Before we begin, I have to say that my sleeping habits are not perfect. I sometimes have trouble falling asleep, and my sleep is at times filled with anxiety, to the point where it doesn’t really feel like sleep at all. However, I have experimented a bit with what helps my sleep (eye masks and ear plugs) and what doesn’t, and I’ve done some research. Here’s what I’ve found.
A high level of daily stress definitely contributes to sleep problems for me and many others. I’m not going to tell you that you should start meditating every day, but on second thought, maybe you and I should both start meditating every day :) For real, though, there are other ways of relieving stress, like exercising during the day, reading, partaking in hobbies, having sex, or maybe just lying on the floor of your bedroom for 5 minutes before bed and letting go of the day. Transitioning from one part of your day to the other can be incredibly helpful for worriers (I know), so before bed just sit in silence for a few minutes and acknowledge what you’ve done that day, that the day is now over, and that it’s time for your body to rest. Everything else can wait.
Lights Out (or at least dimmed)
Having lights shining in your eyes, especially at night, affects sleep by suppressing melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone in our bodies that affects how tired we are. It’s controlled primarily by the light and darkness sensed by our eyes. When it’s daytime and the sun is out, melatonin is suppressed and we feel awake. When the light fades, melatonin becomes active and we get tired. At night when you have lights on, your kid’s light saber in your periphery, a TV in your face, a laptop on your lap, and then an iPhone two inches from your eyeballs in the dark in bed, melatonin doesn’t stand a chance. So we lie there awake and/or we toss and turn all night.
I’m not going to tell you like Mark Sisson does to turn off all your lights, TV, laptop, and iPhone every night and light some candles instead when it gets dark because I know how hard that is. However, I know that if I did it myself, I would likely have a better relationship with sleep; maybe we wouldn’t break up and get back together as often as we do. Perhaps consider turning off the lights while you’re watching TV, then watching TV for less time (or no time at all), and having some “lights out time” in your bedroom before you go to sleep. Then when you’re ready for sleep, use a sleep mask to block out all the city/suburban lights and all the other glowing devices in your room. While you’re at it, stick some plugs in your ears so you’re not woken up by your drunk neighbors or a raccoon fight.
Cut Out The Caffeine
Yeah, yeah, but you love your morning coffee and would die without it. Fine. But know that you might sleep way better without it. It’s a POSSIBILITY, so it might be worth it to find out. Coffee, decaf coffee, green tea, black tea, white tea, energy drinks, guarana, soda, yerba mate, energy beans, anything in a can with a lightning bolt on it… All caffeine. By virtue of it being a stimulant, it increases alertness, can cause insomnia, anxiety, irritability, nervousness, and other things not conducive to sleep. Yes, even if you only drink it in the morning. Just give it a try and see if your sleep improves. Here’s a blog post on caffeine. Drink water, herbal tea, rooibos, and hot or cold lemon water instead.
Manage Your Blood Sugar
Blood sugar management is huge. Here’s a blog post on that. The answer in one word, though, is Paleo. It’s the best thing you could do for blood sugar stability if you do it right. No, you might not have great blood sugar stability if you’re on a very low carb Paleo diet doing hard endurance workouts every day. You need to add in sweet potatoes and fruit if you’re doing that, and sometimes lots of it.
But other than that, the meat, fat, and lack of processed crap will keep your blood sugar super even through the day. That way, you won’t be disturbed by stress hormones at night when your blood sugar plummets and your cortisol levels skyrocket in order to get some glucose into those veins. So, breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner every day, especially if you’re just starting out on the diet. As you ease into it and your blood sugar starts coming back to life you’ll probably end up skipping meals here and there because you’re not hungry. But for now, keep that blood sugar steady, don’t starve yourself, and you’ll probably sleep better.
Supplements and Herbs
When people have issues, they often turn to pills to fix the problem. I think it’s a hard-wired quick fix tendency that probably isn’t going anywhere, and while I think the suggestions above will probably work better for you than pills, here are my thoughts on the pills and potions that do and don’t work for sleep.
Melatonin – This is a powerful, powerful hormone that can be found in health food stores or through a holistic health practitioner. It’s something I first used when I went to Spain last year to combat jetlag. As soon as I taste it on my tongue I get tired. However, a few weeks ago I took it almost every night for a week and it stopped working – I’m not sure why. After that I decided I won’t take it again unless I have jetlag.
I hesitated for a long time about using it in the first place because I’d heard it can be addictive (I haven’t found a study to support that theory, though). It can have some side effects like dizziness, headaches, next-day grogginess, depression, and I’ve even heard anecdotally of weight gain. I suggest you only use it when you’re jetlagged to set your rhythm to a different time zone. And to try all the other things in this post first before going to melatonin.
Magnesium - Magnesium is a mineral found in meat, leafy greens, legumes, grains, and some nuts. About % of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of magnesium from their diets. That’s bad news because according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, a magnesium deficiency can contribute to low energy, insomnia, restless leg syndrome (which can cause insomnia), migraines, premenstrual symptoms, and depression.
The average adult needs about 300-400mg of magnesium per day. To put that into perspective, here are some foods and their magnesium content. No, this doesn’t mean you should start eating grains again…
- 3.5 oz beef chuck roast – 22mg
- 1/2 cup raw almonds – 124mg
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour – 82mg
- 1 cup raw spinach – 24mg
- 1 cup raw chopped kale – 23mg
(info from USDA here)
Moral of the story? If our soils weren’t so totally depleted, we’d probably have more magnesium in our food. You may need to supplement. Make sure if you supplement, you do it in a complex of magnesium, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, and as many other vitamins and minerals as you can. And from a good source – go to a nutritionist or someone who can get you high quality supplements. Magnesium is one of those things that affects so many other nutrients in your body that you don’t want to JUST supplement with magnesium. You need other nutrients to balance it out. Plus, if you take the wrong kind you may end up with diarrhea, as it’s a laxative. So for this one, I’m going to suggest you see a practitioner, but I wanted to let you know that a magnesium deficiency could very well be affecting your sleep. Here’s a good article on it.
Herbs - Try things like Sleepy Time Tea that contain herbs like chamomile, lemon balm, and valerian. Just be a little careful with valerian as you might become dependent on it. There aren’t too many studies done on herbs, so I can’t cite a reference on that. But you can read about people anecdotally becoming dependent on it to sleep and others who have no problem with that.
Alright, that’s it on sleep for now! Please let me know your experiences with sleep and what helps you get more of it.