 1984. I just squeaked the teenage experience in before cell phones. I didn't get Facebook until my fourth year undergraduate thesis was submitted and defended. I escaped the brain trickery that comes with continual access to smartphones or other light-emitting devices. I fell asleep reading paper books for the first 25 years of my life.
My whole goal with the Making Better Mornings Project is to figure out how to wake up earlier without feeling like a piece of roadkill. In Part 1, I wrote about how we fall asleep, a process moderated by melatonin levels. In Part 2, I wanted to write about how to craft yourself a sleep-worthy environment.
Before we start, I want to say that there are people who can't sleep because they have a mood disorder and/or insomnia. If that's you, please see your doctor. The Rules that I am going to discuss here definitely do apply to you because sleep hygiene is for everyone. However, when the brain is suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, as is often the case with mental illness, there are really big changes that occur that mean sleep hygiene alone may not be totally effective. Again, please see your doctor.
Also, I know that some people have housing-environment issues that make sleep hygiene really difficult. If you live with or are a shift-worker, this stuff is so, so important for you but it's also much harder to enact. If you live in a city with poor air-quality or if your home is extremely hot or cold, sleep hygiene is essential but possibly insufficient. Obviously, if you're living couch-to-couch, this stuff is going to be hard. I am sorry. I am sorry for all of the times that doctors have recommended complete darkness, cooler temperatures and medications when you probably just need stable housing and a bed of your own.
Given those caveats, I do believe that everyone can change one thing about their sleep patterns to make it easier to fall asleep, stay asleep and wake up.
FIRST THING: Read paper books.
Screen time affects sleep. That is probably not news. But screen time affects sleep up to FIVE HOURS before you go to bed. That means that all the screen time in your evening is preying upon your ability to fall asleep. If it's dark outside, your body starts to release melatonin from the little gland in your brain. Melatonin then circulates through the body and initiates a sleep state in the body. Fatigue sets in, alertness is reduced and you prepare for bed.
When you read from a screen (TV, cell phone, tablet, Kindle, etc), you suppress the release of melatonin, increases alertness and delay sleep. If you're working the night shift at NASA, this is great. You can stay awake! If you're chilling at home reading another listicle on BuzzFeed then it is not a worthy tradeoff. A small, well-controlled 2015 study looked at melatonin levels and sleep quality in two groups of people. The first group used an e-reader, a light-emitting device, in the hour before bed. The second group read an actual book (books have historically been made of paper, for people born in the early 2000s). The results showed that the e-reader group, in addition to delaying sleep and decreasing melatonin levels, shortened the deep sleep phases known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement). This decrease in REM sleep led to reduced alertness the next day. Which sucks.
Leave your phone in another room. Use an old fashioned alarm clock with that aggressive buzz noise thing to wake up. Talk to your partner, your god or yourself before bed to keep entertained. You'll be fine.
SECOND THING: Keep a schedule.
No one know how hard this is more than me. Sometimes I feel like I am on a one-woman inadvertant crusade against routine.
Remember that melatonin levels peak between 11pm and 3am. Listen to the melatonin. When you feel dozy, go to bed (provided your housing conditions allow it). Don't fight it by reading the entire internet. It's never worth it.
THIRD THING: Eat something.
Don't gorge before bed but if you feel peckish in the late evening then eat something to avoid being thrust awake by your hunger in the middle of the night. There are a shocking number of websites that will tell you that certain foods will promote melatonin. There is no evidence for that so eat what settles your stomach well.
FOURTH THING: Avoid booze, cigarettes, coffee and drugs in the 4-5 hours before bed.
This may seem self-evident. Cigarettes, caffeine and stimulant drugs do just this: stimulate. So they will impede sleep. Alcohol is a depressant so a night-cap will reduce alertness. But there will be a subsequent rebound where you will pop awake in the middle of the night so it will reduce overall sleep quality. As for narcotics, hallucinogens and other classes of drugs, there may be licit reasons that you are required to take some pain medication. But in general, these can destroy your sleep patterns in the long term. If you can't not take drugs, booze or cigarettes before you sleep and this is something you'd like to change, there are options for you. Talk to your doctor.
FIFTH THING: When you feel rested, get out of bed.
I am terrible at this one. I sleep in because I am comfortable and don't want to leave my bed. Not really because I am still exhausted.
But your body is awake so make some hay. Get up and do something you love instead of forcing yourself to sleep. Get some exercise, read the news or play with your kid/pet.
A note on melatonin:
Melatonin is available over the counter in Canada and the US. Supplementing with small amounts of melatonin - the same amounts that would be secreted by the little gland - can shift the process of falling asleep earlier. However, if you take too much melatonin you risk desensitizing your special melatonin receptors. This mean that melatonin - the stuff made by the little gland and the extra supplementation - won't work anymore. And then you really won't fall asleep.
So if you're taking melatonin, do so exactly as recommended by your physician. You can royally screw up your efforts by taking too much.