I've had massive problems with sleep for as long as I can remember.
Even at the age of 15, I can remember progressively sleeping later and later, struggling to get up in the morning, feeling lethargic and sleepy all day in class and then crashing for a few hours at soon as I got back home from school. Only to feel absolutely wired again when it's time for bed.
As I've gotten older, this erratic sleep schedule has caused immeasurable difficulties and distress. When I'm up all night and sleeping all day I suffer from apathy, laziness and fundamentally I'm depressed. Despite naturally being someone who likes to go and get things done, I can barely get up off the couch to cook dinner let alone do long sessions of deep work.
Then, when I finally manage to get things back to normality, I do well for a while until I inevitably fall back into my old ways. Bedtimes move back half an hour here and there which causes me to wake up later and later. Before long I'm nocturnal again.
Sleep is a cornerstone habit for me. if I wake up well rested early in the morning then the day is already half won. Conversely if I wake up at midday having struggled to sleep a full 8 hours, I can say with near certainty that my day won't be nearly as productive or enjoyable. The correlation is definite. That's why it's been so important for me to overcome this problem.
I always thought that I just suffered from a Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder, but a few months go I decided to really try and find a way of fixing this problem. I took a deep dive into the neurobiological and physiological processes that underpin sleep by learning from the best sources of information I could find on this topic:-
- Why we Sleep - Matthew Walker
- The Circadian Code - Satchin Panda
- The Science and Practice of Perfecting your Sleep - podcast with Matthew Walker and Andrew Huberman
- Master your Sleep and Be More Alert when you're Awake - podcast with Andrew Huberman
- Find your Temperature Minimum to Defeat Jeglag - another podcast with Andrew Huberman
Note: All my notes for the above sources can be found here.
Thanks to the sources above, I've managed to find a solution to my problem. It's been a month and I've (almost effortlessly) kept a perfect sleeping schedule by following a few simple daily habits.
I've come to realize that my issues weren't innate, rather they were due to a lack of structure and a general mis-understanding of what my body needs in order to stay in tune with night and day cycles.
This blog post is a summary of what I've learned and details of the practice that I follow to get up at 6am everyday, feel energized and productive during the day and sleep like a log at 10pm each night.
What we know about our Circadian Rhythm
- The body's central clock runs a bit long and laggy without the right external signals to regulate it
- On average, for most healthy adults, the cycles lasts for 24 hours and 30 minutes. This is the reason that, if left to its own devices, people may find themselves slowly going to bed and getting up later over time.
- The reason most people don't keep drifting forward in time is because the central brain clock is regulated by daylight, temperature, food and activity (this is important). These signals help the body stay in tune with our 24 hour days.
- There is a circadian deadzone between around 10am and 3pm (during which your body temperature rises). During this time your circadian clock can't be shifted no matter how much sunlight, exercise and food you do/consume.
- In the morning, you need around 100k lux of light before 9am to register with the circadian clock. Bright overhead lights can emit up to 4 - 5k lux and direct sunlight can emit up to 10k lux.
- In the evening / later on in the day, your light sensitivity goes up. This is especially true during the period between 10-11pm and 4am. During this period it takes only 1000 to 1500 lux to shift your clock!
- If you view afternoon light then you'll adjust down your sensitivity to light later in the evening. This can help mitigate the risk of inadvertently disrupting your circadian clock through artificial light exposure.
- Your temperature minimum is the time of day when your body temperature is the lowest. This is an important reference point if you need to shift your circadian clock (if you're traveling, for example). It tends to fall 90 minutes to 2 hours before your average waking time.
- You can calculate your temperature minimum by taking the average of the last 3 to 5 wake up times and then subtracting 90 minutes.
- To phase delay your sleep schedule (go to bed later, wake up later) you should look at bright light in the 4 - 6 hours before your temperature minimum.
- The phase advance your sleep schedule (go to bed earlier, wake up earlier) you should expose your eyes to bright light in the four hours after your temperature minimum.
- Example:- If you usually wake up at 6am then your minimum temperature is around 4.30am.
If you'd like to delay your schedule (wake up later and go to bed later), you should look at bright light ideally between the hours 00.30 and 04.30.
If you'd like like to phase advance your schedule (wake up earlier and go to bed earlier), you should look at bright light between the hours of 04.30 and 08.30.
- You can shift your body clock between 1 and 3 hours per day. So, if you're traveling to a country that has a substantially different time zone then you can start to adjust 2 to 3 days before travel.
- Melatonin is the signal that's released to tell the body what to prepare for. At low levels = day time. At high levels = night time and time to think about sleep.
- We need at least 7 hours of sleep per night. 8 is recommended.
My Daily Habits for Keeping a Consistent Sleep Schedule
- Wake up at the same time every day - nothing groundbreaking here, but worth mentioning. I'll make sure that I wake up at the same time everyday (just before 6am), even if I've had a late night before. Then, I'll immediately go into my morning routine (below):
- Exercise at dawn in the sun. At around 6am, before breakfast, I'll go outside and do some kind of light cardio or weights under the sun. I've learned that having direct exposure to the sun and doing exercise gives my body two important signals that it's morning. Apparently simulating light exposure with artificial light, no matter how strong, isn't as effective as direct exposure due the brightness and intensity of sunlight. This single habit alone has been massive for me.
- Eat breakfast at the same time every day. Along with light and exercise, food intake is another signal that the body uses to keep a consistent schedule. I try and eat my breakfast as close as possible to 7am everyday.
- Cold exposure instead of naps if feeling drowsy during the day. The benefits of napping seem to be quite subjective. Andrew Huberman, for example, mentions that he likes to nap at around 3 or 4pm in the afternoon and that works for him. For me, I've found that even a small nap in the afternoon might impact my ability to sleep later on that evening so I avoid them as much as possible. Instead, if I'm feeling a little energy slump and need a pick-me-up during the day, I'll jump in the shower and set the temperature to as low as I can bare it. This always wakes me up, likely due to the dopaminergic effect of cold exposure and keeps me going for the rest of the day until bedtime.
- Sufficient light exposure during the day. There's nothing particularly regimented about this. Some days I'm outside more than others, but I try to at least spend some part of the day (aside from my morning exercise routine) outside to give my body some more light exposure.
- No caffeine after midday. I'll only have one cup of coffee per day and never after midday. Caffeine has a half life of around 5 hours so consumption after midday leads to a significant amount still blocking adenosine receptors at night when I want those receptors to be active (so I feel sleepy at the right time). Never tested this, honestly, it's just common sense and often advised so I follow it.
- As little as possible artificial light after sunset. The cells in your eyes that are responsible for picking up light signals apparently become more and more sensitive as the day progresses. Even just looking at a screen after dusk can give misleading signals to your body that it's still daytime. Blue light is apparently the worst. These cells are also apparently more sensitive to overhead lights as opposed to low-lying lights such as those on a desk or on the floor (which makes sense, since the sun is above us).
With all this in mind, I turn off all overhead lights after dusk in favor of dim low-lying lamps. I'll also try to avoid all screen time (computers, phones) but if I do really need to I'll use a light filter like Flux to filter out blue light.
- No working out close to bed time. Andrew Huberman recommends not working out within a few hours of bed time due to certain physiological processes that are counterproductive to sleep that are triggered by strenuous exercise. So I try not to do my weightlifting after 5pm.
- Bedtime routine. I condition my mind to know that the bedroom is for sleeping so I leave my phone in the living room so as not to be tempted to mindlessly browse YouTube while lying in bed. Next, I drop the air con to 19 degrees or less because apparently our core body temperature falls when we sleep (which is why it's easier to sleep in a cold room than one that's hot). Finally I'll have a luke warm (not hot or cold) shower right before I get into bed.
With this daily routine, I've managed to keep a consistent sleep schedule for a month. I no longer feel awake when it's for bed - instead I'm always tired and I have no difficulties falling asleep.
I cannot understate the benefits that a consistent sleep schedule has had on my life. Being fully rested has rejuvenated many aspects of my life: I very rarely feel drowsy through the day, I can focus for longer, I find it much easier to work out and overall I'm just more engaged and motivated with life. This problem has plagued me for so long that I feel like I'm a new person.
If, like me, you keep inadvertently losing your sleep schedule then try this routine for a month and see if it helps.