I just passed the fifth anniversary of having a long-lasting concussion. One of the side effects of going through that experience is that I have a greater appreciation of the plasticity of the human brain and how it repairs itself. One of the key processes that allows the brain to repair is sleep.
I spent the better part of twenty years getting to the place where I sleep well most nights. It’s time to share.
History of sleep
Modern life disrupts natural sleep. Humans evolved to respond to changes in light and temperature by sleeping in different cycles in the summer or winter. We are wired to sleep more when it is dark and cold. There is evidence that “normal” sleep consisted of two periods of sleep, not one eight-hour block. Adults woke in the middle of the night for some period of time after their “first sleep.” (Now, when we wake in the middle of the night, it is called insomnia.)
Nights were dark inside and out until the last few hundred years. Sure, there were candles and lamps, but fuel was costly and fire was a danger. Indoor lights went out at bedtime.
Cities were dark at night, before street lighting began in Paris in 1667. Then other cities lit their streets, but roads outside the city remained dark until electric lighting became available. Before central heating, fires and stoves went out in the wee hours of the night. Houses were cold by dawn. People slept under more covers than we need now. We don’t live like that anymore, so how do we sleep enough to be healthy and clearheaded?
How to use this advice: I am about to give advice based on what I have tried in my quest of good-enough sleep. Every neurology is different, so my results will not be yours. The best way to figure out what works is to change one thing at a time. Try it for a week or two or more, then add something else. Try the thing you suspect might make the biggest difference. If that works, then add other things that are similar.
Paying attention to the environment
Light and Darkness
Your nervous system responds to light and darkness, whether you are aware of it or not. There is light all around us, all the time, so our nervous system doesn’t get the message that it is time to slow down and go to sleep. Depending on how sensitive to light issues you are, notice these things, and rule them out
Need for light: Daylight is restorative and helps with sleep. Get some exposure to natural light every day. Consider consciously adding a short walk outside, every day. I read someplace that six minutes is enough.
Need for darkness: Urban and suburban residents are exposed to light all day and all night. If you don’t believe me, turn off your bedroom light and look at the “dark” coming in through the window.
Streetlights add to safety while walking, biking or driving at night. Avoid looking directly into lights. Try yellow or orange tinted glasses to reduce the amount of white light exposure at night.
Limit the light that comes into the windows of your bedroom. Consider adding room darkening shades (like the ones you see in hotels). They make your bedroom fully dark. That tells your brain that it is nighttime. It also keeps early dawn from waking you.
Start turning down the house lighting a few hours before bedtime. Whole rooms do not need to be bright unless you are entertaining. Use direct lighting if you are sewing or reading or doing something with small things, that need light so you can see them.
If you read before sleep, use a single light to illuminate your book. If you use an electronic reader, turn on the night settings and turn down the light as much as you can without causing eye strain. If you read on screens in the evening (who doesn’t?), set all screens to night mode and turn down the light setting as much as possible.
Turn off all screens two hours before bedtime. Do an experiment for two weeks! No social media, on-line or electronic reading, or television programs. Instead, listen to music, or cook something, or talk to someone, or read a paper book or magazine. This will do a number of things for you. First, it tells your neurology that it is night. Second, it limits your exposure to information that excites your brain, for good or for bad. How do people who watch TV news (even The Daily Show) just before bedtime ever fall asleep and sleep well? The same thing is true of people who can’t sleep because someone on the internet is wrong.
Nightlights are for safety only. Unless you are accommodating guests who don’t know your house, you probably don’t need nightlights. If you open the curtains in the bathroom, street lighting is enough for most people to safely get around.
Our brains think cooler means sleep time, until about 54 degrees. Since central heating is available, keep your house toasty warm through dinner, but let it cool down to about 60 degrees during sleep hours.
Melatonin (a chemical that aid sleep) is released, naturally, when the room is 60-67 degrees. Let your bedroom temperature stay in that range. Most people can’t sleep if they feel too cold. Let the air in your bedroom be cooler, and you can be under a blankets, with flannel sheets or plush pajamas, and you’ll still get the same affect. Some sources recommend turning the air conditioning to that cool in the summer, too. That’s not for me, but your mileage may vary.
Another easy hack if you can’t sleep is to do this: Once you get warm and comfortable in bed, stick your feet, or one leg, out from under the covers. That causes a drop in your body temperature and tells your brain it’s time to sleep. This works for me in the middle of the night. It doesn’t work as well if my feet haven’t warmed up under the blankets first.
Now that we have the house ready for you to sleep in, what about the people you live with, and the noise in your own head and body?
Quiet. Maybe quiet is the final frontier, not sleep.
External noise: People and other noisemakers.
If you live with people, they are going to wake you up, sometimes. Talk to them about ways they can limit those occurrences. Ask everyone to commit to supporting your need to sleep, as best the person can; obviously, babies will be babies, but even three or four year olds can learn to be part of the solution. Example: “When you come in to sleep with Mommy, don’t turn the light on and off to tell me you’re here. Just crawl in.”
Your bedroom should be a place where you sleep and have sex. All other activities are optional. Anything that engages you in the business of the day does not belong there. Phones and electronics belong out of the bedroom; they are things of an active mind, not of a restful mind. If there is no one you need to answer the phone about in the middle of the night, remove phones from the bedroom. Watch TV or video someplace else. Remove pictures of anyone but yourself and your partner. Some people like white noise machines to block out street or building noises.
This is your safe space.
Reading a thriller in bed can lead to reading into the wee hours, and is therefore not recommended. If reading generally relaxes you, find materials that won’t keep you page-turning. Some people like word games at night. Some people like music. Experiment.
Reminder: Modern life is going to interfere with your sleep. Try one adjustment at a time and give it at least a week before adding something else. If possible, add one change a month.