(Video link here). Composer Max Richter’s 8-hour lullaby, Sleep, designed to make his audience sleep —on the beds that will replace seats at the concert hall at its September debut— reminded me of how many people I meet that have difficulty sleeping. Richter calls Sleep a “manifesto for a slower pace of existence…an 8-hour place to rest.”
I learned how to sleep the hard way, for years NOT understanding my body’s needs and makeup, and thinking that I could defy them because there was no immediately apparent adverse effect. My bad habits caught up with me and I had to learn how to sleep, the simplest thing in the world you would think; not so in the modern world. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Take time to wind down before you go to bed: Expecting your body to go from sixty to zero is unrealistic. This means taking an hour or two for quiet activities before bed, to bring your mind and thoughts into a calmer state. Turn lights down (to signal your brain you are winding down), and read something fun or quieting —NOT alarming news or violent thrillers. (I find reading kid’s books can really take my busy mind elsewhere. Tove Jansson’s Moomin Family series is an enduring favorite). Doing some tai chi or meditating can help greatly as does quieting music. (I will buy Richter’s Sleep when it is released.) I found that sending these concrete messages to myself —in the form of a changed environment and behavior — really does help.
Turn off all electronic devices: computers, tablets, tv’s no later than 11 pm. The blue light of screens has been shown to activate the brain and disturb our circadian rhythm. If you MUST look at a screen, do so at its dimmest setting or use amber glasses (These fit over reading glasses). Unplug electronics if you can, especially ones in your bedroom. They all emit energy that can stimulate the nervous system.
When I was young, sleeping was easy. For years, I slept in the same room I worked in, and just put my computer to sleep, never turning it OFF. In the morning, I’d jump out of bed and start writing. I didn’t realize that this had a slow, subtle effect on my nervous system, keeping it active all the time. As I got older, years of abuse caused my inner clock to change.
Do not sleep with your smart phone by the bed; keep it in another room. The known brain-activating power of smart phones makes many of the sleep apps used in bed moot (as well as their digital alarm clocks). NOT having your cell phone by your bed helps you sleep better.
Turn off your wi-fi router: Wi-fi has been shown to activate the brain as well and effects specially sensitive people. Turning off the router before bed can help give your brain a break from the constant bombardment of radio waves.
Don’t drink caffeine after 4 pm at the latest 5:30. This has been one of the hardest for me but essential. Self testing is the way to figure out how much caffeine your body can tolerate. And if you still find yourself wired, start noticing how much caffeine you are drinking. I am such a coffee fiend, that I only allow myself a set amount — 1 cup of primo coffee — each morning. Chocolate also has caffeine and can be activating for some people.
Sleep in a tranquil room. If your partner snores and keeps you awake, know that love does not mean you have to sleep through the night together. You can go to bed together, and later move to another room to actually sleep; then climb back in the morning.
My bedroom is dedicated only to sleeping. It has wonderful art given to me by friends, a chunk of a tree I hauled in from the park across the way, and a pale pink wall that never fails to cool me out.
Sleep in a darkened room or, at the very least, with the lights out. For years, I read in bed until I fell asleep often with the lights on. I didn’t consider that always-on lights, or lights on until 4-in-the-morning until I woke to turn them off would have any effect. Gradually, the “endless day” caused by light being on caused my circadian rhythm to get out of balance. I am still in the process of retraining it.
Sleep in a cool room. You are less prone to wake if you don’t get hot and trigger night sweats.
Exercise daily if possible, or at least take a walk OUTSIDE, preferably in nature. It DOES help to exercise, or at the very least walk, preferably in nature, a park etc. Exposing yourself to sunlight helps regulate your circadian rhythm AND helps your body make essential Vitamin D. Trees are known to have a calming effect on the nervous system.
If possible, do not take sleep medications such as Ambien and Lunesta. Doctors love to say they have no harmful effect. But there are (I and many others are living proof). Since these drugs act very similar to benzodiazepines, the brain gets habituated to them and wants more. They can actually change brain chemistry and can make your insomnia worse if you try to stop them, and create numerous other problems, including sleep eating, driving etc. (Another lesson I learned the hard way). Better to hunt for alternative ways of approaching sleep, from herbal supplements, to meditation, to Chinese medicine to exercise and cognitive behavior therapy (It includes many of these practices as well as changing your view of sleep; it has shown to be the most effective approach of all).
Doctors refer these practices as “sleep hygiene”, a term I bristle at. But I’ve come to see that they work, and like flossing your teeth, can help avoid painful and costly effects down the line…
Wishing you a fine night’s sleep.
Max Richter video via Nowness