Counting Sheep: My Journey to Find the Best Sleep Habits

There are two types of people in the world: those who fall asleep as soon as their head hits the pillow, and those who will always seem to have some sort of issue with falling (or staying) asleep. I am definitely in the latter group. I have always been a night owl, so staying up late has never been an issue for me. The problem comes when I have to get up the next morning and I feel like death on two feet. I have tried everything short of prescribed sleep medication (which scares me because of the possible dependency and health problems stemming from sleep medication) with varying levels of success. It’s only taken 20 years of my life, but I have finally found a sleep routine that keeps me out of sleep deprivation most of the time.  Some of my personal experiences go against what a health practitioner might tell you, but I’ve decided to write this article as someone who has had such a negative relationship with sleep, I know what is like to have tried everything with little to no answers. I’m here today to tell you what I have found successful, a waste of time, or somewhere in between.

 

My primary issue has been falling asleep. I often stay awake for hours at a time, lying in bed staring at the ceiling until I can’t stand the boredom anymore and I decide to do something else. In high school, I averaged anywhere from 3-5 hours of sleep a night on weekdays, and often slept until 2 pm or later on weekends. Let me tell you, the sleep catch up was important, but nothing feels like you’ve wasted the day more than waking up at 6 PM (which happened to me last winter break). I would always tire out around 4 AM, but needing to be up at 7 AM kept me extremely sleep deprived. On weekends, I could get in 8 hours, but not without the consequence of sleeping for 10 hours and waking up at 2 pm. I don’t have an official sleep disorder diagnoses, but I think a mix of stress and the fact that I have the most energy at night, culminated in a disastrous sleep schedule. I decided to devote time and energy into fixing my sleep schedule in college and I finally did a serious overhaul in my sleep routine.

First, I tried the most common advice for those with trouble sleeping: cutting out caffeine. Not just coffee, but chocolate, tea, or soda. In high school, I didn’t drink coffee in the morning, but rather at 3 PM to keep me from falling asleep as soon as I got home. However, I have never been super sensitive to caffeine, so this had little-to-no effect on my sleep schedule other than making me sleepier during the day. I still try to limit my caffeine intake to before 2 PM, but the best method I found for consuming caffeine is just listening to my body. That being said, I recommend everyone go at least two weeks without any caffeine to see how it does affect your body. But if you’re someone who needs your morning coffee, there should be other ways you can improve your sleep.

 

The next piece of advice I see a lot is developing good sleep hygiene. This generally includes sleeping in a cool, dark place, refraining from looking at screens an hour before bedtime, and getting up and going to bed at the same time every day. While I’ve always slept in a relatively cool, dark place (although sometimes that is out of my control), I found that going to bed and waking up at the same time every day does significantly help my sleep schedule--but I cannot stress enough how starting with this tip may easily set you up for failure if you have a lot of problems going to sleep. I can’t even tell you how many times I set an alarm for the same time every day, and how many times I slept right through those alarms and woke up feeling like I’ve failed. And, if I couldn’t get up early, there’s no way I would be able to fall asleep early that night without the help of a sleep aid (more on that later). So don’t feel like it’s on you if even the best sleep hygiene in the world isn’t helping you improve your sleep. While this might be a great first step for those who occasionally have poor sleep due to their environment, if you have persistent sleep problems it may take more than a few small changes to really make a difference.

Another piece of advice that I feel does not get enough attention is that if you do not feel tired after lying in bed for more than 20 minutes, then get up and do something else. I can tell you that there are few things worse for your mental health than lying in bed for hours letting your mind roam (or, at least my mind never goes to great places). Plus, I often find myself glancing at the clock and seeing the time past, making me feel worse about not sleeping, which is counterintuitive, to say the least. The tricky part is deciding what you will do while you’re up. As someone who gets a lot of energy at night, getting up and doing laundry or something like that is too stimulating, and so is reading a book or even just drinking tea (although if you are a tea drinker, make sure it’s decaffeinated).

 

I know so many places tell you to not look at screens before bed, but for me, online meditations and watching calming Youtube videos (ASMR, anyone?) are far more helpful than engaging in something without a screen. Of course, I keep the volume low, the screen brightness even lower, and all my devices go on night mode (so there is less blue light, the thing that keeps you up) as soon as the sun goes down. A recurring theme here is finding out what works for you, even if it goes against what everyone else is saying. Do keep in mind that falling asleep with the TV on can still interrupt your sleep quality, so finding a way to have a timer where the device turns off after a certain period of time is the best bet. Again, while listening to a sleep meditation may help me the first night, it is not a long term solution and if I used this on my own, I would probably still have more sleep problems.

 

This is where we turn to medicinal methods to help sleep. Over-the-counter sleep aids (such as ZzzQuil or Unisom) have absolutely no effect on me, which isn’t surprising since they’re basically antihistamines (what you take when you have allergies) and I don’t even get sleepy taking Benadryl. Plus, there is conflicting evidence supporting their helpfulness and should only be used occasionally. A more “natural” alternative is Melatonin. While it isn’t a cure-all, a lot of people find it helpful for occasional sleeplessness, as it also should not be used regularly. For me, melatonin works but only in certain circumstances. Melatonin is not a magic bullet for sleep, so you need to include a good sleep hygiene for it to work. However, I only like to take it when I have 10 hours before I need to do something (as it makes me feel drowsy the next day), and I can only take it once every couple of weeks for it to be effective. Whether this is a placebo effect or remedying an actual shortage of melatonin, I have no idea. I only know it works sometimes, and that’s if I have a night where I can take it 10 hours before I have to be up, and I can lie in bed and wait for sleep to take me (it won’t work if I take it while I’m still working). Also, melatonin can affect hypertension medication, antidepressants, and others, so just because it’s “natural” does not mean that it can’t have adverse effects. It’s worth doing some of your own research before jumping on the melatonin train.

 

Which leads me to the most effective sleep aid yet, although it is a bit controversial: CBD. The great thing about CBD is that you don’t have to get high in order to obtain a similar outcome. For those of you who don’t know, THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) is the chemical compound in cannabis that gets you high, and CBD (cannabidiol) is another chemical compound in cannabis that is responsible for the calming effects. While research surrounding CBD is in its early phases (which is why we need to legalize cannabis! For research purposes!), there is research suggesting that it can relieve anxiety and pain, which, if that’s why you have problems falling asleep, CBD could help. The main reason I love CBD is that it makes me feel sleepy, and once I feel sleepy, my sleep hygiene and my breathing exercises can take over and help me actually fall asleep. However, there is so little research surrounding this issue I highly recommend talking to a doctor and doing your own research before just jumping onto the CBD train. Also, be aware that it does affect the quality of sleep, but if you’re like me and you only get three hours of sleep otherwise, I find the trade-off worth it. Like other sleep aids, this should not be used every night.

 

So, this is where I outline what I do when going to bed. If I have a couple of (rare) hours before bedtime, I try to keep to relaxing activities and winding down. Making my movements slower and convincing myself that I’m feeling tired help, as the power of your mind is extremely strong. If this means watching a TV show/ Youtuber I find relaxing rather than ruminating over negative thoughts, so be it. If I’m feeling sleepy, then I’ll get in bed and either read or watch ASMR. Sometimes I fall asleep watching ASMR, but since I choose videos that are about 20 minutes, I know it won’t disrupt my sleep later. If I’m not feeling sleepy at all, and I can take melatonin (considering all the factors above), I will do so. If I can’t take melatonin, then I will take a dose of CBD. I have used vape oil in the past, which is definitely less healthy for your lungs, but I was desperate for something to help with sleep, and you absorb much more by inhaling as opposed to ingesting (though I did recently get a tincture that you ingest to give my lungs a break). Then I will lay down (without any clock near me so I don’t know the time), and focus on breathing. Most of the time, I will fall asleep within 30 minutes, or I will be restless and go back to doing a relaxing activity until I feel sleepy.

 

Looking back at my mindset in high school, it is so easy to see how clouded my thoughts were, and a lot of that probably had to do with my long-term sleep deprivation. I also don’t want to discount the surrounding factors that contribute to my lack of sleep. Stress, activity levels, and lifestyle all play into our sleep quality. If you can’t sleep because of anxiety or other stressors, the best course of action will be to get to the root of that problem. Most importantly, remember that these types of things take a lot of time, and patience is the best thing to have while trying to sort out your own sleep problems. If something on this list doesn’t work for you, maybe you need to combine it with another technique, but don’t be afraid to scrap it all together. At the end of the day, you know your body best, and as long as you make sure everything you’re doing is safe, you should do what makes you feel best.