“Sometimes I wake up at five and my head will start trying to solve what awaits me the next day. No matter what I do, I won’t be able to fall asleep again and the day is a total loss,” a friend of mine told me recently. In other respects, he is quite a laid-back dude, but he is currently finishing up building a house. I hear this complaint so often that I certainly do not feel like I am suffering something alone. The problem of waking up prematurely and the inability to fall asleep again (how about calling it getting up and off prematurely in the early morning? :) is, in my opinion, typical for people who are generally more anxious, overthink everything, and at the same time are too sedentary, are stressed out and drink at night — but sometimes even ordinary people have encountered this.
When I looked at the label / sleep on my blog, I discovered that sleep is probably my favorite topic. And no wonder — I have considered it a central factor in my health for years and I am still learning new things. Let me share with you a protocol that will help you hack the aforementioned premature waking up in 90% of cases. I also think a couple of other things could come in handy for you.
Preparation: it starts as early as during the day
Thanks to the massive worldwide success of Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, the scientific view of sleep has come to the forefront of media interest, which is an important development and great for everyone. Furthermore, it simplifies my work. I won’t go into details, since you can find them out for yourselves. In the pages ahead, I only will repeat the key moments of a daily lifestyle, which are the conditions for quality sleep:
- absolute cast-iron regularity of when you get up and when you fall asleep — in that order of importance (this is difficult, but crucial; and yes, this means that it is better to get up at the same time during the weekend as you do during the week, or at least not to sleep in all morning — doing so will more likely hurt your sleep in the long run, even if it makes you feel relatively better for one day)
- adequate physical activity (if you just do mental work and your body does not get some proper and regular exercise — both strength training and aerobic, do not expect any miracles in terms of sleep; overdoing it has the same negative effect: there is a typical tendency to overtrain in times of mental stress or chronic illness — but this will not help you have better sleep. Regularly incorporating a physically lazy day after physically hard days has a strong positive effect)
- avoid stimulants, especially caffeine in the afternoon (it will probably take your body until 11 at night to break down that the second shot of espresso you had around noon, and there will still be traces of it left in your blood, depending on the condition of your liver and your genetic makeup; the most notorious examples are people with liver disease where it takes them about one week to break down a single serving of coffee, if they have double espresso on Monday morning, they still have traces of that ristretto in their blood the following Monday…)
- don’t drink alcohol in the evening (I no longer drink at all, let alone before going to bed; the feeling that you will improve your night’s sleep with a glass of wine or from downing a small beer is an illusion; you may fall asleep more easily — though this can be achieved in other ways — but you will definitely significantly disrupt the REM phase of your sleep (there are conditional genetic exceptions, but I would not count on this); blood alcohol and its metabolites will wake you up in the morning and will keep you from falling asleep again, whereas continuous all-day hydration with water is necessary for the production of melatonin — ideally drink a lot during the day, slow down towards the evening)
- night hunger (I started experimenting with the relationship between the times when I ate and when I slept about half a year ago; I have clearly visible and measured evidence — thanks to the Dreem (EEG) and nightly HRV measurements — that if I eat my last and light meal 5 hours before falling asleep, which means falling asleep slightly hungry, my sleep is much more regenerating and the next day I feel wonderful; by the way, the book The Circadian Code by Satchin Panda which was published in 2018 explores this topic as does the book Lifespan by David Sinclair, which claims that even mild hunger significantly prolongs life
- being cold at night (this spring I finally gave in and had a climatic system installed at home everywhere that people sleep; it’s not completely eco-friendly, but it’s a matter of survival; the night temperature was usually set at 19–21 degrees during the summer, but on the other hand it was usually switched off during the day, since a well-rested organism also has better thermo-regulation; our bodies have gotten accustomed to this change, it takes the evening cold and quiet humming as additional signals for falling asleep; the whole family has sung its praises as one of the best investments in our sleep and well-being)
- avoid turning on white and blue lights in the evening (or any light with a high level of intensity, especially those from the blue part of the spectrum after 9 pm or about the time the sun sets) — and to ensure darkness all night until your planned awakening; this is one of the most discussed topics by fans of Why We Sleep, however, light is only one of the regulatory mechanisms of the circadian rhythm, as you can read in The Circadian Code).
- the muffling of light and sounds (I’ll deal with this in a follow-up article; one thing that is essential for falling back sleep is that any of the stimuli that are regularly associated with the morning — light, traffic or interior household noises, etc. sadly help to wake you up, and therefore you must do your utmost to prevent these from penetrating the senses into your subconscious and consciousness).
These are all kinds of prerequisites and conditions for you to sleep better overall. Even so, it may happen that you somehow get overwhelmed and still wake up two hours earlier and start planning, thinking, worrying, or just looking forward to the day ahead. Based on your own prior experiences, you don’t believe that you could still manage to fall back asleep. So you roll over and in the end get up anyway, of course, starting your day on the wrong foot. What can you do?
For several years now, I’ve been waking up once or twice every night to go pee. It’s ridiculous that the need to hop to the toilet still hasn’t been hacked — but this is why I also have a huge reservoir of individual experiences (maybe even tens of thousands) on how to effectively get back to sleep.
1. Hold on to an image like a tick
First of all, I have reached the conclusion that you must not allow thinking, cognition, words, numbers, or abstraction to be involved at all — just the neocortex. Every second the brain goes down this path increases the amount of difficulty one will have going back to sleep and reduces the likelihood that you will chase away the mischievous thoughts back to where they belong. Initially, the seemingly innocent idea “of the day” triggers a whole chain of daily associations, which then activate the front of the brain faster, which is otherwise muted during sleep and is used during the day to think, make decisions and solve tasks. Simply put from the moment you start to “formulate” and “plan” etc., the partially rested “thinking” will immediately start thinking that it should start solving the tasks you are casting on it. Stressful thoughts appear, the sympathetic nervous system starts to kick, flooding your system with cortisol, dopamine, and other hormones … and the rest is history.
So it is absolutely essential that you have to actively force your brain to wallow in images at all costs. Fortunately, our dreams are pretty much full of them. So whenever you wake up, don’t use your inner voice, don’t think ahead, don’t think about the day to come, think behind, and if possible, try to hold on to an image from your dreams. How do I do it? I get up, my eyes are covered (before dawn, I have a sleep mask over my eyes and I go more or less blind), and I diligently focus on “holding the image of a dream” in my head. Beware, the tendency of these images to melt and blur is strong, you just have to try. The image can be static, it can also be a story, and it doesn’t even matter if it’s a nightmare, for example — the main thing is not to let rationality take over and the inner voice describe the scene in words!
Yes, and looking at the clock when you wake up is usually a fatal error: knowing the specific time will keep your brain busy with daily calculations, end your dreams, and throw you right out of the saddle of the night; plus: then there is the stress of how little you slept and how much time you would still need to fall asleep. It is better to sail through in a foggy state of ignorance, not solve anything, put it all off, and, as in new film Tenet, go against the flow of time. After all, that’s why it’s crucial to have an alarm clock that you can rely on, even on days when you don’t necessarily have to get up.
This procedure is necessary, it is not an “option” for me. If I do not follow it, the success of further efforts is often significantly laid to waste.
2. Activate the parasympathetic
The second effective technique I use to jump back to sleep is controlled breathing. Its essence lies in the fact that through the correct timing of exhalation, holding one’s breath, and exhalation, we can consciously regulate the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. In this case, we need to reduce the activity of the sympathetic system (which is generally related to the activation of organs and processes, including waking up) at the expense of the parasympathetic system (which, simply put, “slows down” internal processes and its activation is necessary for falling sleep and sleep).
The sympathizers, Mr. Sympathetic and Ms. Parasympathetic, even without our efforts, in other ways keep to their own vegetative agenda and are constantly wrestling, bickering, and arguing about who is really in charge. The more flexible the changes in their command are, the better we feel (incidentally it corresponds to a higher HRV). The great thing is that they are open to cooperation and respond to our conscious efforts through controlled breathing. Nowadays, especially in the early morning hours, however, we most often need to take away sympathetic activities and, conversely, support parasympathetic activation.
You can use one of the many breathing techniques, which usually follow a very similar procedure, only with slightly different parameters (lengths) of individual phases. I therefore recommend trying what works best for you (you can try this also during the day, because it also works as a stress reliever). Therefore, Google, for example, calming breathing technique, the box breathing method, 4–7–8 breathing, etc.
An example of a technique for reducing stress and falling back asleep:
- Count to four while inhaling through your nose into your abdomen
- Count to two (or four) and hold your breath for this length of time
- Count to four, exhaling all the air through your mouth
- Count to four (or two) and hold your breath for this length of time
Repeat this until you fall back asleep.
My main experience is: this often doesn’t work in a minute, more often it’s likely to take five to fifteen minutes, sometimes it doesn’t work even after that amount of time, but if you don’t give up, it will take effect at some point. I remember breathing many times for 20–30 minutes (according to the EEG record). It’s a drag, but remember — boredom is your medicine at night, your brain doesn’t need fun, just sedation. Be patient and breathe according to the protocol until you blank out (fall asleep), your brain and body will gradually calm down.
Another tip: Ms. Parasympathetic is also activated by ipsation (look it up).
3. Take a pill
For years, I have also been dealing with the effect of various dietary supplements on deepening sleep. I experimented with all kinds of things, but the guaranteed advice of others usually didn’t work very well for me, which was also true the other way around. In this sense, always take any recommendations from me and others with some caution. We are all genetically built a little differently, and it is during the metabolizing of various foods, medicines, and supplements that the influence of genetic variations is not insignificant. My current set of supplements, which I use to improve my life (and sleep), is largely based on the study of my polymorphisms, i.e. genetic variations analyzed using SelfDecode service, possibly supplemented by microbiome examinations and laboratory blood tests; I test everything on myself over an extended period of time.
However, there are substances or tips that can be a good place to start for your own experiments (again, ideally combined with a more precise analysis based on your DNA).
When I sometimes wake up at night and I really struggle with falling back asleep (once every few weeks I have this type of off-day), I use one of the products that I keep prepared by the bed. I know them by touch and I have a glass of water next to them, so I don’t even take off the sleep mask over my eyes. But these are de facto only two options, among which I choose according to what I feel is the cause of the problem:
- if the cause is of a more psychological origin (stress, anxiety, overwork, etc.), I will take a tablet with L-Theanine (e.g. in this form), which reduces anxiety and relaxes without leading to numbness
- if the cause is (or mostly) physical (such as “physical dissatisfaction”, feeling “worn out” or downright mild but dull pain, for example in my back, etc.), I suck one chewable ibuprofen (Nurofen Junior, Junior Strength Advil, Children’s Motrin) within a minute; it is only 100 mg of ibuprofen, but because it can be sucked on, it is rapidly absorbed, only a minimum ends up in the intestines, where it otherwise does mischief; this almost always leads to rapid relief and falling back asleep although with a deterioration in the quality of sleep; yes, I know that to some of you taking these types of drugs is “evil”; thanks for your advice; but nothing else has ever worked for me; it is important not to take them on daily basis
Maybe none of these substances will work for you, take it as a model example. Even if the effect is purely like a placebo, such help is still an effective thing that will save your day. If you suffer from long-term waking up early in the morning, don’t be afraid and experiment. (I know that other people are helped by CBD drops, for example, I had to give them up due to their interaction with Zoloft)
4. Get some fresh air to your face
Sometimes it is not possible to sleep with the window open, which is annoying. The air in a room 3x4x5 meters, where two people sleep, reaches the problematic value of 1000 units / ccm CO2 in about three hours and then continues to rise. The quality and level of air pollution, of course, has a significant effect on our health and sleep. Regeneration during sleep in stuffy rooms or smog environments is (at least in my experience) significantly worse and the sleep is more shallow. Maybe you have a similar experience.
Unfortunately, in the winter (there is a terrible smog situation in the city of Brno) we are forced to try various hacks such as having an open window in the next room with intensive air cleaning with a purifier located so that only the cleaned air flows through the vent into the bedroom as much as possible.
In any case, if the smog situation allows, a morning increase in air circulation is often a very effective aid for falling asleep a bit more. When I roll over in the morning for a long time and I can’t sleep, I just check if there is enough air flowing into the room. All this done blindly with a sleep mask on: I feel around for the window and open it, or I pull back the curtain or the blackout curtain; it doesn’t let the light in, but with no wind and equable temperatures outside and inside, it can almost stop the exchange of air.
5. Most importantly don’t allow the habit of getting up earlier to establish itself
The last tip is based once more on the strengths and weaknesses of our circadian rhythms. It is important to realize that every time something occurs repeatedly, on a daily basis, it becomes a habit. Not only for things that fall outside of our “schedule,” but especially for our brain and our body, which memorize everything in the sense of at this hour, this usually happens. (It just crossed my mind that Siri does something pretty similar to this with our mobile phone habits)
So if you get up at seven for an extended period of time and don’t suffer from sleep deprivation, your brain will start waking you up a minute before seven, even if you want to sleep longer and even if the alarm hasn’t even gone off yet. How does it know every day that you should wake up already? How exactly does it synchronize this with the actual time? There are a lot of signs and small signals: in addition to the internal processes in the body, it is mainly an increase in the amount of light, sounds, changes in the external temperature, your partner’s movements, etc.
So if you start waking up half an hour or an hour earlier than expected due to stress or anticipation of the day ahead, without it being your intention, then the worst thing you can do is subject yourself to getting up. In fact, you should stay calm and in bed until whenever it was that you wanted to wake up, by either trying to fall back asleep, or just lying there breathing and meditating in the dark. However, if you decide to first turn on your mobile phone, turn on the light first, and/or prematurely find yourself starting to solve the usual things, then this will confirm to your body that you are serious about getting up early and it will start to gradually adjust to an earlier wake-up call. The circadian rhythm watchmaker will say to himself, “Hooray, at last my fantastic proposal has finally been accepted!”
That’s why if I can’t sleep in the morning and I can’t fall back asleep, I still pretend to be asleep so that the watchmaker doesn’t notice. This won’t change anything else about the day, I’ll probably be a bit of an under-slept grump, but I’m increasing the likelihood that this accidental wake-up call won’t turn into a new unwanted rhythm.
So, what do you have to say about my advice? What works for you? Remember, you are not alone in this!
I would like to acknowledge the efforts of Scott Hudson, who translated my original article from Czech to English with great care and sensitivity.