Why Your Busy Mind is Stopping You From Falling Asleep and What to do About it
“Innocent sleep. Sleep that soothes away all our worries. Sleep that puts each day to rest. Sleep that relieves the weary laborer and heals hurt minds. Sleep, the main course in life's feast, and the most nourishing.”
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth
So why do our bodies seem to always fight against us when it’s time to hit the hay? In the morning, we have a difficult time waking up and all we want to do is stay in bed. We know that sleep is important for us and we know we feel better after a good night of sleep.
Studies show that about one-third of the population experiences insomnia. Sleep is something that our bodies naturally want to do, so why are so many people suffering from the inability to sleep restoratively? There are a few ways that insomnia can affect individuals, but we’re going to focus on sleep-initiation insomnia: difficulty getting to sleep.
There are many reasons why getting to sleep can be so difficult, and I’m going to focus on two big ones.
Problem #1: It’s too bright!
Deep within our brains is a structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN for short. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating our 24-hour biological clock, determining our circadian rhythm. This is also the point in the brain where our optic nerves cross over, meaning that the SCN takes in signals about light and darkness to tell our bodies what time of day it is.
Almost every creature on this planet has a circadian rhythm; even plants!
When the sun sets and our environments become darker, our optic nerve sends signals to the SCN, which in turn tells the pineal gland to release a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin does not have much of a role to play in sleep, but it’s important for the onset of sleep itself. It tells you “it’s dark out now, time for bed!”.
Here’s the dilemma: When artificial light enters the household in the form of light-bulbs and other light emitting technologies, we tricked our brains into thinking that night-time didn’t start.
Take a moment to look around your home and you’ll be surprised by how many objects emit light.
With all of this light in our homes, it’s no wonder why it’s difficult to fall asleep at nigh. Our brains don’t actually think it’s nighttime! So, as a result, we end up laying in bed with our minds in “daytime mode”, thinking about the emails we have to send, what you have to do to get your kids to school in the morning, and how frustrating it is that you’re not going to get enough sleep.
What is the solution?
Well it would be difficult to get rid of all your lightbulbs, or not have a cell-phone or computer in this modern world, so we’ll have to do the best we can.
Suggestion 1: Keep your phone and other light-emitting devices out of your room!
Your bedroom is your sleep sanctuary. It’s a place where you can be disconnected from the world and sleep comfortably and safely. If the last thing you look at before trying to fall asleep is a screen that emits light, you suppress the production of melatonin, and as you can recall, melatonin is an naturally produced hormone that’s important for signalling the onset of sleep.
It took me a while to get into the habit of leaving my phone outside of my room, but it was totally worth it. I have a small table in the hallway just outside of my bedroom where we place our phone charging station, our morning supplements, and a glass of water. We’ve been doing this for a few years and it’s just the thing that we do now. In fact, I find it really weird to have my phone in the room now! We actually have a policy at our house: No electronics in the bedroom. If you sleep with a partner, consider making this a policy together and help keep each other accountable.
Suggestion 2: Limit light exposure starting 2 hours before bed
As we discussed, melatonin helps signal the onset of sleep, so if we start this process earlier in the evening we’ll be more likely to start feeling tired earlier.
This could mean dimming your lights in your home, choosing to use lamps with softer yellow lights instead of bright white lights, or maybe even lighting some candles.
At this time, it would be helpful to avoid watching television and looking at other screens. Perhaps this could be a time where you can play a board game with your family, do some stretching, or dive into that book you’ve been meaning to read.
2 hours may seem like a lot of time to sacrifice your screen-time, but humans have lived on this planet longer without screens than with, so it’s in our DNA to be capable of it.
To adjust to this new normal, try starting with 20-30 minutes and work your way up to two hours over a period of four weeks', or something like that.
Problem #2: We despise sleep
We’ve created a culture that hates sleep, despite the fact that sleep is biologically programmed into us. We value those in society that sleep less and tend to associate labels like “lazy” to those who prioritize sleep.
“I never sleep, 'cause sleep is the cousin of death” - Nas, N.Y. State of Mind
"How does somebody that's sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that's sleeping three or four?" - Donald Trump
“Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days” -Thomas Edison
Sleep is a biological human necessity and when we don’t get enough, the consequences can be dire.
Starting with our own families inside our homes is a great way to begin the trend of changing our views about sleep
The first step in doing this is to start making sleep a non-negotiable priority. We make it non-negotiable to make sure we give ourselves a solid sleep opportunity.
I make sure to give myself an 8 hour sleep window, and according to my WHOOP sleep tracker, I usually sleep for 7 to 7.5 of those hours. The average adult needs between 7-9 hours of sleep, and sometimes more depending on how much recovery your body needs.
How do we do this? We pick a bed-time and stick with it. Tell you partners, tell you family, tell your friends so they can be supportive of you. If they’re not supportive, find new friends.
When we start to love and appreciate the value of sleep, it’s effects are contagious and will start planting the seed for everyone in your social circles who will now see how much energy you now have and how vibrant you look.
Of course, this is simple but not easy, and by making sleep a priority you WILL find time.
I hope these were helpful tips! Feel free to reach out if you have additional questions about sleep. I would be happy to connect :)
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
The Little Book of Sleep by Dr. Nerina Ramlakham
Sleepy Head by Henry Nicholls