For the last 6 months I’ve had a terrible time sleeping 🛌. More nights than not, I’ve woken up after 5–6 hours completely unable to get back to sleep.
Pretty typical night of sleep this past July. Though after comparing the Oura to the Dreem, I’ve noticed that my Oura ring will code REM sleep as “awake” — at least for me.
After 6 months of trying what feels like literally everything, I think I’ve figured this sleep thing out.
What I did not want to do was immediately start with Ambien or other sleeping pills. Not only because they aren’t as restorative as real sleep, but because I don’t want to fix this recent sleep issue by becoming dependent on a pill for something as basic as sleeping.
Instead, I approached things in a step-function way: starting with lifestyle interventions, then adding supplements, and saving medication as a method of last resort.
Interventions I tried
- Meditation — I tried meditating for 10–20 more minutes before bed. Though I certainly felt calmer (and more meditation never hurt anyone), it didn’t seem to solve the core issue. Some nights I slept better and some nights I’d wake up the same — it seemed completely independent of whether or not I’d spent extra time meditating that night.
- Noise — I got serious about drowning out noise in my apartment. I had the windows in my unit double-paned (to reduce sound), bought a white noise machine (this one), listened to music at 432 hertz (which some Bad Science says is optimal), wore earplugs… all of it. It probably helped some, but the sleep issues persisted. On to the next item.
- Light — my room has blackout shades so it is already pretty dark, but I added an eye mask. Sleep issues persisted.
- Cut out caffeine — for about a month I cut out caffeine. I wasn’t even a heavy caffeine user, and usually only had a single cup in the morning around 10am. However, I cut it out and discovered it didn’t seem to impact my sleep one way or another.
- CBD — this magical supplement solves everything! It must have solved my sleep! Nope — not even close. I took a few different kinds of CBD, at the strongest potencies + highest doses possible. I even got some direct from a grower — still nothing. Same with Kava (a plant similar to CBD), edibles or THC before bed. None solved the sleep issue.
- Stopped drinking — I’m not a huge drinker, so I didn’t expect this would solve things. But when I stopped drinking, my sleep issues persisted. Mind you — they got worse on nights that I did drink. But cutting it out completely didn’t fix anything.
- Acupressure mat — I got an acupressure mat (to simulate the effects of getting acupuncture) in an effort to reduce stress before bed. Also a flop, though feels good.
- Eating before bed — I stopped eating within 3 hours of going to bed. This made falling asleep easier, but didn’t solve the recurring issue. Next.
- Supplements — I tried a lot of things here. Magnesium, melatonin, ZMAs, 2 specially formulated sleeping supplements… and none of them seemed to work consistently.
- Chili pad — I bought and tried the infamous chili pad that everyone seems to love. According to my Oura data, sleeping with the Chili pad vs without made no difference. I don’t know if that’s because I normally keep my apartment cold (around 67 degrees at night) or what, but it seemingly had no effect.
- CVAC — I tried a few treatments in a CVAC machine: basically a hyperbaric chamber that pro athletes use to improve athletic performance. I’d seen some evidence that it could help with sleep, but it didn’t solve my issues.
- Sauna + Cold showers before bed — same deal here. Though I fully believe that sauna and cold exposure are great for you, they didn’t seem to solve the recurring sleep issue I was having.
Now, this whole process wasn’t totally hopeless. There were a few clues that led me to believe my sleep was an environmental issue. First, at the peak of my issues being the worst, I spent a day in nature in Northern California. I slept in a hotel, didn’t check my phone or screens all day, got a ton of sunlight and ate pretty lightly. And I had my best sleep in 2019.
This + the fact that I seemed to sleep better outside of my apartment hinted that the issue with my sleep was environmental. Likely something to do with my lifestyle + routines at home, and possibly something to do with my apartment. This hypothesis was further supported after I had bloodwork done that showed nothing hugely abnormal, but a slightly higher than ideal amount of stress hormones.
What finally worked
After months of testing, I hit on 5 interventions that together seem to have solved my sleep issue. They all hit around the same time so it’s hard to say what worked best, but in order…
- Installing a HEPA-quality air filter in my condo, and setting up an air purifier in my bedroom (this one — the Molekule didn’t work well). I suspect that part of my issue was a low-key allergic or inflammatory reaction to dust particles in my apartment, which caused a stress response and caused me to wake up in the middle of the night. After all, if your body thinks you’re getting poisoned, or are sleeping on top of a pile of toxic mold, 10,000 years ago the right move is to wake you up so you can change your environment! In today’s age, similar low-grade stressors can just build up and cause issues like insomnia or other health problems. I suspect my sleep was just part of this.
- Creating a wind-down routine before bed, where I don’t look at screens, read fiction and have a cup of tea before hitting the sack. This seemed to help quite a bit.
- Adding adaptogens into my diet. Adaptogens are plants, herbs and mushrooms 🍄 that help the body withstand and reduce stress. I was pretty skeptical honestly, but after incorporating adaptogens into my diet (specifically lionsmane in the morning, and this holy basil tea at night) my sleep really, really improved. Not only that, but my heart rate variability (a key measure of your body’s recovery and readiness for the day) improved nearly 25% just from drinking the tea every night before bed. Crazy.
- Sunlight ☀️ — I noticed a strong correlation between the amount of sun I get in a day and how well (or not well) I sleep. I now try to go for walks and spend some time outside working during the day, just to ensure I’m getting enough sunlight to set my body’s circadian rhythms appropriately.
- Floating — Floating, aka using a sensory deprivation tank (I go to The Ocean Lab here in Austin) for 30–60 minutes a few hours before bed was a game-changer. Floating had always been too close to the hippie side of the health and wellness world for me, right up there with people talking about vibrations and using crystals for healing. Well, I was wrong — for someone who spends a lot of time in his head, floating was incredible for clearing my mind, helping me relax and chill out. On evenings I floated, my sleep was almost always top notch.
Overall, it’s been a journey to fix this. I generally think that health issues are a reflection of something going wrong in your environment. Can’t sleep? That’s your body sending you a message that something is not right in your world.
In my case, I think the stresses of startup life were starting to get to me. I think of it like this: your body only has so much capacity to absorb and handle stress, just like a glass of water can only hold so much liquid. As you add stress to it — from work, life, or even just some extra dust in your apartment — that stress builds up and starts to overflow, leading to symptoms like being unable to sleep.
Do I think that too much dust in your condo will mean you’ll never be able to sleep again? Hell no. However, when paired with work stress my body clearly freaked out — hence sleeping issues for the first time in my life.
If you’ve had similar issues, I’d love to hear about them — just leave a comment below. Otherwise, this resource was also good!1