I’ve always had a hard time with sleep. In high school, the simple act of dragging myself out of bed at 6:00 in the morning for class was far more difficult than any of the hellish cross-country practices I had to endure in the afternoons. Fights would brew between my parents and myself every morning. By the time I finally got out of the house, I had to sprint through the dark, cold Pennsylvania morning on my old Diamondback to barely make it to the bus stop in time, sometimes rounding the corner to see the yellow beast pulling away from the intersection. I would often be left behind to climb back up the hill and beg for a ride to school from my parents.
As a teenager, I was too young and naive to see my bad mornings as a potential problematic issue in the future. It didn’t really effect anything, and I always ended up at school more or less on time. In my mind, getting up early just “sucked” and was something I wouldn’t have to do after high school, anyway.
In college and my early twenties, it only got worse. Night after night, I was staying up until at least 4:00 in the morning, if not later. If I wasn’t out, I was on my computer, drinking Mountain Dew, talking to friends on AIM, posting on Mazda message boards and downloading music. Morning classes were never attended, and when I had somewhere to be before noon, the act of waking up after only three hours of sleep was an absolutely excruciating proposition. If left to my own devices, the sky was the limit. I’d be up until 7 or 8 in the morning, dicking around on the internet, then sleeping until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I had nothing else going on, so who cares, right?
This continued for years. I gave myself excuses instead of looking at the underlying problem (a behavior that was prevalent in all avenues of my life).
- “I’m just not a morning person”
- “I must have a sleep disorder”
- “People aren’t meant to wake up that early, they’re stupid for doing it”
- “Fuck it, I like sleeping in”
As college faded into adult life, and having to actually hold down a job, I faced a choice: wake up on time or you don’t get paid. So I turned to my new friend, alcohol. I would drink enough to pass out at least a few times per week. The alcohol definitely made it easier to fall asleep initially, but the quality of it was abysmal. I would toss and turn, ending up completely awake and sober after only a few fitful hours, feeling even more exhausted than when I went to bed.
From 2009-2012, the problem got worse. I was sometimes working 24 straight hours, from 3 PM until 3 PM the next day. This wrought absolute havoc on whatever sort of sleep schedule I had poorly attempted to establish. Unfortunately, these overnight shifts came with the territory, and there was no opting out. For months on end, my circadian rhythm was a complete mess. I would take naps any time I could, drinking until dawn sometimes, other nights sleeping from 6PM until noon the next day. There was no normalcy whatsoever. I was a mess.
When I left that job, got into the gym, and (most recently) stopped drinking, things started to normalize a bit, but I was still predisposed towards staying up late and sleeping through my mornings. Something had to change, but I took a dangerous approach with some unpleasant results.
When I first experimented with an OTC sleep aid (pictured above), I was convinced I had found the solution to my problems. It was like shooting myself with a tranquilizer dart. I was down for the count immediately. If I took them too early in the evening, I would stumble around the house running into furniture, trying to find a place to collapse and pass out.
The tranquilizer dart analogy works quite well, as I felt my body was “fighting” the medication. Even though I wanted to be knocked out, my body didn’t. I would unconsciously struggle to keep my eyes open, to snap out of it. When I did fall asleep, it wasn’t natural. I was being dragged kicking and screaming into a state of sleep.
Mornings became far worse than they had ever been. I would wake up but my brain was not functioning. I would often leave my house without my keys, my wallet, or my phone. I would forget to turn off the bathroom sink, leave the front door unlocked, and try to drive my car with my parking brake still engaged. I had the cognitive function of a brick until several hours later, when the fog would finally start to lift. If I didn’t have five or six alarms set, I would easily stay in bed for 10+ hours on the stuff.
In time, I developed a tolerance. It became evident that one softgel wasn’t having the effects that it once did. Over the next few weeks, I upped my dosage to two, then three, then four. Then the first sleepless night happened.
I couldn’t lay still. My legs were constantly in a state of restlessness, I couldn’t get comfortable, and it only got worse as I thought about the minutes and hours slipping away, still awake and alert. It was though the medication had turned on me, and was doing the exact opposite of what was intended. The next day I was useless, mumbling and walking around like a zombie. The experiment had failed. So finally, after this miserable night, only a few months into taking “knockout pills” on a nightly basis, I quit cold turkey.
Sleep is much like nutrition: you reap the benefits of having good habits, which need to be properly developed and have attention paid to them. In the weeks following my decision to stop using the knockouts, I realized that I needed to put forth some effort towards correcting my sleep habits. I consciously started to develop behaviors and, through trial and error, employed some natural aides to help regulate my sleep.
- Have a set bedtime every night, and stick to it. Mine is midnight. When it’s bedtime, I am in bed, with all electronic distractions having been set aside. No twitter, no texts, no conversing or interacting whatsoever. Even if I don’t fall asleep until 1:30, I’m still in bed and ready for sleep at midnight. Instead of saying “I am waking up at 7:30 AM tomorrow” and setting an alarm, I wake up the next morning instinctively, after 6-7 hours of sleep.
- Melatonin before bed. I found a low dose of this does little for me, but a slightly higher dose tends to work well, making me tired, telling my body AND brain “it’s time to go to sleep”. I fall and stay asleep naturally, with no restless tossing and turning, unlike with alcohol or OTC pills.
- Visiting the gym and staying active. I fall asleep far more easily on work days than I do on rest days.
- No caffeine after 4:00 PM. As immune to caffeine as I feel, I do notice the effects of it if I’ve taken it in the evening. At bedtime, my mind will be racing and my body will be restless.
- Vitamin D when I wake up. Either via a Vitamin D3 supplement, getting some sunshine or (in the case of winter) visiting the tanning bed for a few minutes, I want to make sure I’m receiving enough Vitamin D. On days when I’ve been out in the sun all day, I fall asleep effortlessly. Not the case at all if I’ve been sitting inside staring at a screen.
- Staying hydrated throughout the day and tapering down in the evening. I read something interesting a few months ago, written by Mike Cernovich. The methodology is that by drinking a large amount of water just before bed, you will wake up naturally at the end of your sleep cycle, needing to visit the bathroom. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for me. I try to stay well hydrated at all times. If I drin end up needing to take a half-dozen trips to the bathroom as I’m in the process of falling asleep, which proves to be a major interruption. For myself, I’ve found I need to slowly taper down my water and BCAA intake at around 10:00 PM.
- No sugars anywhere close to bedtime. Even on cheat days, when my sugar and carb intake is relatively high, I tend to avoid them before bed. The rush and crash cycle makes it very difficult to fall asleep.
- No alcohol. Ever.
One of the most common bits of information I hear when it comes to people with difficulty falling asleep is to never keep a TV in your bedroom, and ensure that the room is completely dark. I do not do well in this setting. My internal dialogue is simply too strong. I prefer to have an external source droning on and on about a subject at very low volume. It is something to focus on, as opposed to my own racing thoughts. Right now, Netflix’s “Secrets of Great British Castles” is working wonders. Hearing someone drone on and on and on about the hidden tunnels beneath Dover Castle could put down an army of Mexican wrestlers hopped up on Red Bull.
I can’t say I’ve cracked the code to a perfect, healthy sleep pattern, but I’ve made huge improvements to it, which can be felt all across the board. Last night and today serves as a great example. I was in bed at midnight, I fell asleep at 1:00, and I was awake today at 6:45. I drove my girlfriend to work, drank some coffee, worked on this article and published another. I did some work on my website. I bought a pair of shoes. I went for a bike ride and threw a load of laundry in. It’s 11:20 AM now, and I still have time to go to the gym, hop in the tanning bed for five minutes, drive home, prepare food, and get even more work done on my site before I have anything else to do. I’m going to go to sleep tonight tired and ready to begin the cycle all over again.
None of this is particularly earth-shattering, but even a year ago, a day like today would have been completely unfathomable.