As a self-taught knitter, I love to play with yarn. My stash is a shamefully luxurious variety of merino and silk-wool blends I love to paw over.
I am selectively, demonstratively affectionate. I’m practically in your face, inconveniently bidding for your attention until I want to be left alone. Then you might get scratched. Don’t worry, I provide an audible warning or a scowl beforehand so you can assess my interest.
If I’m spending time with you, it is because you have been chosen. Otherwise, I’m off doing my own thing, away from people.
I’m socially awkward, what can I say?
I have bird feeders posted around my home. I spy on the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and stray cats who drop by regularly.
Emphatically, hate the cold. Hate it. During the winter, I will turn my bedroom into a private hothouse; 80+ degrees blasting from a space heater mere feet from me until bedtime. Once I’ve baked in the heat long enough, for the sake of my bedmate’s comfort, I’ll turn it off. During the summer, the house is kept comfortably cool, not cold. Thankfully, as a couple, our temp preferences are often in sync.
I shed, e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Always have. It is annoying, but if ever I am kidnapped, they’ll recover me and my abductor by following the DNA trail of hair left in my wake.
I’m also not a huge fan of crowds, loud noises, our Roomba vacuum cleaner, grabby children, or aggressive dogs (I am a huge animal lover, I’m just more of a cat person).
Of course, I don’t do my business in a box, nor do I chase laser pointer lights around the house for exercise.
However, I have lost my cat-like ability to get quality sleep anywhere, anytime. Once upon a time, I could suck down a mug full of coffee (any time of the day), powernap, and come back refreshed 45 minutes later. I also slept through the night, no matter how stressed, overworked, or burnt out I was. I could get 5 solid hours a night and still hustle. Well, okay, I guess I’m not exactly like a cat since they sleep an average of 15 hours a day. But you get my meaning.
Being in my 40s is a fun life-stage. Biological changes, even slight, can impact sleep. As such, I’ve become a light sleeper with chronic insomnia, who can’t stay asleep.
Per my WebMD degree, “Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling and/or staying asleep. The condition can be short-term (acute) or last a long time (chronic).” There are also subclassifications of primary and secondary chronic insomnia. More on that in a second.
Naturally, people wake several times a night when cycling through various stages of sleep. More often than not though, we’re unaware this is happening. Problems arise when we wake to the point of awareness one or more times a night and or struggle to fall back to sleep.
In my case, I’ve been suffering chronic insomnia for at least a year, waking several times a night, nearly every night. No amount of extra time in bed frees me from the lingering fog of my previous night’s poor sleep. Many a morning, I’m zombie-ambling on autopilot until my coffee finally kicks in. Then I’m able to function for the rest of the day. This is after I’ve attempted to sleep over a 10 hour period.
It is important to note, I do not have any known underlying medical conditions (secondary insomnia) inhibiting my ability to fall asleep or stay asleep. If you have or suspect you have conditions like sleep apnea, asthma, heartburn; suffer from chronic pain, restless leg syndrome, hyperthyroidism, high blood pressure; or abuse alcohol, drugs, or caffeine then I suggest seeking a professional medical opinion on how to troubleshoot your sleep disorder.
In my case, I suspect I suffer from Primary (Chronic) Insomnia. Primary is linked to stress, disruptions (noise and light, or changes in temperature), changes in sleep schedules (jetlag, new work shift), or simply bad habits picked up when experiencing other sleeping problems.
My sleep, or lack thereof, hit a breaking point. No amount of blue-light elimination, melatonin supplementation, caffeine limits, or an earlier bedtime cut it. I roused each day in an ever-increasing, infuriating daze.
It was time to get serious, research further into how to improve my sleep once and for all, and if I didn’t see improvement, seek help.
Hacking my sleep required getting more data than, “I wake up feeling like crap.” Part of this hack involved getting a *Fitbit Inspire HR and wearing it as I slept. Fitbits are relatively inexpensive fitness trackers. This one is waterproof, with a heart rate monitor, and the app comes with assorted wellness metric tools. Nothing against the Apple Watch, but as of this writing, they are a hint too expensive for me and don’t yet have the sleep tools I need. I know they are coming soon for anyone who has one and is interested in their own sleep metrics.
I purchased the HR model and signed up for 3-free-months of their premium service, in order to use their sleep tools and chart my rest. The unit itself is small, sleek, and comfortable to wear all day and night. The Fitbit also has various options for tracking meals and activities, but I’m only focusing on the sleeping tools aspect of the device for the purposes of this review/hack.
Fitbit’s sleep metrics calculate scores based on time slept overall, deep and REM sleep, as well as restoration.
Within a few days, err nights, I discovered, my restorative sleep score was abysmal. Here is a side by side example of a poor quality sleep score vs. a good quality score, akin to what I was experiencing:
Restoration scores, here, are based on several factors including the amount of time the sleeping heart rate stays below the regular resting heart rate coupled with the percentage of time the person is restless.
The goal, per the aforementioned chart, is to stay in the dark purple zone, or below your resting heart rate most of the night; creating a hammock-like sag from just after bedtime, through the night, until your intended wake time. The smaller the % ‘Above Resting Heart Rate,’ the more restorative the sleep. Nearly every night, my sleeping heart rate registered higher than my resting heart rate (for the majority of the night). This explained why I woke as easily and as often as I did.
Heart rates slow when you sleep. However, if you are agitated, constantly stressed, or frequently experience bad dreams, these can be disruptive to sleep quality, resulting in a higher heart rate.
With this new information, I began to utilize Fitbit’s ‘better sleep suggestions’ on how to go about lessening my restlessness and improving my sleeping heart rate to resting heart rate ratio.
My Results — After 2 Weeks
On the nights I adhered to the following habits, I had the most satisfying sleep. After implementing a few simple changes to my everyday habits, my overall sleep score increased from a (fair) 77 to an (excellent) 92. Even though I am still a sensitive sleeper, I’ve managed to sleep through the night. Also, I was able to get fewer hours of sleep, but the restorative quality was much higher. A higher restorative score translated to better overall sleep quality. Thus, I felt more rested, ready to start the day, without feeling foggy or groggy. Those extra 2–3 hours I’m not using trying to eke out extra rest are now productively applied to my workday and free time.
What Did I Change?
I learned consistency is crucial. Sure. We all know this. But I had to build-in and maintain all of the right habits, not just when they were convenient. Be patient and give it a few days. Don’t get upset if it doesn’t work the first night or two. Also, you don’t need a Fitbit, another wearable device, or a pricy app to do any of these.
Here are a few things I did to improve my overall sleep quality:
- Set a realistic sleeping goal and adhere to it every night. Yes, even on the weekends. Blah, I know. In my case, I had an 8-hour window I wanted to aim for. I had a set bedtime and knew most nights I could meet it or be within 30 minutes of it. Wake time was initially set to 8 hours later. Once I improved my other sleep-related habits, I was able to get up even earlier. I now down to 7 solid hours, on average.
- Avoid caffeine after 3 pm. This is assuming you have a regular 9–5 schedule and are going to bed around 11. Regardless, stop using caffeine (at least) 5 hours before you intend to go to bed. You can try to tell me like a teenager mainlining Monster’s, “caffeine doesn’t affect me,” and I’m still going to tell you to stop. Prior to this hack, I had already dialed back my caffeine and had transitioned to decaff by the afternoon.
- Cut naps after 5 pm. Personally, I wasn’t napping at all in hopes of getting a full night’s sleep. Still, it is suggested as naps can interfere with falling asleep later.
- Finish meals before 9:30 pm and stop imbibing alcohol after 8:30 pm. These did not apply to me. I intermittently fast. Thus, I’m done with my feasting phase before 8 pm. For those who are curious, eating late can aggravate heartburn, cause acid reflux, while drinking alcohol can suppress REM sleep.
- Start turning down an hour before bed. We’re aiming to slow the heart rate here. For me, it’s listening to an audiobook while knitting for 30 minutes. Or doing a prolonged, relaxed version of my nighttime routine; longer shower, multi-step skincare. I’m speaking as an adult who does not have small kids. They are in college now. If they were, this would be my hour after putting them to bed. I understand it might be hard to manage but I highly suggest you find a way to get in this hour as often as possible. Do something relaxing. This is not the time to start pondering your neverending to-do list or having an intense discussion with your significant other or kids. Do not frantically run around the house scrambling to do last minute things before leaping into bed, and expect to go right out. If you need to do laundry or pack lunches, for example, do it earlier or outsource these tasks. If there is a discussion to be had, do it in the a.m. not p.m. I could get into a whole other discussion about invisible household labor and how it falls on overwhelmed women, but for the purposes of this article, just take it as “prioritize the hour before bed as your time” and do something you find relaxing.
- Cut down on bright lights. This will coincide with limiting screen use. Start toning down the brightness of the lights throughout the house and on your devices, the closer to bed you get. It has a lot to do with how the body misinterprets fake-electric light vs. daylight and the negative effects of blue light.
- No Screens After 11 pm. This includes televisions, tablets, computers, and phones. I had been lessening my use of screens before bedtime. When I do use them, to turn on something to fall asleep to, I do so with the blue screen settings and brightness set as low as possible. This leads me to…
- Turn on DO NOT DISTURB and stop playing with your phone. Set DND for 30 minutes before your turn-down time and for 30 minutes after you wake up. Nothing will piss you off and keep you awake more than some telemarketer calling or texting or some random late-night call that isn’t an emergency.
- Adjust temps to your liking. Pretty self-explanatory. I’ve heard sleep science suggests keeping your bedroom cool. I’ve found warm works best for us. Not sweating, not freezing. Find what works for you.
- Meditate/Listen to music without lyrics. I used to listen to podcasts/audiobooks when I went to bed. The problem is, sometimes I’d get so interested, I’d inadvertently will myself to stay awake a little longer. Same with television. Now, I listen to these on a timer during the earlier part of my hour before bed and then I shift to a meditation exercise. You can find all sorts of paid and free meditations. Mine happens to be part of my Fitbit service. Finally, I shift to nature sounds/bells and chimes/or soothing music without lyrics. I set a shut-off timer for 15–20 minutes. I drop out within 10 minutes instead of laying there humming along with vocals or intrigued by a mystery.
- If you wake up during the night, do not look at the clock or pick up your phone. You’ll only trigger your mental countdown, “Oh, I still have 2 more hours to go before the alarm goes off.” If possible, do your best to remain in bed and practice mindful deep breathing to slow your heart rate.
- Stop using snooze. This is by far one of the most important. Disable it. Those extra 9 minutes x 5 snooze resets are not doing us any favors. Using the snooze button leads to grogginess. Instead, I adhere to my waketime and use the Fitbit’s built-in alarm. The device itself buzzes against my wrist, so I don’t disturb my partner in case he wants to sleep in. It gets easier over time to get up with the first and only alarm.
- Get a little daylight. Think of yourself as a plant or someone who needs to synthesize a little vitamin D and go outside and get a few minutes of sunshine every day. More and more, people spend their days cooped up indoors. Step outside for some fresh air and daylight for at least 15 minutes. It is great for the mood and helps set circadian rhythms. While you do, you can…
- Take more walks. Activity, even something as simple as a brisk walk a few times a week can improve your cardiovascular health and mood. While I was already somewhat active, I started taking more walks. Walking limbers you up and clears your head, physically works through the stress present in the body, and puts you into a fat-burning or cardio zone, depending on your intensity. So you burn some calories and improve the flow of oxygen throughout the body.
*As with any of my reviews/stories, the opinions I give are my own and not that of the brand or services mentioned and are intended for informational and entertainment purposes only. While I have some medical knowledge in my educational background, I am not a licensed medical professional. I am not an employee of nor am I financially compensated or rewarded by Fitbit. The Fitbit Inspire HR and the annual services are paid for by me.