- Sleep is now considered a real performance enhancer in all aspects of life. But as many in 1-in-3 Australians have been affected by long-term sleep problems.
- Beyond the usual suspects, there are a bunch of 'advanced' sleep improvement techniques you can use, the most important of which is 'pre sleep routine'.
- If you're still not getting anywhere, doctors and psychologists can prescribe behavioural treatments, medicines or herbal supplements to take.
🤡 Can't sleep, clown will eat you?
Not getting enough sleep is shitty and unnecessary.
We want to fix it. Because whatever weird and wonderful dreams you have, you should be having more of them.
Signs of poor sleep
People with insomnia can feel dissatisfied with their sleep and usually experience one or more of the following symptoms: fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, and decreased performance in work or at school.
Symptoms include having difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and/or waking up too early in the morning. 'Acute insomnia' is brief and often driven by a specific event (e.g. receiving bad news, stressed before an exam or work).
💉 Sleep the performance enhancing drug
“Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting” Dr. Matthew Walker, Sleep Expert
Well there ya go!
Sleep works in several states, passing us through phases including rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep that each recover different functions of the body, like brain, memory and muscles.
When you get sleep right, it can be a beautiful thing.
But if you're doing it tough, you're missing out on serious performance during your day. But proper sleep habits can be learned!
😱 Insomnia is pretty normal
First things first, let’s de-stigmatise a word, insomnia.
Isn't insomnia is where you never sleep and write stuff all over your walls and probably are really, really paranoid?
All insomnia is, according to the National Sleep Foundation, is difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. The RACGP states that it is also the most common sleep disorder, with anywhere from 11-33% of adults having regular difficulties.
📉 Or are you in a sleep slump?
So, you might have chronic insomnia (that goes for longer than a month), or something more short-term.
We're not big on over-diagnosis of problems, so if it's not life-threatening, it's best to assume you have a mild case of insomnia, then upgrade your treatment later.
The normal advice
- Avoid caffeine after 4pm, and especially before bed
- Avoiding blue light / screens
- Maintain optimal doona temp (actual advice)
- Blackout your bedroom windows
- Don’t exercise strenuously before bedtime
- Don’t nap during the day
- Cut down on smoking and drinking
- Do something to relax, such as meditate or have a warm bath
The harsh truth
When your day or night activities gets put under any stress, all of the above flies out the window. You can thank:
- that impromptu extra shift at work
- a few after work beers
- a date, and it went well (good for you, mate)
- needed to re-watch a whole series of GoT… in one sesh….
🔧 Advanced sleep hacks
1) Pre-sleep routine
Whatever happens in your evening, the routine to prepare you for sleep should be the same each night regardless of when you actually get to sleep.
The point is that if you get home buzzing from the day and jump straight into bed, worried you have to get up in six hours, you'll actually have a much worse sleep than if you take a bit of time and complete the routine.
Take time to prepare and you will sleep better for the remaining hours you are asleep.
This wind down can take 15 minutes; it can take two hours. You may even have two or more different wind downs. One for when you have the luxury of time, and one for when you don’t. The main point is that if you take the time to do it, your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep will improve dramatically.
2) Do a 'pre-set' relaxing activity
A pre-set relaxing activity is something you do before bed. Plan what your activity will be before you go to sleep. Think slow: a shower, stretching, guided meditation, reading a book (if that doesn’t stimulate your mind), etc.
You should definitely do relaxing things to help you switch off before you go to bed as well. At a minimum, these include:
- Turning the lights down
- Reducing screen time
- Warm shower
It’s up to you to be responsible not to do engaging things which will keep you awake unnaturally, like playing five hours of Starcraft or PUBG… or endless scrolling on social media (the worst).
3) Avoid blue light
Let’s pause on this for a moment. We’ve all heard about 'the blue light thing'. You know, looking at blue light (like your phone or TV) before bed keeps you up.
Here's why the light thing is actually a thing. It reduces your secretions of melatonin which affects your circadian rhythm according to science.
At the very least, make use of appropriate light filters on your phone. You can turn off all the blue light using a night mode or blue light filter. The issue with blue light is that it tell your brain that it’s day time and that you shouldn’t be getting sleeping.
Enough of that, this is how you do it:
iOS – From the iPhone or iPad's main screen, open the Settings application. Scroll to Display and Brightness, tap on it, then slide the toggle for Night Shift to the active position. Optionally, toggle and adjust the Night Shift Schedule setting to have the iPhone automatically engage Night Shift at certain times.
Alternatively use Flux, they know their stuff. They’ve done a lot of research. Can apply to your computer as well.
Android – For Android users, turning on Night Light is in your Settings app under Display (sometimes called “Personalisation”). This varies from model to model, but Night Light is available from Android N (7.0) onwards. As an alternative, you can download Twilight.
4) Bed is for sleep and, well, ahem...
- you want to read a book?
- you want to meditate?
- watch some movies?
Great! Do it somewhere else other than your bedroom.
Only come to bed when you are ready to sleep. We’re training the body, here. 'Pavlovian conditioning' is thought to have a critical role in perpetuating insomnia.
What this means is that you associate you room with an awakened state. “As soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m awake!”
"Attempts to sleep despite being awake result in the bedroom environment becoming paired with an awake state. Over time, the bed is no longer associated with sleep; rather, the bed environment triggers an ‘awake’ state." 12
5) Go to bed LATER
Yep, you read that right: later.
If you aren’t yawning, you’ve still got work to do. Going to bed just because you have to get up early is a bad strategy. The likelihood is that you will just stay awake in bed, getting more frustrated and agitated that you aren’t asleep. Which makes you try harder. Which makes you more frustrated... sound familiar?
When you catch yourself getting angry that you aren’t asleep yet, this should be your wake up call (pun intended) that you have lost this round.
You need to eject yourself from the downward agitation spiral. Get up, leave the room, do a 'pre-set relaxing activity'.
6) Sleep tracking apps
We've included these last for a specific reason, but there are a bunch of cool sleep tracking apps for those interested in their patterns over the medium to long term.
The trick here is not being too concerned by the short-term results. If you wake up and your app shows you a bad sleep score, it's easy to let that score convince you that you're tired and going to have a shitty day.
🚨 Serious sleep problems
So you've tried the above, and its a no-go? Never fear.
You may just be showing signs of what is considered 'chronic' insomnia, which means it has hung around for at least a month.
It's also in 10% of the population, so it's sadly quite normal.
Causes of chronic insomnia
Causes include environmental changes (think new apartment on a main road), unhealthy sleep habits (benders), shift work, other clinical disorders, and certain medications.
People with chronic insomnia may benefit from some form of medication or treatment to help them get back to healthy sleep patterns, and doctors often prescribe Benzodiazepines AKA tranquillisers (which are addictive) or melatonin (a sleep hormone that is safer).
Chronic insomnia can often be 'co-morbid', meaning it is linked to another medical or psychiatric issue, although it's difficult to understand the cause and effect relationship.
Persistent insomnia needs professional support and a lot of patience. It might take some time to re-establish normal sleeping patterns. Top line, some of the techniques used by a sleep disorder clinic might include:
- A sleep diary, to help pinpoint the pattern of insomnia
- A program of mild sleep deprivation
- Medication to help set up a new sleeping routine
- Exposure to bright light in the morning
- Behavioural therapy (speak to a psychologist for that)
📓 Sleep diaries
A sleep diary is actually the first port-of-call for doctors trying to pinpoint the cause of sleep problems, and it's simple enough that you can do it yourself.
It's basically a sheet of paper with a lined grid (crazy, we know) that you fill in after sleep every day, and it charts when you went to bed, when you woke up, your mood, and important consumption markers.
The National Sleep Foundation has a pretty decent version, but we're looking into making this even easier for our members in the future.
🧠 Behavioural therapy
Sometimes, insomnia is maintained by behaviours and thoughts you develop in the first place to cope with poor sleep. A cycle, of sorts.
Psychologists can dig into this, and fix the cycle with a process known as 'Cognitive Behavioural Therapy', or CBT-i (the i is for insomnia, take that Apple).
They apply techniques ranging from the 'sleep hygiene' techniques we've touched on throughout this guide, to more rigid stimulus control. Anyway, it's at the hands of a professional, who you often pay for (which often a funny effect of making it effective). Talk to a psychologist on our partner-platform, Lysn.
Sleep restriction AKA deprivation is pretty cool and has also shown evidence of working. This is how they do it:
If a patient reports sleeping 5 hours on average a night, out of 8 hours spend in bed. The initial recommended sleep window is restricted to 5 hours. They adjust this 'sleep window' until optimal sleep duration is reached.
This creates mild sleep deprivation, but from there they then lengthen sleep time as sleep improves.
💊 Medications and herbal therapy
As with anything you take, doctors want to start small, with what is known as a minimum effective dose. So applying that principle to using medicine is a good idea, and we strongly suggest you talk to a GP before anything.
The jury still out. The available evidence suggests that valerian might improve sleep quality without producing side effects.
Melatonin works well and doesn’t cause withdrawal or symptoms of dependence, according to nineteen studies involving 1,683 subjects. Melatonin demonstrated significant efficacy in reducing sleep latency and increasing total sleep time. Trials with longer duration and using higher doses of melatonin demonstrated greater effects on decreasing sleep latency and increasing total sleep time. It is also especially effective for resetting your circadian rhythm, jet lag etc.
Be aware that melatonin requires doctor’s prescription in Australia.
I know what you are thinking, “But I’ve heard people buying it at the pharmacy”. The truth is that if you are buying melatonin over the counter (OTC) without a prescription, it will be a homoeopathic melatonin. This means the active ingredient has been diluted so dramatically that the active ingredient is practically rendered irrelevant. (Parts per million, in some cases.)
Other treatments, like benzos, are more hardcore, and is an effective medication for the short term treatment of acute insomnia. Downside? Can be addictive, and if you are a young man, you may be met with scepticism when wanting a doctor to prescribe it.
🤯 The boss-mode sleep routine
If you honestly want to sleep better, be strict. If you think to yourself that some of these rules seem a bit repressive, stop wasting your time and prepare for nothing to improve.
Bit harsh? Not sleeping will impact the rest of your life. Moods will decrease, your immune system will decrease, your overall performance will decrease. Intention set? Good. Let's turn intention into action.
Here is your new, boss-mode routine:
- Go to the bed and wake up at the same time each morning. No sleep ins. No snooze
- “Even on weekends?” you ask? Yes, even on weekends
- If you are struggling to fall asleep or you aren’t tired, GET UP. Leave your room. Read a book, stretch, or listen to mediation app listed below
- Gym or exercise in the morning to strengthen circadian rhythm (ideally in the sunlight), not in the evening (unless yoga or something relaxing)
- No caffeine after 3pm, no alcohol (some rules are meant to be broken, hey?)
- No emails after 6pm
- Phone switched to 'do not disturb' at 8 pm. Brightness down. Switch on 'night mode'
- Lights dimmed at 8pm also (just like school camp)
- If you don’t know what to do between now and bedtime, well there is probably some issues you need to address right then and there
- Stretch, yoga or meditation
😊 Not letting bad sleep affect you
While you should aim for a great sleep routine, don’t let the quality of a night’s sleep become a deciding factor of how good your day will be. It is easy to be frustrated or annoyed when you wake up or can’t sleep. No offence, but this is stupid.
This paradoxical state won’t help you achieve your goal. Change your perspective. Take the pressure off. Remove your expectation of what is a good night sleep.