Why You’re Not Sleeping Well
Like many people, I’ve had bouts of insomnia in my life. I’ve read all the articles and tried everything I could to improve this. Strangely enough, stress doesn’t seem to play a part in not sleeping well for me. I’m generally a very chill and low-stress person. If I am stressed about something though, it doesn’t seem to correlate with my sleep quality too much. Stress can absolutely be a big factor in not sleeping well, though. These are things I’ve noticed that personally work for me.
I have spent the last 7 years working as a freelancer. This is important because the nature of that lifestyle can be very “feast or famine.” The work is usually either incessant or non-existent. There are very few periods of “happy medium.” This can affect many aspects of sleep and has caused me to notice several things.
You’re not active enough during the day
Human beings are meant to be active during the day but being active too close to bedtime can be detrimental. If you have a workout routine, you’ll want to do that in the morning. This will help increase metabolism and help energize you for the day. I don’t really have a regular workout routine, but my job can be fairly physical. So, during periods of not working, I noticed this can negatively impact my sleep quality. If I didn’t do much during the day, I try to at least go for a walk after dinner — nothing too strenuous.
You’re sleeping in too long
This is the one that I’m still the guiltiest of. Have you noticed going to bed on a Sunday night is so difficult? Are you guilty of sleeping in 3 or 4 hours on the weekends? Yeah, these things are correlated. This, paired with a lazy weekend of sitting around, will certainly affect your sleep. I’ve noticed that during periods of not working, I typically keep going to bed later and later as the days go on. I usually keep sleeping in later too. Of course, this leads to a cyclical effect of not being tired when you want. You should try as hard as possible to not sleep in too much on the weekends. If you naturally wake up at say, 7 AM on a Saturday and feel refreshed, don’t try to go back to bed just because it’s too early. I know the bed is so comfy in the morning, but you’ll regret it later!
You’re wearing pajamas (or your room is too hot)
Your body temperature naturally cools down up to 2 degrees Fahrenheit at night. It needs to stay relatively cool to sleep soundly. The ideal room temperature is 60–67 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of this, there is really no need to wear pajamas — especially thick ones. Just sleep naked! That’s what I started doing about four years ago and I think it’s made a huge difference. It also eliminates the annoyance of clothes bunching up or twisting around as you move throughout the night. I’ve also got into the habit of turning the thermostat down 2 degrees at night and putting the ceiling fan on — yes, even in the winter. I stopped switching to flannel sheets in the winter as well. These things may feel a bit chilly when you first get into bed, but your body heat will quickly warm up the area. I remember when I wore thick winter pajamas, sometimes I would wake up suddenly in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. That hasn’t happened to me since.
You’re taking the wrong sleeping pills
I’ve tried pretty much every over-the-counter sleep aid available. Most of them actually work pretty well, but that’s the problem. They work too well. They will make you sleepy, but the sleepiness lasts well into the next day. You won’t wake up refreshed — you’ll be groggier than ever. Diphenhydramine is the active ingredient in Benadryl and some other sleep aids. This drug will increase the “light sleep” phases you’re getting but actually reduce your REM sleep. So, while it will make you drowsy, it is actually reducing your overall quality of sleep. You’ll most likely have a Benadryl “hangover” the next day. Doxylamine succinate is another similar antihistamine that can be even stronger. This is found in NyQuil and almost any “P.M.” or “nighttime” labeled cold or flu medicines, so watch out. 25 milligrams and you might never want to get out of bed the next day. Your body can also build a tolerance to these rather quickly, further reducing their effectiveness.
I’ve found the most effective sleep aid is just 1 or even 0.5 mg of melatonin, the brain’s natural sleep hormone. The problem is that most melatonin is sold at 3, 5, or even 10 mg doses. These will most likely cause a “hangover” just like any of the others. I also do NOT use these nightly or anywhere close to it. This is not a miracle pill that will give you a perfect night’s sleep on its own. It’s more like a little ‘nudge’ that you might need from time to time, in conjunction with other things listed here. It really is meant for resetting your body’s internal clock for things such as shift work and jet lag. I have since reduced my sleep aid consumption to special circumstances only. For example, I might use one if I had a horrible night’s sleep the night before, or if I know I need to get up much earlier the next morning.
It’s that blue light
I’m sure you’ve heard there’s growing evidence that “blue light” from electronic screens can suppress natural melatonin production. I know blue light filters at least help me relax. I’ve downloaded an app called f.lux for my computer, which I’m often using until I go to bed. It makes your screen “warmer” starting at sunset and then again closer to bedtime. It’s all customizable and I can’t live without it anymore. I just think the bright bluish glow of monitors is almost unbearable after dark. There are probably other apps out there and it’s starting to be built into phones as well. There are even blue-light blocking glasses available.
Try some white noise
When I was a kid and I got sick, my mom would put on the “humidifier” to help clear congestion. This machine was somewhat loud, but I loved when it was running. I think I may have asked for it sometimes even if I wasn’t sick. I didn’t know it then, but I liked it because of the white noise. If you find the sound of ocean waves or constant rain comforting to sleep to, you know what I mean. White noise is useful because it can drown out other noises. Your brain responds to a change in noise rather than the noise itself. So, if a certain noise is constant, it shouldn’t bother you and your brain will “normalize” it. If you’re like me, the slightest little noise like your cat bathing itself or even a ticking clock can keep you awake. In early summer when I don’t want to turn the A/C on yet, I open the windows and use a box fan. This serves a dual purpose. It’s an excellent source of white noise and it drowns out the outdoor sounds of summer such as insects and birds. There is, of course, a variety of white noise machines on the market, and even just YouTube videos.
You’re not winding down before bed
I’ve learned that it’s essential for your brain to have a wind-down period. If you’re staring at your computer screen grinding away at work until the second you plan to go to bed, you’re never going to fall asleep. I find that I need at least one hour for this to be effective. You really shouldn’t do anything that requires brainpower. Working, writing stories like this, or even watching a compelling movie may keep your mind too invigorated. Try to read, watch something relatively mindless, or do whatever is calming to you. I usually watch YouTube videos (with my blue light filter on).
Think about sleep cycles
Ever wonder why you sometimes wake up perfectly refreshed, but other times very groggy, disoriented and maybe with a headache? The answer may have to do with sleep cycles. Humans naturally will cycle through light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. An entire cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes. Generally, you will want to aim to wake up during the lighter phases of sleep to feel refreshed. Waking during deep sleep is unnatural and will cause that groggy and disoriented feeling. We’ve always heard you should get 8 hours of sleep. But the real amount we should get is either 6, 7.5, or 9 hours, plus the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. If you think it usually takes you 15 minutes to fall asleep, you should go to bed 7 hours and 45 minutes before you need to wake up. If you missed the opportunity, it may actually be beneficial to stay up another hour and a half and aim for 6 hours and 15 minutes. There are many sleep calculators online to help with this. I have learned to build this into choosing my bedtime.
Another thing people worry about is if they do wake up in the middle of the night. Humans weren’t necessarily meant to just sleep solidly through the night. Evidence suggests that this “negative nap” is actually very natural. Our ancestors might have chatted with their spouses, thought about their dreams, or relaxed for a while before sleeping another 4 hours or so. Today’s hectic work life doesn’t allow for this kind of flexibility though. If you do find yourself tossing and turning for a while, it’s better to get out of bed and do that relaxing activity until you start to feel sleepy.
You’re consuming too much caffeine (or alcohol)
Do you like sucking down 4 or 5 cups of coffee (or soda, or energy drinks) throughout the day? Do you try to fight off that afternoon sluggishness with more caffeine? This is causing a vicious cycle and probably making things worse. But I don’t drink coffee after dinner! Well, that still might not be enough. About 4 years ago, I got into the habit of only having one cup of coffee per day, first thing in the morning. On very rare occasions, I might have another half a cup in the mid-morning or early afternoon if I’m super sluggish. Sometimes I won’t even have coffee and replace it with a refreshing green tea or something. This has really helped a lot — I could trace many sleepless nights back to that 3 PM coffee. I should note that people’s caffeine metabolism can be wildly different. Some people can consume tons of it with no problem whatsoever. I personally think I am oversensitive to it.
Most people also think alcohol promotes and helps you sleep. This is only half-true. It may help you initially fall asleep but drinking late into the evening will greatly reduce your sleep quality. I’ve noticed during a rare heavy night of drinking, that I usually can fall asleep easily. But after about 4 hours, I will wake up VERY suddenly, usually with a headache and intense thirst. I won’t be able to fall asleep again for several hours. This happens to a lesser extent after just one drink, too. Now, I don’t plan on giving up drinking completely. But I have pretty much ceased drinking after dinner. A full stomach will dull the effects of alcohol anyway.
The Power Nap
It might sound dumb, but power naps really can help as a refresher. When working, I would usually get a mid-afternoon break. It’s totally normal if working a lot, to be a bit drowsy after 6 hours or so. I replaced that extra cup of coffee with a power nap. I sort of mastered the art of taking an 8–12-minute nap, in a chair or desk. I always wake up on my own and feel slightly groggy for a minute or two. After that, though, I feel surprisingly refreshed and I’m ready for the last few hours of work. If you get home early enough, you can do this after work instead. Set an alarm if you must. Now, taking a nap later than 5 PM is probably going to mess you up. Any longer than 20 minutes and you’ll start to fall into a deeper sleep and will be incredibly groggy.
Mattress Toppers and Weighted Blankets
Another thing I tried 4 years ago or so is a memory foam mattress topper. These can do a few things. They are super comfortable, which will allow you to fall asleep quicker. They will also isolate motion for you and your partner. This reduces the chances that you’ll disrupt each other by moving around. I don’t think I can live without it now. If you’re interested in getting one, you’ll have to do additional research on your own though. I’ve only tried one brand and I’m sure there are many more out there now. Some memory foam toppers can cause you to sleep hotter though, so remember the temperature tips. Weighted blankets also seem well-praised, but I have not personally tried one so I can’t speak to its effectiveness. It’s something else to consider though.
Things that did not work for me
At one point, I got some headphones designed to be comfortable enough for sleeping with. I intended to play white noise with them. They were wired headphones, which of course caused an additional headache. I had to make sure I wasn’t twisting or pulling the cord from my phone too much. I found the headphones themselves to be poor quality — both the sound and the construction. No matter how comfortable they were, nothing is comfortable enough to have on your head all night.
I’ve also tried noise-reducing earplugs. I’ve found that these mostly just change the noises that you do hear. Instead of hearing external noises, you start hearing “internal” noises. I’m talking about hearing yourself swallowing and your own heartbeat. Yeah, kind of gross. They also hurt after a while and are hard to keep in your ear. I was also worried I wouldn’t hear my alarm and that probably kept me awake from paranoia.
I hope even just a couple of these findings will help you get a better night’s sleep. It really can lead to better productivity and improve your quality of life.