Take the 2-minute tour ×
Physical Fitness Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for physical fitness professionals, athletes, trainers, and those providing health-related needs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I hope this question is on-topic for this site. It seems to me that sleep is a pretty big ingredient in fitness.

I pretty much never get enough sleep. It's not for lack of trying though. I just can't seem to do it. I find it very difficult to fall asleep. And also very difficult to get out of bed in the morning!

A large part of my problem is that I'm a night person by nature. Even if I'm tired all day long, I often feel wide awake after the sun sets. However to get to work on time during the week, I must get up by 7:30am at the absolute latest. That means that in order to get 8 hours of sleep, I would need to fall asleep by 11:30pm every night. At 11:30pm I am generally not inclined to sleep. Even when I turn all the lights out and go to bed, I find myself staring at the ceiling for a couple hours before finally drifting off.

It's not just a night-time problem though. There have been times where I've been extremely tired and I've tried to nap during the day. Sometimes I can do it, but often I just can't fall asleep, despite being tired. I seem to have an all-around insomnia problem. But it is usually easier to sleep during the day than at night.

I've already talked to 2 doctors about this, and neither of them was very helpful. They gave me some suggestions, which I've tried my best to follow, but it didn't make much of a difference. They did not seem to think that there was a medical cause for my condition. They didn't offer to prescribe me any medication, and I didn't ask.

Admittedly one thing I've been bad about is getting up and going to bed at the same time every day. I make an effort to do so, and I must be at work at the same time every day Monday-Friday, so you would think it would be easy. But if I don't fall asleep until 2:00am or even 3:00am some week nights, then by the time the weekend comes around I may really be exhausted and I may give in to the temptation to sleep past noon, which feels great but probably prolongs my problem.

I do think that the problem is probably largely psychological, because I often find it easier to sleep in hotels and in strange places than I do in my own home. No idea why.

Things I've tried:

  • Avoiding caffeine after 12:00pm. This was something my doctor recommended. I actually have tried to quit caffeine altogether a few times, but I always keep coming back to my morning coffee.
  • Over-the-counter medication - Sleep aids like diphenhydramine often (but not always) make me drowsy. Still, I've found that even when they make me drowsy, that doesn't necessarily mean I can fall asleep. It's like my brain fights a loss of consciousness down to the last. I tried a number of over-the-counter solutions for 1-2 weeks each, then stopped using them because they didn't seem to help.
  • Eating a heavy meal shortly before bed - Same as above. It may make me more drowsy, but doesn't seem to actually cause sleep.
  • Keeping non-sleep activities out of the bedroom - I'm haven't been 100% faithful, but I moved my computer and my desk out of my bedroom, and I try to keep my portable gadgets out of there, at least when I remember.
  • Staying away from screens before bed - I listed this here because I have attempted it, but honestly I didn't really succeed. My life is pretty much run by computer and as long as I'm awake I'm probably near a screen.
  • Exercise - Exercising within 3 hours or so of going to bed completely destroys my ability to sleep. I become "wired" and full of energy. Exercising earlier in the day seems to increase my need for sleep (it's harder to get out of bed the day after I do strenuous exercise), but doesn't seem to increase my drowsiness or ability to fall asleep at night.

I'm really at my wits end trying to solve this problem. I feel like it's affecting my health and my quality of life, and it's definitely affecting my fitness routine.

How can I learn to fall asleep, and keep good sleep habits? Does anyone have any ideas?

share|improve this question
1  
Could it be you're thinking too much? You could be extremely tired, but if you have something on your mind that you can't stop thinking about sometimes that can be enough to keep you awake. –  Salsero69 Aug 18 '11 at 20:20
    
Salsero69 - I'm sure that's a factor sometimes. But the fact is that this is a problem I've been facing every day for years, so it's not caused by anxiety or excitement about anything in particular. I do tend to have a very active mind at night (it's part of the "night owl" thing I can't seem to change). –  Joshua Carmody Aug 18 '11 at 20:36
1  
Out of curiosity, what kind of doctors did you see? Perhaps going to a sleep lab might be better to figure out what's wrong. If you really think it might be psychological, that's also another avenue to investigate. –  Matt Chan Aug 19 '11 at 19:28
    
@Matt Chan - Just General Practitioners/Internal Medicine. I was getting my normal bi-annual checkup about 5 years ago, and I asked her about my sleep problem. More recently, I went for a checkup about 2 years ago as a follow up after having bronchitis, and I asked that doctor about my sleeping as well (Still my primary care doctor, but it was a adifferent doctor after my insurance changed). –  Joshua Carmody Aug 19 '11 at 19:31

6 Answers 6

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Firstly, do not eat a large meal just before sleep. This will trigger your digestion system and will affect your sleep.
See this answer: Heavy meal at night effects on sleep and more

Also, I'm surprised that you find exercising before bed beneficial. That contradicts everything I've ever heard. But compared to everything else you describe, changing this might not make the biggest difference.

I would suggest that you try to concentrate on meeting every single one of the following bullets with tricks and advice for a better and deeper sleep. I have been researching this material in order to write a short article about it (sources below). I have done my best in translating into English, so please bear with me. And as always no promises on the effectiveness of my suggestions, but give it a try.

Much of this comes from documented experinces as well as from actual scientific research - but that is always the case when talking about psycologically based fields. So read it as suggestions and not proof, but be also aware that it will take time for you to see results.

The last 4 hours before sleep have an enormous significance in the sleep quality and the ability to fall asleep, but what you do during the day also matters.

To do list for a good sleep:

  • Avoid energizers.
    drinks and food containing caffeine (like coffee, soda, black tee and cocoa); smoking, TV watching, brainteasers and similar activities that activate your brain

  • Have a dark and slightly chilled bedroom - 16-18 C would likely be optimal

  • Be neither hungry nor satiated when going to bed
    If you're hungry or thirsty, then have a piece of fruit or a glass of milk or juice. Digestion after a large meal will interfere with your sleep

  • Don't drink alcohol.
    The sleep quality if you do fall asleep is significantly impaired; it is compared with artificial anesthesia, which is a "false sleep"

  • Air out the bedroom beforehand

  • Get out of bed at night when you can't sleep instead of staring at the ceiling for hours. Walk around a little, have a glass of warm milk, and go to bed again after 10 minutes.

  • Don't go to bed if you aren't tired - even if you are getting up early.

  • Dim the light in your bedroom for at least an hour before sleep.
    The body is said to adjust into a sleep mode and slowly gear down - we are built to sleep when the sun goes down after all

  • Get up at the same time every day - including weekends and holidays!
    Let it vary only +/- 1 hour even if you fell asleep late. The body must get used to a fixed rythm in sleeping

  • Be physically active during the daytime to add a natural sleepiness.

  • Do not sleep during the day, even if you can't sleep at night
    Naps during the day will just perpetuate the cycle of not being able to sleep at night. A nap in the afternoon should last no longer than 20 minutes if necessary.
    Naps are not all bad though - they are a great method for people who can't get a full nights sleep, like athlete sailors. If these people take 1-hour or 2-hour naps when possible several times a day it will be much helpfull and give them much more energy than avoiding naps and only getting e.g. 3 hours of sleep once a day.

  • Do not watch the clock when you wake up at night.

  • Don't worry while in bed.
    Avoid bringing any thoughts from your work or activities of the day with you into the bedroom. And don't work or sit by the computer till late; always give yourself a few hours to cool down before sleep. You must let your mind rest in order to fully rest your body.

  • Have a "concern hour" or "problem hour" every day in the afternoon after work.
    Use it to think through every concern and problem, write down what you must remember for tomorrow, so you can stop thinking about it, and convince yourself that it can wait. And then find a good book to end the day with instead of the TV.

  • Have a hot bath before bedtime.
    But wait an hour before going to bed after the bath to let the body temperature adjust beforehand.

  • Always keep the same eveningly / nightly routines so the body knows what bedtime means.

  • Use earplugs and a mask for the eyes

  • Only use the bedroom for sleeping - not working or TV-watching

  • Clean up - A messy bedroom stresses you, while order is calming

  • Make sure you have a good bed
    Good quality, right type of mattress fitting you, a good pillow and soft duvet

  • Watch out with sleep medication
    Long term use of sleeping pills etc. will eventually result in even worsened sleep

  • Keep pen and paper by the bed
    To write down thoughts and concerns causing nightly wake ups. Then convince yourself to let it wait till the morning

  • Avoid bright light when you are up at night.

  • Avoid intense psysical activity before sleep
    Exercise raises pulse and blood pressure, and the body produces stress hormones and glukose to provide energy. Adrenaline are eventually sent to every muscle to be ready for performing.

  • Keep a sleep diary - try mapping everything that goes on to get an overview of what happened when you had a good and a bad sleep

From these sources (all Danish):
https://www.sundhed.dk/Artikel.aspx?id=12095.1
http://www.regionh.dk/NR/rdonlyres/58A54878-BC62-4C9B-B556-F4CB6C0070C/0/Afrivningsblok.pdf
http://www.sovbedre.nu/gode_r%C3%A5d.asp http://www.netdoktor.dk/tema/soevn/gode_raad.htmhttp://www.isleep.dk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5&Itemid=8
http://www.xn--bedresvn-b5a.dk/

Lastly, do not count the hours that you are going to sleep. It is sleep quality not quantity that matters. I have heard a lot about people who are training their bodies to need less sleep and to use short intense sleeps instead.

Note on insomnia

Yesterday I saw a Danish documentary about what to do about insomnia. They said the most important thing was to make a tight schedule for when to use the bedroom. E.g. make a rule saying that you may only be in your bedroom for 6 hours in total - nomatter if you sleep or not. And keep it the same 6 hours each day, so you get up at the same time every day.
supposedly this will force the body to realize that the bedroom is for sleeping.

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks for a very very thorough answer! As regards exercise, as I said I found that exercising before bed has a very negative effect on my ability to sleep, so I don't do that anymore. I used to do it every now and then because I didn't have time to exercise early in the day and my gym is 24-hours. But now I know better. –  Joshua Carmody Aug 19 '11 at 3:26
    
Okay, it just sounded like you thought exercise had a helping effect and couldn't understand why it didn't. I will suggest you take every single bullet above and then have a month or so where you are very strict with these rules. If it doesn't help you might have an actual illness, like regular insomnia. But I hope it will work. –  Steeven Aug 19 '11 at 9:02
1  
Could you explain the suggestion to "air out the bedroom beforehand"? Are you suggesting I open the windows and turn a fan on before going to bed? How would that help? –  Joshua Carmody Aug 19 '11 at 14:01
1  
@Joshua Carmody; Air out the room before going to bed. That is for cleansing the air and refreshing the "climate" in the room and getting a fitting cooler temperature. Don't sleep in thick "old" air, instead have a fresh environment. Airing the bedroom by opening the windows for just a ½ hour just before going to sleep should be refreshing and nice. –  Steeven Aug 19 '11 at 17:23
1  
You could also add cheese + bread (for tryptophan), mint tea and magnesium to the list. –  Chris S Mar 27 '12 at 8:31

If you really can't get away from screens, take a look at f.lux, which changes the brightness and colors of your screen according to the time of day where you are. It won't fix the problem of screen-time near bed-time, but I've found that it mitigates it. It can be switched off quickly and easily if you have color-sensitive work to do.

share|improve this answer

Try taking some melatonin before bed. Melatonin tends to be hit-or-miss in my experience, people I know who have tried it have had either great results or none at all. You can pick it up in any drug store, so it's worth a shot.

You mentioned being tired during the day, does this happen even when you are getting enough sleep? You could have sleep apnea, a condition which causes you to stop breathing in your sleep. Sleep apnea constantly goes undiagnosed because sufferers don't realize that it is not normal to be tired during the day.

I started treatment for sleep apnea earlier this year and I cam say with no exaggeration that it has been life changing. No more falling asleep behind the wheel, no more afternoon fatigue, etc. I don't know if this is common, but I've also had an easier time falling asleep since starting treatment.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be overweight to have sleep apnea, although it could be a sign. Sleep apnea tends to cause weight gain just as much as weight gain will cause sleep apnea. If you have a history of depression, snore, or if you are a mouth breather, these are also strong indicators.

If you have a significant other ask them to pay attention to your breathing patterns, if not ask your doctor to do a sleep study. They're usually conducted in hotels, it's easy, comfortable, and won't interrupt your schedule (you'd be in bed either way). When I did mine it was right next to the office, so I got to avoid the morning traffic.

share|improve this answer

Sounds like you have two goals.

  1. Fall asleep faster
  2. Fall asleep earlier

First, I'd suggest you learn about your own sleep patterns. Lifehacker had a nice article on technology that can be helpful. By keeping closer track of the experiments you've done that are mentioned above you might notice things like, you need two days of consistency to make staying away from screens to be effective or some such.

Irregular sleep patterns (sleeping in until noon on the weekend) will definitely sabotage your goals. You're not doing yourself any favors by sleeping in excessively on the weekend. 30 minutes is one thing, but more than that and it is no wonder you don't feel tired at a normal time that evening.

You've listed the normal suggestions for falling asleep faster and you may be one of the people who simply can't fall asleep quickly. I was that way for +30 years.

What really cured my insomnia was my son's birth. Sounds weird given the typical new parent up all night stories, but the truth was that it fixed my attitude. Knowing that there was no way to get a solid 8 hours of sleep and I had to take it when I could get it trained me to go to bed after finishing my evening work. 9:30pm and I was in bed! Get a few hours of sleep before my 2am calling. In a matter of weeks I went from staring at the ceiling for hours to falling asleep within minutes of lying down. All because there was no option to sleep in late or make it up another time.

share|improve this answer

Here's a great book on the subject.

share|improve this answer
3  
Could you add a brief summary of the book, with a bent towards how it answers this question? The title and author's name should also be included here. –  Greg Aug 22 '11 at 21:52

I see you have written this post some time ago, but am wondering how you are doing with it now? It's really weird seeing ALL your struggles as if "I" wrote it, having had the same struggles. One thing that has really helped me that no one ever mentions is sunlight therapy. This changes the body clock to be what time you choose to wake and sleep even if you are a night owl.

The idea is to wake every day an hour earlier than planned until you reach the time you wish to wake and go sit in the sun for one hour and do this for 2 weeks. By only a few days in, it's amazing how your body will wake at that same time on it's own. So for example, you set 6:00 am as your wake time, go get in the sunlight as fast as possible, then faithfully go to bed at the same time every night to "train" your body on when it is to sleep and when to wake. After a few days of this, you will fall asleep faster and better. Two weeks should set the body clock and sleep/wake time straight. If there is no sun, people have used a sun clock, but is not the best results. There's something really powerful about the sun.

Of course there is all the other 100 things about caffeine and nutritional elements that help, but this sunlight therapy is the huge problem solver mostly. I am finally gathering all my sleep info to write a book, but wanted to know if this might help you.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.