An alarming statistic I came across recently is that 70% of Americans report insufficient sleep at least one night a month. These sleep deprived individuals then become hazards for others on the road. In a 2010 report, American Automobile Association estimates that one out of every six (16.5%) deadly traffic accidents, and one out of eight (12.5%) crashes requiring hospitalization of car drivers or passengers is due to drowsy driving.
The effects of sleep deprivation are also well known and include:
To be fair there have been studies showing the benefits of sleep deprivation. For example, acute sleep deprivation for one night improved mood in about 60% of depressed patients the following day. However chronic sleep deprivation (or insomnia) tends to be a strong risk factor for depression.
There have been several books that have come out in recent years around sleep, the most popular being Why We Sleep by Michael Pollen. While the book has faced some scrutiny, it does highlight a trend that good sleep hygeine is becoming a key pillar of what it means to be healthy.
With all that said, it’s near impossible to come up with a grand narrative for what everyone’s sleep should look like. This is partly why Pollen received pushback for trying to fit a one-size-fits-all sleep regiment on everyone. Instead a better approach is to conduct N-of-1 experiments with your sleep to come to your own conclusions. Yes some things will tend to generalize to the majority of the population (for example avoiding stimulants 2 hours before bed) but other advice will be specific to the individual.
To that end, before even discussing the strategies I’ve discovered from years of sleep tracking, I encourage you to start to track your sleep. Doing so will help establish a baseline for what good and bad sleep looks like. If you aren’t measuring it, you can’t manage it. In my case, I use the Withings sleep mat, a device that fits under my mattress. It tracks a myriad of things such as your heart rate, sleep cycles, respiration rate, and snoring.
The metric that I review regularly is their composite sleep score which is scaled from 1 to 100 and consists of:
Using their API I can also pull this data into my evening journal template for a quick review.
Once you’ve set up a system for tracking, whether with a hardware device or a smartphone app, you can begin interventions. Below I’ve highlighted seven of the most influential changes that have helped me feel well rested and achieve a high sleep score.
First and foremost you should treat your bedroom as a sacred sleep sanctuary. This means eliminating the use of electronics in the room, or at the very minimum not using them while in bed.
A key component of any good sleep sanctuary is the absence of light and noise. In every bedroom that I’ve slept in over the last 5 years I’ve taken great pains to apply blackout window film on my bedroom windows so that no light gets in.
Sound-proofing a bedroom starts with identifying the source for the noise. Sometimes it’s coming from your door, in which case a door draft can be an effective solution. Other times it’s from outside your window, in which case you might want to consider getting soundproof curtains and window inserts. The other potential solution to noise is to simply use white noise, like rain from an Alexa or the sound of a fan.
When I’m travelling, I found that the combination of this sleep mask and ear plugs have been the most effective for me.
An important concept related to sleep is that of the circadian rhythm, which is simply the body’s internal process that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. By having an irregular sleep schedule you risk disturbing this biological process which can result in shallower, fragmented, and lower-quality sleep. In my case I’ve found that going to sleep at 10pm and waking up between 6-8am to be the most effective. There are some apps that can wake you up during light sleep, rather than REM or deep sleep which can result in grogginess. Again experiment and see what works for you, as long as you settle on something consistent.
I also recommend creating some sort of evening ritual which can signal the end of a day. For example, I have Withing smart lights which turn to a red color at 8pm. This signals to me that it’s time to wind down my day, and begin my evening journal entry. Once I’m done journalling, I’ll shut down all my electronics and go for a walk. When I come back, I’ll spend the rest of the evening winding down with piano, meditation and reading fiction to get my mind primed and ready for sleep. My biggest blocker to sleep is a busy mind getting lost in introspection. So by inhabiting a fictional world before sleep, I find that entering the dream world becomes a lot easier. By 10pm I’ll have brushed my teeth and be in bed.
The subject of sleep supplements is difficult because on the one hand I can recognize how effective they are at facilitating sleep. Yet at the same time, there’s an inherent danger of becoming dependent on a supplement that can disrupt your brain’s natural ability to generate the hormones necessary for sleep. That’s why I recommend you have some basic rules around taking sleep supplements rather than popping them every night lest you develop a tolerance.
Personally I use sleep supplements only as a last resort, whether because I’ve been tossing and turning for an hour, or because I know beforehand that I’ll have trouble falling asleep that night (likely because I drank coffee at 3pm).
The ones that I’ve found to be the most effective are melatonin in small doses like 2.5mg, magnesium glycinate and Hemp Oil.
The one consistent thing I’ve noticed in my data is that anytime I drink caffeine after 2pm, I’m bound to have difficulty falling asleep and will be forced to take melatonin. I’ve also found that I get less deep sleep, often over-sleeping my natural wake up time and wake up feeling off.
While this one isn’t always easy to follow I try to stick to it as best as I can.
As I mentioned earlier, I have my Withings smart lights turn to a red color at 8pm to signal the beginning of my evening routine and minimize my blue light exposure which can suppress melatonin production. I also stop using electronics after 8pm, again to minimize blue light exposure.
At an earlier point in my life I went as far as to wear blue light blocking glasses, but I found them to be more of a nuisance than an aid however your experience may vary.
While its recommended that you avoid exercising close to bedtime, it is recommended that you apply some stress to your body throughout the day in the form of exercise. Whether it’s by running, weight lifting or some other physical activity, the stress from the activity will make it much easier for you to fall asleep.
Since interruptions are a key part of the sleep score, we want to minimize the number of times we wake up in the night. Drinking liquids, particularly alcohol before bed guarantees you waking up several times in the night.
For the nights that I do wake up needing to use the bathroom, I’ve resigned to using this jug that I keep by my bed to avoid making the round trip to the bathroom and further disrupting my sleep.
The topics we covered above should set you well on your way to design your own sleep experiments in your quest to optimize sleep. Once you’ve established a good experimental framework and run your interventions, eventually you’ll settle on something that works for you. If you’ve had other things help improve your sleep, I’d love for you to share them in the comments below.