As a teenager, I often stayed up all night watching TV, and then I slept when I was supposed to be in class. I got depressed, I was failing academically, and I was struggling to maintain supportive friendships. Over the years, I have come to appreciate the importance of good quality sleep, and I have gradually developed a set of tools that help.
In the last few years, I have also been helping my wife, Cindy, to sleep more effectively. When she was a little kid, she was dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and beaten (she has no idea why). This led to years of insomnia in her teenage years, and then extreme difficultly getting to sleep and staying asleep as an adult.
When Cindy and I started sleeping in the same bed, she would lie awake for hours even though I would fall asleep in less than five minutes. Throughout the night, she would often startle awake in a state of panic. She seemed to be suffering from PTSD. My desire to support Cindy in going to sleep more quickly and sleeping more deeply has motivated me to continue to learn about and experiment with approaches to improving sleep. Because we use the tools that I list in this article, Cindy now falls deeply asleep within ten minutes on most nights, and she sleeps like a log all night.
Because of the way we feel after sleeping well, we all know how important quality sleep is. This intuition is supported by research that shows that chronic partial sleep deprivation will impair cognitive functioning¹ and shorten your life².
What follows is my list of best practices and techniques that I have found to improve our sleep. I discovered some of these from reading (listening to) The Bulletproof Diet by Dave Asprey and The Four-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, both of which I recommend.
Every night before bed, I mix a heaped teaspoon of magnesium citrate into a glass of water. Cindy and I then share this glass, as we take our krill oil capsules (explained below). I don’t feel an immediate effect from it, but Cindy says that it makes her stomach relax. Studies have shown that magnesium supplementation may increase measures of sleep quality³. Magnesium (and krill oil) is one of the supplements that Dave Asprey recommends for sleep⁴, and most Americans are deficient in this important element.
Taking krill oil was a game-changer for Cindy’s sleep. It just knocked her out. We initially tried taking regular fish oil, but found that it had no effect. The difference might be because the fatty acids in krill oil have a different structure from those in fish oil, and may be absorbed more easily⁵.
Supplementing with krill oil (or fish oil) at bedtime is generally beneficial for health because it supports and promotes healing and recovery.
Consistent Bed Time
I aim to get into bed before 10 pm, and that’s one of the things I track in my lifestyle challenge. This enables me to wake before 6 am after sleeping for at least eight hours. Having a regular sleep cycle enables the body’s hormone systems to work properly, including knowing when to start generating melatonin at night to make you sleepy. Going to bed at the same time every night makes you go to sleep much faster, increases your ability to learn, makes you happier, reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, and increases your insulin sensitivity⁶ (which makes you anti-diabetic).
Consistent Wake Time
I usually set my alarm for 5:58 am, and I make sure to wake up early even if I have had a night of poor sleep (which is rare). Sometimes, like today, if there are more tasks that I want to complete before work than usual, I will set my alarm for 5 am. Today, I wanted to write for 90 minutes (which I’m doing now) and then go to CrossFit.
I wake up at the same time even on weekends or on vacation. On a recent trip to Costa Rica, Cindy and I were awake every day before 6 am. I went surfing every morning at sunrise, and our days were richly packed with both adventure and doing nothing much.
My body is used to waking up at the same time every day and my natural increase in cortisol — the hormone that wakes us up — is aligned with my wakeup time. This makes it very easy for me to get up. I never lie in bed thinking, “I don’t want to get up,” like I used to when I didn’t have a consistent sleep schedule and sufficient sleep time. I often wake up naturally just before the alarm goes off, and I get up like it’s no big deal. Waking up at 5:58 am also doesn’t seem particularly early to me because I sometimes wake up at 5 am. If I am particularly tired, or need more sleep, I sometimes (rarely) switch off the alarm and fall asleep again until around 6:30 am, when I then naturally and effortlessly wake up.
Waking up at the same time every day will make you more productive, stabilize your circadian rhythm, and reduce your stress levels⁷.
I wrote about the benefits of a spoonk acupressure mat in Beat Insomnia with a Spook. We have two of these in our bedroom, and if I ever find myself lying awake in bed, I grab one and lie on it.
We used to get into bed and then I would fall asleep in a few minutes, while Cindy would lie awake for an hour or two before falling asleep. We discovered that when we cuddled she would fall asleep in five to ten minutes. Now we usually cuddle until she falls asleep and then we stop cuddling and I fall asleep.
Cuddling relieves stress by reducing cortisol production and increasing oxytocin production, which is both relaxing and bonding⁸.
This is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug. It’a also known as caffeine. We’re not certain about how caffeine works to keep us awake and alert, but a leading theory is that it blocks adenosine receptors. Adenosine is believed to promote sleep.
In healthy adults, it takes between 3 and 7 hours to eliminate half of the ingested caffeine. This time can be doubled if you take oral contraceptives. The half-life can be up to 56 hours if you’re taking the antidepressant drug fluvoxamine (Luvox). If you’re taking those medications, you should completely avoid caffeine. Otherwise, you should stop consuming any caffeine at least seven hours before bedtime, which is 3 pm if you want to go to sleep at 10 pm.
As with many metabolized exogenous drugs, that is drugs not produced by the body itself, caffeine concentration in the body decreases exponentially, which means that it can take days or even weeks for all traces of caffeine to leave your system. For the very highest quality sleep, you should not ingest caffeine at all. If you drink coffee every day, experiment with stopping for a week or two and notice the effect on your sleep.
Currently, Cindy and I drink bulletproof coffee in the mornings instead of a typical carbohydrate-laden breakfast. I brew the coffee using beans that have been processed and tested to be low in mold toxins, and then I add unsalted, grass-fed butter (such as Kerrygold) to it, and then blend it all together with caprylic acid, which is the 8-carbon (medium-chain) fatty acid. This drink promotes mental alertness, staves off hunger, and increases the metabolism of stored fat.
Even though bulletproof coffee introduces caffeine into our systems, we feel that it’s worth it, at least for now.
While alcohol will help you fall asleep, it will cause you to initially sleep too deeply and not dream enough. When the alcohol wears off later in the night, this leads to a rebound period with too much dreaming and frequent awakenings. Overall, if you go to bed with a blood alcohol content above 0.04% by volume, your sleep will be significantly disturbed and of lower quality⁹. Once you realize how alcohol near bedtime reduces the quality of your sleep, you will stop drinking it within three hours of going to bed. If you go to bed at 10 pm, as we do, this means not drinking alcohol after 7 pm.
I meditate on most days, and I recommend that you do too. Not only will it reduce depression and anxiety, lift mood, increase creativity, and improve relationships, but it will also increase the quality of your sleep. Meditation, and particularly Vipassana meditation, has been shown to improve sleep quality, and causes sleep quality to be retained in spite of aging¹⁰. Sign-up for a (free) 10-day retreat near you to learn how to meditate properly.
Even if you do find yourself lying in bed unable to sleep, while your body is resting, you can also rest and rejuvenate your mind by meditating. Because both your body and mind are then resting, it doesn’t matter that you’re not sleeping. Paradoxically, the relaxing effect of meditation (including not worrying about insomnia), while lying down, will usually send you quickly to sleep.
One of the ways I show my love for Cindy is to crush her with the weight of my body. In the mornings I lie on top over her with my full weight and she lets out a sigh and relaxes. For many people, being weighed down is relaxing, and when I lie on Cindy it causes her body to release oxytocin, which is both relaxing and bonding.
When I discovered gravity blankets, I suspected that one would help Cindy to get to sleep more quickly and to sleep more deeply. Now we have one and when she sleeps under it she goes to sleep almost instantly, even without cuddling. Under the gravity blanket, she also sleeps deeply throughout the night. I even leave her sleeping when I get up, and she usually stays soundly sleep for another couple of hours. Lying under a weighted blanket has been shown experimentally to reduce anxiety¹¹.
Even if you apply only one or two of the tools from this article, the quality of your sleep will increase enormously. If you apply all of these tools, it’s very unlikely that you will ever suffer from insomnia. If you find that even with the good sleep hygiene described in this article you feel tired during the day, you should dig deeper and possibly seek professional advice. For example, you might be suffering from sleep apnea, which affects one in fifteen Americans¹².
Further Reading on Sleep
- Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance
- Sleep Deprivation Could Shave Years Off Your Life
- The effect of magnesium supplementation on primary insomnia in elderly: A double-blind placebo-controlled clinical trial; Magnesium therapy for periodic leg movements-related insomnia and restless legs syndrome: an open pilot study.
- Sleep Hacking Part 3: Fall Asleep Fast with Biochemistry
- Krill Oil vs Fish Oil: Which Is Better for You?
- Going To Sleep At The Same Time Every Night Can Make You Smarter, & There Are A Lot Of Other Surprising Benefits
- Why You Should Wake up at the Same Time Every Morning
- Cuddling With Your Partner Does Something Very Surprising to Your Health
- What Science Really Says About Drinking Before Bed
- Meditation and its regulatory role on sleep
- Exploring the Safety and Therapeutic Effects of Deep Pressure Stimulation Using a Weighted Blanket
- Sleep apnea — wikipedia