How to Improve Sleep

In the early months of 2013, and also in those same months a few years earlier, I noticed that my sleep schedule seemed to be getting screwed up.  I was going to bed much later, to the point of staying up almost all night on a few occasions.  It wasn’t something I wanted; it just seemed to be happening on its own.

It occurred to me that this might be a natural thing.  I had heard of research where people deprived of sunlight would go to sleep about one hour later each day.  That is, their bodies seemed to operate on a 25-hour cycle.  It made sense that my body would do the same during the winter months, when I might not have enough sunlight to cue my head to go to bed at an appropriate hour.

Or I guess “natural” would not be the right word for it.  It didn’t seem very natural to stay up all night.  The more natural thing, in the winter months, might have been to hibernate.  Robb (2007) reported on indications that ancient Europeans (right up through the 19th century) would sleep most of their winter months away, and would enjoy doing so.

Unlike those rural folk, my options were unfortunately limited to finding some way to fall asleep, preferably before midnight.  It wasn’t a matter of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  I didn’t seem to be having any mood effects.  But I supposed that those afflicted with that malady might also benefit from knowing what worked for me.  I emphasize:  might.  Sleep problems appeared to be one of those areas where different people have to try different things before hopefully finding something that works for them.  Not a one-size-fits-all kind of problem.

I didn’t have a genuine sleep disorder, like sleep apnea or having a bad girlfriend.  Within the avalanche of advice provided by various sleep problems websites (of which the National Sleep Foundation was possibly the best), I saw that one convenient solution was to take something.  Along with regular sleeping pills, some people swore by Benadryl (typically found in allergy medications).  Of course, there were also prescription options like Ambien – which, despite the horror stories, was apparently good enough for a lot of people.  (Note:  a person might actually have to follow the instructions to get the desired effect.)  I had long ago discovered that ordinary sleeping pills, like most medicines, were at their best the first time, and that the effects wore down in subsequent uses.  So I tended to save them for the rare instances when I truly needed to get to sleep no matter what.

On the other hand, at least the sleeping pills worked.  I could not say the same for valerian and melatonin, two items often found on lists of herbal sleep remediesSome sources indicated that research had not yet supported their effectiveness for most people (and some of these herbal remedies, notably kava, were apparently quite risky).

On a related note, instead of taking a pill, I could eat or drink something.  The same sources mentioned chamomile tea, which I hadn’t tasted for years.  I put it on the shopping list.  I also recalled that, at one point in life, I’d indulged a habit of having a half-bagel with cream cheese and some seltzer before bed.  Maybe it was the bubbles in the seltzer; maybe it was the cream cheese.  There were lists of foods that named dairy products as potential sleep aids.  I put those on the shopping list too.  I knew that beer could make me sleepy – maybe sleepier than wine or liquor would – but I also knew that having more than one drink tended to be counterproductive, making it harder to fall asleep and/or waking me up after just a few hours.  I decided to have a beer and think about this further.

Some people recommended using relaxation techniques, like yoga, visualization, or meditation.  I had arrived at a meditation approach that worked best when used in the morning or in connection with naps.  For some reason, it didn’t work so well at night.  Not sure why.  Maybe there was more of a sense of stress, like now we were in the big leagues – I really had to fall asleep and stay asleep – and maybe that was too distractive.  Along these lines, the experts recommended exercise, though not in the hours before going to bed (except maybe for something like yoga).  I was already exercising, on a somewhat irregular schedule necessitated by other realities of current life, and now I made a note to castigate myself once again for not trying yoga.  While on the subject of the daily schedule, I was not sure whether daytime napping was supposed to be helpful or detrimental to nighttime sleep – I had seen reports going both ways – but it was moot, because I was pretty sure I would nap during the day if I needed to and if circumstances permitted, and otherwise I wouldn’t.

The schedule also brings to mind the sleepyti.me bedtime calculator.  This was one of many calculators and apps where, if I entered 6 AM as the time when I wanted to awaken, it would tell me that I needed to try to fall asleep at 9 PM or 10:30 PM or 12 AM or 1:30 AM.  The astute reader will notice that those times are 90 minutes apart, and are also located in multiples of 90 minutes before the 6 AM target time.  This was consistent with countless sites insisting that sleep naturally occurred in 90-minute cycles.  I wasn’t sure about that – it seemed there was some variation from one person to another, and I had not noticed any rigid consistency in sleep duration or rising times, even during extended periods without using an alarm clock – but I did have my own little superstition going, to the effect that the full moon would often bring a change in sleep style.

I had taken account of various sleep hygiene suggestions (e.g., get out of bed if you’re not sleepy and have been lying there awake for more than 15-20 minutes; use the bedroom only for sex and sleep, not for e.g., lying around watching TV).  Of course, I was also aware of various mental engagements that could help a person fall asleep.  Count sheep; read a boring book; listen to a recording of falling rain.  I did have a CD containing the sound of rain, but it could be irritating; sometimes the rain sounded more like static.  Maybe I needed better speakers.  I didn’t put that on the shopping list.  I had often used a fan to generate white noise and a soothing breeze, sometimes even when it made me pile on extra blankets, but the fan didn’t seem able to overcome determined insomnia.  So now, to my noise toolkit, I added a $10 book containing a CD with some kind of sleep coaching.  The book, highly recommended on Amazon, was I Can Make You Sleep by Paul McKenna.

I could see that I was going to have to return to this post a few weeks later, when this stuff arrived and I had a chance to try it out.  But I also felt that I might have hit the key point at the beginning of this post, when I was talking about sunshine.  I knew that some people used eye masks to block out unwanted light that might interfere with sleep, but this was not a problem in my own setting.  But now, thinking about the light situation, I took the CET Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire and they told me that, based on my answers, my optimal time for a 30-minute morning light treatment would be 6:15 AM.  That was if I was depressed, which I was not, but somewhere along the way I also got the idea that setting the alarm and turning on the bright light at the time when I wanted to awaken would help to reset my circadian rhythm and awaken at that hour naturally.  I experienced sticker shock when I saw that people were charging $300+ for 10,000-lux light boxes that was apparently necessary for this sort of therapy (and that do-it-yourself options might not be much cheaper).  Then I found the Sphere Gadget Technologies SP9882 Lightphoria Sad Light Therapy lamp.  For $60 at Amazon, it was a bargain, if it worked – and if it didn’t, I would put it on eBay, which raised the question of whether someone else had already traveled this path.  A quick eBay search turned up nothing, suggesting that the Lightphoria’s customers were happy customers, consistent with the high rating on Amazon.  So – what the hell, it’s only money – I bought one.  I wasn’t sure how to use it – would I need tanning lotion? – but I figured the product and its instructions would enlighten me (ha).

So that was the buildup.  How did it turn out?  For that, we would have to wait a few weeks, or years, or however long it took me to get back to this post and fill in the missing data.  The chamomile tea arrived first, since I happened to go to the store the very next day.  It took several more days for me to feel like having tea in the evening.  But then, one night, I noticed that I was yawning at 8:30 PM.  I was sure that 8:30 was too early to go to bed – I’d fallen asleep at 12:30 the previous night, and maybe 2 AM the night before that – but somebody had advised me to drink it an hour or two before bedtime, so I tried it.  Sure enough, at 10:30 PM I was not only wide awake but actually feeling rather upbeat, listening to music and telling myself jokes.  I had learned that sometimes the sleep window opens and closes quickly, so when I yawned at 11:45 PM, I dropped everything and ran for covers (ha).  Fell asleep almost immediately.

Was that the chamomile?  At this point we introduce the scientific concept of confounding explanations, or whatever it’s called, where you can’t really tell because there’s always more than one thing going on.  In this case, as just noted, my bedtime had suddenly decided to retreat, after a winter’s extended advance:  2 AM the one night, 12:30 the next, and now 11:45.  That wasn’t due to the chamomile.  It also didn’t seem due to the full moon, which had passed nearly a week earlier.  I had run 16 miles a few days earlier, so maybe that helped?  But I was doing that every week (but maybe it had been helping every week?).  It was early March, in a year when the groundhog had not seen his shadow, so possibly I was getting to this too late?  Possibly spring was in my veins, and I would have to wait another ten months to try that lightbox?

A week or two later, I was sleepless on a night after a long midday run.  So exercise itself wasn’t a cure-all.  After more than a half-hour of being right on (or just beyond) the edge of sleep, I got up and opened the McKenna book.  I found myself skimming rather than reading.  The reason, as summarized in some of the less enthusiastic customer reviews, is that most of the book consists of material already mentioned above.  The parts that were less familiar consisted of relaxation techniques and exercises that I probably could have found elsewhere.  Paradoxically, I was too tired to try the CD.  But the book, and customer reviews, did emphasize the importance of the CD.  I fell asleep on a retry, an hour later, and made a note to myself to try the CD next time, and maybe also to explore some of those relaxation techniques.

The next morning, I actually awoke before 6:15, the time when the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire had told me to do a 30-minute light therapy.  This seemed like a great opportunity to try the Lightphoria light box.  When I penetrated its packaging, I saw that it was a surprisingly small thing, powered by an AC adapter with only 0.6 amp output.  That’s, what, about 75 watts max?  This wasn’t going to be, as I had imagined, a big, heat-producing kind of operation.  The gizmo was the size of a smallish paperback book; its panel of lights had roughly the length and width of a pack of 100mm cigarettes (or maybe a bit longer).  The instructions said I should use it daily for a week.  I wondered if the mere act of setting the alarm at 6 AM, so that I could do my light therapy, would itself modify my circadian rhythm.  The answer to that:  I don’t know.

They said I should position the Lightphoria so that I was not looking directly at it, about one to two feet away from my face.  They emphasized that it was sufficient if the light reached my eyes indirectly from the side.  They had some other advice and FAQs (e.g., how to use it to combat jet lag; it won’t sunburn you; you can use it all year to counteract a lifestyle involving too much time indoors).

I plugged it in, turned it on, and put it on the desk to the left of my face.  To get the proper angle, with it located more like a foot rather than two feet away, my height required me to prop up the front of it.  It was bright enough to leave brief ghosting, or whatever you call it, in my eyes:  when I glanced at it and then looked away, for a moment I could still see the shapes of its individual LED lights.  I positioned it about 85° to the left, so that I could plainly see it peripherally with my left eye.  It didn’t seem to be causing any ghosting or other adverse effects on my left eye in that position.  A half-hour later, it shut off.

So I carried on with that process for a week.  This experiment took place at a time when I enjoyed a flexible schedule, so I could sleep in the morning, evening, or whenever.  And I did.  I can say that my experience with the Lightphoria did not take me directly into a phase of deep, continuing sleep on the desired schedule.  The night after using it, I slept from 11:30 PM to 1:30 AM, and then was up until 4:15.  The alarm, sounding two hours later, was not exactly my friend.  The following night, to my surprise and pleasure, I slept a straight 10:30 PM to 4:30 AM, but that proved to be the exception rather than the rule.  On most of the nights during the Lightphoria test week, my sleep was fragmented, badly timed, and sometimes weird — as on the third or fourth night, when I actually did sleep around six hours, but kept waking up or skimming just under the surface of sleep.

As I say, I was fortunate in being able to go back to sleep later in the morning.  In fact, one thing I noticed was that I was suddenly taking long naps, sometimes more than one per day.  When I say “long,” I mean, in many cases, 90 minutes or more.  In at least one instance during the Lightphoria test week, the nap ran for three hours.  This was virtually unprecedented.  I consoled myself with the thought that maybe this was just some freaky variation on Ekirch’s “first sleep” concept, where ancient peoples unaffected by electric lighting supposedly slept four hours in the early night, got up for a couple of hours to drink wine or hang out with the neighbors, and then went back to sleep for another three or four hours.

I, myself, was not actually enjoying wine and neighbors during these periods.  I should emphasize that I was not enjoying wine.  For several years, I had been in the habit of drinking a glass or two of wine in the evening, three to five times per week.  They said it was good for me, and I appreciated that:  I liked the flavor and I enjoyed the mental sense of taking a break from other things.  The time would come to lighten up, watch some videos, or otherwise be entertained a bit in the evening, and that seemed healthy.  But now, in the spirit of the sleep test, I decided to cut out alcohol.  And as the test week went on, I came to realize that this was possibly more of a confounding factor than I had realized.  I thought I would probably get better sleep without alcohol, but now I wondered whether my body or mind had grown so used to it that the situation was actually somehow more complicated than that.

There was yet another potential confound at that same time:  I had a cold and therefore, in a burst of hopefulness, was consuming quantities of zinc and echinacea — and, of course, I was reading that there were potential sleep interactions from those substances as well.  It seemed that I might have to extend my inquiry for longer than a week, if I hoped to arrive at a more informed understanding of what role, if any, the Lightphoria might be playing.

I did, in fact, try to extend the inquiry into a second week.  But then I missed a couple of mornings when I was supposed to use the Lightphoria but didn’t, for one reason or another.  I set a calendar pop-up on my computer to remind me, so I wouldn’t forget.  But ultimately I just stopped.  Nothing else to report.  It did seem, though, that the really long naps ended after that.  I would have to experiment further to know whether there was a connection.

I had one evening, middle of the week, when I couldn’t sleep, so I tried the CD that came along with McKenna’s book.  It contained just one audio file that was going to try to talk me to sleep.  It had potential.  I will say that, on a very stressed full-moon night, it succeeded it getting me to a much calmer state, lying there on the pillow, than I would have expected it could do.  I decided I would have to try using it again sometime.  Maybe it could become a sort of hypnotic habit, where familiarity with it on less stressed nights would make it more effective on the tough nights.  But it didn’t seem to be a solution, right out of the box, for the hard-core case.  What I tried instead was to pop the cork on the wine, for the first time in ten days or maybe two weeks, and let a glass of that make me sleepy.  That worked.

By the time I had screwed around with these techniques and potions for a few weeks, April had arrived.  The days were getting longer and warmer.  I seemed to have broken out of the weird all-nighters of March.  Whether that was due to any of these efforts or simply to the arrival of spring, I could not say.  Perhaps I would try again later.  Possibly as late as next March.

Note:  this item was previously posted elsewhere.

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