without leaving home
I remember so many nights, standing in line at my local drugstore, half-alive under the buzzing fluorescents, waiting to pay for an over-the-counter sleep aid. This was not the solution I wanted and left me feeling yucky the following day. But this had become the safety blanket which allowed me to feel a modicum of control over a problem impacting every area of my life: insomnia.
I haven’t taken a pharmaceutical in twelve years, but over-the-counter sleep aids became the chemical bandaids I resorted to on countless occasions. I’m far enough out of those woods to write candidly about it now with hindsight and compassion for the struggle so many of us face with sleep. And even if your sleep is decent, this article may still offer you some nuggets to get it to great.
Sleep disruption will do crazy things to us. It will drive us to make decisions out of desperation, fear, and impulsivity. And once we’ve developed patterns of sleep disruption, the impact of these patterns can feel like a tree with too many branches to manage, leaving the root causes neglected entirely. I offer practical solutions to address the root-cause of sleep disruption while also respecting the impact sleep has on our entire life.
I read the phrase “sleep like you’re on vacation” in Robb Wolf’s newest book, Wired To Eat — and loved it. Most of us associate vacations with relaxation and an escape from the world of adult commitments. It’s commonly reported that we sleep deeper and longer while on vacation because we don’t have our regular obligations and stressors to wake up to.
The whole purpose of a vacation is to take a break and recharge – which is exactly what our sleep and nighttimes should be. A study done in 2013 estimates that one-third of the population reports at least one symptom of insomnia.(1)
I firmly believe that relating to sleep in a whole new way — as a vacation from daily obligations and stimulation — is an essential first step in regaining our health, especially if we’re dealing with persistent insomnia. It certainly worked wonders on my own health.
As described above, the topic of sleep hits a very personal note for me, as it’s something I’ve struggled with since childhood. My sleep got so bad in my mid-twenties that my whole life started to deteriorate. Sleep became the primary indicator as to how everything else in my life was doing and I scheduled my days with the assumption that I might be tired. It took a lot of tinkering, patience, and committed lifestyle changes to get myself to where bedtimes are no longer a source of anxiety, but instead a yummy chance to let go of the day.
Here’s what I now believe: nighttime needs to be seen as a separate phase from day — with a different set of practices, rituals, and benefits. If I overstimulate myself and try to hold onto my day after it’s passed away, sleep and rest will start to feel like an obligation my adult needs to enforce upon my inner-child. This is what, I believe, leads a lot of people to reach for a bottle of Ambien.(2)
And in order to relate to sleep as we might a vacation, we need to recognize it’s important place in the lives of humans since the beginning of time. As far as we can tell, we’ve always had nighttime, darkness, and rest. It’s very modern to assume that we should stay up and pull our days’ priorities into our nights’ rest time. We need to recognize the ways this modern behavior is hijacking our health so that we can give ourselves permission to let go of the cortisol-producing obligations of our days.
Some Impacts of poor night-time routines
- Breakdowns in serotonin metabolism, due to inefficient dark exposure and poor conversion of hormones like melatonin & GABA.
- Depleted melatonin, a hormone produced when our bodies are exposed to real darkness and colder temperatures. Melatonin acts as one of the body’s core antioxidants, it protects us from cancers and premature aging, stimulates human growth hormone, and increases lifespan exponentially – to name a few! It does SO many things. (4)
- We run high cortisol, a hormone which is best-known as a key “stress-hormone.” Cortisol is important to many functions, but needs to taper dramatically at night and often doesn’t when we’re up exposed to light at night.
- We prematurely age because our bodies produce collagen-enhancing hormones while we’re sleeping — including human growth hormone (HGH) and key antioxidants which repair damaged DNA like Glutathione.
- Appetite increase, due to hunger hormones being hijacked. When we sleep as nature intended and our metabolism is working, we’re equipped to fast for 8-12+ hours throughout the night. Nighttime signals satiety hormones, daytime signals hunger hormones. So what happens when we extend our days? Hunger hormones turn on cravings– especially for carbohydrates. (5)
Glucose disposal disruption.
- Our insulin sensitivity is tightly linked to phases of light and dark. We’re more insulin sensitive when we have a balance of dark and light. Too much light sends our bodies the message that it’s endless summertime and we crave more carbohydrate.
Mood instability and Impulsivity.
- Because, as you can see, so many different biochemical processes get tripped up when our sleep is disrupted, it should come as no surprise that sleep deprivation — from minor chronic deprivation to severe insomnia — is linked to mood disorders. (6)
- We’re much more likely to be an asshole. Seriously — we could turn into this guy.
Basic steps to help you sleep like you’re on vacation
Master Your Days
- Our whole lives can be defined by the quality of our days; the moment to moment choices and experiences we have and the freedom we feel we have over said choices and experiences.
- Did we live in alignment with our deepest truest selves or were we out of integrity and checked-out? Did we execute our goals and move closer to our dreams?
- Eat to balance blood-sugar, from our first meal of the day to our last. Each meal feeds into a hormonal pattern which starts the moment we wake up. If we start out as a rollercoaster, this will impact our biochemistry at night. Think low-glycemic.
- Did we get out into the light and get ample Vitamin D production during the day? If we didn’t, it’s going to be much harder to let go of the day. I find it much harder to wind down and embrace a vacation from light, stimulation, and responsibility if I’ve been inside all day. It’s like my body is still waiting for the light exposure if I never get it!
- Avoid comparing your health needs to others who seem to be “natural sleepers.” You don’t know what someone else’s health history is or what their health future health will be. If someone isn’t committed to healing, their standards may not fit yours. Know your standards!
Circadian Entrainment & Respecting the Darkness
- Our health relies on our bodies’ ability to read environmental queues of light and temperature in order to do just about everything well.
- Electrical lighting is VERY new to human history and it’s changed a lot of how our culture goes about life, providing us with opportunities and growth that would never have happened otherwise. It’s a blessing but needs much greater management.
- In order to heal our sleep patterns, we need to respect the darkness and use electricity and digital technology more wisely.
- Waking up at a reasonably early hour and getting enough sunlight is part of circadian entrainment, as is lowering your light exposure at night and unplugging as early as possible.
- Utilize blueblocker glasses for any screen time or if you don’t have any option but to be under florescent lights at night. Humans are the only animal on earth to have created such an abundance of artificial light. All other species didn’t sign up for this. Think about how much nightly regenerating (both in humans and in other animals) is necessary for life to work properly.
Clean up your Diet & Supplement when Necessary
- An mentioned above, from the time we wake up until our heads hits the pillow, eating will impact our sleep. The most common causes of sleep disruption — aside from the light and overstimulation mentioned above — is inflammation and poor glucose disposal. Both dietary issues. (7)
- Eat a low-inflammatory, moderate to low-glycemic diet and consider saving your highest carb consumption for dinnertime, as we convert tryptophan from carbohydrates (getting it from protein is misleading), which we convert into melatonin and other hormones needed for sleep. (8) (9)
- A personalized diet with whole food-sourced carbs (think rice or starchy veggies) will do the most for your sleep, as it has you remove the foods which spike blood sugar and cause the most inflammation.
- Magnesium is crucial for sleep and should be gotten from diet AND supplementation if you’re dealing with insomnia.
- If you consume coffee and tea, make sure they’re of the highest quality and begin tapering off of them as early as 10AM or 12PM –replacing them with calming herbs, adaptogens, and magnesium.
Have a Calm The Fuck Down supplement protocol. Here’s what’s in mine:
Essential oils in a diffuser was a HUGE game-changer for my bedtime routine — here’s mine. Below are my go-to oils, but there are many. Essential oils are so rad – have fun with it!
- Sweet lime
Magnesium powder. Here’s the kind I use.
Adaptogens throughout the day.
Sleepy Herbal concoctions. I make my own. I purchase herbs from the local herb shop and make them in a mason jar overnight or while I’m away during the day. I find them more refreshing when they’re cold, so I tend to steep them in advance for something like 8 hours, strain them into another mason jar, and store in the fridge. Each night I’ll pour myself 1/2 cup, oftentimes mixing my magnesium powder directly into the herbs and sipping while I begin my bedtime routine. Currently using:
Set the tone. Make it pleasurable.
- Mood lighting ain’t just for sexy time — it should be a regular feature of your room. Get some candles or some fake candles, replace your overhead lights with lamps. Replace your fluorescent and LED bulbs with amber ones. Not only will your melatonin production and sleep improve dramatically, but friends and lovers will also feel better in your space! Whether it’s on our radar or not, we’re all impacted by bad lighting.
- Keep your room cool. Our bodies naturally drop several temperatures when we’re sleeping and this supports proper hormone production.
- Keep your room decor minimal and clutter-free. Aim to limit associations outside of sleep and sex so that your biochemistry will respond to the queues at night that its’ time to rest.
- If you’re sensitive to noise, consider a sound machine to drown out distractions. I’ve linked in the one that I use and it’s worked wonders! As soon as I turn it on at night, my body knows it’s bedtime.
- Set an Unplug time and STICK TO IT. This has been essential for setting the tone in my room at night. My unplug time is 9PM and when I stray from this, I feel it the next day — even with blueblockers. Aside from the light, we need to cut ourselves off from the relentless demands of the external world. Keep a novel by your bed to read each night to wind down with instead.
- Essential oil diffuser. See the description above. Really enhances the tone!
In closing, this may feel like a lot so take it in strides and aim to make small changes here and there. It helps to know which areas you get tripped up by most. Once some new patterns are set and your sleep improves, you can tinker with how much flexibility you have. I find that I can get away with staying out later now 20% of the time because 80% of the time, my system knows what time it is.
At first, especially if you have poor sleep, you may need to go all in — 100% committed to your nighttime routine. Just remember, it’s also a commitment to your days and ultimately, to your future. This may help when you feel like early bedtimes mean you’re missing out and losing something.