The most important thing you’re probably ignoring? Sleep.

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You know what’s important?

Sleep. More accurately, the stuff known as sleep hygiene. When it comes to well-being, sleep is the one area where the tiniest (and easiest) change can make the most difference.

It’s role in psychological health is fundamental. If you’re having the slightest hint of an affective disorder, before you see a psychiatrist or diagnose yourself with anything serious, check your sleeping habits. Maybe the answer is simpler.

People without affective disorders can be made to have one by interfering with their sleep cycle. It’s even a form of torture. So you better make sure you don’t do the stuff they do at Guantanamo to yourself.

Here’s how. Good sleep rests (what else should it do?) on three legs:

  • consistency
  • suitable environment
  • circadian rhythm management

We’ll look into them one by one.

The biggest ingredient is consistency

Your body is a creature of habit and responds to regular structure – once you establish healthy habits, your body automatically helps you maintain them. Unfortunately, it also does that with bad ones, so its crucial to teach it the best ones you can.

Choose a suitable sleep schedule (ideally around eight hours a night) and stick to it. Even on weekends. In fact, you might find out it’s happening to you anyway. Hey, longer weekends for you!

And because your body is a trainable animal, we can exploit another effective mechanism – conditioning. You know Pavlov’s dogs? Like that, but with your body. You want to create a cue for it to power down for rest at a specified time. If you do this right, you’ll pass out the moment your head touches the pillow and never toss and turn in your bed again in your life.

To get there, work on a clear routine before bedtime that will communicate to your body that the time for sleep is coming. It should take about 30 minutes to 1 hour in total, because there are hormonal changes that need to take place. The particular steps are highly individual, the important thing being consistency.

Whatever your particular bedtime ritual, it should have two main components:

The main structure – this is a consistent central routine that works as the “power down” button for your body. This is a fixed collection of steps, like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, slipping into pyjamas and making yourself a cup of cocoa. The main structure needs to be there always.

The filler – anything you want on top and around the main structure. You can read or stretch or sit down and listen to calm music or anything you like, as long as it is within the context of winding down for the night. Obviously, it should be stuff that’s relaxing and conductive to sleep – like reading, meditation (or whatever equivalent), calm music, gentle stretching or anything else of the sort. If you like reading in the evening, read a book. A paper one. This has nothing to do with quaint luddism and everything to do with the blue wavelengths of backlit devices neurologically interfering with the circadian rhythm, which we’ll cover in a little while.

Avoid things that interfere with sleep physiologically –  caffeine, scary movies, intense cardio, work, the internet. The only stimulating thing allowed into your pre-sleep hour is sex (because it will help you sleep better afterwards).

The environment, AKA your bedroom

Three things are to be looked to in a bedroom – that it is dark, that it is cool, and that it is well ventilated.

And when I say dark, I mean pitch black, utter darkness. That means curtains or shutters, and no little LED lights which can get surprisingly bright in otherwise dark rooms. Evict chargers and electronics in general from your bedroom. Aside from the light, they also tend to hum and whir and buzz. The only exception is your phone, which you may need as an alarm clock – and even that works better when it’s in a different room.

The air should be fresh and a little cold. If your climate, air quality and insect situations permit it, sleeping with an open window is best. There are obvious limitations in different places (good luck with fresh air in the middle of a major city, cool air in a tropical summer, or waking up ever again if you leave the window open overnight in Svalbard), so adjust to your specific circumstances. This is the ideal.

This particular advice is everywhere on the internet, but – again in the interest of conditioning – use your bed for sleep and sex only. You want to associate your bed with sleep, not watching movies, playing games and snacking.¨That’s what the living room is for. The act of getting in bed should be an automatic off-switch for your body.

No blue-tinted light before sleep. We’ll get to that in a minute.

As for sound, there are two types of people – those who can’t sleep in silence, and those who can sleep only in silence.

(Those people should not be roommates. I speak from experience.)

If you’re the first type, I have to inform you that we will never be roommates, and also recommend a range of specialised devices (pointless) and apps (more sensible in this age) that generate white noise or play soothing nature sounds. Rainstorms are the best. Many are free, all are affordable and trying them out is worth it.

Speaking of things that are worth it, get a decent mattress. In fact, get the best mattress you can afford. You don’t need to spend much on a bed. Beds are irrelevant, they’re just frames that hold the stuff that really matters (or should I say mattress? badum tss!). A friend of mine sleeps on a “bed” of stacked pallets. But spare no expense on the stuff you put in your bed. Since you spend a good third of your life there, and the quality of your sleep has profound effects on everything else, you should really get the best mattress and beddings you can possibly afford.

And if you wake up in the middle of the night like I just did, you can, for instance, write a post about sleep hygiene.

Circadian rhythm hacking

The circadian rhythm is a fancy name for the way your body keeps track of time, IE your biological clock. Turns out this is massively important for your sleep schedule and quality (who would have guessed, right?).The relatively little known thing is that it can be manipulated. The simplest method involves light.

Your body orients itself in time by the color of light, which makes sense when you realise we spent millions of years outdoors before inventing cuckoo clocks and smartphones. Red, warm light is morning and evenings, blueish white bright light is midday. Easy. Now realise what we’re doing to ourselves with computer screens and fluorescent lights. Blue light tells your body it’s the middle of the day, which is a horrible thing for your brain to believe at midnight. You want to let it know it’s night and it should wind down. You do that with dim, warm light. Keep this in mind when picking lightbulbs for your bedroom.

In general, you want as little light as possible in the evening, and even that in the right, warm wavelengths. By contrast, you actually want bright, cold light in the morning to help you wake up. East-facing bedrooms have advantages. Open the shutters and turn on the lights first thing in the morning to help get your body started.

If your circadian rhythm is seriously fucked up, you can do a hard reset. Just go camping for a week with no artificial light (except fire), which will re-tune your body to the natural day-night cycle. After returning, make sure you keep your newly acquired schedule, for instance by following the recommendations of this article.

A few extra notes:

  • Physical exercise is excellent for sleep quality, but make sure it is a few hours before your bedtime. You shouldn’t still be pumped and hyper when trying to go to sleep.
  • “Sleep debt” is paid back with interest. If you miss an hour, it takes an hour to make up, but if you miss two, making up takes four. If you’re four hours short, it takes eight, and if you miss a whole night, it takes weeks to get back.
  • An hour before midnight counts for two after. Ideally, you should aim for a 10-11 PM bedtime. Actually, you should ideally be aiming at 8-9 and wake up at dawn, but that’s less realistic. The sooner you go to bed, the less sleep you need in total to feel rested. Extra hours for you.
  • If you constantly wake up tired, maybe you have a sleep disorder, or maybe you’re allergic to mites. This was my case. After years of sleeping for 10 hours a night and waking up more tired than I was when I went to bed, it turns out what I needed to do was wash the bedding more often, replace down feathers with synthetic, get anti-allergenic covers, remove as much fabric as possible from the bedroom (no carpets or laundry baskets) and get an air filter to run throughout the day. Voilá, sleep quality hundreds of percent better. My body was fighting off an allergenic substance for eight hours a night instead of resting, which resulted in terrible sleep quality. If you wake up with a slightly sore throat or stuffed nose regularly, go see an allergologist at earliest convenience.

The best sleeps ever are when you utterly demolish yourself with physical exercise in fresh air throughout the day and pass out next to a roaring fireplace, ideally with a heavy thunderstorm outside. This is unforunately hard to implement into modern lifestyles, so gyms or running, warm wavelengths and ambient noise for those so inclined are a pretty good approximation.

In summary:

  • keep a regular schedule
  • maintain a dark, cool, fresh bedroom
  • control the light you expose yourself to, at least in the evenings
  • go to sleep physically tired

The closer the conditions you can create for yourself to the ideal, the better you will sleep.

Good night!