A few family illnesses, an insomniac boyfriend with weird late night habits, the stressful financial vagaries of a freelance lifestyle, a severe back injury—in no particular order—it all took a cumulative toll on my dreamtime. This series of events coincided with the advent of social media: a deadly combination for tranquil nights. I woke up one morning (too late, natch) and realized that my sleep, and therefore my entire life, was kind of falling apart.
Without enough sleep, my creativity was eroding, along with my internal memory archive. Aside from feeling like crap, it was just unacceptable for me to endure that kind of deterioration—everything depended upon it, including my income.
In your 20s you can easily recuperate from a night or two of partying or working through the wee hours. You can even function the very next day, sometimes on no sleep at all. When I was in grad school, I managed to go out four or five nights a week, often until 4 a.m., and then somehow make it to my job, ace my classes, and even do a bit of freelance writing on the side. God, I miss that me.
On the other side of 30, this kind of schedule is incredibly challenging, even with a Starbucks habit akin to an IV caffeine drip. This is not just because an infant might be screeching through the baby monitor demanding the presence of your nipple every few hours (although that complicates things immeasurably). Perhaps it’s because our bodies aren’t evolutionarily programmed to live past 30. We begin to decline the moment we start living our “real lives”—what adorable irony.
Becoming My Own Guinea Pig
Sleep is everything. It’s your brain’s opportunity to flush out toxins and consolidate memories. It’s perhaps the most fundamental aspect of wellness. Without it, your entire body stops working. You gain weight. You get depressed. Your immune system falters.
Knowing that I’d never be the same without quality sleep, I committed to a research protocol, becoming my own guinea pig. Sleeping pills were out of the question, as were anti-anxiety meds—even the occasional Xanax wouldn’t do it, as I’m exceptionally sensitive to all manner of pharmaceuticals. I had to find another way, and that’s where my crazy orange welder’s glasses would come in. (More on that in a bit.)
It’s no big revelation that our gadget-addicted lifestyles are destroying us—making us lonely, depressed, anxious and narcissistic. We’ve all read about the ways in which Facebook and its associated evil sisters are killing our sleep, our sex lives, and making us into weird robots who lack normal social skills that don’t involve swiping right. We have afflictions like “text-neck” and get into car accidents because of these terrible, horrible machines that we simply can’t live without.
But it’s not just the vacation envy and information overload that’s messing with our sleep—it’s the blue light emitted by our computers, iPhones and iPads. Even the television and bedside lamp wreak havoc on our circadian rhythms, those precious internal circuits that allow us to sleep efficiently, wake up refreshed, and function like a normal, healthy human being.
When blue light hits your retina, your pineal gland wakes up and says, “Hey, it’s morning! The sun is shining! Time to start the day!” However after the actual sun has gone down, your pineal gland is all, “WTF?!!! The sun should be down, but it’s up. I’m just going to short-circuit your entire body now by starving you of melatonin, because you’re giving me no other choice. Good luck at that important meeting tomorrow, babe.”
I read this piece from Harvard Medical School and immediately ordered my wacky orange welder’s glasses. In the evenings when I’m alone (or with people who won’t judge me), I slip on this miraculous, inexpensive eyewear around sunset. Able to block the blue light emitted by my electronic appendages, I am not forced to entirely disengage from the Internet, addict that I am. I can stream Orange Is the New Black to my heart’s content, get into a Twitter argument, or like someone’s Instagram kale selfie if I really must.
Blackout Curtains Will Change Your Life
Next up: I got to work blocking out the light in my bedroom at night.
Even though I was always able to sleep with a bit of light in the room, my research revealed that I wasn’t sleeping as soundly as I thought. So I bought (pretty) blackout curtains, and then as an extra precaution, sewed my old curtains into them, so I have a double panel. This is a delicious addition to my sleep regimen because it also blocks out street noise. I also covered all digital clocks, Wi-Fi routers—anything emitting that dastardly blue light. Now my bedroom is a virtual sleep cave. Guests are actually freaked out by how dark it is, but oh how I’ve grown to love it. I also cycled through several high-quality sleep masks. In a pinch, if you can’t do the blackout curtain thing, sleep masks offer excellent backup.
Coffee: My Lover, My Nemesis
I absolutely rue the day I realized that I’d grown more sensitive to caffeine. I had an argument with God. Was she seriously telling me that I was never again going to enjoy an iced cappuccino at 5 p.m.? Noooooo.
But yes. I had to face it. Coffee after noon was killing me. I still drink it in the morning, and make it into a festival of sensual indulgence, because I know I won’t be seeing it again until the next morning. Occasionally, on weekends, I’ll have a cold brew later in the day (as it has slightly less caffeine). When I absolutely need an afternoon kick during the week, I go for matcha tea, which contains caffeine but is released into the bloodstream differently than coffee. It’s a smoother, mellower high and it’s gone for good after about five hours.
Some Other Tidbits
– Your bed is only for having sex and sleeping, not reading, writing, watching TV, scrolling through your email, arguing with your spouse or any other task not productive to quality sleep.
– Have an orgasm before bedtime, on your own or with your partner. Aside from the other cascade of physiological goodness provided by orgasms, the oxytocin is a sedative.
– Expose yourself to natural light in the morning, for the sake of your circadian rhythms. If you go from your home, to your car, to a dark office, consider grabbing 10 extra minutes to bask in the early morning light.
– I CANNOT SAY ENOUGH ABOUT THE WONDERS OF THE EVENING BATH. No matter how busy you are, how impossible it seems to attend to homework, dinner and scrubbing your kids/kitchen counters, you deserve a Cleopatra-style bath. Please do this for yourself, especially if you’re a frazzled mom. Pour two cups of Epsom salts (which provide tranquilizing magnesium) in a warm (not hot) bath, add some baking soda to soften the skin, and put in a few drops of your favorite essential oil. I like hormone-balancing geranium. Soak in the tub for 20 minutes and revel in your me-time.
– For the ladies: I discovered a very, very 1970s theory called “Lunaception” that aligns your cycle to the waxing and waning moon. It sounds woo-woo, but it’s great for both sleep and hormone balance. These are inextricably linked, one of the reasons women in their 30s, 40s and 50s tend to have such crappy sleep.
– I installed this awesome software, which adjusts the light on your gadgets when the sun sets. If you’re only able to apply one of the suggestions in this article, I’d go for this one first, because it’s easy and free.