How To Sort Out Your Sleep Cycle.

30 Jul

My entire life, I’ve had a mixed-up sleep cycle. I remember being little, up at 2 a.m. in the spare room with my Barbies, scared my mom would wake up and catch me. I also remember being 16, forced to wake up at 7 a.m. to get to school on time, and just dissolving into heaps of tears for being so damn tired. These days, I definitely still keep awkward hours, but that’s just because I prefer the night to the daytime. The difference is that now, I can actually get to sleep when I want or need to. Sometimes we night owls just have to adjust to the hours imposed on us by the rest of the world (for example, going back to school, or starting a “real job”), and that can be incredibly hard to do. Because I think this can be a problem for a lot of people, I’m here today to share my gleanings…

Be consistent with your sleep/wake time.
By now, this is classic advice. Nobody hasn’t heard this before, but very few of us follow through with it… even though it works. If your sleep schedule is a bit wacky (say, staying up all night and then crashing out at 1 p.m.), it will take some effort to reset your internal clock, but it will eventually happen. You just have to be consistent with it, which is the challenging part. Try going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night, and waking up 15 minutes earlier each day. Eventually you’ll be back on a normal, diurnal sleep-wake cycle. Trust.

Condition yourself like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
For those unfamiliar with Pavlov, he studied a phenomenon known as classical conditioning, by conditioning dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. How did he accomplish this? He started by consistently pairing the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food. Of course, in the presence of food, the dogs naturally started drooling. Eventually, they got so used to seeing food upon hearing the sound of the bell, that their bodies started going into drool mode upon hearing the bell alone (read: no food to be found). What does this have to do with sleep? Simple: You have to condition yourself to see your bedroom, or in the very least your actual bed, as a restful place. Doctors will tell you to reserve the bed for “sleep and sexual activity.” I say go them one better and restrict sexual activity to the living room floor for a little while at least (kidding!). The point is, don’t read in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, don’t eat in bed, and for the love of love, don’t work in bed. Bed is where we sleep. That’s your new mantra.

Keep the TVs and computers out of the bedroom!!
I already touched on this a bit with the conditioning component, but it bears repeating. Electronics do not belong in the bedroom. Some people will claim they cannot sleep without the television on. I’m sorry, some people, but you are wrong. Television sets do not enhance sleep in any way. Sure, the noise may distract you from your own thoughts for awhile, allowing you to drift off for a bit, but your sleep will not be good sleep. This is because television sets emit light, and light interferes with sleep. Ditto for computers. If you have to have something to distract you from your own thoughts, try music instead. No, it doesn’t have to be whale songs or soothing classical music, although I’m sure those are fine choices. If you prefer, you could listen to podcasts. As much as I love the CBC and This American Life, they’ve both been instrumental in putting me to sleep on more than one occasion.

No caffeine in the afternoons.
I know someone with terrible sleeping problems. She swears up and down that they are in no way connected to the fact that every night around 8 p.m., she has a caffeinated beverage. She claims to be able to drink coffee at any time of day and not have it affect her sleep. And yet she does not sleep very well. Personally, I think it’s a simple case of not putting two and two together. Caffeine stays in your body for something like 8 hours, and it’s no secret that caffeine has energizing qualities. Therefore, if you are having trouble sleeping, you might want to stop ingesting caffeine somewhere around the early afternoon. However, do keep in mind that a small dose of caffeine consumed slowly can help you stay awake the morning after a sleepless night. Just remember that the giant cups they sell at coffee shops are in no way considered “a small dose.”

Avoid long naps.
This is so hard to do when your sleep cycle is messed up. You’re exhausted, so you lay down to rest for a “power nap,” intending for it to last no more than 20 minutes. After 20 minutes the alarm goes off and you realize you barely had time to nod off, so it’s “just five more minutes”. Five hours later, it’s 9 p.m. and you’re bright eyed and bushy tailed for the rest of the night. Honestly, if you don’t have the discipline to truly pull yourself up after 20 minutes or so, you really shouldn’t settle down for a rest during the day at all.

Get some exercise.
Doctors love this bit of advice too… and as a genuine sloth, it pains me to admit that they’re right. Getting some exercise during the day definitely does translate into better sleep at night. Not only are you expelling pent up energy, but exercise also reduces anxiety, which I’m sure goes a long way in helping people sleep better. Just try to avoid exercising too close to bedtime, so those crazy endorphins don’t go messing everything up.

Be aware of your lighting.
This is a critical component that I think a lot of people just don’t pay attention to. Human beings are not set on a 24 hour sleep-wake cycle. It’s actually the sun that tells us when to get up and when to sleep. So, when you go introducing artificial light into the mix, your body just doesn’t know what to do with itself. From what I understand, the key is to mimic nature as best you can. Dim your lights in the evening, have your surroundings be as dark as possible while you’re actually sleeping, and expose yourself to as much bright light as possible first thing when you wake up. I know there’s a grain of truth to this, because when we lived at the apartment, we had sheers that let the sun trickle in, and I woke up consistently earlier than I do when staying at my parents’ place, where they have blackout blinds.

If you can’t sleep, try to stay awake.
Counterintuitive, no? Allow me to explain. The meaning of this is twofold: First, if you’ve been laying awake in bed for some time and just aren’t sleepy, you should get up and go somewhere else for awhile. This has to do with the conditioning we talked about earlier. If you lie awake in bed all night, you aren’t conditioning yourself to associate bed with sleep, you are conditioning yourself to associate bed with lying awake all night. So get up and do something else, somewhere else. Second, if you really need sleep and getting up is not an option, try tricking yourself by trying to stay awake as long as possible instead. If you’re remotely tired, you will pass out from this. Think of all the drowsy mornings you’ve had, doing everything in your power to just. Wake. Up. But all you can do is drift back to sleep. Same principle.

Be careful with pills but be aware of the option.
I’ve used sleeping pills before, both prescription and non. In truth, I don’t advocate the nonprescription variety. Personally, they didn’t seem to do much of anything really, but that aside, sleeping pills aren’t really something you want to mess around with. You certainly don’t want your ability to sleep to become contingent on popping a pill every night. So if you’re going to try sleeping pills, spare yourself the trouble and just get a prescription for something mild, in a controlled dose (like a week’s worth). I did this right before starting college, because it was what I needed to get me back on track fast. After one week’s worth of sleeping pills, my sleep schedule remained normal for several months without any work on my part. I’m not saying it will work for everyone, I’m just saying if you’ve tried everything else first and you need it as a last resort, do it the right way. Remember, natural supplements work on your body the same way drugs do. Don’t self-medicate with them; see a naturopath if herbs are your preferred means.

Stop kidding yourself.
I know, I know… you are a special and unique flower, and just because other people can’t sleep normally ten minutes after closing the laptop doesn’t mean you can’t. Granted, as with any rule, there will always be exceptions. I’m sure there are people out there who can down a litre of Coca Cola and then drift off to sleep moments later. However, they’re not the people trying to figure out how to sort out their sleep cycles. Call them lucky punks, accept the fact that you are closer to the norm, have a little discipline, and move on with your life.

I’ll be honest, all the times that I’ve complained about sleep problems (oh, hello, all the 8 a.m. classes I missed during university!), it’s been pretty much entirely my fault. I’m the one who didn’t want to turn off the TV. I’m the one who had to get up and clean my room right now. I’m the one who couldn’t haul my butt up without hitting snooze three times first. I think a lot of people have trouble accepting that sleeping isn’t something we do because we’re lazy; it’s something we do because we need it to live. So you have to be willing to take responsibility for your own health and do what needs doing in order to sort out any problems. It doesn’t matter what TV movie happens to be airing on PeachTree TV in 10 minutes. Get some sleep!


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