In the past few weeks, I have had so many conversations with friends about sleep and what has worked for me, I felt it was likely a sign I should provide a resource based on my experiences.
My story starts over 7 years ago when I made choices that would create problems for me until recently when I made changes to my sleep routines.
Seven years ago I decide to undertake a college program that would require me to take 40 credits of courses in 10 months. And during the start of this 10 months, my first child was also born. My “brilliant” idea was to drink a bunch of caffeine and study late at night and be on night duty if my daughter woke up. Not being a big coffee fan I started with a can of Red Bull. Then soon one can wasn’t enough. I needed a bigger can, the 16 ounce can. Soon that wasn’t enough, I needed a few cans each day. I recall at one point I was drinking four 16-ounce Red Bulls a day, just to stay awake! Clearly I had developed a tolerance to it and I was caught in a vicious cycle of needing energy, drinking it, crashing, and then needing it again.
Soon this habit was getting expensive. I changed up drinks. Some worked well, other didn’t. For a while I did orange Mt Dew. This was good. It was cheap and effective….and full of sugar that resulted in me gaining quite a few pounds. And I still was stuck in the cycle of energy and crashing.
I tried to stop this a few times over the last 7 years. I knew if I could have a few days to get naps in, I could help buffer the need for energy mid day and late afternoon. The longest I recall going was two weeks. I’d get stuck in the cycle again.
The last few years I was going to Kickstart’s by Mt Dew. Whether it was from this drink specifically, or just seven years of abuse, I felt many changes to how I felt overall. I experience more aches, my mental alertness was poor, my memory and focus was pretty bad. I had to make a change.
After my trip to New York in November, I came home decided this was it, no more. I was going cold turkey, and in a time when naps were nearly impossible to get except on weekends.
From my previous times trying to stop, I would get serious headaches, likely from caffeine withdrawal. Usually after a few days, I’d go back to drinking. This time I decide to have small chocolates nearby to snack on. There is a small amount of caffeine in chocolate, so this helped my headaches considerably. The first interesting insight in this attempt was my psychological need for drinks. I wasn’t tired but craved the taste. I had wondered how much of my problem was energy and how much was cravings. I was beginning to see it was a little of both now.
After a week of managing head aches, I now was dealing with getting through the day and dealing with those cravings. I knew when I began to undertake this attempt I had to be strict on sleep. If I slept well, I wouldn’t be tired and wouldn’t need energy, right?
Enter Nick Littlehales. I found him as a guest on one of my favorite health podcasts, The Ben Greenfield Podcast. Nick had worked with elite athletes for years and his advice on sleep was so simple and logical, yet it wasn’t the standard “Get 8 hours of sleep.”
For years I have wondered why that was recommended because I would get 8 hours and feel terrible. I would get 6 and feel great. I would get 10 and still feel bad. None of this made sense. I played around with naps too. I would take a nap and wake up feeling worse than I did before I fell asleep. What was I doing wrong?
I decided to give Nick’s advice a try. The first thing I did was use his sleep cycle method to time my sleep. I currently wake up at 5am. Humans typically sleep in 90 minute cycles, so counting back 5 cycles (Nick’s basic recommendation) from that, I would get a bed time of 9:30pm. To help with this, I created a post it with times on it next to my bedside. Now for days I couldn’t get to bed at 9:30, I stayed up until the next sleep cycle time. Nick’s recommendation to his pro soccer players who go out at night is to stay up until your next cycle time, and wake up at your regular time, then try to get a nap the next day. I have used this strategy and can vouch for it’s effectiveness.
Now on the topic of naps…Most weeks the only naps I get are on weekends. Nick’s advice is a 20 minute downtime rest or a 90 minute nap. Anything in between isn’t good. I have stuck to this, taking 20 minute rests during the week and 90 minutes on the weekends when I can.
The next bit of advice I used was Nick’s pre-bed routine. Nick recommended about 90 minutes before bed, create a routine that limits the use of LED lights( i.e. screens from mobile devices, computers, TVs’ etc), and do things that calm you down. I found I could get away with about 45-60 minutes. I would read, play guitar, and journal most nights during this pre bed routine.
A few weeks later I added in blue light blocking glasses along with tart cherry juice. Listening to Ben Greenfield, he has talked a lot about wearing these glasses at night to help block the light that stops the bodies production of melatonin. The glasses help the body create it when you need it most, at night. I would wear these at the start of my pre-bed routine. I would also drink tart cherry juice and take 2 ZMA capsules as well. In the past, I have experienced sound sleep while taking ZMA (zinc, magnesium and B6 supplement), and that still happens now.
The tart cherry juice has natural melatonin in it. Cherries are a high source of melatonin. Most nights I drink about 4 ounces with my ZMA. When I need a little extra help getting to sleep because of excitement or a crazy day, I’ll drink up to 8 ounces.
Now going on nearly four months of this, I have stayed away from energy drinks, and only a few times have had caffeinated beverages. I don’t need much caffeine now to have a major effect!
As I started this, I wondered how long it would take me to feel “normal.” It’s been so long I no longer knew what well rested felt like. Certainly have 3 kids in the 7 years didn’t help me get sleep (and my wife has gotten less than me, considerably less, so I can’t complain too much). It took me about 3 weeks before I felt rested. I figured all the energy crashes and peaks likely were impacting my adrenal functions, so the body was going to need to take time. But I now say I know what normal feels like again.