High-quality sleep might be the best thing you can do for your health, but you can’t always control how well you sleep. Disrupted sleep was actually one of my primary catalysts to pay attention to my health. During the pandemic, I lived next to a guy who would throw loud parties 3-4 times a week until 12-1am. Because of the moratorium on evictions, there was nothing anyone could do about it, so I lived in this environment for over a year. I learned that while sleep is important, it’s not so precious that you can’t make the best of bad sleep.
It’s somewhat common to get so caught up in optimizing sleep that people develop sleep anxiety. Sleep anxiety then causes stress, which contributes to poor sleep. Poor sleep contributes to higher sleep anxiety in a maladaptive cycle. While this post discusses some common disruptors of sleep that you should avoid, it also discusses strategies for dealing with bad sleep to avoid this cycle of sleep anxiety. Like most things, perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good. Sleep quality is not binary. If you can’t reach some ideal, you can still benefit from taking steps that are accessible to you.
Disruptor 1: Anxiety and Stress
In addition to sleep anxiety, plain ol’ regular anxiety and stress disrupt sleep. While anxiety and stress need to be managed beyond sleep, some strategies can help with sleep specifically.
- Most people who develop a mediation or mindfulness practice will also find that they sleep better because it helps them recognize when they’re lost in thought. This recognition process can interrupt playing tug-of-war with your mind and allow you to, metaphorically, drop the rope.
- Another strategy is to journal just before bed. Whether to write down the things you need to do tomorrow or dump stressors onto a page, journaling can help you get things off your mind so your mind doesn’t feel the need to keep processing them.
- When lying in bed, some people find a breathing practice helpful for falling asleep. It’s hard to control your mind with your mind, so focusing on your body can help. Box breathing is a popular choice: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts.
Disruptor 2: Light
Light, especially bright or overhead light, sends a signal to our body that it’s daytime, which interferes with sleep. As a result, darker sleep environments generally produce better sleep. In addition, viewing bright or overhead lights right before bed, like looking at an undimmed phone while lying in bed, can disrupt the melatonin that helps us fall asleep. Viewing light in the middle of the night, from 11-4 (or whenever is a few hours after sunset), can be particularly disruptive because it can reset your circadian rhythm. If you’ve ever felt sleepy and then gotten a second wind after 10pm or so, you might have experienced this. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s best not to look at your phone or turn on overhead lights.
Disruptor 3: High body temperature
Part of the circadian rhythm is a drop in body temperature at night. Increasing body temperature is one of the ways that your body wakes you up in the morning. Thus, it’s hard to sleep when it’s too hot, including if you exercise too close to bed. Instead, taking a hot shower or curling up under a blanket can help your body cool down to compensate, and when you take away the external heat source, you have a lower body temperature perfect for sleeping.
Disruptor 4: Digestion, Alcohol, and Drugs
I’ve already talked about not eating a few hours before bed, and part of that is because digestion inhibits deeper levels of sleep. Eating too close to bedtime, or even eating too much at dinner, can interrupt sleep. Similarly, alcohol and drugs can negatively impact sleep, even if they help you fall asleep faster. They help people fall asleep because they are sedatives, but sedatives also inhibit deeper levels of sleep. In addition, processing alcohol typically produces a surge of cortisol in the middle of the night that can wake you up. All of these factors contribute to feeling poorly rested in the morning.
Strategy 1: It’s better to keep a regular schedule with 1-2 nights of poor sleep than to make-up sleep.
Matthew Walker, one of the preeminent sleep researchers, has found that if you get 1, or even 2, nights of poor sleep, it’s better to stick to your routine than to sleep in or go to bed early. Changing your sleep routine generally produces worse outcomes cumulatively than 1-2 nights of poor sleep. He notes that this is particularly important for how we treat weekends. Having a different sleep routine on the weekends can result in less restful sleep for the entire week.
Strategy 2: 20-30 minute naps are fine if they don’t disrupt sleep.
Whether a nap is helpful or harmful depends on a lot of factors, including individual variance. If you do take a nap, make sure it’s several hours before bed and preferably 20-30 minutes to avoid getting into deeper levels of sleep. As long as the nap doesn’t keep you from falling asleep at bedtime, there doesn’t seem to be a downside, but it also doesn’t replace sleep. Many people find that non-sleep rest works better than naps for a mid-afternoon break. Non-sleep rest can include meditation (my personal favorite), a leisurely walk, sitting and zoning out, or something else that gives you a mental break.
Strategy 3: Supplements for sleep
A large portion of the population is deficient in magnesium or vitamin D, which are both important for quality sleep. As a result, many people find that these supplements improve their sleep. There are many types of magnesium that are more easily used by different parts of the body. For sleep, the best magnesium supplement is magnesium threonate, and it can be taken by itself 30-60 minutes before sleep. For vitamin D, D3 is the most bioavailable version, and it must be taken with fat/meals to absorb optimally. Sleep researchers caution against supplementing melatonin regularly because it creates a dependency, and the dosages are not well regulated. Because of how melatonin interacts with serotonin, taking exogenous melatonin, especially in supraphysiological amounts, can create downstream effects that are unpredictable.
For more information about sleep, see assorted topics on the Matthew Walker Podcast. Matthew Walker is a renown sleep researcher who does a great job of balancing laboratory ideals with realistic life. He also has a three-part series on sleep chronotypes, if you think you might fall into the early bird or night owl categories.