Comparing methods of dealing with jet lag is my gift to the world. I’m convinced that sleep is mystical and that what works for one person may not work for someone else. I’m somewhat less convinced that somewhere out there is the perfect method for me. Why quit trying, though?
What follows is a rundown of three methods of defraying the mental cost of jet lag.
The first time we came to Europe, we flew to Iceland to live in a tent. We didn’t sleep at all on the flight, thanks to a young family, the father of whom sat by himself on one side of the aisle refusing to help his wife deal with their children on the other, both of whom occupied themselves by continually kicking our seats.
Keep this in mind if you are jet lagged and trying desperately to stay awake. Simply find a place with seat-kicking children and they will gladly assist.
On the Iceland trip, we set up our tent in the morning and “took a nap,” which used almost our entire first day. This method is not recommended for adjusting to a new time zone seven hours away.
On our second trip, meeting in Hamburg, I decided to try pre-adjusting by going to bed half an hour earlier every night for two weeks. I relied on melatonin at the time, and it’s hard to tell how much of a factor that was. The night before I left, I had night terrors and woke up standing in my bathroom. I barely slept on the plane and was so tired I stood in the EU line at customs because I thought it stood for “Estados Unidos.” Then I couldn’t remember how to operate a turnstile. Went to bed and snapped awake at 2:00 AM for three hours.
But then, by the second night I was adjusted to local time.
That is the main thing to keep in mind about jet lag. It’s generally terrible on the first day, but if you eat meals at the local time and make yourself get up in the local morning, it basically goes away.
What happens if you try to stay on your home schedule for sleep and meals? I have no idea. I’ve never tried.
My motivation in travel is to see as much as I can see, and see everything I can’t experience at home. I want to look at nature in daylight and I want to visit attractions while they are open. Most things that are open at night, like theaters and clubs and bars and shopping centers, are basically the same as what we have at home, so it doesn’t pay to sleep through it.
On this trip, I followed my husband’s method. A frequent business traveler, jet lag is a persistent problem he can’t afford to have. He takes a Benadryl at local bedtime. Personally I don’t do well on Benadryl, so I tried Unisom.
Can I say, I think we’ve got it??
I took a Unisom at 6 PM my time on the plane and sort of slept lightly for six hours. We landed at noon local time. I didn’t feel all that tired or dopey and I was even able to navigate a turnstile.
These are the past travel mistakes that I did not make:
Did not leave my coat in the overhead bin and have to run back for it
Did not get yelled at by customs officials
Did not tell anyone the wrong airline and have them wait for me in the wrong terminal
Did not get on the wrong transportation heading the wrong direction
We were able to find our way through the airport, go through customs, find the Underground station, board a train, and make it all the way to our station without mishap. Then we got out on the wrong level and found ourselves out back by the service doors, and got redirected by some station employees.
“Are you lost?”
“If you’re talking to us, you’re lost. There’s no one else out here but us.”
We made it to the hotel and managed to resist the siren call of the mattress. We went out and walked around in the natural afternoon daylight until dinnertime. My husband, who had only slept four hours, was out cold before the clock struck eight. I made it another hour.
We both woke up at 9 AM local time, having slept at least twelve hours each. Feels like success.
That’s my new jet lag method. No more spending two weeks trying to adjust in advance. No more napping in the middle of the day. And if anyone else allows their children to kick our seats on the plane, we’re going to make them trade seats with us.
It’s one of my coaching clients, and she has a little secret. It’s not much of a secret as far as I’m concerned, because so many people do the same thing. What makes a secret a secret, though, is the shame. That’s why they call it a ‘secret’ and not a ‘surprise.’
Guess what I’m doing?? When you find out you’re going to be SO EXCITED!!!
Nope, not that kind. The guilty kind.
She wakes up in the middle of the night, gets out of bed, and binge-eats.
Okay, not everyone does that, but I can tell you why it’s so similar to what so many people do.
She, like many people, often skips breakfast. If she does eat anything in the morning, it’s usually a coffee and pastry or, like, an energy bar.
A snack instead of a proper lunch.
Nothing until dinnertime, 6-8 hours after the last time she ate.
Any of this starting to sound familiar?
It’s incredibly common for people to eat some kind of snack, usually dessert, very late at night. Usually right before bed. I personally cannot do this because it triggers my night terrors. No amount or flavor of ice cream is worth screaming in my sleep.
Other people, though, are understandably going to be hungry again 3-4 hours after dinner, and they’re going to eat. Most people also crave sweets after a meal.
So yeah. Night eating. *shrug* Most people do it. Why be ashamed about it?
I get the shame thing, I really do. When I have night terrors, I always start crying as soon as I snap awake. I can’t imagine anything more embarrassing than running around the house in my underwear, screaming, because I had some stupid dream about a spider on the ceiling. It makes me feel like a child, like I can’t control myself. Hate it.
It’s the body telling the brain what to do.
Exactly like the craving to eat late at night.
My client wants to stop, she says. She feels ashamed and guilty and she’s not enjoying the effects on her health. (Diabetes, sleep apnea, a 100-pound weight gain).
I suggest that she might change her mealtimes and come up with things to do that will keep her in bed when she wakes up at night. Like her favorite playlist, a bottle of aromatherapy fragrance, maybe a podcast episode. I wake up in the middle of the night a lot, too, and it’s pretty boring to just lie there for 90 minutes.
My plan, of course, doesn’t work.
The problem with persistent problems is that they’re always the result of a complex web of issues. Changing only one thing usually isn’t enough to disrupt the pattern. It can be very tricky to figure out what is the root cause.
There’s another problem with persistent problems. That is that we’re in love with them.
There’s always some part of the web of issues that is our very most favorite, adorable thing.
It’s usually part of our very identity, or the one thing we’d want to hold onto if we ever had to give up everything else. Our heart’s desire and our true delight.
The thing about night eating is that it’s done ALONE. It’s a favored refuge of people who feel that they serve others all day. Workaholics and people pleasers. There is nothing that feels as good as TOTAL PRIVACY while indulging in something for yourself alone.
Hey, I agree with that, and I do it too! Showering, writing in my journal, birdwatching... The difference between me and my troubled clients is that I have no shame in indulging myself. I do plenty for other people, but I don’t owe anyone anything, and I have no problem setting boundaries and making sure I have time to myself. Otherwise, I could never deal with the emotional demands that I do.
I also don’t have body image issues, for my own complicated reasons, and I eat whatever I want. If I want cake for breakfast then I’ll eat it, and I’d actually enjoy it much more if I felt like someone was glaring at me and judging me. Ha, this is for you, *big bite*.
The simplest way for my client to deal with her night eating really would be to change her eating schedule. Start with a big hot breakfast. Take an hour off every day and eat a proper sit-down lunch, no errands, no “catching up” on work. Have a satisfying afternoon snack sometime between 3-5, or at least eat something during the commute home. Eat a good dinner.
The goal here is to eat 70-75% of your energy requirements for the day BEFORE DINNER, so that the nice dinner is a chance to put a cap on the day.
As opposed to being incredibly hungry almost all day long, rushing around, “no time” to take real breaks, and feeling starved after twelve busy waking hours.
But doing that would interfere with [everyone’s] image of the diligent, hardworking and ultra-responsible professional busy person.
How do I know how valuable I am unless I feel like I’m sacrificing for my work (my staff, my clients, my customers) all day every day?
Being hungry all day, as a pattern, is a form of self-punishment. It’s a job for a trained therapist to figure out why someone would feel that way, would want to do that. We’d never treat others as badly as we treat ourselves, and there’s something deep under that, but I sure don’t know what it is.
There are other ways for my client to set herself up to quit night eating. She could sign up for a meal delivery plan and eat only what gets delivered.
She could ask her assistant to make sure she eats breakfast, lunch, and a snack, and even have her order it for her each day. It could be scheduled as part of their check-in meetings.
She could put locks on her fridge, freezer, and cupboards, and give her husband the key. More positively, they could quit stocking food in their home, and they could dine out together at a salad buffet or whatever.
She could tell her doctor about it and ask for help. A change in medication, maybe? A doctor would see this as a straightforward health issue, not a shameful secret.
As a practical matter, eating at night is a way of annoying yourself. Crumbs in the bed: uncomfortable! Not sleeping the whole night through: exhausting! Being hungry all day long at work, every week of the year: predictable, boring, and unproductive! Exploding at other people when you’re hangry: mean, rude, and unfair to them!
There are no “wins” here except for the pure hedonism of eating alone, late at night.
As an emotional matter, what’s the deal with night eating? If you want to indulge, just do it in public and, in the unlikely event that anyone hassles you, wink at them and take a nice big grinning bite. The real issue here is probably working out why you care what other people think, rather than what you yourself think.
I knew I had to do a sleepvacation the minute it crossed my mind. I have a flexible schedule, so I could make it happen. What I didn’t have was anywhere to sleep that was quiet for at least five hours at a stretch.
Q: Where could I go without upstairs neighbors?
A: Almost anywhere
I thought about bringing a sleeping bag down to our laundry room. I thought about making a trip to the airport terminal and stretching out under some seats. On my toughest days, I thought about digging a trench on the beach and sleeping in that.
Then I thought of house-sitting. I’m responsible and good with animals. Surely someone in my beach community would need a house sitter for at least a few days?
I mentioned it to my brother, who replied, “Well actually...” and it was just that simple. Ask someone you know for help. I had nine days for my sleepvacation in the peaceful suburbs.
The very first night, I slept nine hours!
My only responsibilities for over a week:
Eat and bathe
Care for a massive black dog, my niece Penny
Penny’s desire to be fed and go out at 6:30 AM
That became my routine. Go to sleep around 11 or midnight, wake up at 6:30, feed the dog, open the back door, go back to bed and read for a while, take a nap.
I thought I would be able to sleep twelve hours a day if only I had the chance.
If only it were quiet enough.
If only I could just take a break from the world, I’d sleep off and on all day and drool all over myself. If it works for Penny...
As it turns out, I can probably only sleep twelve hours if I’m ill. Nine is enough for me to feel well-rested.
This is helpful. It’s helpful to know that I don’t need to waste my time pining for something, not because I “can’t have” it but because I don’t actually need it. My sleepvacation showed me that I’m much closer to my goal than I thought.
Things happen when you finally start to meet a biological need, like watering a thirsty plant.
The first thing that happened was that I started dropping weight. I lost six pounds in nine days.
[This is the part where I’m supposed to put a disclaimer that losing weight is not happiness because people are incapable of thinking ‘weight loss’ without attaching it to body image. I don’t give a flying leap about body image. I’m here for my overall energy level and quality of life. In my world, with my history of thyroid problems, weight gain correlates with migraine and night terrors, and losing six pounds was delightful!]
After a week, something else happened. I started having ideas.
The biggest issue with chronic sleep deprivation is being tired all the time. That low-energy feeling seeps into everything. All I could think about was 1. How to get more sleep and 2. How selfish my neighbors are, running a vacuum at 8 AM on Saturdays. A year of sleep deprivation, I can tell you, starts to turn into distraction, poor concentration, and memory lapses.
Like leaving your purse at a cafe overnight, forgetting your phone when you leave for a day trip, filling the dog bowl and leaving it on the counter, that kind of thing.
That day that the lightbulb flickered back on in my brain, I remembered who I really was.
I remembered that not all that long ago, I was a high-energy, positive, cheerful person who radiated ideas day and night.
Somewhere along the way, my personality had been dampened. I was burned out and exhausted. I started to convince myself that I was stuck, trapped in an infinite prison sentence in a tiny apartment with inconsiderate neighbors.
It isn’t true, of course. Nobody is stuck or trapped. Even a convict can discover philosophy and inner peace. It’s all what we buy into and what our minds tell us.
My situation is easy in every single way, except that I have a parasomnia disorder and I don’t know how to sleep through heavy footsteps over my head. Or blenders, or vacuum cleaners.
I had no plans for my sleepvacation, no work plans, no productivity goals. My intention was to sleep as much as possible, care for my furry niece, eat convenience foods, and read. No vision boards, no journals, no sprints, no insanity workouts, nada.
I found myself taking notes and jotting down ideas throughout the day, something I realized I hadn’t done all year. More than a year.
When HAD I last felt like I overflowed with ideas?
One of my ideas was the realization that I really have only a little over three months left before our lease is up. Part of that time will be spent traveling. We’re almost out of the woods!
Then I had an insight. I had a few days to play with the idea.
I realized that I was sleeping roughly the same core hours on sleepvacation that I do at home. The difference was roughly one hour in the morning, and the nap later on. Not that much to ask. What if, just for the three months, what if I used an over-the-counter sleep aid to train myself to fall asleep earlier? Could I buy the missing hours of sleep?
When I came home, I tried it (ZzzQuil, for the curious) and it’s sort of almost working. It tastes freaking awful and it makes me groggy until after lunchtime. The first night, it took me 90 minutes to fall asleep. The second night, it took an hour. The third night, it took 40 minutes. It’s basically sort of working.
Mainly, it’s helped me sleep through my neighbors’ early-morning two-hour family noise relay.
The difference between five hours of sleep and nine hours of sleep is remarkable. On five hours, I think a lot of people don’t even realize how consistently crabby they are, how much they underperform, and by ‘they’ I mean ‘me.’ Nine hours is enough to feel joyful.
The difference between 35-40 hours of sleep in a week and 63 hours of sleep in a week, that’s big. Can you start to see how, say, 160 hours a month vs. 250 hours a month can add up?
Everyone in our busy, always-on, hustling culture could probably use a sleepvacation. More, though, we could probably use a better sleep routine.
This isn’t a staycation. It’s a sleepvacation. It’s important to know that going in.
A staycation can involve a lot of things that aren’t sleep. Some people use them to do a home remodel project, check out tourist stuff in their home town, or binge-watch TV series. In that sense it’s similar to a sleepvacation, because both involve bumming around in pajamas.
I’m setting the parameters going in, because all I want is to SLEEP and sleep is what I’m gonna do.
I’m tired. I haven’t slept well in a year. I’m so tired that sleep is almost the only thing I think about. It finds its way into every conversation. People can’t even ask me how I am without winding up on the receiving end of a rant about my upstairs neighbors. It’s time to do something about it.
I went out of town for a family weekend to celebrate my brother’s birthday. All I could talk about was how tired I was. Suddenly I had a random idea, and tossed it out there.
“I should house-sit for people so I can catch up on sleep.”
My other brother and his wife looked at each other and then back at me.
I had no idea, but they had a trip planned for later in the season, and they were going to pay a dog sitter. If I housesat for them instead, I could watch the dog, keep an eye on the house, and water the plants. My dog walker charges less than theirs, so everyone would come out ahead.
Obviously this setup works best for location-independent people, students, or the unemployed. I have used house-sitting as a side hustle in all those scenarios. A jobbed person can do it if it’s in the same city or convenient to the work commute.
The only trouble with the certainty of the upcoming sleepvacation is knowing that it’s still months away. I have a countdown calendar going on.
In some ways, the existence of the sleepvacation makes the whole neighbor situation easier to bear. It helps to feel like it is temporary, that this sleep-deprived year will one day be just a blip in my personal history. It also helps to feel like there is at least one alternative option, that I can maybe escape for other housesitting junkets.
We have some upcoming vacations planned, which also helps to fill out the calendar with ‘sleep anywhere other than here’ options. It’s not the same, though. Hotels tend to be chock-full of loud late-night drama and people utterly failing to realize how thin the walls are. Also children running up and down the hallways at 7:00 AM, hooting and shrieking.
(If you let your kids do this, you probably also let them kick people’s seats on planes, don’t you? Don’t you??)
Our culture spits on sleep. It’s contrary to the Puritan work ethic. Yeah, you’re tired, so is everyone else, what’s your point? What could possibly be more boring than going to bed early rather than going out? Or knowing nothing about a show that everyone else stayed up late to binge-watch? Sleep is just making yourself irrelevant. Pointless.
I say fie to all that. I like sleeping, it’s free, and it makes you better-looking.
I also happen to think that the reason everyone is so testy and thin-skinned these days is that we’re all sleep-deprived. At least that’s my excuse.
I fantasize about sleepvacation. Should I bring my own pillow? Or order another one and have it delivered?
Am I going to do a lot of yoga? Should I bring my yoga mat? *snort* Is yoga sleeping? Then NO
Am I going to do a lot of healthy cooking? Is cooking sleeping? Then NO
I am going to make precisely two grocery shopping trips, and I am going to eat canned soup and frozen dinners. What I ought to do is eat large quantities of waffles at dinnertime because they make me schleeeeepy
Am I going to bring a bunch of outfit changes? Are they pajamas? Am I going to bring makeup? Haha, no
Am I going to research activities and new restaurants like I do for normal vacations? Do I plan to sleep there? Then NO
Basically I should make a list of everything I do for a normal trip and then cross it off. Normal vacation: fun, exciting, action-packed, interesting, high-value. Sleepvacation: sleeping.
Packing is so much easier when you really only plan to do one thing. It’s basically: stuff for the plane trip, and pajamas.
Eye mask, check.
White noise app, check.
Mouth guard, dang it, yes, check.
Sleep tracker, check.
The one productive thing I do have planned around the sleepvacation is the period immediately following it. The day or two after I get home. I am hoping that I will retain a bit of the glow of well-restedness that is one of the few genuine compliments a woman in her mid-forties tends to receive. “You look well-rested.” Ah, thank you so much, yes, I work hard at that.
I went to Cancun in my early thirties, a siblings trip, and we stayed in a run-down timeshare. It happened to have some sort of fluffy pad instead of a proper mattress. I have never slept so beautifully in my life. I loved that thing and I wish I had had the sense to steal it. I must have slept twelve hours a day. It took two weeks at my lame job for that peaceful, well-rested feeling to wear off.
That’s my fantasy for my sleepvacation. Blissful sleep, hours and hours of it, minus the all-night dance club up the street.
Sleepvacation. I’m making it happen.
Sleep is on my mind, as usual, and this time it’s because I got bad news at the dentist.
I need a root canal due to this mysterious process called ‘resorption.’ Nobody knows precisely what causes it. Don’t you love it when you’re on the cutting edge of research? Two things that could have triggered it are grinding my teeth, and inflammation in general.
Both of these things are related to sleep. Bruxism is something I do at night, especially when I’m in pain or my stress level is high. Inflammation is reduced through sleep.
Note that there are no known medical connections between lack of sleep and root canals. This is just a possibility that, for my own purposes, I want to explore.
I’m short about 2-3 hours of sleep a day on average, and sometimes it’s 4-5. Sleeping more is going to benefit me no matter what else is going on. It’s free and it doesn’t have any side effects. It won’t negatively impact anyone else, not like my upstairs neighbor running a high-powered blender over my bed at 6:00 AM.
If I never need another root canal, and I never have resorption problems on another tooth for the rest of my life, I won’t be able to prove whether my behavior impacted that in some way. That’s because this is a complex issue, because I would be an anecdote, and because I don’t even know how to submit data in the world of dentistry.
Still, I add ‘root canals’ to the list of Reasons I Should Probably Sleep More.
File Under: SleepQuest
This approach is consistent with how I approach every problem, not just health issues but problems in general.
I refuse to live with a persistent problem. I won’t accept it. I’ll find a way to work around it somehow. I’ll research it. I’ll test it. I’ll experiment on it. I’ll reframe it. I’ll read up on it. I’ll measure it and document it on a spreadsheet. I’ll ask people from other disciplines what they would do differently.
My endodontist lectured me about not wearing my night guard. He showed me on the scan exactly how he could tell from looking at my teeth that I “clench and grind.” Then he told me that AT MY AGE I couldn’t afford to ignore this and that it would definitely start wearing away my teeth.
Mmm. Love it. I’ve finally reached the point when medical professionals start using the phrase “at your age.”
Night guard. The one in the brightly colored plastic case. In the drawer where I see it at least twice a day.
You can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to your dentist. I had to admit that I was not, in fact, doing 100% of every possible thing to take care of my precious teeth.
I care about this significantly more now that I have a ballpark estimate of how much preserving a single tooth costs out of pocket. Without dental insurance, ugh. I wonder if this endodontist needs some back-office help?
As these thoughts swirl about my chronic sleep deprivation, my incipient cash deprivation, and my poor middle-aged teeth, I think about the concept of “trying everything.”
Everyone says this, all the time, about everything, but it’s a scam.
There is NO WAY that anyone has ever “tried everything” because not even an expert in a given field even KNOWS everything. There is nowhere that is capped on research, human knowledge, or potential technological development.
We also tend to have mental blinders about thinking that one single input is responsible for stuff. We think that making one change will fix a problem, and if it didn’t work, then the problem is unfixable.
There are so, so many problems with this approach!
One is that we may simply not have tried long enough.
Another is that we may not be doing the thing we’re trying in the right way.
Yet another is that the thing we’re doing may only work in certain situations, but not this one.
More likely, what we’re trying is just very far down the list of Things That Work. Most people will skip the first ten items on the list of Things That Work because we desperately want it not to be that. Please, not that one!
The way I look at it, there is a paradigm or a set of behaviors that goes with a certain issue. The group of people who have the issue tend to have a group of traits in common. Then the group of people who do not have that issue have an entirely different set of traits. There tends to be very little overlap.
For instance, my clients who hoard all tend to scatter coins, save expired food, stuff clutter into plastic bags, and have a plain rock somewhere in the home. Nobody else has rocks!
When I want the results of the “other” group, I observe them, ask them, research around what they’re doing, and then try it out. This is what I did when I started running, when I learned about minimalist travel, and when I finally decided to lose weight.
Obese Me had a lot of habits that Athletic Me finds comical, or sad, depending on the day. While I can sum up the habits of Athletic Me in a brief policy statement, it would take pages to try to describe just what the heck Obese Me was doing. Example: Getting a 64-ounce Pepsi with pumps of blackberry syrup. Please, for the love of your pancreas, do not try that at home.
While attempting to figure out what was different about athletic people, I spent a lot of time feeling frustrated and impatient. I’m working so hard, I thought. I did not think “I’ve tried everything” because I knew I spent most of my time lounging around reading and eating cereal.
I’m in a similar state right now with my sleep problems, which are dominating my attention. Certainly I’m as frustrated and impatient as I’ve ever been.
What I wonder is, when I look back on this period of time, what will stand out to me? What could I be doing differently that I already know about? Have I really tried everything?
Sleep is mysticism. It’s easy to believe that when you’re so tired that you start to think burrowing a trench in the sand would be a good way to get some rest. Any habit is a complex blend of many factors, not a single one of which will solve a persistent problem on its own. Quality sleep is so valuable that it’s worth focusing on marginal sleep gains.
The ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ is the term for the cumulative effect of small inputs.
Let’s take a pizza for example. I’m going to make you a pizza with a frozen crust, canned tomato paste, and a packet of herbs I got at the dollar store. My friend is going to make what he calls “bachelor pizza” with a slice of white bread, ketchup, and a slice of processed cheese. Hopefully he remembers to remove the wrapper.
Because you’re a smart person, you’re going to make an excuse to leave and get a pizza with a crust from scratch and fresh ingredients, baked in a proper pizza oven.
There is no single factor that differentiates these “pizzas” - they each combine features that make a whole. Even my friend’s bachelor pizza would be marginally improved by using pizza sauce instead of ketchup.
What does this have to do with sleep? A word of advice: don’t eat pizza late at night if you’re having sleep problems. Have it for lunch instead.
Where are the aggregate gains for sleep going to be found?
Some of this depends on the individual. Most of it, I suspect, is universal, and in a couple of decades we’ll have a better understanding deriving from tech, big data, and sleep research. The trouble is that we tend to associate sleep with one specific aspect, our ability to fall asleep in the first place.
As an example, I can think of three people off the top of my head who claim they are fine on no more than six hours of sleep. All fall asleep quickly (go figure) and all are great at their jobs. Unfortunately, all of them are also crabby, snarky individuals with short tempers. What they think of as their “personality” is what I’m like after a rough night. Because they share the common Puritan-work-ethic problem of scorning sleep, everyone will just think they’ve mellowed out during retirement rather than correcting a problem that was decades in the making.
When we’re looking for marginal sleep gains, we want to be clear about which areas are up for improvement. We also want to broaden our time scale, so that we’re talking about sleep by the week and month, not just individual nights.
For myself, I’m looking at sleep gains in:
Falling asleep more quickly
Sleeping through the night without waking
(Or at least waking fewer times)
(Or at least not lying awake for 90 minutes each time)
Sleeping eight or more hours per night
No night terrors
I’m also looking at “externalities” that not everyone would think are related to sleep.
Other people might be looking at:
No restless leg syndrome
No circles under the eyes
Or any other way that sleep loss lowers your quality of life.
What I’ve learned from years of quantifying my habits is that the approach that works for one thing may have nothing to do with something else. This is why tracking is so important. Marginal gains may take a month or a year to really notice.
For instance, when I finally quit my day job, I slept about 15 hours a day for three days, followed by 12 hours a day for a month. A few months later, I started taking melatonin supplements (careful here!) and hated them because I felt drowsy all day long. I told my husband I was going to quit, and he was shocked. He said I finally had color in my face again. I kept at it. By the end of the year, I had lost 15 pounds (from doing literally NOTHING but sleeping all day and mastering all the crops in FarmVille) and suddenly had the bright idea to take up running.
At the time, I found my constant sleep and lethargy to be embarrassing and unpleasant. That wasn’t the reason I quit my job! In retrospect, that year completely changed my life, helping to make me the athlete I am today.
For thyroid disease, I found my biggest change came from extremely strenuous activity. For migraine, it was keeping my body weight in a certain specific range. For night terrors, the secret was the timing of when I ate - nothing for three hours before I go to sleep. I suspect one of the major keys for sleep, at least in my case, is hydration - drinking enough water at the right time of day.
The secret for me was a change in attitude. I adopted the philosophy that I call Do the Obvious. I assume that there is no reason to deviate from mainstream health advice unless I have tested it on myself in multiple ways. As a scientist I fully commit to designing a proper experiment that can give quality results, and then I analyze my metrics like I really mean it. If I don’t like the answer, then I am choosing my own suffering.
The aggregation of marginal gains does not apply only to one area of life, such as sleep or headache management. It all combines into one big thing, which is your experience of daily life.
As a young, broke, exhausted person, I know I would have been deeply annoyed with the expectation that I make the kind of changes I made for the quality of life I have now. What, quit drinking soda? Go to bed earlier? Lose twenty pounds? Get out of here! Yet the fact is that that young version of me suffered from four-day migraines and often felt sad and hopeless. Today Me would never return to Young Me’s habits out of fear of Young Me’s cruddy life experience.
Today Me has great faith that Future Me will sleep on a peaceful peachy cloud of sweet dreams and aromatherapy. This is hard as Today Me has to listen to Today Upstairs Neighbor clomping up and down the stairs at 5:00 AM.
Here are some of the factors that have gone into the marginal sleep gains I have made so far:
An air filter/white noise generator (or you can try a phone app and/or a fan)
Cracking the window at night
A $25 pillow I discovered at a hotel
A $9 eye mask
Drinking all my water for the day before 8:00 PM
Not eating for at least three hours before sleepy time
Putting my phone in Do Not Disturb mode from 10 PM to 10 AM (and now that I think about it, I should change that to 8 PM)
My husband training our dog to quit whining at 5:30 AM
No naps after 3 PM under any circumstances
Wearing a sleep tracker at night (Fitbit Flex 2) and checking metrics daily
Worth noting: I never drink coffee or alcohol.
In the past week, I have:
Left my coat on a plane and had to run back for it twenty minutes later
Spilled half a bottle of water into my suitcase by carrying it upside down
Worn a one-inch hole in my reusable shopping bag because I didn’t notice I was dragging it
Left town and forgot to pack deodorant
Dropped my sleep tracker on the bedroom floor and convinced myself I somehow lost it in a public restroom, then found it the next day and forgot to charge it
Put an important appointment in my calendar an hour late
Dropped my sweater on the sidewalk and kept walking, causing a passing driver to honk at me
Forgotten to auto-schedule a day’s content on my blog
Forgotten to lock our dog in his crate, risking another barking-related citation
I also gained four pounds, which I believe consists almost entirely of cortisol and bitter unshed tears.
What’s my problem? One of three things:
The last time I was this tired, my upstairs neighbor was a crackhead who would smoke crack on the porch in the afternoon, play guitar above my bed in the early hours of the morning, and bust up furniture in the evening. My hair started to fall out in patches then, just as it’s doing now.
Nobody cares about one person who is tired. The reason I talk about this stuff is that a lot of people are voluntarily running around in a state similar to mine. It’s a lot like being drunk, or snoring. Drunk people don’t think they’re drunk, and people who snore refuse to believe that they snore, sometimes even if you play them a recording of their 70dB clamor.
If you’re chronically sleep-deprived, you’re screwing up. Somehow. You’re stumbling around and making preventable errors. If you’ve done it for a long enough time, you might even think it’s just part of your personality, like Bella from Twilight always talked about how clumsy she was.
(Why is that supposed to be an endearing quality in female characters? I sure don’t find it endearing in myself).
Making silly mistakes is fine. It’s not the end of the world if you have, like I have, pumped liquid soap onto your toothbrush, only put deodorant under one arm, or walked around with a pair of nylon underpants hanging out of your sweater through the pernicious powers of static cling. Stuff happens.
We just have to ask ourselves how often it happens when we’re well rested, rather than when we’re really tired.
Why am I so tired? Because my upstairs neighbors do a lot of loud stuff between 5 and 7 AM every day.
What are they doing? Some guesses:
Training a donkey to tap dance
Three-legged race promoting Dutch clogs
Why don’t I just go to bed earlier? I have, oh, I have. It’s annoying to have to shift your schedule by three hours to accommodate someone else, for one thing, but it’s also only somewhat possible. The same people who are up banging around at 5 AM are also up and around at 12:30 AM, not to mention our other neighbors and passersby on the sidewalk. The rest of the world isn’t all that interested in facilitating some cranky middle-aged woman’s need to go to sleep at 9 PM.
9:00 PM bedtime: the ultimate luxury!
It makes me crazy to think of other people indulging in sleep procrastination, choosing to stay up late when they don’t have to. Oh, you’re not using your nice quiet bed? Can I come over? You can stay up and binge-watch TV episodes that will still be there tomorrow, even though you have to get up and go to work. Meanwhile I will try to sleep enough that my eyelid will stop twitching.
Twenty years ago, I would stay up until 4 or 5 AM for the occasional party, just because that’s where the action was. I’ve never been a drinker. I just wanted to socialize and eat chips and hope something interesting would happen. It took years to realize that these are my same friends from daylight hours. They weren’t going to, say, transmogrify into a wolf or a bat or anything. Now the idea of being awake until 4 AM strikes fear into my heart.
Out of all the persistent problems in the world, a sleep issue is in the top ten. It’s not like a messy garage that you can cheerfully ignore for ten years. It’s not like having a pet that isn’t housebroken, where you might swear a lot and go through a gallon of carpet cleaner. It’s not even like debt, although debt and sleep loss do tend to go together. Being exhausted follows you all day, every day.
Yawning through movies. Blanking out on chunks of conversation. Leaving a trail of lost items behind you everywhere you go.
Generally not doing anything with full engagement.
Getting headaches, getting sick all the time.
Desire to kick in neighbor’s door and ask, “What are you even DOING???”
I was talking to a young friend who just got his dream job after eleven years of planning. I asked what he was going to do next, and he promptly shared his five- and ten-year goals. Later I thought about my own goals and realized that they now consist of: Sleep twelve hours every day for a week.
If you’re out there being all tired and clumsy and stuff, pause for a moment. Ask yourself whether you could possibly find a way to sleep more every day. If not, is there somewhere else you could go? If so, would you tell me where that is?
Diogenes used to walk around Ancient Greece with a lit lantern in the daytime. People would ask him, “Hey, Diogenes, what’s up with the lantern?” He’d say, “I’m looking for an honest man!” I dig this right now, except instead of an honest man I’m in search of a decent night’s sleep. This is SleepQuest 2019, one woman’s journey to stop being tired all the time.
The week of the New Year, I realized that my (current) sleep issues might have something to do with my ten-year dependency on melatonin. I quit taking it. That was a very hard week, but I did start sleeping better soon after. Three months in, I’m still not taking melatonin or any other sleep aid, and I’m finding that I can usually drop off to sleep in under twenty minutes.
IS THAT GREAT, OR WHAT?
I started wearing an older-model Fitbit at night as a sleep tracker. According to my metrics, I often fall asleep in 5-7 minutes. That honestly surprises me. It could be that I just quit shifting around in bed and lie still at that point. Maybe one day there will be a brain scanner that will give better data. Who knows?
I had been waking up in the middle of the night a lot, sometimes 3-4 times per night. I usually sleep through the night now.
These are the things that are going well. Unfortunately, I think one of the reasons I’m falling asleep more quickly and staying down through the night is that I am just so tired lately.
We have upstairs neighbors.
They are loud.
They keep late hours.
They also get up early.
First it’s the man getting ready for work. He has a HEAVY TREAD which is very noticeable above your head at 5:00 AM. Then, just as he’s leaving, his wife comes down. She stays at home. That’s why it’s such a mystery why she feels that she needs to do all her housework before 9:00 AM. She probably thinks that mopping at 7:00 is a quiet and respectful thing to do, not realizing that it sounds like squirrels are digging their way through our ceiling. Then there are the middle school daughter and the family dog, everyone waking up and tromping down the stairs in their own sweet time.
Essentially 90% of the noise in our apartment complex happens between 5:00 AM and 9:00 AM.
Another 5% is the period between 11:30 PM and 12:30 AM. Someone walks around and does things in the kitchen. I think it might be the kid.
Anyway, enough about that. The point is that I am preoccupied with the doings of these people because THEY KEEP WAKING ME UP and I don’t have a lot of options. They just aren’t quiet for an 8-hour stretch.
Whenever I confront a persistent problem, I go at it in multiple ways. The first is to strategize and try to reframe the problem. Next step is to ask for advice. After that I try to solve the problem with money.
First wave: Do we have recourse about the noise? We went to the property manager back when these neighbors were doing their laundry at 6:00 AM, and that got dealt with. We had a couple of challenges when they kept trying to push back to more like 7:30. The real issue is that the simple act of walking to the bathroom and taking a shower is louder in our apartment than it is in theirs. It’s not unreasonable for them to get ready in the morning. We could probably talk to a lawyer and get out of our lease early, but then we’d have to move. (Another way to reframe the problem).
Second wave: What are other people doing? Talk to the landlord, fix your nutrition, etc. I have the most screwed-up sleep of anyone I know, so for this topic I am reading up on sleep research.
Third wave: Solve the problem with money. Eye masks, a white noise generator, fan, air filter, ear plugs, new sheets, a new pillow, etc. In the past I’ve tried essential oils, lotions, teas, herbal supplements, meditation, progressive relaxation, yoga, hot baths, and basically everything else on the market. I’ve even tried prescription pharmaceuticals, which is replacing one problem for another.
At this point on the SleepQuest journey, I am ready to say that my main sleep problem is external. It’s disruptive noise.
That’s actually amazing. As an optimist, I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. As soon as I can move somewhere with our own roof, and no longer have heavy booted footsteps walking six feet over my head early each morning, I’ll have a chance of sleeping like a normal person.
Taking 90 minutes to fall asleep? Gone. Waking up with stomach cramps? Gone. Waking up 3-4 times a night? Gone. Restless leg? Gone.
On the other hand, since I started SleepQuest 2019 I have had a couple instances of night terrors. I’ve also had a couple of migraines. I’ve been down with a cold three times. While my sleep quality is nowhere near as bad as it was back in November and December, it’s certainly not as good as it could be.
Overall strategy is to put a small amount of focus in several things, rather than concentrate on only one thing. What I’ve found with complicated problems (like migraine, weight loss, and parasomnia) is that fixing one input is never enough. One percent improvement in ten things is ten percent improvement, right? I already know a bunch of things that work, so for the rest of the year I will methodically make sure that I am putting as much effort into those proven areas as I can. I’ll also continue to do more research.
What have I done that works?
Wear the eye mask
Find the right distance and noise setting for air filter and fan
Quit taking melatonin and suffer through a week of very poor sleep
Adjust my hydration and make sure I’m drinking my full quota before 8:00 PM
DO NOT EAT or drink any non-water fluids close to bedtime, preserving a three-hour gap between last food and sleep initiation
Try to go to bed earlier and wish neighbors would, too.
A friend of mine happened to mention that she was just diagnosed with fibromyalgia. This came as a huge surprise to me, because we talk for hours every week and she had never mentioned that she had been seeing all sorts of doctors. She always looks fresh and lovely. I had no idea.
I told her, “I was diagnosed when I was 23. We should talk.”
“Okay!” She seemed excited.
Then I gave it some thought. What would I tell her? She wasn’t doing any of the things that I was doing when I got sick.
I shared a bed with my first husband, a man who snored heinously all night long. (My symptoms dramatically decreased after our divorce). My friend is single.
I was obese. My friend is fit and works with a trainer.
I drank soda every day. My friend never does.
My diet was generally poor; I ate a lot of sugar and vending machine snacks, and I rarely ate vegetables. My friend eats clean.
My symptoms started after I took a bad fall. My friend’s symptoms seem to have popped up on their own.
I thought back to how cruddy I felt as a 23-year-old, and how much better I feel now. Twenty years have gone by and I feel like I’ve aged in reverse. I would be in so much pain sometimes that I’d need help sitting up in bed.
Now I train in martial arts, and we routinely do “sprawls” and “breakfalls” where we throw ourselves to the ground and pop back up over and over.
I remember the morning after I did a half-day counter-abduction workshop. I had been elbowed in the face a few times, among various other indignities. I was bashed and bruised on every limb. I used to feel that way all the time, for no reason, with no bruises to show for it.
That’s how I knew I would know what to say to help my friend. I understood how she felt. I could listen empathetically. I could give her advice on how to talk to her doctors without them treating her like a malingering mental case.
I’ve talked to other friends and acquaintances who have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It usually doesn’t go well. They will still say “You don’t know what it’s like” even though I demonstrably do! Like I would lie about having experienced chronic pain. Why? What would possibly be the motive of pretending you were ill and in pain?
[Getting away with things? Social loafing? Thinking that other people find it more interesting than any other topic of conversation? *shrug*]
The sad truth is that saying, “I used to feel the same way you do, and you don’t have to be in pain like that forever,” can come across as cruel. Why, I’m not sure. I only know it does.
My friend and I sat down to dinner. We talked about a bunch of other things. Then I brought the topic back to her. As a modest person, she found this uncomfortable. I told her I was worried for her and I wanted to help if I could.
I shared my experience from the mid-nineties, when a doctor told me that fibromyalgia was considered a “wastebasket diagnosis” and a psychosomatic illness. They only started to take it seriously when a medication was developed that could treat it, because hey, Big Pharma.
I shared all the factors I thought contributed to my illness, that did not affect my friend. That seemed to help her feel a bit better about her situation, that at least she didn’t have a thyroid nodule, that she didn’t have thirty-five pounds to lose. That she had health insurance!
I explained that having one frustrating diagnosis did not preclude having one or more other things going on as well. For instance, it was entirely possible to have fibromyalgia AND a food sensitivity AND a thyroid issue. It might be worth getting checked out for those. I have a friend who is allergic to onions and garlic, and another who is allergic to yeast and corn. Both of those conditions led to years of confusion, testing, and misdiagnosis, because there are a lot of symptoms that can indicate literally dozens of possible problems.
I talked her through how I tracked various metrics. This is because it can help to reveal patterns, and also because showing a doctor your metrics will grab their attention in a way that nothing else will. It says, “I believe in the scientific method” and it says “I want to get better” and it says “I will work hard to do anything that you prescribe.”
It also tends to solve problems when doctors won’t or can’t.
The last time I talked to a doctor about fibromyalgia, she said, “Well, you must have been misdiagnosed, because people with fibromyalgia don’t get better.” She tried to prescribe me anti-anxiety medicine. I suppose that’s because feelings of strength and fortitude from overcoming adversity somehow qualify as anxiety?
Whatever doctors are telling you, they aren’t talking to people/patients like me. If they’re talking to us, then they aren’t listening. I would think the obvious response to meeting a former fibromyalgia patient who does adventure races and martial arts, who has run a marathon, who goes on backpacking expeditions, I would think the response would be, “Hmm. Interesting.” Study me, I’m game!
There’s money in prescribing drugs to people. There isn’t really any money in “patients” who don’t take prescription medication and basically never need to visit a doctor. Just saying.
I told my friend that what she was experiencing is as bad as it gets, at least with this illness. She describes a feeling of broken glass under her skin. Nod, nod. It’s bad, but you’ve already lived through the worst. It’s not a wasting illness. It’s not like tuberculosis or MS or cerebral palsy. It sucks, sure! But it won’t put you on an oxygen tank and you won’t wind up in a coma.
Most importantly, I talked to her about the importance of high-quality sleep in becoming pain-free and eventually recovering. I shared all the things I do to set up my bedroom and sent her links to my preferred eye mask and white noise generator. At this point, I probably know more about sleep than her doctors do, since doctors aren’t really allowed to sleep. Whatever else happens, at least there’s one cost-free thing she can try to do that has zero side effects.
(Never mind that it’s the hardest one!)
What I gave my friend was information that has worked for me over the last twenty years. More than that, though, I gave her caring, understanding, and the knowledge that she can always come and complain to me. I share her sense of unfairness at the way illness can strike for no reason. I share her frustration with busy, condescending doctors who have no real answers. I share her desire to live a full life without the distraction of chronic pain. I can give her compassion. More than that, I hope I can give her a sense that it gets better.
It happened again. For the second time in three months, I had a night terror episode. I thought I had this thing beat - it had only happened once in the last few years. Now that I’m wearing a sleep tracker to bed, I have more information, and some validation about what happens during night terrors.
Other than this particular night, I’ve had night terrors twice in the last few years. Once was at the end of a two-week experiment I was doing, to “give myself jet lag” in advance of a trip to Europe. The other was after a women’s counter-abduction workshop. These make sense to me for different reasons.
The jet lag experiment involved trying to shift my schedule by half an hour every night, so that I was closer to the schedule I’d be living during two weeks in Europe. It totally worked! It worked except for the last night, when I ran around trying to close down the house and put off eating dinner too long. I’d been messing with my sleep schedule for weeks, then I ate a full meal and tried to go to bed ninety minutes later.
Result: Woke up standing in my bathroom, shaking and crying. Decided to end jet lag experiment a day early.
The problem with the counter-abduction workshop was probably threefold. One, PTSD, enough said there. Two, I was bruised up and very stiff and sore. Three, I had a huge meal after the workshop. My working hypothesis is that blood sugar is key to night terrors, and I definitely threw it off that weekend. The night terror episode happened the second night after the workshop, so it’s somewhat surprising that it was delayed a day.
When it happened the other night, I felt really stupid, because it clicked into place what I had done.
I drank an 8-ounce glass of juice right before bed.
I fell asleep and woke up standing in my living room, heart racing. “A spider” had been “crawling on my husband.” I looked at the clock on the microwave and felt very annoyed that I’d only been asleep for about 35 minutes. Then I went back to bed.
[I’m not really all that bothered by spiders during the day. They’re purely an issue of my sleeping brain, probably a limbic system thing].
BOOM, it happened again. “The same spider” was “crawling on the wall” on my side of the bed. I looked at the clock on my phone. Are you kidding me??? Thirty-five minutes!
Usually night terrors seem to happen within the first 90 minutes of the sleep cycle. It was a little weird for my personal experience to have them that soon after I drifted off to sleep. I blame the juice, though.
The reason I was drinking juice right before bed is that I was recovering from a stomach bug, and the juice has probiotics. I hadn’t quite hit my hydration goal for the day and it seemed like a good idea.
I got sick at the tail end of a week and a half of intensive event planning, a week in which I got very little sleep. Stress was high and I ate dinner after 9 PM a few nights.
What seems to be going on is a combination of stress level and blood sugar. I’ve had sleep issues since I was seven, and there may be some kind of genetic propensity toward this condition. I’ve been managing ever since I made the connection between blood sugar and sleep, and started timing my meals.
My main goal is to stop eating three hours before I go to sleep. I am not always able to avoid this, and eating closer to bedtime does not automatically trigger night terrors. The rare occasions that I’ve had them, though, are connected to eating or drinking something closer to the time I fall asleep.
I first became aware of this connection after going on a very strict three-month calorie restriction diet. My “reward” for making my weight goal was to eat a chocolate truffle. I saved it for after dinner, and I savored it. Then I had night terrors for the first time in months. I immediately blamed the candy, because chocolate had been on my list of possible triggers for some time. Then I thought a bit more and put some ideas together.
I had been tracking my metrics for years, looking for an answer. I kept a detailed food log, which is how I found out that paprika triggers sleep disturbances for me. I logged all my exercise. I kept a spreadsheet with all my sleep disturbances, including whether I screamed, jumped out of bed, crawled on the floor, opened doors, and/or ran through the house sound asleep in the dark.
The connection: When I went on my strict diet, I quit eating my late-night snack. I had been in the habit of eating something before bed, usually either a large bowl of cereal or a can of peaches. Whatever I had, it was always sweet and in the range of 500 calories.
A friend who works with dementia patients confirmed that many of them experience night terrors, and that it’s widely recognized as a blood sugar issue. I wish I’d known that sooner, although I probably wouldn’t have made the connection to my own eating habits.
I don’t think it has as much to do with *what* I eat as with *when* I eat. I eat candy and desserts, and they only seem to cause night terror episodes if I eat that stuff after dinner, not in the afternoon. Same with paprika: I can eat it, just not late in the evening.
Obviously people who do not have problems with night terrors (aka pavor nocturnus) can eat whatever they want. There are likely to be a lot of different triggers for night terrors besides blood sugar or meal timing. Maybe various medications, trauma, dementia, or other health conditions are factors. For me, meal timing has made a proven difference.
I just need to put a sticker on my juice bottle reminding me of that.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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