I wouldn't consider myself an insomniac, but I've had plenty of sleepless nights. Understanding some of the psychology and biology behind good sleep has helped me tremendously. Here, I'll share what I've learned, how I implement it, and how it's personally worked for me. I've broken this article down into three major problem areas that I feel can be obstacles to a great night of sleep.
Problem #1: Blue Light Disrupts Sleep
Have you ever looked at the walls of the room you're in when you're watching TV at night? Almost no matter what is on the screen, the light from the TV will cast a bright blue hue all over the room. That's because your TV, your phone screen, your laptop screen--pretty much anything that uses LED lights, including energy-saving bulbs--produces blue light.
Blue light is light that exists within the 400-500 nm vibration range of the visible light spectrum. While screens and artificial sources of light produce blue light, by far the biggest emitter of blue light is the sun. So, what does all this have to do with sleep?
Humans evolved with the sun. Before we had watches and screens to tell us what time it was, we just relied on the sun. Humans woke up just before, or at, sunrise, and they settled in for the night at sunset. Once the sun disappeared for the day, virtually all blue light vanished as well. Blue light thus acted as a signal to our bodies for when it was time to go to sleep, and when it was time to wake up.
As the sun sets, and the blue light in the environment diminishes, our bodies respond by producing melatonin, the hormone that acts as the initiator of our nightly sleep cycle. Melatonin is our bodies ingenious way of getting us to fall asleep, and stay asleep, allowing us to have a restful and restorative night.
Blue light also helps us wake up in the morning by signaling to the body to shut down the production of melatonin. Ancient humans didn't have black out blinds. When the sun rose in the morning, they would begin receiving a steady stream of blue light, which would only increase in intensity as the sun rose higher. Studies on the effect of blue light exposure during the daytime have since shown that we do need blue light to function optimally. Blue light improves our alertness, cognitive function, and mood during the day, with proper exposure being a key to establishing a healthy sleep cycle.
So, here's the problem: We expose ourselves to too much artificial blue light at night, which suppresses the production of melatonin, making it much harder to fall asleep quickly, and stay asleep throughout the night. We've spent thousands of years optimizing and adapting our sleep cycle to the rising and setting of the sun, only to have the whole thing disrupted in the last few decades by screens blasting blue light at us at all hours of the night.
I do want to note that blue light really shouldn't be vilified, as it does play a very important part in our lives when it comes to sleep, mood, and cognition. What I really want to do is help you better understand your relationship to blue light in the modern world, and how changing that relationship can help your sleep
The Solution: Setting Limits, Technology Tweaks & Blue-Light Blocking Glasses
My solution to the artificial blue-light problem has been to limit my screen time at night, utilize the Night Shift Mode on my iPhone and MacBook, and to buy a pair of really funny looking glasses.
Limiting Screen Time At Night
All of these solutions pretty much dovetail into each other, but this is a good place to start. Around 8-9PM, I try to stop looking at all screens. I understand that for some people, myself included, this is impossible at times because of work or social engagements, and that's okay. The real point of this habit is to get into the routine of eliminating blue light exposure from screens at a set time, preferably an hour or two before you actually go to bed at night. When you can implement this, it will eliminate a major source of artificial blue light, as well as help you wind down for the night and calm your mind.
If eliminating screens from your life at night isn't possible, filtering out as much blue light as possible is the next best option. Pretty much every smartphone today has a Night Shift feature that functions to filter out blue light. If you're on an iPhone, just go to Settings>Display & Brightness>Night Shift. It will give you the option of setting a schedule, which I would recommend starting at 6PM and ending at 7AM. There will also be a slider at the bottom to adjust screen warmth. Turning it up to More Warm will give the screen a deeper yellow hue, effectively blocking out the most possible blue light.
The Red Screen
You can take your smartphone's built-in blue light-blocking abilities one step further. If you're on an iPhone, go to Settings>Accessibility>Display & Text Size>Color Filters. Toggle the Color Filters button On, select the Color Tint option, and turn the INTENSITY and HUE sliders up all the way. If you did this right, your screen should look blood red. This effectively prevents your phone screen from emitting any blue light, however it looks pretty ugly. The good thing is, your phone screen will be so unappealing to look at that it may inadvertently cause you to reduce your screen time!
If this is something you want to try getting into the habit of using, but don't want to have to go digging through the settings every night, you can create a shortcut using the power button on your iPhone. Go to Settings>Accessibility>Accessibility Shortcut>Color Filters. Now, when you click the side button three times in a row on your iPhone, your screen should switch to the blood-red-total-blue-light-blocking filter.
Blue Light-Blocking Glasses
These are exactly what they sound like. They're glasses that block blue light from your eyes. Blue Light-Blocking glasses come in a few different variations. The lenses typically go from what looks essentially clear, meant for blocking out some blue light during the day, and preventing eye strain from computer screens, all the way up to a deep red, meant to block 100% of blue light from reaching your eyes.
These ridiculous things pictured above are my personal pair. I got them from a company called TrueDark about a month ago, and honestly, I think they really work. Research into the effectiveness of Blue Light-Blocking glasses is just beginning, but there's some promising evidence so far that they do work, however more research is definitely needed.
I wear these about an hour before I go to bed, or if I'm on my computer past 7PM. Now, I understand that many people would have a lot of trepidation about wearing glasses that look like this. But I'm not talking about wearing them out to a restaurant at night or the movie theater. What they're really great for is at home use, especially when you need to be working with screens late at night. And I can honestly say that I feel like I've definitely been falling asleep faster, and getting into a deeper sleep almost every night, since I started wearing these.
You can check out more about Blue Light-Blocking glasses on TrueDark's website, as well as on BluBlox, another reputable company selling blue light-blocking glasses. These glasses can get a little pricey, but personally, I think they're worth the investment, especially if you're in front of screens a lot at night.
Red Light Bulbs
If you're really serious about eliminating all blue light at night, but still want to be able to actually see stuff, red light bulbs are the way to go.
I got these from TrueDark, the same company that makes the glasses. They come with a little remote that lets you play with the brightness and wavelength, so you're able to use them as regular lights during the day, and then switch them over to only emitting red light at night. These are great for reading or writing at night, as they're still plenty bright enough to see by. The only potential downside is that your room will look like an old-school photography development dark room. You can learn more about them here if you're interested.
Problem #2: You Have A Lot On Your Mind
Global pandemic, uncertain job market, one insane story after the next on the news--there's a lot going on! Feeling anxious is something a lot of people talk about, especially nowadays, and it's a huge detriment to sleep. The number one reason for almost every sleepless night I've ever had was a racing mind. Over the last year or so, however, I've found a pretty simple and effective solution.
The Solution: Keep a Journal & Plan Your Day
Keep a journal. Seriously. It's one of the best things you can do for yourself. Journaling your thoughts allows you to have a conversation with yourself. It may not always be productive or solve all your problems, but it certainly will take some weight off your mind. If there's something bothering you, even if you can't describe it in words, just start writing. See what comes out. Sometimes when you have an upset stomach, your body forces you to throw up, even if its the last thing you want to do. But chances are, you will feel somewhat better afterwards, if not a lot better. it's the same with journaling. We're talking about mental throw up, and its always better to get it out than to keep it in.
Pouring your thoughts on a page, especially when it pertains to something you're anxious or scared about, can feel daunting, but it's worth it. The benefit of doing this is that you can gain some feeling of control back. The problem is now on the page, accounted for, and can be dealt with after a good night's rest. I've found that more often than not, journaling has the effect of calming my mind, and I no longer feel such a strong urge to keep ruminating over my thoughts.
Plan Your Day
Your brain is great at generating thoughts and ideas, but really bad at keeping them all in once place. Your head isn't a day planner, nor is it a file cabinet. For a more sound night's sleep, write some notes or to-do's down in a planner for the upcoming day. This creates the same mind-calming effects as journaling, because you know all the obligations and things you need to remember are accounted for. I find that doing this helps me stay asleep at night. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night, or super early in the morning, because I'm afraid I'll forget something I need to do the next day. I don't need to think about any of that, the day planner has it covered for me.
Problem #3: Coffee & Alcohol
Coffee, or any other caffeinated drink, contains caffeine, which acts as a stimulant and keeps you awake. Alcohol consumption too close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep cycle and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. I'll talk about how I deal with both.
Caffeine doesn't actually give you energy, per se. What actually happens, is that the caffeine molecule binds to receptors on the brain, known as adenosine receptors. Adenosine is a molecule we all produce everyday as a byproduct of burning energy. Normally, adenosine builds up throughout the day as we burn energy, binds to the adenosine receptors, and this binding is what tells our brain its time to rest. When enough adenosine is bound, we get drowsy, sleepy, and relaxed. Adenosine itself produces calming effects by stimulating the production of GABA in the brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. This build up of adenosine, and its downstream effects, help create an internal environment conducive to inducing a good night's sleep.
The caffeine molecule disrupts this process by binding to adenosine receptors, effectively preventing adenosine from being able to bind. This tricks our brain into thinking there's no adenosine, so therefore we must not be tired! So really, caffeine functions more so to keep us awake and alert by preventing the feeling of being tired, rather than giving us more energy that we can actually use.
Everyone metabolizes caffeine differently. If one cup of coffee, or other caffeinated beverage, leaves you feeling jittery and anxious, you're probably a slow metabolizer. On the other hand, we all know people who drink multiple cups of coffee a day without a problem. These are the efficient metabolizers.
Caffeine has a half life of about 6 hours, on average. This means that if you drink a beverage with 100mg of caffeine at 12PM, 50mg of caffeine will still be circulating in your system by 6PM, 25mg by 12AM, and so on. This remaining caffeine may not keep you from falling asleep, but it can still negatively affect the quality of your sleep, leaving you feeling tired and groggy the next morning. For a lot of people, this can create a cycle where they load up on even more caffeine the next day to combat their fatigue, which unbeknownst to them makes their chances at a good nights sleep even worse. This is the paradox of caffeine consumption that people often fail to realize. We reach for it for it to feel less tired, yet when consumed improperly, it only propagates feelings of fatigue the next day, by disrupting our sleep that night.
As a rule, I try to not to have any coffee past past 11AM, usually getting my one or two cups in before 9AM everyday. I almost never have coffee in the afternoon, even if I feel like I'm hitting a wall. If there is a morning where I do wake up feeling unusually tired and unrested, I will skip having coffee that day. This is because I don't want to compound the issue, and a I want to take full advantage of the calming, sleep-promoting effects of my body's adenosine.
Alcohol messes with the stages of your sleep cycle, prevents you from entering a deep sleep, and causes you to wake up several times throughout the night. Unless I have plans to go out, in which case I'm okay with sacrificing a night of good sleep (social life is important too!), I try not to have any alcohol close to bedtime. If I do decide to have a drink, say with dinner or out with a friend, I limit myself to two drinks, maximum. This, for me, is the most I alcohol I can have at night that won't noticeably disrupt my sleep. Any more than that, and I find I'm waking up multiple times in the night and feeling unusually tired the next day.
A Word On Sleep Trackers
If you have a smartwatch, or wear something like the Whoop Strap or Oura Ring, you're able to track your sleep. I find sleep tracking helpful, up to a point. While none of these wearable technologies are medical grade, they're still pretty good, and it can be interesting and useful to get insights into your sleep patterns. For example, you could do some self-experiments to see how the timing and quantity of caffeine or alcohol consumption affect your sleep data, in an effort to fine tune your sleep routine. Sleep trackers that measure blood oxygen, like some of the Apple Watches or Fitbits, could also help identify possible signs of sleep apnea, which would be a very important insight for your overall health.
But if you're like me, you can become kind of obsessed with the measurements. This happened to me when I started wearing a Fitbit; I got so in my head about seeing my sleep data the next day, I wasn't able to fall asleep at night! I've since learned to take my sleep data a little less seriously, looking at it briefly each morning just to catch any major discrepancies, before starting my day. If you have real concerns about your sleep, always see a doctor. They can perform a real clinical sleep test and properly diagnose any underlying problems.
So, that's how I get great sleep. I think the biggest takeaway is to just be mindful of the three problems I've identified that can get in the way of a good night's rest. Pay attention to your environment, what you're consuming and when, and how you're feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally. If you identified any of these problems in your own life, and think they may be getting in the way of you and a good night's sleep, I hope you give some of my solutions a try. I promise it's worth it. Goodnight!