I Fixed My Terrible Sleeping Habits with Science
If a researcher says an orgasm will help, who am I to contest?
Tana Teel / Stocksy
This past holiday season I was forced to concede that jet lag is in fact a thing and not, as I’d long suspected, a go-to excuse for the traveling malingerer. My childhood bedroom and twice-yearly vacation quarters is a somewhat drafty wi-fi dead zone that’s full to bursting with my parents’ wardrobe overspill. As these increasingly dotty British sexagenarians don’t think to keep coconut oil in the house, there are literally zero things with which to entertain myself when I’m holed up in there, wide awake betwixt two and six in the morning.
I flew back across the Atlantic on New Year’s Eve and somewhere in the troposphere resolved to begin 2018 by changing the way I sleep in the wake of being deprived of it for a week and a half. I’m not talking about adding a cup of warm milk to my nightly routine mind you but a hardcore, science-backed, multifaceted reimagining of the 8-hours per day in which my body, mind, and spirit rests and heals. High above Greenland, I was committing to nothing less than a hard sleep reboot.
A word about sleep. It’s important. Not getting the optimal quality and quantity of sleep is correlated with a higher risk of certain cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression, mood changes, low libido, cognitive impairment and a lot more besides. One study found that people sleeping less than six hours a night (or more than eight hours) a night, had an increased risk of premature death by 12 percent. According to the CDC, over a third of people in the US get less than seven hours’ sleep per 24 hour period and surveys show that people are sleeping fully two hours less per night than they did in the 1960s. Our ability to tweet/’gram/ and pillow text while lolling around on the couch or in bed clearly isn’t helping.
Luckily, the two bits of gear I needed to execute impeccable “sleep hygiene”—yes, it’s an odd term—I already have. A light-sleeping ex-girlfriend had bequeathed to me a white noise machine which, according to its manufacturers, helps users get to sleep by providing a “constant, soothing sound for your brain to settle on” and stay asleep by camouflaging any noise from outside. She brought it over because I just so happen to live on one of the noisiest blocks in downtown Manhattan. A literal spitting distance from my stoop, you can catch a charter bus to Jacksonville, exchange your used syringes for new ones, or have countless palettes of vegetable oil delivered before sunrise. Oh, and there’s a busy firehouse on the block too. I’m pretty proud of that fact that I can sleep through it all but it turns out that it may be misplaced. While I don’t remember micro-arousals caused by the chorus of noises on my block, they are, nevertheless, diminishing the quality of my sleep according to research I found.
I also installed light blocking curtains when I moved in. I got them to keep the wintertime drafts out but they also happened to render my bedroom almost pitch black. Research has shown that that’s important for sleep because light interferes with the body’s production of melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate sleep and wakefulness. What’s more, according to a 2014 study light at night is correlated with a greater incidence of obesity. Less expensive than black out curtains is a sleep mask which is just as effective, has the added benefits of blocking out glows coming from within the bedroom, and does double duty as a handy BDSM prop.
Brewing and consuming coffee isn’t just an aromatic, delicious, warming morning ritual, it’s what gets me out of bed. The problem with that—according to science—is that humans already get a jolt to help wake us up first thing. It’s called cortisol, our body produces it naturally and production spikes for about an hour, three times in a day: between 8 and 9 am, noon and 1 pm, and 5:30 and 6:30 pm. Research has shown that a cocktail of these two liveners doesn’t do what we might hope—natural cortisol production is actually diminished by the caffeine meaning that, over time, you really depend on that coffee to get going. In the longer term your tolerance goes sky high, which may explain why I can chug two Americanos back to back and have no problem falling asleep immediately.
I start day one of my sleep cleanse by throwing open my blackout curtains, getting a steaming eyeful of morning sunshine through my east-facing windows and treating myself to a cup of warm water with lemon juice and a liberal sprinkle of pink Himalayan sea salt. (Apparently, this bile-like combo promises a laundry list of health benefits.) I try to kill the remaining 57 minutes before my cortisol levels have died down enough so that I can drink a goddamn cup of coffee by prepping a few things for the night ahead.
First, I finally take advantage of the “bedtime” feature on the iPhone clock app. It tells me what I’ve already read elsewhere: that a regular bedtime (and wake time) is conducive to more restful, restorative sleep. I choose midnight as my bedtime and set a reminder at 11. At that point, I’ll stop using all of my devices and electric light as they’ve been shown to disrupt melatonin production and make falling asleep more difficult. I also install f.lux software on my laptop. At this time of year, most of my work day happens after the sun has set. f.lux will adjust my display’s color temperature according to the time of day and where I happen to be be on the Earth’s surface.
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I kill the remaining 17 minutes of my morning cortisol spike to watch last night’s talk show monologues though I take care to do it not in my bed, as is my custom. I resolve to not write while horizontal too which, for better or worse, is how I usually ply my trade. The bedroom, sleep hygienists say, should be for sleeping, fucking, and little else. That way, an association is formed and going in there is going to make one sleepy—and presumably horny.
After the best tasting cup of coffee I’ve had in my life, I brave bombogenesis to head to the gym. A study from the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week provided a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality. Regular exercisers also said that they felt less sleepy than people who forgo sweating it out.
Ordinarily, my girlfriend arrives at my place with a bottle of wine to drink with dinner but today I’ve asked her not to, given that alcohol disrupts sleep. That might sound counterintuitive but while booze can cause you to nod off sooner, research has backed up my first-hand experience of having lower-quality of sleep after drinking even a moderate amount.
Not only does a lot of the food I make pair extremely well with wine, the grape is also a principle ingredient in almost all of my signature dishes: spicy, high fat, protein rich signature dishes that, it turns out, are themselves, not especially conducive to shut eye either.
So far, practicing good sleep hygiene has meant 86ing many of the things I like to do: mainline coffee first thing, work in bed, take long naps, quaff beer, wine and liquor at will, and eat lamb vindaloo until it comes out of my ears. As the day winds down, however, the remaining items on my good sleep to-do list sound hygge AF.
The chime on my phone tells me and my girlfriend (because she sort of has to be on this reboot with me for it to work) that it’s an hour until bedtime. That’s our cue to take very hot showers then decamp to my cool bedroom. A UCLA study of some of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes noted that temperature drops are a potent sleep cue in the bush, leading some sleep experts to suggest that by recreating a sunset-like temperature drop we may fall asleep faster and go deeper.
Before we slide our steaming hot bodies between cool bed sheets, I light some candles in my bedroom, turn off all electric light, close my laptop, place our devices screen down, turn off all alarms, and flick on the white noise machine. There’s only one remaining good sleep to-do is by far the most fun: sex. A big-O before you blow out the candles will send a witches’ brew of sleep-promoting hormones coursing through the body. The oxytocin counteracts stress hormones, which help you fall asleep while serotonin and norepinephrine help the body cycle through REM and deep non-REM sleep cycles. A study by Australian sleep researcher Michele Lastella found that 64 percent of participants slept better when they had an orgasm. Aided and abetted by the comely candlelight, we check the final box of the optimal sleep protocol we’re adhering to and snuff out the light.
I thought delaying and reducing my coffee habit and cutting out booze would be hard but four days and nights later, I’m super into my sleep hygiene regimen. I’d say I’ll be sticking to it long term but I realize that doing it during a week when everyone I know is holed up at home and more or less abstaining from booze and drugs has made it immeasurably easier. I feel more rested when I wake, more alert and productive in the day but most importantly, I’ve already begun to relish my more regimented pre-bedtime ritual of hot shower, cool sheets, and sex by candlelight. So far, I haven’t stopped to miss the other habits I’ve broken and think instead about what I’ve gaining with my new pre-bedtime rite.
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