How to Reboot Your Sleep Cycle
Many blind and visually impaired people have a difficult time getting a good night's sleep. This article, written by Jason Fitzpatrick, a member of the Lifehacker team has some great tips. Some items you'll read are obviously for the fully sighted, but many of the suggestions will work for everyone, blind or sighted.
Let's get a big misconception out of the way. You don't have a "sleep bank". If you've gone for the last year chronically sleep deprived you don't have to refill some sort of sleep tank in your tummy in order to start feeling normal again. You can start doing things today to increase the sleep you're getting and start feeling better immediately. It will take a few weeks of consistent and restful sleep to shake the after effects of sleep deprivation but don't despair, you won't need to "sleep off" all 1,498 hours of sleep you shorted yourself over the last year.
Another misconception is the amount of sleep people require. The only person who can judge the amount of sleep you need to be happy and alert is you. Studies come out year after year saying X number of hours is the best number of hours—8 hours to feel most rested, 7 hours to live long like the Japanese, 6 hours and you'll die young—but the only expert on what is best for you is you. We'll return to the topic of how much sleep you need and how to measure it in a moment; for right now let's focus on what you can do tonight.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene: Sleep hygiene is similar to your end-of-day personal hygiene. Just like you wash your face and brush your teeth before bed, sleep hygiene is an umbrella term that covers all the things you do leading up to sleep that help or hinder restful sleep.
Good sleep hygiene involves getting your body ready for a good night's sleep and not overstimulating it. How can you practice good sleep hygiene? Start by shifting your perspective on what bedtime and sleep really are. Bedtime isn't just the point where you collapse from working hard and staying up too late, bedtime is the start of a block of time very important to your body. You need good sleep and you should treat your bedtime with proper respect.
Don't drink anything with caffeine in it after dinner. Dependent on age, gender, and other physiological factors the half-life of caffeine in the body is roughly 5-10 hours. In other words, that cup of coffee you drank at 7PM is still with you at midnight. Nicotine is another common stimulant; you should quit or make your last cigarette of the day well before bed.
Don't drink anything with alcohol in it. Alcohol is a depressant and will help you get to sleep. The problem is it depresses everything in your system including your metabolism. Alcoholics report having no dreams because alcohol disrupts REM sleep, a critical sleep phase for both brain and body health.
Step away from the screens. Exposing yourself to the glow of a screen before bed will keep you awake. Your body is hardwired to wake up when light is bright and go to sleep when it gets dark. If you shine a bright light in your face before bed you're telling your body it's time to perk up and be alert. If you absolutely must use a computer or mobile device later in the day, at least turn the screen brightness way down to semi-counter the effect of the light.
Change your body temperature. Your body drops in temperature as you drift off into sleep. You can trick your body by simulating this temperature shift. In the colder months take a hot shower or bath late in the day, your body temperature will rise and then fall again as you cool off from the shower making you sleepy in the process. It's harder to do this in warmer weather, but you can substitute the hot shower with a cold one. While a cold shower seems terribly unpleasant—and trust me, it's not as fun as a hot bath on a winter night!—it will also induce a temperature swing that will make you sleepy.
Minimize external distractions. It's especially important while you're easing yourself into a new sleep routine to minimize external distractions. Have a cat that jumps on the bed at 3AM? Toss them out of the bedroom before bedtime. Neighbor starts up his diesel truck at 4AM to go to work? Wear ear plugs. Spouse gets up and turns on the lights to get dressed before you? Sleep with a sleep mask on.
No napping. Later on when you've ironed out the details of your sleep cycle you may find that a power nap early in the day is great for you. Right now though we're focused on rebooting your sleep cycle. No napping. You need to go to bed at the end of the day when you are tired, not at a later time because you snuck a nap.
Purge your bedroom. No computers, no television, no balancing your checkbook in bed, no reading over those damn TPS reports, no anything but sleeping and getting it on (in whatever order works best for you). If you have a television in your bedroom and you never turn it on, don't break your back hauling it down to the basement. If you're a chronic bedroom channel-flipper however, you need to get it out of the room. Your bedroom should be a place your body associates with nothing else but sleep and sex.
Don't torture yourself. You didn't drink any coffee, you turned off the computer at 7PM, you lugged the TV down to the basement, you put in ear plugs and pulled the shades, but it's 11PM and you're still tossing and turning. Don't torture yourself by laying in bed frustrated. Get out of bed and do something that will relax you. Don't go watch television, play video games, or anything else that will stimulate your brain into thinking it is time to wake up. Go sit in a comfortable chair and read a book for a little while. Sort through magazines you're going to toss in the recycling bin and clip out a few interesting articles. Do something low-stress and relatively boring for 20-30 minutes and then go lay down again. You don't want to get in the habit of thinking of bedtime as unpleasant and stressful.
Your initial energy should be focused on making bedtime pleasant, preparing for bedtime well before the bedtime hour, and making sure to limit stimulating activities (exercise, coffee drinking, action movie watching) to earlier in the day. You need to start doing these things right now. Reading this at 5PM after getting home from work? Put that cup of coffee down right now. Stop telling yourself you're going to get around to finally getting a good night's sleep and start getting one.
Once you've started with the basics outlined above, like decreasing bedtime stimulation, it's time to get serious about the big picture of your sleep needs.
Good sleep isn't accidental. Unless you're a baby fresh off the breast and passed out in a milk-coma you're responsible for your own good sleep. It might seem counter-intuitive since sleep looks like the most passive sport around, but preparation and study is key. Once you start working in our earlier tips it's time to start measuring how effective they are and ensuring you get enough sleep.
Analyze your sleep needs. Do you know how much sleep you actually need? Could you tell someone with certainty that you're happiest after 7 hours of sleep? Do you wake up when the alarm goes off or do you wake up before it and turn it off on your way out of bed? There is only one good way to find out how much sleep you need and that's going to bed earlier than you think you need to. Creep your bedtime forward by 15 minutes every few days until you start waking up on your own in the morning. When you start waking up before your alarm clock consistently—for a minimum of one week, weekends included—you've found your optimum sleep window.
Waking up shouldn't be a jarring affair that involves you smashing your fist on your alarm clock and growling. For months now I've been waking up ahead of my alarm clock and let me tell you, it feels awesome to wake up on your own and not to the sound of a buzzer. "Beating" the alarm clock every day is like a little victory right out of bed.
Obey the Routine. I can't tell you what your perfect routine is. Maybe your routine is no coffee after 3PM, dim the lights around your apartment at 7PM, and read in bed for 20 minutes at 9PM before it's lights out—or maybe it's none of those things. What is important is that you find a routine that works for your schedule and you stick to it. You might not be 7 years old anymore but your adult body appreciates a routine bedtime just as much as it did when you were a kid. Whatever routine you decide on, stick with it long enough to see if it works and tweak it gently and one thing at a time if it doesn't.
Anticipate Lack of Sleep. Sometimes lack of sleep is one hundred percent unavoidable—somebody in your family gets in an accident and you're up all night at the hospital, you get snowed in at the airport and you just can't sleep well on a plastic bench, etc.—but most times we see an event coming that will cut into our sleep cycle. If you know you're going to be up late, take a power nap in the afternoon. If you're coming off a late night bender make sure to adjust your bedtime the day after to get you into bed sooner. Short term sleep deprivation can be quickly remedied with adequate rest. Don't let a wild weekend throw off your sleep schedule for the rest of the month as you stay up too late, sleep in too late, and spend two weeks slowly—if at all—recalibrating your sleep schedule.