How to Get Restful Sleep When You Can’t is a guest post by Tom Peeters, a former insomniac who did some digging and finally got rid of his sleeping problems. Today, he helps other people overcome their insomnia. Check out his blog The Sleep Strategy to find out how to sleep better.
How to Get Restful Sleep When You Can’t
Sleep: The Hidden Part of Life
Sleep is something that most people find natural. They wake up in the morning, go about their day, and come nightfall, they become tired and fall asleep.
Not everyone is that lucky. There are a lot of people out there who have big trouble sleeping, and are suffering immensely because of it.
And I was once one of them.
I wanted to sleep, but college got in the way
The transition from ‘normal sleeper’ to ‘insomniac’ didn’t come overnight. I think it all started when I started going to college. From a regulated day schedule, tightly overseen by my parents, I suddenly drowned in freedom. I didn’t reserve night for sleep anymore, not even on weekdays. I would go out, hang out in bars, come home around 5 AM and sleep until well in the afternoon. For a few years, life was great.
In addition to this, I was, since my teenage years, a hardcore exercise addict, and college didn’t change that fact. Intense exercise was a daily appointment for me. Later on, I also started CrossFit, which I loved equally. I had a good diet, watched what I ate, and often restricted calories to cut. I also drank insane amounts of coffee, especially during exam periods.
This lifestyle, combined with an irregular day/night schedule, over time wrecked my sleep. The first couple of years, I just fell asleep at irregular hours, but when I was sleepy, I fell asleep quickly, so no harm there. I often slept during the day and lived in the night.
From time to time however, there were times where I never fell asleep at all. I worried about the impact this might have on my health, and decided to implement a ‘normal’ day schedule. Unfortunately, I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t able to do this. And it didn’t take long for one sleepless night to become two nights in a row, or even an entire week.
This started me on my journey to find out what was the cause of my insomnia, and find out how I could fix my sleep again. I spent thousands of dollars on sleep aids, supplements, gadgets and what not. I read all the books I could find on sleeping, and implemented all of the advice I found. Nothing really seemed to work consistently. After some more digging, I started to connect the dots and found what was keeping me up.
This is what I’m going to share with you today.
THE BIG THREE: THE LEADING CAUSES OF INSOMNIA
Basically, it all comes down to hormones. These substances regulate every one of our biological processes. I came to the conclusion that something was going on in that department, which led me to learn more about the body’s energy production.
- Your Metabolic Rate
This is how I came upon the concept of metabolism. I had heard about metabolism before, mostly in the context of weight loss. Supposedly, drinking coffee and eating spicy foods and taking supplements would boost your metabolism and then you’d burn more fat. That’s what all the health gurus claimed.
I’d taken supplements before that supposedly increased my metabolic rate during my cutting cycles (which later on, I learned, probably contributed to my sleeping issues). Later on I learned that metabolic rate is actually a bit more complex than how people usually portray it, and that it probably plays a key role in good sleep.
- Your Circadian Rhythm
Also, I got familiar with the concept of zeitgebers, which are environmental cues the body uses to tell time, by setting the circadian clock. The first time I encountered this concept was in Tim Ferriss’ book ‘The Four Hour Body’, in which the author speaks of his own insomnia troubles, and how he used an special lightbox that emits strong blue light. I bought the same lightbox, but it didn’t seem to work as well for me at first. Later on though, I implemented proper circadian rhythm habits, which were a key element in my recovery. Light exposure was probably the most important factor.
Finally, I learned how to deal with sleepless, anxiety-filled nights, and how to use the power of the mind to create good sleeping habits. This is basically what Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) supposedly does. I had tried CBT before, which sometimes helped, other times didn’t. CBT is usually touted as the most effective cure for insomnia, but in my experience, it took way too much conscious effort, for something I thought was supposed to be natural and automatic. When the first two factors, metabolic rate and circadian rhythm are well in place, I personally find that CBT is quite unnecessary. Nevertheless, it is a good addition if you want to sleep better. CBT definitely doesn’t hurt and has helped many people conquer their sleeping problems.
In any case, I can tell you a bit more about how I was able to sleep again. Let me share with you what I learned.
The Sun is Your Best Friend
We humans have evolved outdoors. Sure, we call our paleolithic ancestors ‘cavemen’, but that name actually suits us much better. After all, it’s we who are holed up inside all day. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, on the other hand, lived mostly outside, where they foraged and hunted to survive.
Even with the invention of agriculture, which made mankind sedentary, we were still very much exposed and subjected to the elements.
It is only since the Industrial Revolution that mankind has started to live entirely apart from nature, in buildings that reach the clouds. When Edison invented the light bulb, he made people independent of the sun. Since that time, we were able to implement our day/night schedule how we saw fit.
It is at this time that we can see the beginning of the insomnia epidemic.
You see, the main cue that our brain uses to tell time is light, and more specifically, light in the blue spectrum. Our eyes contain receptors that respond to this kind of light, and in response send a signal to a part of our brains called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This is where our main circadian clock is situated.
Our ancestors woke up each day with the rising of the sun. The strong light from the Sun sent a signal to our brains that it was day. This event rewound our circadian clock on a daily basis. The brain always knew when day had begun. As a result, it regulated biochemical processes accordingly. When the sun set, night came and all light went away. The brain noticed this as well.
There were no TV screens, no computers, no lightbulbs that emitted blue spectrum light. At most, we had a camp fire at night, but flames emit negligible amounts of blue light, so that was never a problem. Because of this natural day/night rhythm, our brain was able to figure out when to release certain hormones at what time of day.
As a result, sleep was natural, and insomnia a rare event.
Cortisol, Melatonin & Sleep
Two of these hormones are of some importance.
Firstly, there’s cortisol. This is a hormone that normally peaks very strong in the morning. This in turn causes us to wake up. Over daytime, cortisol levels decrease again. Those levels are supposed to be at their very lowest at night. That is, if the brain can properly tell that it’s night and has received the proper external cues.
Secondly, there’s melatonin, a hormone that tells our body to go to sleep. The sleep-deprived will usually have heard of this substance before, since it’s a commonly used supplement that is supposed to induce sleep.
I’ve heard that it works for some, for others it doesn’t. I tried taking it myself, and never noticed much benefit. There’s a strong misconception about melatonin however. A lot of people mistake it for a sleeping pill. Melatonin itself does not induce sleep, it merely is a time-signaling hormone. The brain releases melatonin in the absence of light, in other words, when it’s dark. When you expose your eyes to blue light, for instance from the TV, no melatonin will be released.
Daylight is absolutely critical to signal your brain that it’s daytime. Indoor lighting and TV screens are very inadequate lighting sources. If you work in a cubicle all day, you might want to consider going outside for a walk at lunch break, or buying a special lightbox that emits high intensity blue light.
Simply put, if the brain has no consistent signaling to know when it’s day and when it’s night, it will not know when to release these hormones, and you’re not going to feel very sleepy in the evening.
This happens when you spend all day inside, away from the sun. It happens when you expose yourself to light from your TV and artificial lighting at night.
Good Circadian Habits = Good Sleep
Getting up and getting sun exposure at the same time every morning is extremely important if you want to fix sleep. And what’s more, even if you think you are sleeping well, if you don’t have morning sun exposure, and if you expose your eyes to blue light in the evening, then your sleep is not nearly as rejuvenating as it can be.
Light is only one of many zeitgebers, and optimizing every one of them will cause MASSIVE improvements in your sleep, which in turn transfers into good mood, good energy levels and good health overall.
Eating & Sleeping
Even if you do have good exposure to daylight, that won’t help if your metabolic rate is suffering.
So let’s delve a bit deeper into this concept of metabolic rate, and why it’s important.
Basically, your cells are constantly producing energy, to power all of your body’s physical and biochemical processes. This is what keeps you alive. This production of energy is the metabolism.
The body’s metabolic rate is mainly controlled by the thyroid and the adrenals. These regulate the fuel that is available to your body and the energy that your body will produce.
The body doesn’t necessarily always produce as much energy as possible. The body always adjusts its energy production to environmental factors. More importantly, it adjusts the energy produced based on the food that you take in each day.
DIETING WRECKS SLEEP
For instance, say you go on a diet, and you start eating way less food. The body interprets this as a famine, and it starts to burn less fuel and produce less energy. This is why diets always seem to stop working after a while. In the beginning you lose a lot of weight, and after a while it stalls. This is because your body has lowered its metabolic processes, allowing you to function on less energy. This means you’re also burning less fat.
The reason for this is simple: your body wants to help you survive. If there is a famine, and you’re burning the normal amount of calories, you would run out of fuel eventually. When your body lowers the amount of energy that is produced, your fuel stores will last longer. This allows you to survive without food longer.
However, this decreased energy production takes its toll on your quality of life. Because all of your cells produce less energy, they will also function less optimal, causing you to fall sick easier and tanking your mood and energy levels.
The metabolic rate can also drop due to all kinds of environmental stressors. Overexercising, extreme temperatures, toxic chemicals, lack of sleep(!), and many more. All of these cause your body to think that its survival is threatened, and to counter this, it lowers your energy production over time.
Now, remember how I said in the introduction that I was exercising really hard and being very strict with my diet. Over the years, without realizing it, I had completely wrecked my metabolism.
What happens when your metabolism is lowered, is that stress hormone levels increase. Stress hormones actually make up your body’s backup energy system, that produces energy when your main energy production is low. Because your body’s metabolic rate is chronically lowered, this backup system is online all the time, with very detrimental effects. Stress hormones generate energy by breaking down your body’s own tissue, in other words, they are catabolic.
These stress hormones at the same time make you jittery and anxious. I believe this is mainly to help you survive. If you undergo a lot of stress, the body thinks it needs to survive, and it will make you act defensive and afraid, so you’ll try to evade dangers. This does not do a lot of good for your quality of life, though.
These stress hormones are at the same time what keeps you awake. I told you before that cortisol levels usually rise in the morning to wake you up, remember? Well, when you have a lowered metabolic rate, your cortisol levels (as well as adrenaline) are high all the time. That makes it hard for you to fall asleep, even if you get sunlight every day and even if you have good sleeping habits.
If cortisol is high, you will be anxious and jittery, have racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat, and you will not be able to sleep no matter what.
If you have insomnia and are also suffering from anxiety and/or depression, chances are very high that your metabolic rate is low.
HOW TO TELL IF YOUR METABOLISM IS SLOWED DOWN & HOW TO FIX IT
To confirm if you have a lowered metabolism, you should check your body temperature. This is a great indicator of metabolic health. Normally, our body temperature should be around 37 degrees Celsius/98.6 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. It is usually a bit lower in the morning and evening. However, if your body temperature is way below that during the day, for example at 36.2 degrees Celsius/97.1 degrees Fahrenheit, that confirms there’s something wrong with your metabolism.
To improve metabolic rate, first of all it’s critical that you try to stabilize blood sugar levels. Supplying your body with adequate food ensures that the body has enough resources to produce energy, so it will not have to resort to releasing stress hormones (the backup system).
However, if you eat too much, or eat the wrong foods, blood sugar spikes. Because blood sugar levels become toxic when they’re too high, the body releases insulin to remove the excess blood glucose, and shuttles it into your fat cells.
What happens then?
The body wants to prevent blood sugar levels from getting too low. Low blood sugar levels are very dangerous, you see.. The body prevents this from happening by releasing cortisol. This increases blood sugar levels to their normal state again. This comes at a cost, because it increases your heart rate and makes you anxious. When you are anxious and pumped up with adrenaline and cortisol, sleep is hard to come by, as you might have found out.
In the first place, you should never starve yourself of food. This is imperative if you want to improve metabolic rate. If you are consciously restricting calories or macro-nutrients like fat or carbs, you’re depriving yourself of the fuel your body needs to produce energy. But at the same time, you want to avoid eating foods that screw up blood sugar levels, or make you fat, which increases insulin resistance, which makes it harder for cells to turn food into usable energy.
As a rule of thumb, use adequate protein in every meal, and eat enough carbohydrates. Ideally, for good blood sugar levels, you want to combine some lean kind of protein with fruit, and avoid carbohydrates that spike blood sugar levels, like bread or pasta. If you’re lean and move a lot during the day, you might be able to eat a bit more starches, since your cells will be better at taking in nutrients.
YES, YOU ABSOLUTELY CAN DRINK COFFEE
Often times, when people ask for advice on what to do when they can’t sleep, one of the first things they are told is to stop drinking coffee. Sure, coffee can interfere with sleep, if you drink a ton of it. But many people like their cup of joe every day.
I’m here to say: have your coffee and enjoy it.
I know that’s a bold statement, and many sleep specialists and doctors would argue otherwise.
Coffee absolutely can be harmful in large amounts. This is because it increases levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline in the blood, and those keep you wide awake.
But there’s another chemical that comes into play here: adenosine. Adenosine is a neurotransmitter that builds up during the day, and is supposed to make you feel sleepy in the evening. Caffeine also binds to the adenosine receptors, so adenosine can’t bind to it, thus removing the urge to sleep.
However, when you drink coffee before noon, the caffeine gets the chance to leave your bloodstream before the night sets in. Also, drinking coffee with food blunts the stress response, because there’s enough fuel for your cells. This means the body doesn’t need to release stress hormones to cope with the increased energy demand.
Also, the dosage makes the poison. One or two cups of coffee taken before noon will do little to upset sleep, but drink much more, and caffeine will certainly interfere with good sleep.
CAFFEINE CAN HELP YOU SLEEP BETTER
When used right, coffee is not only allowed, it can also help improve your sleep. I know right, what the hell?
The reasoning behind this is that caffeine can act as a circadian signaler, telling the brain it’s daytime. This means that if you drink it in the morning, coffee will improve your circadian rhythm. If you drink it in the afternoon or at night, it will certainly screw up your internal clock.
So, simply put, a cup of coffee in the morning will benefit sleep. Don’t drink coffee every day though, you should definitely take some days off, to let your brain re-balance itself. You will get used to caffeine after continuous use. After a while, you’ll need more of it to get the same buzz. Like with everything, do coffee in moderation.
YOUR MIND, FRIEND OR FOE?
The last thing I want to talk about is how to deal with insomnia. This is by far the hardest part of it. Lying awake, not knowing if you’re going to sleep tonight, creates a whole lot of anxiety. That anxiousness in turn transfers into the day, and causes you to behave erratic and irritable.
It certainly does no good to your mood. This in turn can create tensions between you and your loved ones, or be harmful to your work.
Dealing with sleepless nights, first and foremost, requires you to be brave and courageous.
It requires you to tell yourself with full conviction: even if tonight I will not sleep, I have to tackle the coming day and make it a good one.
Important here is to make sure you’re comfortable, and that the night becomes something to look forward to.
Lying awake in bed anxiously does not help. In turn, you need to do something that’s fun. If you lie awake for hours, it’s best to just get out and watch some movies, play video games, read books, play guitar, or do something creative, like writing. Maybe start a blog or something.
The most important part is that you stop making the mental association with nighttime as something that creates anxiety, and that requires you to take your mind off things. Being anxious lying in bed reinforces the mental connection of your bed with anxiety, and this will make it harder to fall asleep the next day.
YOU’RE NOT AN INSOMNIAC. YOU ARE A NORMAL PERSON.
What’s also important is that you stop calling yourself an insomniac. Continually labeling yourself as being such, will make it true in your mind, and again, sleep will be all the harder to achieve.
Like Pavlov’s dog, you’ve trained yourself to associate some external sign with sleep. But then again, you can retrain your mind to associate the night with something else, and more enjoyable.
All of this is where Cognitive Behavioural Therapy does a lot of good work. But as I’ve said before, CBT is only secondary to improving metabolic rate and circadian rhythm. Once your hormonal rhythms are reset and working properly, you’ll have more trouble staying awake than falling asleep. CBT becomes a footnote in this case.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS…
When you have trouble sleeping, I urge you to take a good look at your habits, at what you eat, at your daily lifestyle. I ask you to question every habit that you’re doing. Don’t take the easy way out and ask your doctor for some sedatives. The easy way is also the wrong way.
I believe Western lifestyle is fundamentally incompatible with our biology. We are not made to spend all day inside. We’re not made to look at artificial light, eat artificial food, to sit all day in front of computer screens.
Western society is suffering from alarmingly increasing rates of chronic disease, and insomnia is merely a symptom of this.
If you want to sleep well, have a good mood and great energy levels, you need to make an effort to optimize your daily schedule in a way that is compatible with your genetics. Eat wholesome, healthy food and nourish yourself properly, instead of trying out one fad diet after another. Get outside and enjoy daylight, instead of staying holed up inside.
If you do that, your life will improve in every aspect and you’ll feel so much better.
I hope I have taught you some valuable information. There’s a lot more to it if you want to improve sleep, but with what you know now, at least you’re on the right path.
Get rid of all the sleeping pills, supplements and random tactics, and get to work on your lifestyle.
One more thing: if you have trouble sleeping, I’d like to hear from you. Post below in the comments, let me hear your story.
Sleep well, and be happy.
Tom Peeters is a former insomniac who did some digging and finally got rid of his sleeping problems. Today, he helps other people overcome their insomnia. Check out his blog The Sleep Strategy to find out how to sleep better.
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