11:15 PM: Eyes wide open, you click off the nightstand lamp after one last email check. As you toss from side to side, your mind just won’t settle. I’m not even tired…Gosh, I’m screwed tomorrow… Sleep, you idiot, sleep. Soon it’s midnight… 1… 1:30. Each passing minute brings more angst.
Sound familiar? I used to have nightmarish scenarios like this. Sleep supplements, while they could usually knock me out, turned me into a sedated patient the next morning. Coworkers would give me the look that seems to say, long night dummy? Then I would sheepishly reload my coffee cup for the 5th time.
But things have changed since then. Over the last few years, I’ve learned how to get consistently terrific slumber. No more insomnia. No more sleep aids. And now I’m going to share the distilled version of my sleep education. Let’s begin with a key external regulator of our sleep and waking hormones – blue light.
Maximize blue light in the morning… Minimize at night:
Our sleep hormone melatonin is regulated by blue light hitting our eyes and skin. Early sunlight exposure limits melatonin production until nighttime, when – if things are working properly – it reaches peak levels. Delving into the science, morning sun in the eyes turns tryptophan to serotonin. This is important because serotonin is a key precursor to melatonin. At night, proper levels of melatonin make us drowsy and facilitate restful sleep.
Nighttime blue light exposure is bad news. It throws off our internal clock, suppresses melatonin, and disrupts sleep patterns. Smart phones, TVs and laptops are prime blue light offenders when the sun goes down. These devices are captivating, aren’t they? We can’t always avoid them past dark, so here are some quick fixes:
- Install F.Lux on your computer to dim it down (your eyeballs will thank you)
- Use an E Reader without an incandescent backlight
- Turn down the brightness on your illicit device of choice
- Wear orange goggles to block blue light (great for attracting the opposite sex too)
- Cultivate a dark indoor environment. I floss with the bathroom light OFF.
Me? I have a cut-off time for glowing screens – around 8 PM – that I stick to when I’m feeling stoic.
Eat protein with the morning sun:
Everyone seems to think that turkey makes us tired. High protein foods contain copious amounts of tryptophan, known for making us drowsy after a Thanksgiving feast. But this is a fallacy. We are drowsy because all the blood has rushed to our overtaxed digestive systems. And maybe because we’ve been swallowing political remarks all night to keep the peace.
The conventional wisdom has it backwards. For sleep purposes, we require protein in the morning. After a high-protein breakfast, we need sunlight in our eyes to:
a) Convert tryptophan to serotonin (a precursor to melatonin, remember?)
b) Shut down melatonin production so it peaks at bedtime
Check out this study that showed a high-tryptophan breakfast led to improved sleep and higher melatonin levels at night. Hard to argue with those results.
Eat carbs after dark:
Melatonin isn’t the only hormone that impacts sleep. Leptin, best known for weight regulation, follows the same clock as melatonin – low in the morning and high at night. For example, a study on sheep showed leptin infusions increased their melatonin levels.
How can we get leptin to peak at night, thus increasing melatonin? Think carbs. High carbohydrate intake has been shown to raise leptin levels in the bloodstream. “To enhance leptin rhythm, we should eat most of our carbs around sunset,” writes Paul Jaminet in the Perfect Health Diet.1 So save the giant spuds for dinner.
Keep the bedroom cool:
We have to be comfortable to sleep well. And, as anyone who has sweated through the sheets knows, the climate of our bedroom matters. “The thermal environment is one of the most important factors that can affect human sleep,” write the authors of a 2012 study. Too hot or too cold keeps us awake.
From my experience, heat is the problem. After all, we have blankets to keep the chill out. Author and life coach Tim Ferriss recommends testing 67-70° for optimal sleep (I sometimes even go a few degrees lower.)2 For a good night of rest, I don’t mind splurging on the A/C.
Once in bed, stay focused:
Advice to “clear your mind” sounds simple enough, but have you ever tried to stop thinking? Even for a few seconds? It simply isn’t within our power to turn off the thought process. A better strategy is to focus the mind.
Recently I’ve been exploring lucid dreaming, or becoming awake and aware in a dream. It takes focus to induce these experiences. In other words, my concentration on dreaming doesn’t leave room for other thoughts. The dreaded anxieties that used to keep me awake aren’t allotted any mental bandwidth. Okay, maybe a little bandwidth.
Here are some relaxing objects of focus:
- Attention to breathing (the classic)
- Mindful contraction and relaxation of every major muscle group
- A gentle focus on images that dance behind closed eyelids
- Visualization of a desired dream (a serene beach might be more appropriate than heli-skiing for our purposes here)
Let’s recap our sleep plan. Eat high protein in the morning with sunlight to set up peak melatonin levels at night. To further optimize melatonin levels, consume most of your carbs after sundown. After dark, try to minimize blue light creatively. Keep your room cool. Once in bed, focus on your breath or another calming object. Your chances of peacefully zonking out have just increased dramatically.
1) Jaminet, Paul, and Shou-Ching Jaminet. The Perfect Health Diet. New York: Scribner, 2012.
2) Ferriss, Timothy. The 4-hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman. New York: Crown Archetype, 2010. Print.