Did you already read my Master Sleep Post and have the basics around light habits and sleep hygiene down? Do you have a consistent struggle with sleep (meaning you have this problem for three months or longer)? Then this post is especially for you, let’s talk about sleep drive!
The tips and tricks I covered in the Master Sleep Post might be helpful, but if you have more serious sleep issues, they are unlikely to solve your problem. In fact, they may even aggravate it if you get too hung up on having perfect sleep hygiene and trying to follow all the guidelines perfectly. This often isn’t realistic and if you are desperate for a good night’s sleep you might stress yourself out trying to check the entire checklist of tips that, while offering potential massive improvement for many, is far from a guarantee or a magic pill.
From all the stuff I covered in the master post, the basics that are good to keep in mind are:
- increasing exposure to natural lighting early in the day and limiting exposure to artificial lightning later in the day and evening
- winding down before bed with a relaxing routine to prime your system for sleep
- making sure you keep caffeine and alcohol levels at bedtime as low as possible
- considering if low blood sugar during the night might be a reason for waking up at night (a quick search online will give you tips on evening snacks that can help you experiment and possibly solve this issue).
When you’ve had a sleep problem for a long time, your brain thinks this way of being is normal. Your brain and body can be quick to adapt, sometimes to our favor and sometimes to our detriment. Dr. Michael Breus introduced us to the idea of the four chronotypes, suggesting there are more categories than the night owl and the morning bird types. Simply put, we all fall into one of these four categories that explain what our ideal sleep-wake cycle looks like and consequently determine how we best live our lives accordingly.
Although these ideas might be helpful, life circumstances such as job hours or small kids will with time change how you function because your body will adapt, even if it isn’t optimal for your individual biology. Your melatonin (your “sleep hormone”) production is supposed to be at its highest around 9 pm, but when we get stimulated our brain adjusts and thinks we need to be awake. As a result, your body will reduce melatonin production and increase cortisol (sometimes called the “stress hormone”) when the opposite is supposed to be happening. If it’s evening and you’re acting in a way that your body knows you did during the day when you needed to be alert, it will think the same goes in that moment and adjust accordingly. That’s why the habits outlined in the Master Sleep Post can be helpful, but when we’ve got a chronic and habitual sleep problem we need to take more drastic steps. Here consistency is even more important and the effort will very likely pay off.
Enter the concept of sleep drive
Sleep is a drive state just like hunger, the more you build up your sleep drive the bigger chance you have at sleeping and breaking the vicious cycle of sleep problems. This concept is often used by sleep professionals in clinics, but you can do this by yourself at home.
Here’s what you need to do
- Wake up at the same time every day, even during weekends.
- Only go to bed when very sleepy. That means forget about the idea of going to bed at the same time every night and getting a certain amount of hours of sleep. This will be hard in the beginning because it might mean you only spend 3 hours in bed for the first few nights. You are building up your sleep drive, hang in there! It will be worth it because, after a while of this, you WILL start falling asleep at night at a “normal” hour.
- Do NOT nap. This will mess with you building up your sleep drive.
- Get light and music on in the morning to help your body get signals that it’s time to wake up and be alert. Natural light is best, second best is turning on all the lamps you’ve got (unless you’ve got light therapy glasses or a light therapy box). Move around a bit, great if you can fit in a bit of exercise, if not, any movement is good – dance while making breakfast, walk or bike to work, etc. (PS. Light and eating at the right time are the most influential and evidence-based aspects for your sleep/wake cycle.)
- If you’re in bed and you can’t sleep, leave the bedroom, do something fun, and distract yourself. It doesn’t have to follow the rules of what you should and shouldn’t do, at this point if you can’t sleep, your drive isn’t high enough. The only rules to follow are: only go to bed when you’re tired and get up at the same time every day.
This will be hard in the beginning, but if you hang in there, you should see a big improvement in your sleep. If you aren’t, you should get professional help, either by a sleep doctor but also consider a regular doctor to make sure there aren’t any underlying health issues.
YOU’LL BE FINE
Also, remember that the perception of your sleep problem can massively aggravate the issue. It’s easy to get anxious about the effect lack of sleep has on us, but as much as it’s something you want to get sorted, we can handle it much better than we think. If you tried to set yourself up for optimal sleep via the tips covered in my other sleep post, try the above. If that doesn’t work, do take care of yourself and seek help.