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Why is it so hard to get enough sleep?

Despite my praise of morning routines last year, I’ve been slipping back into my night owl habits. At first I blamed it on catching a cold, then I blamed it on the election, then I blamed it on the rain.

Blaming doesn’t really matter, what matters was I fell back into sleeping in late, rushing to get through my day, and I stopped doing yoga and meditating regularly. I started feeling worse and worse, but no matter what I did, I couldn’t get myself back in the routine.

You might think setting your alarm for 7am every day will eventually shift your sleep schedule such that you start getting tired earlier in the evening. This might even be true if you’re a dude. In fact, several years ago, I think this was the method I chose after reading an article about how to be a better manager or entrepreneur or startup bro, written by a dude.

I tested this method for four months. I never could get more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep in a night. I just couldn’t fall asleep, no matter how tired I’d been all day. Why?

Why won’t the body just get tired and go to sleep?

This question led me down a rabbit hole of research.

Sleep deprivation = inflammation

Recently, I read that loss of sleep causes an increase in inflammatory response … but possibly just in women. (The article didn’t really say why just the female participants had this response.)

Inflammation = cortisol

Here’s the key: When you have inflammation in the body, cortisol jumps in to help reduce it. So more inflammation = more cortisol.

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone — but it does a lot of things in the body, including managing your circadian rhythms.

The healthy rhythm is for cortisol to be high in the morning, in response to sunlight, waking you up at your normal time. Throughout the day the levels of cortisol in your body dwindle, lowering with the sun (in tune with serotonin being converted to melatonin) and making you feel sleepy at bed time.

Low cortisol = sleep. High cortisol = awake.

If you have a lot of cortisol in your body at bed time, you’re not going to feel sleepy. Even if you’re running on four hours of sleep and couldn’t drag yourself out of bed that morning. This effect is known as “wired and tired.” You’re exhausted, but you can’t fall asleep.

So let’s not set our alarms for 7am if we’re used to getting to bed around 2am, hoping our rhythm will shift naturally. Learn from my mistakes, mm kay?

Getting into a healthy rhythm

What we need to do instead is activate those natural circadian rhythm down-regulating systems I hinted at earlier.

Don’t come home from work, eat, and then keep working or launch into your side project until the wee hours of the morning.

Create a few hours of chill time as you wind down for bed.

The importance of the color of light

I talked about sunlight being a cue for cortisol. We’re sensitive to the color of light. Sunlight has a blue hue to it, as far as light temperatures go. The opposite of blue is orange.

Think about how this human brain system of ours lived for the last 50,000 years, not counting the last 100 or so. Once the sun went down, we didn’t have light bulbs or computer screens or TVs. Our ancestors who survived were the ones with safe communities to go home to, families to spend time with. They gathered around a campfire, maybe, told stories, laughed, danced. They spent time with their fellow humans and then drifted off to sleep until the sun came up in the morning.

Take a cue from campfires, with their orange hued light, for your evenings. Turn the lights down low, light some candles. Maybe even get warmer-hued lightbulbs for your bedside lamps. (I use this Naturebright lamp with color-changing bulbs and a sunrise alarm feature.) 

There are blue-filtering goggles you can wear if you’re really into it.

You can use an app called f.lux on your computer (if you have a Mac) or just avoid looking at screens after a certain point in the evening.

And to stay asleep, try a sleep mask and earplugs. I have been trying this recently and seeing a huge improvement in my sleep!

Create time to chill out

Shift into softer, relaxed clothing and spend time doing calming things, like talking with loved ones, reading a (paper) book, writing in a notebook, drawing, or doing some candlelight yoga, meditation, or take a bath.

Cortisol activates the sympathetic nervous system, so to lower cortisol, you want to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. The two are opposites and can’t be active at the same time.

Mindful eating, rest, massage, meditation, yin or restorative yoga, deep breathing, play, and journaling all activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Stimulating activities like loud music, watching dramatic television shows, playing intense video games, arguing, intense exercise, stimulating drugs, alcohol, etc. will do the opposite.

Avoid strenuous exercise in the evening — it can really surge your cortisol levels.

Don’t let your blood sugar crash in the night

One other thing to watch is blood sugar. If you have a big dinner and a few beers or glasses of wine, notice whether or not you tend to fall asleep easily but then wake up in the middle of the night.

This may be because your blood sugar levels got too low. When that happens, guess who jumps in to regulate blood sugar levels? Cortisol!

If you’re waking up in the middle of the night, notice if you feel hungry. If so, try instead eating smaller dinners, going easy on the alcohol (it can be really blood sugar destabilizing) and then eating a snack just before bedtime that is low carb, high protein, with good fats to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the night.

This could be a couple celery sticks or nut crackers with almond butter, or some hard-boiled egg chopped up with avocado and cilantro… Eat slowly and mindfully to prepare yourself for a full night’s sleep.

A supplement called Chromium can also be helpful to maintain blood sugar levels. Talk to your healthcare practitioner about supplements you can add safely.

Why is this so hard?

So Sarah, you may be wondering, if you know all this stuff, why are you still struggling?

Knowledge is only half the battle. It is one thing to read and absorb all this information, as I have in all my research throughout the years. It is quite another to put the laptop away at the end of the day when you finally have a moment of free time to work on your creative side project, and you’ve got the cortisol-fueled drive to work on it.

There is a whole other part of this that, ironically, was easiest for me when I was already doing the morning routine — time management.

When I had time to plan out my day and make sure I was giving myself time to work on all my high priority projects, and meditate, and play, and spend time with friends, I was on top of the world.

When I’m sleeping in and struggling to catch up, that extra hour or two when I should be winding down feels like just the time to get started.

This is one of those self-enforcing downward spirals, my friends, and it is hard to break.

I’m watching it, and I’m trying. It’s a start.

If you want to chat more about this, head over to pathless.club and let’s have a conversation. We can help hold each other accountable and send encouragement as we work to break these patterns.

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