What are the best practices of sleep hygiene?

The importance of sleep is difficult to overstate. I have found that sleep regularity is one of the essential, if not the most essential, determinants of mental health. Sleep is a true barometer for bipolarity. My manic episodes are nearly always preceded by insufficient or erratic sleep; conversely, excessive or joyless sleep invariably portends depression. Healthy sleep, of course, facilitates general happiness and productivity for everybody, regardless of mental health or employment status. But a consistent sleep pattern, I believe, is particularly important for the freelance slash creative slash unemployed slash underemployed slash self-employed slash multiple-part-time-jobs crowd. For me, a seemingly freewheeling lifestyle requires structure, built upon a predictable sleep schedule.

The first step of a morning routine, I suppose, is determining the wake-up time. My rule of thumb is half an hour before sunrise, rounded to the nearest quarter hour interval. The other day, for instance, I woke up at 6:15AM because sunrise was at 6:38AM. Since we’re approaching the vernal equinox, and days are getting longer, I will adjust my morning alarm to 6:00AM in the coming days. For extra credit, you can attempt this system sans alarm. It’s best to set an “insurance” alarm a half hour past your intended waking time, with the hope of rousing naturally.

from my lunar calendar app

Really, your morning starts an hour before you go to sleep the preceding night. My strategy is aim for eight hours of sleep, hope for seven. Maybe one or two nights a week, add an hour to the equation. And on different nights of that week, subtract an hour. This allows for social nights when you stay up “past bedtime” and catch-up nights for when you’re falling behind.

There is a balance to be struck between a rigid schedule and flexible expediency. “I stayed up late watching a movie” or “I couldn’t fall asleep because I had a lot on my mind” are tempting, and potentially frequent, rationalizations for pushing the alarm back or even off, all together. It’s imperative to err on the side of rigidity. Even if you have the occasional five-hour night, such as last night for me, it’s best to conform to the schedule. In theory, I’ll fall asleep more readily tonight and perhaps reimburse my sleep debt over the next two or three nights.

This is an appropriate time for a sidebar about Ativan. But first, the standard disclaimer — consult your doctor. All of the lord’s children are precious and unique. I have a PRN prescription for Ativan. PRN is a Latin acronym for “as needed”. So, last night, what I SHOULD have done, but did not, is taken 1 milligram of Ativan at 10:45PM to assure seven hours of sleep versus 6:15AM. What I did instead was lie awake in bed for an hour and then administer self-love for an hour, only to go to sleep at about 1:00AM. And I knew, or at least had a strong hunch, that I would not naturally go to sleep by 11:00PM. I had a long run yesterday evening and I think the endorphins had me “up” more than usual. It’s counterintuitive because you would think exercise would promote sleep, but I’ve found that a long run or hike sometimes keeps me up that day and then hits me a day or two later, fatigue-wise.

It’s worth drilling down on sleep math for a moment. I bake in 15 minutes to fall asleep (ideally without Ativan, but infrequently with) and I bake in another 15 minutes for “noise” before alarm time. Noise is a combination of bathroom visits and/or undesired waking (nightmares and anxiety are typical culprits).

sleeping pharmacy

Prior to sleep, I try to prepare myself physically. Simple stretching goes a long way. I always say that five minutes of stretching equals six or more minutes of sleeping. Nothing crazy — the basics work well — neck rolls, touch your toes, touch the sky, that kind of thing. In concert with stretching, I usually do a body scan. Mostly, I look for cuts and abrasions below my knees. Blisters from running or hiking, overly itched mosquito bites, nicks, scrapes, busted toenails and the like are a constant in my life. Ointment for anything medical and perhaps lotion for general skin care. Further, I try to avoid all screens for at least a half an hour before bed. An hour is probably unrealistic, so I shoot for thirty minutes. The scroll of encroaching fascism on Twitter is not calming.

Equally important is the mental preparation for sleep. I compose and review (more than once) a to-do list for the following day. Also, I try to vocalize gratitude. Even mundane declarations such as “lunch was tasty” or “that album sounded good” really help to ground me before bedtime. Instead of the BBC Global News podcast’s daily accounting of death, destruction and misery around the world, it’s more constructive to listen to wind or waves in advance of the pillow. Unfortunately, I have not solved the riddle of bad-dream-mitigation. I don’t think anyone has. After a recent rash of bad dreams, I tried to steer my pre-bed-psyche towards positivity, with mixed results. Managing one’s subconscious is the final level of the video game. I’m not quite that advanced yet.

The physicality of sleep is often over-looked. What sounds are striking your eardrums? What is the temperature, moisture and cleanliness of the air on your skin and in your lungs? What light is hitting your retinae? My ideal sleep environment, of course, is cool, dark and silent. But that is often hard to establish. Natural temperature fluctuates quite a bit over the course of a given week. I say “natural” because I avoid, whenever possible, synthetically regulated sleeping environments. More simply, I leave the window open rather than use an air conditioner, unless it’s oppressively warm in a room.

sleeping gear

Consistent darkness can be difficult to achieve, depending upon the solar calendar, shades and streetlights. I use an eye mask, but only occasionally. Silence or muted sound is key. I always sleep with earplugs. Always. The silicone ones are better than the foam. Hypothetically, even if you were able to remain fully unconscious during the night without earplugs, I believe that First Avenue ambulance sirens, for example, unknowingly would still disturb your sleep. My broad shoulders are not an insignificant detail; accordingly, it has to be one full or two skinny pillows stacked. Otherwise, my neck cranes and I don’t sleep well. To complete the picture, LL Bean flannel boxers and shirtless is how I’m dressed.

Most everything I’ve outlined in this post is common knowledge. There are countless how-to-sleep-well articles and a fast-growing sleep hygiene industry that prescribes a nighttime regimen similar to the one that I’ve described here. But my recent experiences in Jamaica, nonetheless, have been revelatory because the context has provided a perfect laboratory for honing my sleeping best practices. The game plan is simple and widely understood, but the execution is often difficult. While in Jamaica, limited distractions, consistent circadian rhythms and a natural environment have enabled me to analyze and practice my sleeping habits in granular detail. This has helped to highlight the bad habits and reinforce the good.

Please share this on Medium and click the ♥ button. For more photos and videos, find Henry Niles (@henryniles) on Instagram and Periscope. Also, please leave a note in the comments.