To sleep well is to fall asleep easily, sleep through the night without waking, and to wake in the morning feeling rested and ready to face the day.
These things, moreover, should all happen at similar times of the day. Having a regular rhythm allows our bodies to prepare for sleep to optimize our internal environment for resting and rejuvenation, and it allows our bodies to prepare for the day to optimize for wakefulness, energy, and success.
If this sounds like your life, you probably don't need to read this post. But if you feel like any of these things could be improved, try following my recommendations and let me know how they work.
1. Get Morning Sunshine At the Same Time Every Day
The quality of your sleep starts when you wake up in the morning. To establish a healthy rhythm, your brain needs a powerful signal that it's daytime, and sunlight is that signal.
Within an hour or two of waking, get at least a half hour of sunshine. Go for a walk, drink your coffee sitting outside in the sun, or choose some other routine that you enjoy. Do it even when it's cloudy. Cloudy skies are a lot brighter than they seem.
I do not recommend replacing going outside with anything. But if you live in an area where it is difficult to get morning sunshine more often than not because of the whether, consider getting a light therapy unit, such as the Circadian Optics 10,000 LUX Full Spectrum Lamp.
It is critical to get your morning sunshine at a similar time from day to day. If you are struggling to maintain a regular sleep pattern, pick a time that you are most likely to be awake on most days. For example, if you get up anywhere between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM, get your morning sunshine from 9:15-9:45 every day. The regularity of your sun exposure will help you develop a rhythm over time.
2. Eat Enough Food
Hunger can give you insomnia and can wake you up in the middle of the night. For some of us, our appetite naturally guides us to the perfect amount of food we need to eat to sleep well. For many of us, though, it does not. This could be because we are intentionally trying to lose weight faster than our body is comfortable with, or because years of poor eating or restrictive dieting has distorted our sense of appetite, or for any number of other reasons.
If you aren't sure whether you're eating enough food, I'd recommend two things:
- Estimate your caloric needs with this online calculator.
- Get a food scale and download MyFitnessPal on your phone (if you also have a need to track vitamins and minerals, though, use Cronometer). Track your calories for a few days and see if what you're eating is close to what the calculator estimated your needs are.
If what you're eating isn't even close to what you calculate, you may be starving yourself, and eating more food might be your surest ticket to better sleep.
If what you're eating is close, you still might not be eating enough. The calculator just gives you an estimate. In this case, I recommend continuing to track your calories. Increase them in 100-calorie increments per day to see whether your sleep improves. While you're doing this, track your weight over time (weigh yourself naked after you pee each morning). If more calories helps you sleep better and doesn't cause you to gain weight, continue at that new level of calories indefinitely. If more calories helps you sleep better but also causes you to gain weight, you may need to gain that weight for the sake of your health. However, before concluding that, I recommend increasing the carbohydrate content of your diet to get more pro-sleep value per calorie. For this, see step 3.
3. Eat Enough Carbohydrate
Carbohydrate helps you sleep in three ways:
- First, carbohydrate, especially high-glycemic carbohydrate, helps push the amino acid tryptophan into your brain so that it can be turned into melatonin later at night. For this purpose, you can eat the carbohydrate at any time of day.
- Second, your liver uses stored carbohydrate to maintain your blood sugar between meals. If your liver doesn't store enough carbohydrate, your blood sugar can drop. This could make it difficult to fall asleep or wake you up, depending on when it drops. If you're relatively inactive, you can eat carbohydrate for this purpose at virtually any time of day. On the other hand, if you're very active, your activity levels could deplete the carbohydrate stores of your liver. In that case, you should make sure to eat carbohydrate after your activity comes to a close for the day.
- Third, carbohydrate suppresses the waking signal in the brain. For this purpose, you want to eat your carbohydrate in the evening.
So, for the most part it's your total carbs that matter, but to the extent the timing matters, try biasing them toward your evening meal.
How Much Carbs?
How much carbs do you need? On average, your muscles can store 300 grams of carbs, your liver can store 90 grams, and your body fluids can store 30 grams. If you don't engage in any moderate- or high-intensity exercise, it is mainly your liver's stores that will be depleted throughout the day to maintain your blood sugar between meals. Therefore, I think a sedentary person should start with about 100 grams of carbohydrate. On a mixed diet, your muscles could easily burn through 2-300 grams of carbohydrate if you're highly active. Therefore, I think an active person should consider consuming as many as 400 grams.
This is simply a range of what is plausible, not a specific recommendation. The best thing to do is to track your carbohydrate intake with a food scale and the MyFitnessPal app on your phone. Get a sense of what you are eating and compare it to the figures I just gave you. If you are completely sedentary and eating 50 grams of carbohydrate, for example, it is reasonable to think bringing this up to 100 grams could improve your sleep, but you shouldn't need 200 grams. By contrast, if you're engaging in an hour of high-intensity exercise every day and you're eating 100 grams, it's entirely possible that your sleep would improve if you ate 300 grams.
Rather than following a specific number, track what you are eating and determine through self-experimentation what produces the best result.
Increasing Carbs Safely
If you are accustomed to a low-carbohydrate diet, increase your carbs slowly, by 15 grams per day at first. Make sure you're using foods you tolerate well, and if the increase disturbs your digestion or blood sugar, hold it at that level and wait for these issues to resolve before increasing further. If 15-gram-per-day increments work well for you, aim after the first few days to increase by 50 grams per week on average until you arrive at the intake you are trying to test.
What About Protein?
Protein can stimulate the waking signal in the brain, and constantly eating high-protein meals can flood your bloodstream with other amino acids that make it harder for tryptophan to get into the brain. Although I consider carbohydrate intake more important, eating one meal a day, especially the evening meal, that is either lower in protein or uses collagen as it's main protein may also help. Examples of collagen-rich proteins are skin, bones, gelatin, and hydrolyzed collagen powder.
4. Eat Enough Nutrients
Almost any nutrient deficiency can compromise your sleep. Focus on nutrient-dense whole foods. Eat lots of green leaves (several cups worth), a diversity of fruits and vegetables, a diversity of animal proteins, liver once a week, bone broth or fish with edible bones, and a diversity of different starches from different food groups that you tolerate (for example, tubers, legumes, and grains). If you don't eat dairy, you should consider using a calcium supplement to bring your total intake to between 1 and 1.5 grams per day.
I recommend tracking your micronutrients with the Cronometer phone app to look for any deficiencies, especially if you have any dietary restrictions that eliminate certain foods listed above.
5. Avoid Blue Light at Night
The spectrum of sunlight is cooler during the day, with more blues and greens, and warmer at night, with more reds and yellows. Our brains therefore use cooler light frequencies as a sign that it's daytime. They expect three things from our environment before they'll shut off for bed time:
- A lower intensity of light.
- A warmer spectrum of light.
- 2-4 hours of darker, warmer lighting to get prepared for sleep.
I recommend constructing your environment in a way that delivers on all three expectations. Two to four hours before your bedtime, engage in one of these two levels of blue-blocking:
Blue-Blocking Level 1
Don't look at any electronic screens unless you have apps installed to dim the blue light, such as f.lux on Mac, f.lux beta for Windows, Nightshift for iPhone (part of the displays and brightness settings), or Twilight on Android (I don't own an Android but this was recommended to me).
For ambient lighting, use the dimmest lights you have that won't cause eye strain.
Blue-Blocking Level 2
Although level 1 might be sufficient for some people, for many including myself, it isn't. Level 2 involves much more complete blue-blocking.
Here's what you need:
- Several specially designed low-blue amber-colored light bulbs, such as these from lowbluelights.com. Consider their night light and flash light as well.
- A pair of blue-blocking glasses. I recommend Swannies on the basis that they are just as effective as the glasses that make me look like a robotic ant and yet are rather stylish.
- The same blue-blocking apps as in level 1: f.lux on Mac, f.lux beta for Windows, Nightshift for iPhone or Twilight on Android.
Two to four hours before bed, shift to amber ambient lighting. Turn off all your regular lights and turn on all of your low-blue lights. Make sure your blue-blocking apps are set to warm the screen around the same time. Turn the brightness of your phone down to something that is dimmer than usual but doesn't produce eye strain. Keep the Swannies handy for trips to the bathroom, opening the refrigerator, or anything else that might expose you to regular artificial light. If you go out, wear the Swannies.
I find that f.lux warms my computer screen sufficiently but Nightshift doesn't do the same for my iPhone. I use it, but I also wear my Swannies if I'm looking at my phone screen.
Be Consistent With Your Blue-Blocking
The blue-blocking routine only works if you do it consistently. It makes no sense to shift your ambient lighting to amber to give your brain four hours of easing into nighttime mode if two hours in you interrupt that signal with bright blue light from the refrigerator. If you're going to plunge yourself into level 2, plunge yourself into it completely.
You also have to start the blue-blocking at close to the same time every night. Having healthy sleep requires that your body have a well-entrained circadian rhythm, and regularity is key to making that happen. Pick your ideal bedtime and start the blue-blocking 2-4 hours before it. For example, if you want to sleep by midnight every night, make your blue-blocking start at 8:00 PM every night. If one night you fall asleep at 1:30 AM one night, don't worry about it. Just keep your light routine consistent and your sleeping rhythm will eventually fall into place.
6. Psychologically Wind Down
We all need to wind down at night to sleep, and some of us need a routine to make that happen. I recommend one to two hours of anything that will shut off the problem-solving what-do-I-need-to-do-tomorrow part of your brain. To put it another way, you want your brain to switch to nighttime mode. It doesn't matter that much what “nighttime mode” is as long as it isn't full of racing thoughts and wildly spinning emotions. It mainly matters that your mind is immersed in patterns that are fundamentally different from those it associates with daytime.
Try TV shows, video games, paperback books — anything that works. As long as you follow the blue-blocking routine in step 5, you don't need to worry about being exposed to screens.
7. Sleep in Darkness
As human beings who have been exposed to evening campfires and nighttime moonlight throughout our history, we should be able to tolerate some night at light. However, most of us live in environments where there is far more light in the night sky than the moon and stars, and artificial lights tend to be heavier on the green and blue side of the spectrum instead of the yellow and red side. Our brains are hardwired to interpret the cooler side of the spectrum as a sign that it's daytime, so artificial light at nighttime can prevent us from falling asleep.
The simplest thing you can do to block the light at night is to use a sleep mask. Masks that have a cupped shape are better than flat masks at blocking light that can creep up around the curves of your cheeks and nose. The Lonfrote Deep Molded Sleep Mask is only $9.99 on Amazon and highly effective at blocking light.
I also recommend making your room as dark as possible. There are lots of reasons. Your mask could fall off if you move around a lot. You might want to take it off if you feel hot. If you're sensitive, light could keep you up by hitting your skin. And virtually any material lets some light in even if it seems like it blocks everything.
The best way to make your room dark is to use a combination of inside-mounted blackout cellular shades and outside mounted blackout curtains. Unplug any light-emitting electronics that can be unplugged, and cover the lights on those that can't with electrical tape. If needed, do the same in the next room over, or hang opaque material around the outside edges of your bedroom door to prevent light from leaking in. For more details, see my blog post, “How to Make Your Room Pitch Black at Night.”
8. Sleep in a Cool Environment
Your body naturally cools off when you sleep. It's easier for your body to evolve your own heat into your environment if your environment is cool, so if it's too warm your body can struggle to cool off. That struggling can keep you awake. On the other hand, if you're uncomfortably cold, that can keep you up too. So you need to keep it cool, but don't go overboard.
The simplest thing to do is to use an air conditioner so that you can keep the temperature constant at the one you know works best for you. I would start with 65F, but adjust it to the temperature that allows you to feel comfortable in your favorite clothes and bedding. Err on the cool side of comfortable, not the warm side.
You may find that the temperature that puts you to sleep most effectively is cold enough to wake you up early in the morning. If you are able to program your air conditioner, set it to rise a few degrees gradually between 3:00 AM and your wake time. If not, keep an extra blanket near you so you can mindlessly grab it when you wake up and quickly fall back to sleep.
9. Sleep With Silence or White Noise
Try ear plugs or a white noise machine. I don't have any experience with the latter, but I can say that if you avoid ear plugs because you hate the way they feel when they crush into your pillow, try Mack's Pillowsoft Silicone Earplugs. These form to just the shape you need and gently stick into place without creating any pressure. You can use them 4-5 times until they lose their stickness or get visibly dirty, at which point you throw them away and use a new pair.
I've been using them for almost three years now. I first started when I moved into an apartment with a clanky radiator that would wake me up at night. I don't have that problem any more, but, once you go Mack you never go back, right?
10. When You Wake Up to Pee
Ideally, if you follow the steps outlined above, especially #2 and #3, you'll rarely wake up in the middle of the night. If you do, though, consider the following strategies for falling back to sleep:
- Practice 100% blue-blocking on the way to the bathroom and back.
- Use an abbreviation of your nightly psychological winding down routine to wind down again if your brain gets revved up.
- If you are voraciously hungry, ignore all the advice about not eating at night and eat. Experiment with what works best. Carbs, calcium, and salt might be especially helpful. You can start following the advice not to eat at night once your sleep gets better.
Putting It All Together: Make It A Rhythm
Good sleep isn't good if it doesn't come in the form of a regular rhythm.
Imagine that your brain has optimized 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM as your sleeping time. You get great sleep whenever it falls into that window, and mediocre sleep at best outside of that window. You sleep in that window on weekdays, but then you sleep from 4 AM to 11 AM on the weekends. Each weekend, only two hours of your sleep fall into the optimized window and 5 hours fall outside of it. That's ten hours of sleep that could have been great but weren't.
Consider an even worse scenario. Your sleeping pattern is so irregular that you essentially have no rhythm. Even if you fall asleep upon laying down, and even if you sleep eight hours every night, if there's no pattern to it, your brain can't optimize a window for sleep at all because it never has any idea when the sleep is coming. It can't optimize a window for being awake either, because it is similarly clueless about when wakefulness is needed. No matter how much sleep you get in this scenario, none of it is good, let alone great.
So what do you do if you don't have a rhythm? Providing that you are following the food guidelines in steps #2, #3, and #4, lead with light.
Many people recommend you lead by carving out specific time for sleep at night. This works great if your problem is you don't give yourself the time for sleep. But I think it's a bad idea if your problem is that you can't fall asleep when you try. Forcing yourself to fall asleep can give you insomnia.
Many people recommend you lead with an alarm clock that wakes you up at the same time every day. I don't recommend this for two reasons. First, I don't believe anyone should wake up to an alarm clock unless they absolutely have to in order to meet their social responsibilities. An alarm clock is designed to wake you up when your body has not yet decided that it has had enough sleep, and it's likely to wake you up during a suboptimal time within your sleep cycle. Second, the primary regulator of your circadian rhythm is not the state of being awake or asleep. It's light. If you wake up to dim lights and stay inside all day, setting your alarm for 6:00 AM isn't going to do much to give you a proper circadian rhythm.
Instead, observe the variation in your existing sleeping patterns. Judge an ideal time that allows you early exposure to direct sunlight on a consistent basis. For example, if you wake up in a 2-hour span but are always up by 9:00 AM, get your sunshine at 9:15 AM every day.
Do the same for your blue blocking. If you fall asleep some time between 10 PM and 12 AM, start your blueblocking 2-4 hours before 10 PM. In other words, choose a time between 6 PM and 8 PM to start the routine, and stick to it.
Light is the single most important regulator of your circadian rhythm. Think of it as light hygeine. Just like brushing your teeth and washing your hands, it's a piece of basic maintenance that you do every day.
Secondarily, try to make your physical activity, social environment, and eating patterns rhythmic as well. These aren't anywhere near as important as light, but they help reinforce the effect of light.
Build the rhythm in the cues you feed your brain, with light as the most important of them all. Better sleep will follow.
How Do These Work For You?
If you try any of these recommendations, let me know how they work in the comments! Or, have a better idea? Share it in the comments!