Person under a blanket trying to get better quality sleep

[Updated] A Different Kind of Conversation About Sleep

Here’s the thing: having just finished listening to the Maintenance Phase podcast episode on “The Sleep Loss Epidemic” (which, spoiler alert, isn’t really a thing), I found myself thinking back to this blog post (originally published in December 2020). My first thought was that I wanted to revise it and make some edits based on things I learned from the episode. But then, in rereading it, I realized I don’t actually have as many revisions to make as I thought. All the same, it seems worthwhile giving this one a ‘bump’ back to the top of the ol’ inbox.

I just don’t sleep. “

I go to bed at what I know counts as a ‘reasonable hour’, but then I just end up lying there because my brain goes “oh, now is a great time for us to think about X and Y, oh, and Z! In great detail!”

If any of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. This is a conversation I’ve had with people on numerous occasions. In the context of training for health and fitness badassery, sleep and recovery play a big role so it’s not uncommon for us to end up talking about a lack of sleep.

In the past, we’ve made a series of recommendations about ways that you can improve your sleep. The plan for this post, however, is slightly different.

First, let’s clarify: everyone is different.

What counts as “a good night’s sleep” for you?

There’s room for a pretty wide variety of answers to this question and, for the most part, there aren’t really any purely wrong answers.

Many of us have heard that 8 hours of sleep is ideal. Or we’ve heard that 7 to 9 hours is the ideal range.

What doesn’t get particularly well-publicized is the fact that everyone’s ‘body clock’ is set slightly differently.

Some people need more sleep than others–and some need less than others.

Some people might even be hardwired to be night owls and do better staying up late and sleeping longer into the morning, while others may naturally be morning people.

As we age, it seems some sleep for progressively fewer hours at a time.

For the sake of being explicit: if the amount of sleep you’re getting now feels ok, that’s great! There’s no need to seek out more sleep time, because you’re fine as you are.

The fact is that individual differences combined with, you know, real life, make specific one-size-fits-all recommendations inappropriate.

Let’s reframe this discussion and leave out any specific “required” minimum number of hours.

What if think purely in terms of improving sleep quality—meaning how restful and deep your sleep is?

Actually, let’s be really clear on this: the goal here is not to do some sort of complete overhaul or to magically and unrealistically add an hour or three of sleep to your day. Rather, the idea here is to see if there’s something we can find that will nudge you in the direction of better quality sleep.

Let’s say we’re looking for a way to get 1% better and then work from there.

Now then, 

What seems to be your major obstacle to getting a good night’s sleep?

I just don’t sleep.

Well, what do you think is getting in the way of you lying down and falling asleep?

A non-exhaustive list of possible answers here include:

  • I go to bed late because I intend to go to bed, but then I think ‘oh, I’ll just watch this one video…and next thing I know it’s 2 am’
  • I lie down and my mind just races…
  • I just have so much work to do…
  • Life is just so stressful…

First, let me say: all of those are perfectly valid, normal and understandable. We’ve heard similar things from a number of people that we’ve worked with. Often, life makes it really easy for the quality of your sleep to suffer.

I’d like to add here that mental health issues—like anxiety—often complicate sleep for people. I’d just like to validate that: sometimes there are factors beyond your control that make sleep difficult. Ideally, you have access to help (be it in the form of therapy, medication, etc.), but I’d also like to acknowledge that access to help isn’t democratic and even when a person does get some help, that’s doesn’t always result in better sleep right away.

In the meantime, it might be worthwhile looking at some of the things you can control…

Was there ever a time when you were able to sleep better than you do now?

Thinking about a time—or times—in the past when you’ve slept better can be a helpful way of figuring out what works for you. Perhaps there are things you were doing then that you’re not doing now that you could consider starting again?

If you don’t mind, what I’d like to do is share some ideas that other people have found helpful…

But before we go into these ideas, I’d like to hear yours.

I know. This is a blog. There isn’t really room for you to jump into the conversation…or is there? Maybe you have some ideas that you’d like to share in the comments? Chances are you have some good ideas.

Here are some ideas that others have found helpful.

Remember, right now these are just ideas for you to consider.

Cutting back on caffeine. We know, for example, that caffeine takes somewhere in the neighborhood of six hours to clear your system, so some have found their sleep quality improves when they make a point of cutting back on caffeine at least six hours before bedtime.

Journaling. For those whose brains insist on chattering even after the lights go out, some people have found that doing a “brain dump” journaling session—writing all of those thoughts down to get them out of your head—before bed can be a helpful way of shifting into sleep mode.

Dimming the lights. Light exposure can have a surprising impact on your brain’s ability to settle down at the end of the day. This is where the whole ‘limit your screen time before bed’ idea comes from. The tricky thing about that is that we keep working with people for whom that simply doesn’t work. Sometimes, life means that you need to be working on your computer until right before bedtime. Conveniently, there’s more to it than just your devices. Another set of light-reduction strategies involve a series of one-time efforts:

  • Some have used blackout curtains or have otherwise set it up so that no light comes in through their windows.
    • Others have put pieces of duct tape (I’m just assuming everyone has some duct tape…is that wrong?) over all of the little lights on any electronics in their room, or in the case of alarm clocks that tend to light up the room, they’ve set them to ‘dim’ and turned them away.

Remember, right now these are just ideas for you to consider.

A cold or hot shower. It seems to vary from person to person whether a hot shower or a cold shower works best, but often a cold or hot shower just before bed can be quite relaxing.

Listening to calming music.

Deep breathing, foam rolling or yoga. Here’s an example of an exercise you could try: 

Drinking herbal tea. There are some great ‘sleepytime’ teas out there. My favorite is this one. Though some people find drinking tea right before bed means they’ll be up peeing later.

As I’m sure you know, our bodies (and brains) love ritual. Establishing a pre-sleep ritual can be powerful. This ‘ritual’—or routine—can take many forms. The question now becomes, 

If you were to establish a pre-sleep/bedtime ritual for yourself, which elements from the examples above would you include in yours? 

What other ideas come to mind that might work for you?

This is where the conversation gets interesting because now we get to start the process of creating your sleep routine. It can be as simple or as involved as you like—because it’s your routine, after all.

Would you like to talk it through with someone? We’re here for you. Send us a note and we can set up a time to chat.

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