This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the meditative journey.
When I started meditating back in 2008, one of the earliest and most blatant gains was that my insomnia was cured within the first week of practice. The meditation I used at the time was “linked breathing”, which involves controlling the breath to ensure the exhale joins immediately into the inhale (and vice versa) with no gaps in between. Maintaining this for 15 minutes requires quite a lot of attention, which crowds out other thoughts and allowed me to acquire some relatively peaceful states early on. I would then fall straight asleep upon lying down and closing my eyes.
Although this was clearly the cure for me, meditation is not as effective for everybody in this regard – and some people simply don’t want to meditate at all, for whatever reason. This will therefore be the first and last time I mention meditation in this post, and the rest of the tips will instead be based on the quickest, easiest and most effective sleep methods for regular people.
Disclaimer: This post does not constitute medical advice, and I am making it up as I go along.
1. Guided Relaxation Videos
During lockdown, I’ve taken up the habit of playing Call of Duty: Warzone late at night. A stressful game, this raises my heart rate and delays my sleep onset for quite a while after playing. To counter this, I like to lie in bed with my Oculus Go headset on, and watch some crap on YouTube to unwind. Then I’ll switch to one of the following guided relaxation videos to fall asleep to.
I prefer amateur ASMR videos as they tend to be softer, sillier and less “clinical” than some of the more polished hypnosis videos. I had not tried guided relaxation videos in many, many years, and confess I thought of them as a load of crap. However, I somehow ended up stumbling onto this one (guided relaxation starts around 7:38) and just gave it a go. When I got to “Relax your scalp”, it was like my body just vanished, and I did not even remember falling asleep. I was blown away by how effective it was. This then led to me searching around for other videos, until I landed on my personal favourite:
This video is even more effective than the first, and feels more like I’ve been injected with a heavy sedative. It will put me out in under two minutes, and I’ll wake up some unknown amount of time later with the headset still on my face, having auto-powered-down due to lack of body movement. I must confess I find it all rather addictive. My main advice for making this video work is simply to do exactly as she says, and give yourself over to the process. The hypnotic visualizations the mind generates in this guided relaxation are incredibly powerful.
While I use Oculus Go to watch these, the video component is not essential since you will close your eyes almost immediately, and you can listen to just the audio on your phone using headphones. I am also using the free trial of YouTube Premium so I don’t get blasted with a fucking ad when the video ends.
2. Reduce Ambient Light and Body Temperature
The body takes cues from the environment to establish when it is “supposed” to be asleep. This is known as circadian rhythm. You probably already knew that a main cue is light level – i.e. you are supposed to start getting sleepy after sunset as your brain releases melatonin in response to lower light levels. In the following video, however, a sleep expert explains that body temperature is an even stronger circadian cue than ambient light:
That video is worth a watch in itself, but I will add my take on it now.
The first thing you want to do is to start dimming all the lights in the house several hours before you intend to go to bed. If you don’t have dimmer switches, just turn most of the lights off, and use lamps rather than ceiling lights as they are already dimmer.
At the same time, switch all your screens to “night mode”. iPhone has options for this under General>Display & Brightness. I use the following settings:
You should also be able to find some “night mode” settings on your TV, monitors, or within your computer’s operating system itself. This setting reduces the amount of blue light these screens produce and causes them to display warm, sedating autumnal colours.
Finally, I find falling asleep to a dim bedside lamp to be easier than going straight to pitch-black darkness. I will then turn off the lamp entirely if I wake up in the night.
Now, we will discuss body temperature. Causing body temperature to plummet is an extremely effective way to induce rapid sleep, and the sleep takes on a deep “hibernation” quality. I personally leave the window open even in winter, and sleep in just underwear (while still using a duvet), as skin contact with the surroundings seems important.
In the video, the guy recommends taking a warm bath or shower before bed, which causes the body to expel heat in response. My view is that taking a completely cold bath or shower for five minutes before bed is way more effective, but he probably didn’t recommend that as he knows hardly anyone will want to try it. If you are doing all the other steps, you probably won’t need the bath or shower part anyway, but if you are experiencing extreme emotions, I still consider a cold bath or shower to be a very quick and effective antidote.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and will not be held responsible for you freezing yourself to death in winter in just your underpants. If you live in colder climes, please use common sense.
3. Elimination Diets
The previous points have mainly focused on reliable ways to fall asleep. Sleep quality, however, can be considered as a separate (yet connected) factor. Sleep quality appears to be more to do with what’s going on inside the body during sleep, and the negative effects certain food items or substances can have on those processes. An elimination diet involves removing food items and substances from your diet until you find which one is disturbing your sleep.
The number one item to remove is caffeine. Caffeine is an extremely powerful psychostimulant and most people massively underestimate its effects. A friend of mine began having panic attacks severe enough to require hospitalization on more than one occasion with a suspected stroke or heart attack. This became a bigger problem for him when the panic attacks began striking him at work, since being hauled off in an ambulance in front of a hundred colleagues isn’t much fun. Since his hospital tests came back negative, I pointed out that all his symptoms could be explained by caffeine overdose. He then added up his total and found out he had been drinking between nine and thirteen(!) cups of tea a day. He cut back to five cups a day and his panic attacks went away immediately.
If you have insomnia, my advice is to eliminate caffeine completely for no less than two days. If your insomnia goes away, then you know caffeine is the culprit. If you finally do drink caffeine again after this detox, you will probably find that it blows your head off. During elimination testing, I found that even one coffee in the morning has a negative impact on my sleep that night. However, I like it too much to quit entirely, so I cut down to just that one cup. If you insist on drinking caffeine throughout the day, at the very least you should ensure you do not have any caffeine whatsoever after 5pm.
The next items to eliminate are alcohol, nicotine, sugar, and wheat. Milk may also cause a problem for certain people, though it doesn’t affect me much.
Regarding food intake in general, I have found that I sleep best if I have no evening meal whatsoever. Food in the gut just seems to have an unpleasant stimulating effect, especially if it contains wheat. If you cannot sleep even after giving up your evening meal, try fasting for an entire day, while also giving up all the substances mentioned so far. If you become uncomfortably hungry, you can make “snake juice” (very lightly salted mineral water) and drink that all day to stem the cravings.
The purpose of an elimination diet is to find out which item is messing you up so you can remove it from your diet forever. It takes some initial willpower and careful self-observation (perhaps using a notepad or spreadsheets if you are so inclined), but is well worth doing.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and will not be held responsible for you “eliminating” any prescribed medication or substance vital to your own well-being.
Walking long distances in the daytime has a very positive effect on sleep, for me. Lifting heavy weights after 5pm, however, is so energizing that it will keep me buzzing all night and wreck my sleep. I am not really an exercise guy, so this isn’t my area, but my advice would be to figure out which type works and which doesn’t for you personally, and the times of day at which such exercise will help or hinder sleep. Swimming is a good way to combine exercise with cold water therapy and always encouraged deep sleep afterwards, for me.
Some people will read everything I just wrote and decide they just want to take a sleeping pill, despite superior long-term alternatives. If you must use a substance for sleep, I advise you make it a natural one. Valerian tea, brewed with two bags and drunk an hour before bed, is an effective hypnotic. It is available from most health shops, and Dr Stuarts Valerian Plus is a good blend. However, you can buy raw valerian on eBay if you do not want to pay the 5000% markup for a branded product. Be warned, though: valerian smells slightly less appealing than a nightclub carpet, with a bouquet of cheese, shit and vomit. You can also buy valerian extract in pill form, which smells even worse.
Valerian provides a good level of subtle sedation with no detectable hangover. Its mechanism remains a mystery, and it may just be a placebo – but placebos work, so who cares?
6. Mattress, Pillow and Sleep Position
The body requires feedback from the surface it is lying on in order to orientate itself in space, reorganize muscles and fascia under gravity, and fully relax. I would even suggest that a firm surface is required for good sleep, in order to “force” the body to relax. For this reason, your mattress should be as firm as possible. I actually flipped my mattress over some years ago and now sleep on the firmer underside, though this depends on your mattress type. Do not use soft mattresses or “memory foam”. These are marketing gimmicks designed for the perpetually needy, and will definitely fuck up your spine.
Regarding the pillow, I have oscillated between no pillow whatsoever, and using a single thin pillow. Both seem fine to me. In any case, do not use a thick pillow, and do not use more than one pillow, as you are simply training a curve into your neck instead of learning how to properly relax into a firm surface.
I used to be more specific regarding actual sleep position, but no longer consider that too important. I will tend to fall asleep on my back, especially if using a guided relaxation video as I have been doing recently. I will then wake up in the night and turn onto my side for deeper sleep.
For side-sleeping, I recommend drawing the knees up slightly towards the body, in a semi-fetal position. If sleeping without a pillow, the hand on the side nearest the bed should lie flat and be placed underneath your ear. If sleeping with a pillow, lightly clasp your hands together and place them in front of your face (rather than stuffing one hand underneath the pillow in a fist, which is a bad practice).
Andrew Hutchinson takes a harder line towards this stuff and recommends floor sleeping. His excellent blog article can be read here.