How To Sleep Better: A Self-Experiment

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How to sleep better

Ever wake up in the morning and feel like death warmed up? Or wake up and realize that you spent half of the night tossing and turning? I certainly am not a stranger to these situation, so I set out to understand how to sleep better.

Sleep is an interesting topic and different people have different philosophies. I remember sitting at a dinner invitation with the top executive of a multinational company, where the executive told me that if you want to be successful you just have to accept that you will never sleep more than five hours per day. 

Sleep expert Matthew Walker on the other hand clearly shows in his book “Why We Sleep” what happens if you do not sleep enough (i.e. higher risk of diseases in the short- and in the long-run). Personally, I sleep very little during the weekdays due to the long hours at my job and then I sleep super long on the weekends.

By reading Walker’s book I gained a new appreciation for the importance of sleep and how it relates to my happiness. See my full review in the post “Why We Sleep: Book Review”. Based on this book I decided to implement a couple of very simple actions to improve my sleep hygiene. Here are the results.

1. Embracing The Cold

When we fall asleep, our body naturally decreases our body temperature by one to two degreesCelsius. In general, we sleep better in cold environment than hot environments. 

Walker explains that because our feet, hands and face are key for temperature control, we often find ourselves with these three parts of our body not covered by a blanket when we sleep. This is because the body is looking for a way to cool our body and help us sleep better.

Many people sleep in very hot rooms. Especially in Switzerland where air-conditioners are not used very widely, room temperatures are not very conducive to good sleep. If you do have a method of cooling your room temperature through air-condition or another means, try lowering the temperature by three to five degrees at night and see whether it impacts your sleep quality.

I do not have an air-conditioner. So what was my solution? 

Cold Showers.

Every evening before going to bed I started taking five-minute-long cold showers, not icy, but cold. This helped my body cool down quite a bit. It was tough getting myself to take these cold showers in the beginning, but with time it got easier and easier. 

It had an immediate positive impact on the quality of my sleep. I slept better and deeper throughout the night. It did not make every sleep session perfect, but overall, I could feel a remarkable improvement. My regeneration both physically and mentally increased significantly.

There were other benefits to these cold showers which you can read in my post on “XXX”.

2. Blue Light Glasses

In his book “Why We Sleep”, Walker discusses many of the effects modern day society has on our sleep. One of the most striking are our screens. According to Walker, the LED light from our screens prevents our brain from producing the chemical Melatonin.

Melatonin is responsible for telling our brain whether it is time to go to bed or not. During the day, it increases gradually, until at some point it is at such a high level, that our brain feels tired and we go to bed. When we wake up the next morning, our Melatonin levels are close to Zero and the whole cycle starts again.

The light from our screens prevents us from building up this Melatonin. I am sure you know the situation where you feel super, duper tired. However, the moment you hit the sheets you are wide awake and it takes you 30+ minutes to actually fall asleep. That is your brain which is waiting for Melatonin levels getting to the levels it needs to be.

Blue light glasses (also called computer glasses) were specifically developed to filter out this LED light and allow your brain to build up Melatonin, despite being exposed to screens. They do not filter out everything, but a large portion.

I bought blue light glasses and tried them out. You can check Amazonfor various models or go to a standard optical store (e.g. Visilab.com) and buy some glasses there. Of course, you can find different prices and models. Personally, I got glasses for CHF 39 from Visilab.

The effect? I fall asleep much, much faster. And this I was really surprised by. On the one hand, I started realizing that my eyes feel much less stressed in the evening when I wear the glasses. On the other hand, the time it takes me to fall asleep has decreased dramatically. 

During the one month I gave myself to test the glasses, I did not have a single evening with difficulty to fall asleep. The effect of the glasses has become so good that I will keep using them after 19.00 every day as a part of my normal day routine.

3. Cushion

I work as an operational auditor for a multinational company. We travel nine months per year around the world. Basically, our management tells us where to go and we go.

There are many great things about this job: I got to see 22 countries in three years, hotels and food are covered through expenses, I do not need an apartment and therefore can save a lot of money.

The big (some might say too big) disadvantage is that you live in hotels, changing your environment every three to five weeks. This means that you might be lucky and stay in an amazing hotel with great sleeping hardware, and you might be unlucky and sleep on a mattress which is barely more than a matt on a floor.

What I realized is that the most important part of my bed is my cushion. I generally sleep on my side and if the hotel bed has a soft cushion, I basically wake up with my back formed in an S-shape and my neck hurting in places I did not think could hurt.

My solution: 1) Buy a cushion which matches my sleeping style. 2) Take it wherever I go.

Honestly, I do not want to say it was life-changing, but it is close. Of all the things I did to improve my sleep, this is the one that had the biggest impact. On the one hand I now have some consistency in my sleeping hardware, on the other hand I now have a cushion which is designed for my way of sleep.

My advice to anyone (whether you travel a lot or not at all): Figure out what kind of sleeping style you have and try a cushion which matches this style.

The basic ones are: Side Sleeper, Back Sleeper and Belly Sleeper. Or a mixture thereof.

4. Sleep Routine & Alarm Clocks

The number one advice Walker has for his readers is to develop a sleep routine where you go to bed every night at the same time and wake up every morning at the same time, no matter whether it’s a weekend or a weekday.

Honestly, this does not sound like a big thing to do. For me it proved near impossible. Especially going to bed at a consistent time. In my job, we work long hours, but they are never consistent. When our weekly report is due, the nights get especially long.

But waking up at the same time every morning is achievable, because no matter how long I work the night before, I still have to go to work the next day (at least as long as I am not financial independent). So what did I do?

I decided to invest in an alarm clock which will help me wake up better. What did I buy? The Philips HF3505/01 Wake-up Lightwhich gradually increases the light a half an hour before your planned wake up time. It basically simulates a sun rise in your room. 

My honest opinion: this is especially great during winter time when the actual sun only rises late in the morning. During summer, the effect is definitely not as strong.

The main issue I have with waking up in the morning, is that I like to snooze. And this is detrimental to building both a consistent waking time and to my mental health. Waking up with an alarm clock, and not naturally through the sunrise, is like waking the brain with an electrical shock. If you snooze, you give your brain multiple times of electrical shocks.

In theory, the Philips HF3505 should mitigate this problem with the slow increasing of light. But what did I do every morning? I just walked over the alarm clock, turned off the light and put the alarm to another 15 minutes later.

I agree, its amazingly stupid. 

After a couple of weeks of this procedure, I decided to look at other alarm clocks which force you to wake up. For example I found alarm clocks where you have to stand on a matt for 30 seconds so that the alarm turns off. Or an alarm clock that jumps from your bedside table and rolls below your bed. So you have to force yourself out of bed, scramble to find it and then turn it off.

During this research I stumbled upon an app called Sleep Cycle. This app tracks your movements while you sleep through noise. You can even listen to yourself snoring, as it keeps a small sample. 

Through noise detection, Sleep Cycle claims that they can identify which stage of sleep you are in (REM, deep sleep or light sleep). Based on this data it then tries to wake you up during light sleep in the 30 minutes prior to your set alarm.

For example, if you set your alarm for 7.00, Sleep Cycle will wake you up somewhere between 6.30 and 7.00, whenever it realizes that you are in light sleep. If you are not in this phase, then it will wake you up strict at 7.00.

Why is this great? Walker presents multiple studies which show that it is detrimental to our regeneration if we wake up during REM or deep sleep phases, and it has an impact on our performance during the day. Waking up during light sleep is A) better for our regeneration and B) it is much easier.

My experience: I really, really, really like it.

It has made getting up much easier. Somehow the mental hurdle is lowered, even though I might be getting up nearly 30 minutes earlier than I actually set the alarm for. 

Conclusion

Reading the book “Why We Sleep” has made me realize that sleep is important and that there are simple actions I can take to improve it.

The four steps I took above were simple and not expensive. The effect? I fall asleep faster, I sleep better and I wake up easier than I did before.

Is my sleep perfect every night? No.

Do I always get enough sleep? No.

But do I feel like I have more energy? Yes.

Do I feel better in the morning, during the day and in the evening? Absolutely.

My suggestion to you: Just take one ting and implement it. If it works, great. If it does not, no harm is done. The important thing is to take that step and decide that you want to improve your sleep, both for yourself and for the people around you. If you have more energy and feel better, you will perform better at work and I am sure it will have a positive impact on your relations as well.

Actionable Items


  • Research good sleep routines online or read the book “Why We Sleep”
  • Choose one you want to implement to improve your sleep
  • Discuss sleep and its affects with your friends / family

What is your daily sleep routine? Anything working particularly well? Anything working particularly bad? What is your biggest daily struggle when it comes to sleep?

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