Week 2 – Rewire Your Brain To Sleep

Sleep better at night naturally by tapping into your innate ability to sleep by reprogramming your physiological response to sleep.

Introduction to Week 2

So how did week 1 go?

I know there wasn’t a whole lot to physically do that week, but there are some crucial actions that carry over into this week.

Let’s recap:

  1. You filled out your sleep diary
  2. You now understand the biological processes that makes sleep possible
  3. You have gotten out of bed when you haven’t been able to sleep for the past week
  4. You are implementing at least one way to calm your nervous system down (even if it’s not working that well yet)
  5. You shifted your mindset where you are truly, unequivocally committed to the process of getting a healthy sleep schedule
  6. You went to see your doctor (or made an appointment) to discuss insomnia, and rule out any physical cause

Now let’s build on last week, and dive into week 2.

This week is all about tapping into your innate biological ability to sleep. Just like your mind can override your body and make it nearly impossible to sleep, you can teach your body to override your mind and sleep well.

This week is crucial to overcoming insomnia. The main mission this week has two purposes:

  1. You will essentially be hitting the reset button on your body to associate your bed with sleep and relaxation. There is mental work that needs to be done around this front too, but it’ll be covered in the following weeks.
  1. You will build and strengthen your sleep/wake cycle so having a regular sleep schedule will come naturally in the coming weeks.

As I mentioned in week 1, there are processes that happen in your body every day that facilitate sleep. They are intricate and play into and off of each other. This is an innate function of being a human. If you are thinking that you don’t have the ability to sleep, let me tell you right now – you unequivocally do.

You are just as much a biological being as the next person on earth. If you had the ability to not sleep, you wouldn’t be here. Yes, you hear about the odd person who sleeps 4 hours and feels rested, or entrepreneurs who say sleep is for billionaires, but the former is an incredibly rare genetic mutation and the latter are full of shit (I’ll get into this later).

The actions this week will be implemented until you sleep full nights (7-9 hours for most people). The stuff that comes in the following weeks will help to facilitate this process more easily, however, this physiological component needs a full tune up first.

It might only take you a few weeks to get on track, or it might take you months. I want you to remember that this is step 1 and where you start doesn’t matter as long as you’re committed. 

Barbell, Fitness, Health, Sport, Training, Weight

It’s like when you work out for the first time in months or years and your body is so sore you can barely move the next day. But then as time goes on and you continue exercising, you’re not only less sore but you’re stronger, and exercise becomes easier. 

The same goes for insomnia. Your system might be ‘shocked’ for a bit, but you’ll adapt. Just remember that yes, you might be in pain, but it’s only temporary.

It’s worth noting again – your success with overcoming insomnia hinges on your ability to commit to the process.

It may be challenging, though I hope it isn’t for you. You need to jumpstart your body into a routine that supports your physiological need to sleep. When you strengthen your body’s ‘off switch’, it becomes easier to access as time goes on. I just ask that you trust yourself that any difficulty along the way is part of the healing process.

I also wanted to mention another point:

Insomnia is not something you have to deal with forever, nor should you deal with it forever – because I would venture a guess that if you continue the way you are, the costs to you and your life are high. 

Your memory is shot. Your emotional control is greatly diminished. Your physical health has declined because you have no energy to exercise, and you put yourself at risk of health problems like high blood pressure and heart disease. Maybe you almost hit someone in your car because you can’t pay attention to the road very well. Your mental health is strained, and maybe your relationships suffer as a result. Your work or school has suffered. Your overall quality of life just isn’t good when you have insomnia.

Yet even with all the garbage that comes with insomnia, there are potential ‘positives’ you are missing.

Here’s what I mean by this – there is a payoff for continuing the way you are. You might not think there is any sort of reason you would continue to have insomnia, but there may be – and it may be the reason you slip back into bad habits or self-sabotage along the way.

There’s an internal reward for lacking commitment to getting better. It means not having to overhaul habits like staying on your phone too late or having irregular bedtimes. It could mean instead of looking after your physical health, you choose to do nothing because it’s easier. 

It’s not having to confront uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and attitudes towards sleep and life in general. Maybe the payoff is an internal masochistic thing where you subconsciously like beating yourself up, or maybe you have a sense of superiority over people who do sleep. It’s just easier to continue as you are than change – because that’s true for pretty much anything in life that is worth pursuing. 

So what’s your payoff? I wasn’t expecting to put a quest in this introduction, but I think it’s important to recognise this during your insomnia-eradication journey. 

📍 Quest #1

I want you to write down all of the ways insomnia is affecting your life. Even the most seemingly mundane things should be noted. I also want you to write down how insomnia is benefiting your life. Be completely honest with yourself. Because there is a payoff, however small, for continuing as you are. 

Now let’s get into the meat of overcoming insomnia.

🎯 Goal

In week 2, you will start tapping into your innate ability to sleep. Just as I mentioned in week 1, chronic insomnia is a conditioned response. You will understand, implement, and truly internalise the process of creating a regular sleep schedule that will facilitate your sleep/wake cycle. 

🏁 Mission

You will be restricting your sleep. 

I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it works. The details of how you will be implementing sleep restriction will be explained this week.

The Importance of Acceptance: Insomnia Addition

Much of the time, we are unhappy, get anxious, and beat ourselves up when there’s a difference between where we are in life and where we want to be

Insomnia is no different – we want so desperately to sleep a full night, but we’re not there.

We ruminate about how badly insomnia will affect us tomorrow and get mad at ourselves for not sleeping yet again. We become dejected when we don’t sleep perfectly, or become hopelessly sad that we have to suffer through another day of sleep deprivation. At times, maybe we come to terms with being perpetually tired.

To overcome the strong, negative connotations associated with inadequate sleep, you need to accept where you are right now. 

Let me be clear – acceptance is not resigning yourself to insomnia. Acceptance is compassion for yourself and knowing that you deserve better. When you accept yourself and your situation, you are making the active choice to make space for the unpleasant experience of sleep deprivation to exist without getting furious or defeated. 

It’s just where you are – right now – and welcoming the opportunity to improve. You don’t want to try to beat it down with pills or substances – this is simply something you have to deal with for the time being. 

Acceptance means self-soothing if you go off course, and fostering an inner dialogue that is understanding and encouraging when you do. It’s taking responsibility for your life and forgiving yourself when you are being hypercritical and harsh on yourself. Acceptance brings mental peace and the personal fortitude that is required to continue on a path to good sleep.

By accepting, you take power away from insomnia. It’s something in your life right now, just as a plane flying overhead or an ant walking by on the sidewalk. You notice it, but it’s not something you are transfixed on. 

If you don’t accept who you are and where you are at the present moment, you can’t heal yourself from insomnia. 

What does a lack of acceptance look like for insomnia? 

Any strong emotional charge shows a lack of acceptance, whether that be anger, frustration, sadness, or anything in between. It’s like getting furious at the plane for existing, or deeply disturbed about the ant crossing your path. 

When you don’t accept yourself and where you are right now on your journey, you become almost obsessive about what you want but don’t have. And when you do get what you want (sleep), you are far more likely to self sabotage your progress at some point and slip up.

Because when you don’t accept insomnia, you have an overcritical voice in your head that says you need to have a good sleep again tomorrow night. “You did it last night, so why can’t you do it tonight? What the hell is wrong with you?!”

It makes you feel like you’ve failed, you’re deficient, and you’re hopeless. This lack of acceptance gives way to this type of “negative motivation” (berating yourself) and opens you up to a high risk of returning back to old habits that made insomnia possible in the first place. 

The aim is for you to accept that this is how you are at this moment in time, but you are going to work to overcome these flaws now and into the future. Not because you are deficient in some way, but because like all humans, you have flaws that need to be dealt with.

When you deal with insomnia from a place of acceptance and compassion rather than by reprimanding yourself, you are far more likely to succeed in making the necessary changes and create a positive feedback loop for sleep.

Sleep Restriction (also known as Sleep Compression): The Crucial Foundation of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medication

milky way on mountains

📢 Sleep restriction is the critical first step in overcoming insomnia for good. It is the backbone of everything that follows in this program, so please take special note of this section.

What is Sleep Restriction?

Sleep restriction, also known as sleep compression, is when you purposefully sleep less and spend less time in bed. By doing so, your sleep patterns more closely match your current sleep/wake cycle and help you fall asleep more easily at a consistent time. The goal of sleep restriction is to gradually extend the amount of time you sleep per night so you eventually sleep a full night (7-9 hours, depending on your needs).

So remember that sleep diary I told you to fill in last week?

Here is where that data comes in.

Step 1

In column X, you’ll find your average number of hours you slept per night.  Round up to the nearest half hour. 

That average number of hours you slept will be used as your guideline of how much you will aim to sleep every single night.

So for example, if you average 5 hours per night, your aim is to sleep a solid 5 hours per night for at least one week straight. 

If you’re thinking “well that doesn’t sound very good”, I’ll tell you right now it’s not the ideal. But it’s WORLDS better than an erratic sleep schedule. And you’ll keep building on it so you can one day (soon) sleep a full night.

Step 2

With this information, you need to find your new wake time. 

Your wake time will be the driver for creating a regular routine, because your wake time is the only constant you can control with insomnia. 

Let’s say you have to be up for work at 7am. With that in mind, you will be waking up at 7am every day, including weekends. You can get by with 30 extra minutes, but try not to sleep in.

There may be some truly awful days where you don’t fall asleep until 5am, but your goal is to still wake up at 7am. If you feel like you absolutely need to sleep in after a bad night, limit yourself to one extra hour, and don’t do this for more than twice per week. 

Even doing this can throw off your schedule as you’re trying to establish your new routine. Because when you sleep in, you delay the rise in body temperature in the morning, resulting in the delay in the fall in body temperature at night which is necessary for you to fall asleep (Lack et al., 2008). So stick with your new schedule as best as you can. 

It’s also important to get out of bed right after you wake up. Don’t go on your phone, or just lay there – get up. Again the idea is to associate your bed with sleep, so if you’re awake for the day, get up.

Step 3

Find your new bedtime.

In this example where the average is 5 hours per night, and the person has to wake up at 7am, their new goal is to go to sleep at 2am. 

Now add one additional hour to your bedtime and that is the EARLIEST you should go to bed. 

In this example, 1am is the earliest you should lay down in bed. You don’t have to go to bed at this time – you can lay down any time between 1am-1:45am (I recommend giving yourself 15 minutes before your sleep time to settle). This is just the earliest you should even try going to bed. 

By going to bed later and waking up at the same time every day, it more closely matches your average sleep time giving you a better sleep efficiency. Which if you remember, helps ingrain the idea that your bed = sleep.

So in this instance, someone who sleeps an average of 5 hours should give themselves a maximum of 6 hours in bed. If all goes according to plan, your sleep efficiency will hover around 85% which is wonderful. 

If you sleep an average of 6 hours, give yourself a maximum amount of time in bed of 7 hours. 

The only stipulation is that if your average is less than 5 hours, you should still give yourself at least 5 hours and 30 minutes in bed. So if your average is 4, 3, or even an ungodly 2 or 1, still give yourself 5 hours and 30 minutes in bed. 

Step 4

Do NOT go to bed earlier than your new bed time.

Raise your hand if you’ve tried going to bed early to catch up on sleep, only to find you’re up ‘til the wee hours anyway.

This is a common coping strategy amongst insomniacs, but it’s counterintuitive when it comes to actually solving insomnia because it makes insomnia worse (Posner, 2020). That’s right, say it with me – going to bed earlier makes insomnia worse

This is because of our wake cycle and the buildup of that sleep neurotransmitter adenosine I mentioned previously: the earlier you go to bed, the more you reduce prior wakefulness. In turn, you reduce the amount of time for sleep pressure to kick in and create adenosine. So only go to bed at your new bedtime (in this example, 1am). 

Step 5

Establish your first building block.

The goal here isn’t to suddenly go from an erratic schedule to a blissful 8 hours. It’s to go from an erratic schedule to a consistent, manageable schedule that you can build upon. 

In this example, the goal is to go to bed at earliest 1am and sleep from 2am-7am for one week straight. If you don’t achieve this right away, keep trying until you do. 

If you stay consistent, your body should catch on within a matter of weeks. For reference, when I started, each week got progressively better but it took me about four weeks to have one week straight of 5 hours per night. I was still tired, but mentally I felt like a million bucks because I could fall asleep within minutes and sleep in one solid block of time. 

⮞ Once you sleep a consistent 5 hours (or whatever you average is) per night for one week straight, add 15 minutes to your bedtime. 

So in this example, the person would move their bed time up to 1:45am and go to bed at earliest 12:45am (from 2am/1am)

⮞ Once you are sleeping 5.25 hours for one week, you add another 15 minutes and have a bed time of 1:30am and go to bed at earliest 12:30am.  

In the grand scheme of things, someone who sleeps an average of 5 hours per night should reasonably be able to get a solid 7 hour block of sleep per night in 8-12 weeks. How does that sound?

If you are thinking that is a long time, just remember how long you’ve been dealing with chronic insomnia before this. You have survived many sleepless nights before, you’ll survive this. Plus I hope it’s an easier pill to swallow when you know there’s an end date. 

I’ll say it again, there is an end date to your insomnia. This is the home stretch where you have to put in the hard work, but it pays off immensely.

A Word About Naps

Napping should be limited to only when you absolutely need it. It should never be longer than 45 minutes, and never past 3pm.

If you sleep for longer, you fall into the deeper stages of sleep and essentially ‘borrow’ from the night to come (Mantua & Spencer, 2017). So you end up weakening your deep sleep that should be happening at night. And when you sleep later than 3pm, it will mess with your body rhythms that make it much more difficult to fall asleep at night. 

The 20/30 Rule

Last week I told you to get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes.

I want to reiterate how important this is to do during this transitional period of sleep restriction. Now, you won’t know if it’s exactly 20-30 minutes because you won’t be checking any clocks (I’ll get into that in the next article). However, if you are not getting tired after a few minutes of laying down and start tossing and turning, this is when you should move to a different room.

Remember – the reason that you should move rooms if you can’t sleep is because chronic insomnia is a conditioned response.  Somewhere along the line, you started to associate your bed with not sleeping.

If you only go to your bed when you are sleepy, you will then recondition your mind to associate your bed with sleep, rather than restlessness and stress. Move to another room for a few minutes and do something relaxing if you can’t sleep. Only return to your bed when you become sleepy. If you return to your bed and still cannot sleep, repeat the process. 

Here’s the ‘Why’ of Sleep Restriction

I will tell you right now, sleep restriction is easily the best thing you can do to overcome insomnia. When you more closely align your average sleep with the amount of time you spend in bed, your sleep efficiency will go up significantly. If you need a quick recap of sleep efficiency, it means you’ll spend most of your time in bed sleeping rather than tossing, turning, and just being awake. 

As mentioned previously, if the only time you spend in bed is when you are sleeping, you are now creating a new association that bed = sleep, and breaking the association that bed = anxiety + stress. 

Additionally, you take pressure off of yourself that you “have” to get to bed early because you didn’t sleep well the night before. I don’t know about you, but just taking the pressure off that I “should” or “have to be” in bed by 11pm or whatever made a world of difference for my stress around sleep.

The most important factor is your wake time. Because the more you strengthen that sleep/wake cycle, the easier it’ll be for sleep to come naturally. Again, that cycle will be driven by your consistent wake time.

But what if sleep restriction doesn’t work for me?

You will have nights while restricting where you won’t fall asleep at your prescribed time. This isn’t failure – this just means you have to keep trying. Keep waking up at the same time, every single day, even weekends, and your body WILL catch on.

Sleep restriction rarely fails. If it does, it’s likely because you are finding a workaround like sleeping in on weekends, taking too long of naps, trying to go to bed earlier than your scheduled time, or any other number of reasons. 

If, for some reason, you are one of the few who follows their sleep restriction schedule and it still doesn’t work after 6 weeks, you have to find a way to exhaust yourself during the day. When I say “doesn’t work”, I mean that you honestly followed the directions to a T and still have three or more nights of not sleeping in one solid block of time. 

If you are restricting and have a bad night here and there, that’s ok. Try again the next night.

Go for a long hike. Run. Punch a punching bag for 2 hours. Whatever it takes, just get yourself so tired that your body has to comply.

📍Quest #2

Find your new bedtime and wake time. Start your new schedule tonight. 

Sleep Hygiene: Set Yourself Up For Better Sleep

person sitting inside restaurant

If you are not familiar with the term, sleep hygiene is the daily practice of implementing good habits to regularly sleep well. It is also quite likely the first thing you’ve come across when looking into how to solve insomnia.

Sleep hygiene is often touted as THE solution to chronic insomnia. And I bet you’re thinking, “yet another person telling me to get better sleep hygiene. Thanks for the hot take, Sacha.”

We both know that’s unequivocally not true. But I will tell you, good sleep hygiene is a significant PART of solving chronic insomnia. 

These are the building blocks that will permanently change your sleeping habits. Depending on who you are, creating good sleep hygiene might not be a big stretch from what you are already doing. But for others, there may be some major overhauls in your lifestyle. Wherever you lie on the ‘good sleep hygiene’ spectrum, it’s a significant piece of the “insomnia slayer” puzzle. 

Exercise

We’ve all heard this one before. I know you are thinking “I’m not sure how I’m going to exercise on X hours/minutes of sleep”. Trust me, I can truly empathise. The last thing you want to do is move your body when you’re in pain from not sleeping.

However, no one is demanding that you deadlift your maximum weight here (unless you’re the type above where you’ve HONESTLY tried sleep restriction and it’s still not working). Be gentle on yourself. Go for a walk. Try some body weight exercises. Do yoga. Go golfing and use a cart. 

Exercise serves 3 purposes:

  1. It physically expends energy. This is especially important if you have a desk job or sit all day. It is surprising how much our bodies want to naturally move, even when sleep deprived.
  2. You will feel better. If your insomnia is caused by anxiety or depression, moving your body for at least 20 minutes per day releases endorphins (which make you feel better) and decreases stress hormones like cortisol (which makes you feel worse) (Harvard Health Publishing, 2020).
  3. Exercise can be a time to get all of your worries out. It gives you space to think and sort out any issues you are currently dealing with.

I know that you are not feeling well. It is awfully hard to have the willpower to exercise, let alone when you haven’t slept. I promise you though – it won’t kill you, and you won’t regret it.

Alcohol

Cutting out alcohol (or greatly limiting it) is one of the best things you can do to treat insomnia.

Having even one drink can produce sedative effects and reduce the time it takes to fall asleep. However, once it starts metabolizing in your body after 3-4 hours, the rapid eye movement (REM) and deep stages of sleep will be disrupted (Roehrs and Roth). As stated previously, these are the stages that are the most regenerative for your body.

Essentially what is happening is alcohol is a depressant and your body tries to compensate by releasing stimulants. The depressant effect of alcohol kicks in first, so you are able to fall asleep. As the effect of alcohol wears off, your body is still working to combat the depressant effects while you sleep so you are left with the longer-lasting stimulants. This is why you wake up earlier or have a less restful sleep in the second half of the night when you drink (Alberta Health Services, 2014).

From my experience, while you are trying to treat insomnia, it’s best to simply cut out alcohol for the time being. If you are inclined to drink, finish your last drink 3-4 hours before bed. This will give your body time to process any alcohol so it minimises the disruption to your sleep. 

Caffeine

You’ve already heard that if you drink excessive caffeine and are having trouble sleeping, you should cut back or stop drinking it altogether. If you do decide to keep drinking your daily dose of caffeine, here are some tips:

  • Brew coffee at home. Coffee from chain restaurants can be very high in caffeine.
  • Brew half regular and half decaffeinated.
  • Limit yourself to only 1 cup per day.
  • Drink caffeine before 12pm, ideally before 10am. The half life of coffee is 5-6 hours, and isn’t fully out of your system for 10-12 hours.
  • If you aren’t too addicted to coffee, switch to tea. It typically has less caffeine than coffee.

Darkness

full moon

You’ve probably read that your room should be dark, so if you aren’t following this advice, do it. Darkness is how the aforementioned melatonin ‘knows’ when to start releasing into your body, so light does in fact keep you awake. Do yourself a favour and get dark or black out curtains for your room. 

Also, turn off all unnecessary lights at night, and dim the lights that you are using as you are approaching bedtime (30 minutes to an hour before bed). This will help your body know that it should be winding down and start preparing for sleep.

Diet

What you eat is critical to your overall health and can very much affect your sleeping patterns. If you are eating poorly, it can cause indigestion, constipation, or diarrhea which makes it harder to sleep. 

I’m not going to give you a detailed diet plan, but I do have a suggestion for you to get around this: eat a lot of good things, minimize the sugary/salty things.

Yet another hot take, right? But I strongly suggest you do yourself a favour and rule out poor diet as the reason for your insomnia (or at least, something that contributes to insomnia). 

Eat frequently throughout the day so you aren’t digesting a mass amount of calories, and avoid eating 2-3 hours before bed. Digesting food takes energy, and this can keep you awake. To this day, I still won’t eat steak after 6pm. If you are hungry before bed, have low calorie snacks like the ones shown here.

Tip: A really handy app is My Fitness Pal. You can track what you are eating and see how much sugar, sodium, calories etc. you are getting.

📍Mini Quest! What is something you can do to your diet this week? Is it cutting your pop (soda) consumption in half? Is it adding one more serving of a fruit or vegetable every day? Is it skipping dessert? Is it making sure to drink two litres of water per day? Pick one thing that is a reasonable action for you (don’t suddenly go paleo or something if you’re not already). Small wins for health can create a positive chain of events. 

Limit Screen Time

I’m sure you know by now that being on your phone, computer, or watching TV isn’t a good run-up for getting to sleep easily. Artificial light suppresses our body’s natural mechanism to create melatonin, which throws off our 24 hour biological clock and in turn disrupts our sleep/wake cycle (Salk Institute, 2018). Not only that, but it also stimulates neurons in our brains to be more alert.

IDEALLY, you would turn off any and all screens 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed to avoid looking at bright lighting that may keep you awake. This is not only to avoid artificial light, but to create a wind down period for yourself (be honest – mindlessly scrolling social media or going down a rabbit hole of youtube can be stressful). 

If you are having a hard time putting your phone down or turning screens off for even 30 minutes to wind down before bed, use apps to dim your screen. 

For example, F.lux is a program that dims your computer screen as the sun sets. Also, turn your phone to ‘night mode’ a few hours before bed. Alternatively, turn off your wi-fi after a certain time to avoid any temptation. You can get smart plugs that have timers on them for as little as $20. 

Also, I strongly suggest you leave your phone outside of your room. Just the mere presence of it can make you hypervigilant of every buzz from a text or a light from a notification. So keep it out of the room, period. Plus, there is no temptation to turn to your phone when you can’t sleep. You know it’s not an effective method anyway, so just remove the temptation. 

For an alarm clock, buy a no-tick analogue alarm clock with no (or optional) lighting. 

Shower Timing

When your body is winding down for the night to prepare for sleep, your body temperature lowers. It is preparing to go into a bit of a hibernation mode. And a way to get this to happen faster is by taking a hot shower or bath at night.

A group of researchers at The University of Texas at Austin compiled 5,000 sleep studies and found that a warm bath or shower of around 40-42C (104-109F) 90 minutes to 2 hours before bed for as little as 10 minutes can help you fall asleep 10 minutes faster than normal (Haghayegh et al., 2019).

It may seem counterintuitive to take a warm bath or shower before bed when you need to lower your body temperature. But when you do, it moves heat away from your core and into your hands, feet, and to the surface of your body. In turn, the warm water actually drives your core internal temperature down, helping your body prepare for sleep. 

For some people though, they get their best thinking done in the shower, or that’s how they wake up for the day. If you are one of these people, keep showering in the morning. Your body temperature will still lower as it needs to at night. 

Home Temperature and Humidity

gray sand under white and blue sky

Your body temperature naturally falls when your body is preparing to sleep so make sure that your home is not too hot. Conversely, being too cold can cause discomfort. Try to aim for a room temperature between 18C-20C (65F – 68F).

Also, high humidity can affect your sleep. High humidity in hot weather can make you sweat or feel clammy. When it’s too humid, our sweat can’t evaporate so then our bodies work harder to get rid of it. This results in excessive sweating, increased blood circulation and increased respiration (Dougherty, 2011). If you have high humidity in cooler temperatures, it can cause allergy-like symptoms such as a runny nose, congestion, and cough (Farag, 2018). All of these high-humidity reactions can keep you up at night.

Alternatively, low humidity can also keep you up at night by causing a dry cough, irritated sinuses, nose bleeds, and dry and itchy skin. So keep your home between 30-50% humidity (usually on the lower side in the winter, and higher in the summer). 

Bed and Pillow

All of the aforementioned things to try (or avoid) assumes that you have a reasonably comfortable bed and pillow. You can’t treat insomnia if you’re waking up with a sore back or hips and need a new mattress. If you wake up with a stiff or sore neck, try a new pillow. Beds are typically good for 10 years, while pillows should be replaced after 12-18 months. 

If your bed is the problem but it’s not in the budget right now to get a new one, you can purchase a foam topper for your bed if you need more support.

Make your Space Inviting

white bed linen near white wooden door

If you haven’t already, make your bedroom an inviting space. Add some decor that you love like a piece of art, or a personal memento. If you’re not sure what you want, look to Houzz or Reddit’s /r/cozyspaces (fair warning – it’s mostly fairy lights and an abundance of plants) for inspiration on how you want your room to look. 

When it comes to your bedding, do you have good quality sheets and blankets that are soft? What about the bedroom furniture? I had the same TV trays as bedside tables since I started University (over 15 years ago) and a beat up dresser with many scratches. Setting myself up with proper bedroom furniture that matched made me feel better about my space and made it more welcoming to sleep.

No Clocks

How many times have you tossed and turned and looked at the clock to see that it’s been two hours since you first got into bed? Or woken up in the middle of the night only to realize it’s too early to get up, then doing the math that if you don’t go back to sleep, you’ll only get ‘x’ number of hours of sleep? Or have you looked at the clock and said “OK! Time for bed, it’s 11pm and I need 8 hours!”, forcing yourself to try and sleep even when you are not tired?

I call this sleep math. You stress about thinking of the number of hours you have left so you stay awake and keep thinking of how the clock is ticking. You fear you won’t sleep, so then you don’t sleep.  

I have a super simple solution to that problem – eliminate glowing clocks so you can’t do sleep math, and avoid looking at them like the plague. As mentioned above, consider a no-tick analogue clock. To this day, I still don’t look at the time once 10pm hits – that’s it for me. I fall asleep when I’m tired, and that’s all that matters.

Here are a few pointers:

  • Set your alarm early in the evening (after dinner) so you don’t have to look at your alarm clock right before you go to bed.
  • If you MUST use your phone for an alarm, face the screen down so you won’t see the time if it happens to flash. Always put it on night mode or silent so you don’t receive any notifications. 

Block Noise

Hopefully it goes without saying that if you’re in a noisy environment or you’re a light sleeper that is easily awakened, it can greatly affect your sleep. Whether it’s living in a noisy neighbourhood or you have a snoring partner, earplugs can at least get rid of noise as a factor for insomnia.

Chamomile Tea

white and brown ceramic teapot on wooden tray

Some people swear by chamomile tea to help them sleep. Chamomile tea is a wild flavoured tea with no caffeine that can produce a calming effect. One study found that it’s a natural sedative because it calms your central nervous system (Srivastava, Shankar, & Gupta, 2011).

Drinking tea is not a necessary step for good sleep hygiene, but it can be a part of a good bedtime routine that gets you into a state of relaxation. Just make sure to drink it at least an hour before bed so you don’t have to get up to use the bathroom during the night.

Stink Free

Having a neutral smelling room is hopefully something you already know helps you sleep. Smells can be distracting, even if they’re something good like the leftover scents from a great dinner. If your room stinks because of other reasons (lack of upkeep), now is the time for some house cleaning and opening of windows for fresh air. If it’s too cold, invest in an air purifier. 

📍Quest #3

What can you do differently this week that will help facilitate sleep? Pick at least one thing to work on or implement. Once you feel comfortable with that, add another. 

Dealing with Second Winds

Did you ever get sleepy and not fall asleep right away, only to find yourself wide awake again? This is called a second wind.

Second winds are a period where, after staying awake for too long, you stop feeling drowsy. Essentially, what happened is your sleep/wake cycle got messed up – if you didn’t fall asleep when your sleep cycle started to kick in, your wake cycle reboots (Sheldon et al., 2005). This makes it much more difficult to fall asleep because your circadian rhythm was just jolted into a phase where it shouldn’t be. Many people experience second waves after laying in bed for hours, but especially when the sun rises. Even after a full night of not sleeping, your body can reset to your wake cycle. Super fun stuff.

You can again thank your biology for this phenomenon. It is a survival mechanism that evolved as part of the F3 response. It allows you to have better cognitive functioning while sleep deprived for a short period of time. Cortisol, which activates adrenaline, essentially suppresses your melatonin, and puts you in an “aroused” state of wakefulness (Hirotsu et al., 2015). 

Since second winds are part of your F3 response (see week 1 if you need a refresher), you can turn it around. Anecdotally, it does take longer for me to get into a relaxed state where I can fall asleep once a second wind kicks in – usually 1-3 hours. It’s not pleasant, but at least when a second wind happens, some of your night can still be salvaged. 

I discussed a few techniques in week 1, but I will go into greater detail in week 5 on how to stop the flow of stress through your body so you can get to sleep after a second wind.

Monophasic Sleep and Why You Shouldn’t Sleep Hack

There is nothing that makes my eyes roll further back in my head than when I hear the phrase ‘sleep hacking’. 

If you aren’t familiar with sleep hacking, it’s when people attempt to sleep in any pattern other than one block of time at night. It is usually associated with people trying to overcome the many, many years of biological evolution to hopefully find something better than the standard block of sleep so they can “optimise” their day. However, pretty much anything that is labeled as a sleep hack is simply good sleep hygiene and mislabeled as a “sleep hack”, a cultural norm, or complete and utter nonsense marketed to you like any other gimmick.

Let’s explore.

Polyphasic sleep

I die a little inside when I hear someone say they think they’ve found the holy grail of sleep through polyphasic sleep. It’s almost as bad as someone bragging that they found some “cute little local bar in Mexico” and it was totally a Señor Frogs. 

It’s old news. Like, over 500 year old news. 

If you’re not familiar with polyphasic sleep, here’s the deal:

Polyphasic sleep is where “biohackers” (ugh) are trying to find ways to sleep the least amount of time possible in small blocks, multiple times per day, to optimise their schedule for “ultimate productivity”. 

Some examples include:

⮞ Napping for 20 minutes every 4 hours, for a total of 2 hours of sleep per day 

⮞ Having a 2-4 hour “core sleep” at night with three separate 20-minute naps during the day

These schedules were based on extreme situations where broken sleep was necessary. The first example is from the military in combat situations where they are unable to sleep for extended periods of time (Rhones & Gil, 2007). So instead, they sleep in multiple 20 minute blocks. This helped their cognitive functioning when compared to not sleeping at all, but is most certainly not sustainable. They accumulated incredible amounts of sleep debt even after a few days. 

The other is with NASA astronauts in space (NASA, 2005). Having a regular sleep schedule in line with the 24 hour rotation of the earth is pretty hard when you’re floating above the atmosphere and the concept of time is different. Plus, the lack of gravity makes it difficult to feel settled so they typically have a core sleep of a few hours then nap when they can.

So unless you are a Marine in combat or an astronaut where schedules are extreme, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to even consider such sleep schedules.

Biphasic Sleep

Aside from polyphasic sleep, there is biphasic sleep where people sleep in two blocks. When someone is talking about it, they are usually referring to a specific period in history from the pre-industrial era in Western Europe where people practiced biphasic sleep. 

This is when people would go to bed shortly after dusk, wake up for an hour or two in the middle of night, and sleep again until dawn. During that one to two hour wake time, people would wake up and visit neighbours! Or have a pint at the pub! Or have sex! What a grand old time, eh?

Here’s the problem with that. 

We don’t live in a world of no devices and, ya know, no electricity and light bulbs. As mentioned previously in the sleep hygiene section, light keeps us up for longer than we normally would have been if there were no light. 

You can certainly reduce the amount of light coming into your eyes when it comes to your home or screens, and you should, but there’s still ambient light from street lights, cars, and other homes. If you live in a rural area, maybe you do have complete darkness after a certain time, but it still doesn’t matter because you don’t live in a world that runs solely on the rise and fall of the sun. So it’s simply not practical to go to bed at 6 or 7pm when you’re an adult living in the 21st century. 

Of course, there are several countries around the world where the cultural norm is conducive to being a biphasic sleeper. Look at Spain, for example – they have a siesta from 2pm-5pm. Here, people usually don’t start work until 10am, but they have their siesta and work late into the evening.

Everyone’s day is shifted, and their bedtimes at night are typically much later. While it’s an ingrained biphasic schedule, it’s again based on the preindustrial era where there was no electricity or air conditioning. It should also be noted that a significant percentage of Spaniards want to banish the siesta because it doesn’t fit with the modern working day (Jones, 2017).

Additionally, biphasic sleep relies on naps. As an insomniac, naps should be avoided since your circadian rhythm and sleep/wake cycles are completely out of whack and need to be recalibrated. These schedules simply aren’t feasible when you are trying to learn how to sleep again.

The 20/8 Split

The other sleep ‘hack’ schedule that floats around is based on 28 hour “days”. Essentially what you do here is stay awake for 20 hours and sleep for 8 (or do a 19/9 split). So if you wake up at 6am, you stay awake until 2am and sleep until 10am (Paech, Ferguson, Sargent, Darwent, 2010). Then you don’t go to bed until 6am the following day. However, one study showed a cumulative sleep loss over six weeks and reduction in daytime performance with the 20/8 schedule (Lee et al, 2009). In other words, it’s not sustainable. 

The whole point of doing anything other than monophasic sleep (except where it’s the social norm) is that it supposedly gives you more time to do all the things you need and want to do. But your sleep needs to work with how you actually live your life (not some abstract idea of an ideal), and how our world operates. Though your life will revolve around sleep for a bit while you are overcoming insomnia, it shouldn’t stay like that. Your sleep should support your life, not rule it. 

Can you learn to feel rested on less sleep?

It should also be noted that you can’t sleep less. I often encounter people who say they sleep a full night but want to learn to live off of 5-6 hours per night and still feel rested. This just isn’t physically possible unless you are one of the few with a specific mutation of the DEC2 gene (Alvarez, 2019) or ADRB1 gene (Shi et. al, 2019). For now, your goal is to sleep your average, but know that it’s just temporary since you won’t feel rested on 5-6 hours of sleep. The goal is to get you to 7-8 (maybe even 9) hours. 

In short, you can’t change the constant movement of time or how the world operates. The world spins and the sun rises and falls just as it always has for billions of years. As I’ve tried to point out so far in this course, we are all biological beings whether you like it or not. We have many millennia of evolution as humans that resulted in natural circadian rhythms. And for as long as we are humans living on planet earth, we might as well roll with it and sleep at night – in one block. 

A Note on Sleep Trackers 

Sleep trackers do not work. Not even the most expensive ones you can buy. They are exceptionally limited devices that only measure when you are moving or not (John Hopkins Medicine). As an insomniac, I’m sure you’ve laid completely still for hours at a time yet remained wide awake. A sleep tracker would record that as sleep. Conversely, it might record that you’re awake when you’re in fact sleeping, especially during lighter phases of sleep where you do move more. 

If you are actually interested to see how you are sleeping, it’s best to participate in a sleep study where they can record your brain waves. It’s certainly a more complete set of data that can help you understand where you are with sleep better than a commercial watch ever could.

Week 2 Checklist

This week, we are starting the very necessary journey towards getting a regular sleep schedule and dramatically improving your sleep efficiency. Because sleep restriction can be difficult, I want you to remember why you are committed to getting better. As you recall in week 1, commitment is a necessary mindset to have when overcoming chronic insomnia. This commitment is a deep seeded belief that you absolutely can and deserve sleep. And with the information this week, I hope the commitment is renewed when you know there’s an end date to your insomnia.

If you don’t yet believe that you can sleep and feel rested and refreshed, you absolutely can.

silver tabby cat sleeping on white blanket

As I mentioned on my webpage, I slept between 0-6 hours per night for three years. I could count on one hand the number of times I felt rested in that time. I’d sometimes sleep 2 hours at night, then collapse mid-day from exhaustion. I would try to sleep again only to find myself awake until 6am when I had to wake up for work at 7am. I tried taking pills, sometimes a knowingly dangerous concoction of them, to sleep and it still wouldn’t work. It didn’t matter if I was awake for 36 hours straight, nothing would wrestle my consciousness to sleep. I was anxious, depressed, and at one point suicidal, from my lack of sleep. 

The first major turning point in my journey to overcome insomnia was sleep restriction. I couldn’t believe that after years of suffering I was finally sleeping a solid block of 5 hours per night. I felt like a million bucks, even though I was still tired every day. It was a major breakthrough to know that I still had the ability to sleep, and I could do it at regular intervals. It gave me hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel, and I’d sleep normally again one day. 

And guess what?

For the past four years, I have mostly slept regularly. Yes, there have still been periods of transient and acute insomnia because of stress, but chronic insomnia has never come back in full force. I simply get back on track once I manage my stress and move on. 

If this worked for me, it’ll work for you too. 

If you’re thinking “well I haven’t slept for three DECADES so three years is nothing”, it doesn’t matter. Chronic insomnia is chronic insomnia whether you have had it for a few months for  most of your life. It’s not a competition for how long you’ve suffered – there is no award for feeling like shit for longer than someone else. The process is the same for any chronic insomniac. 

I want you to say it to yourself every single day. I CAN have a regular sleep schedule. I WILL sleep regularly. I DESERVE to feel rested, refreshed, and relaxed. Commit to the process and the journey and you will get there. 

Let’s quickly recap:

  1. This week, you will learn to accept insomnia as it is, right now. 

Now that you have capital C ~Committed~ to getting better, your goal this week is to accept insomnia. This will help you diffuse from the strong negative connotations associated with sleep, because when you do that, you make room for positive associations with sleep.

  1. You will restrict your sleep according to your new bedtime and wake time. 

Have you found your new wake time and bedtime? Again, this is based on the average time you slept last week and the time you need to get up for the day, whether that’s because of work, school, kids, or whatever else. 

So, let’s say you need to wake up at 7 a.m. If you average 5 hours, your goal is to fall asleep by 2 a.m.. The earliest you should go to bed in this case is 1 a.m. If your average is 6 hours, your goal is to get to sleep by 1 a.m. and go to bed at 12 a.m. at the earliest. If you average less than 5 hours, your goal is to give yourself at least 5 and a half hours in bed, so go to bed by 2:30am at the latest. 

  1. You will limit naps

Remember – nap only for a maximum of 45 minutes, and only before 3pm. If you can’t nap, get up and go about the rest of your day.

  1. You will get out of bed when you can’t sleep

Use the 20/30 rule – get out of bed if you don’t fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes and go do something quiet and relaxing. After 20 – 30 minutes, go back to bed and try again. Repeat the process as needed. This applies when you are sleep restricting.

  1. You will pick at least two ways to improve your sleep hygiene this week

Pick two things you can do that will help your sleep. The big two that I initially made were around caffeine and alcohol. I still to this day do not drink more than 2 cups of coffee (175ml or 6oz each) and never past 10am. When I do drink alcohol, I always stop drinking 4 hours before bedtime, and rarely is it more than two drinks total for the evening. 

  1. You’ll continue to relax your nervous system 

Whether it’s just a moment of anxiety and stress, or a second wind, the more you practice calming yourself down with relaxation tactics, the easier it’ll become. And the easier it becomes, the quicker you’ll fall (or fall back) to sleep. 

Find this information useful? Please consider donating to keep this site free 🙂

References

Alberta Health Services. (2014). Alcohol and Sleep – In Brief. Retrieved from https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/amh/if-amh-alcohol-and-sleep-in-brief.pdf 

Alvarez, J. (2019). After 10-Year Search, Scientists Find Second ‘Short Sleep’ Gene. Retrieved from https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2019/08/415261/after-10-year-search-scientists-find-second-short-sleep-gene 

Dougherty, E. (2011). Why do we sweat more in high humidity? Retrieved from https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-do-we-sweat-more-in-high-humidity/

Farag, A. (2018). Is the cold weather causing your runny nose? Retrieved from https://wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/is-the-cold-weather-causing-your-runny-nose

Haghayegh, S., Khoshnevis, S., Smolensky, M. H., Diller, K.R., Castriotta, R. J. (2019). Before-bedtime passive body heating by warm shower or bath to improve sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31102877/ 

Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). Exercising to relax. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax

Hirotsu, C., Tufik, S., Andersen, M. L. (2015). Interactions between sleep, stress, and metabolism: From physiological to pathological conditions. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4688585/ 

John Hopkins Medicine. (n.d). Do Sleep Trackers Really Work? Retrieved from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/do-sleep-trackers-really-work

Jones, J. (2015). It’s time to put the tired Spanish siesta stereotype to bed. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170609-its-time-to-put-the-tired-spanish-siesta-stereotype-to-bed  

Lack, L.C., Gradisar, M., Van Someren, E. J. W., Wright, H.R., Lushington, K. (2008). The relationship between insomnia and body temperatures. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18603220/ 

Lee, J. H., Wang, W,m Silva, E. J., Chang, A., Scheuermaier, K. D., Cain, S. W., and Duffy, J. F. (2009). Neurobehavioral Performance in Young Adults Living on a 28-h Day for 6 Weeks. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2706904/ 

Mantua, J., & Spencer, R. M. C. (2017). Exploring the nap paradox: are mid-day sleep bouts a friend or foe? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5598771/

NASA. (2005). NASA Naps. Retrieved from https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2005/03jun_naps/ 

Paech, G., Ferguson, S., Sargent, C., Darwent, D. (2010). A 28 hour day, sleep and a single beat period; revisiting forced desynchrony studies? Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258889422_A_28_hour_day_sleep_and_a_single_beat_period_revisiting_forced_desynchrony_studies

Posner, D. (2020). Insomnia in a Pandemic. Retrieved from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/04/sleep-problems-becoming-risk-factor-as-pandemic-continues/ 

Roehrs, T., Roth, T. (n.d.). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Sleep, Sleepiness, and Alcohol Use. Retrieved from https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh25-2/101-109.htm

Rhones, W., Gil, V. (2007). Fatigue Management Guide For Canadian Marine Pilots – A Trainer’s Handbook. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20131228064318/http://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/innovation/tdc-publication-tp13960e-13960e-602.htm 

Salk Institute. (2018). Why screen time can disrupt sleep: Scientists uncover how certain retinal cells respond to artificial illumination. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/11/181127111044.htm

Sheldon, S. H., Kryger, M. H., Ferber, R., Gozal, D. (2005). Principles and Practice of Pediatric Sleep Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.inkling.com/read/sheldon-principles-practice-pediatric-sleep-medicine-2nd/chapter-7/general-recommendations 

Shi, G. et al. (2019). A Rare Mutation of β1-Adrenergic Receptor Affects Sleep/Wake Behaviors. Retrieved from https://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(19)30652-X 

Srivastava, J.K., Shankar, E., Gupta, S. (2011). Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with a bright future. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2995283/