Sleep Like a Caveman

Has your sleep schedule been thrown off by the end of Daylight Savings Time, or maybe due to stress from Covid or the upcoming holidays?

Sleep should be a priority year round, but many people find that fall and winter are a challenging time to get enough rest.

Research shows that insomnia and difficulty getting to sleep increase as the days get shorter and people are indoors more during the colder months.[1]

There are plenty of reasons it happens, but here are a few you may not have thought about.

At a physiological level, sleep problems may relate to insufficient release of the sleep hormone, melatonin.[2] But it can also relate to high levels of cortisol, one of your body’s main stress hormones.[2]

An analogy in plain English would be that either your body’s “brakes” (melatonin levels) are not up to par, or the “accelerator pedal” (cortisol hormone) is stuck, keeping you from restorative sleep.

Another, related issue is that your circadian rhythms (your body’s natural 24-hour rhythms) may be out of whack. When that happens, you might have trouble going to sleep at a reasonable hour or getting up in the morning.[3] It may seem like you’re a natural night owl, but that could be due to some specific reasons we’ll discuss in a moment.

At the end of the day, even if you don’t really have sleep problems, we could all benefit from maxing out our sleep quality.

Try these sleep tips for yourself and let me know what you think–you can reply directly to this email. I’d love to hear anything else that’s worked for you, too.

1. Eat during daylight hours only. Eating after dark or just before bedtime leads to body fat storage and raises your risk of health problems.[4][5][6] It may also reduce sleep quality.[7] The shorter days of fall and winter call for shortening your eating window–you’ll sleep better and burn more fat.

2. Embrace the cold. Our bodies are designed to adapt to nearly any environment. According to studies of hunter-gatherers, cold during winter can be a signal that helps your body adjust to the shorter days.[8]

Intentional cold exposure in the form of cold air, cold showers, ice baths, or swimming in cold water also helps boost your metabolism.[9] (Caveat: talk to your doctor before you try cold water immersion.) A cool (not cold) bedroom may help you sleep better, too.[10]

3. Reduce artificial light, especially at night. LEDs, fluorescents, and device screens are high in blue light that reduces your melatonin levels when it hits your retinas or skin.[3] Here’s a list of ideas to decrease your exposure at night:

  • Red- or yellow-tinted bulbs, preferably incandescent (often sold as “bug bulbs” or “party bulbs”) or candles (be careful, never fall asleep with candles lit).
  • Blackout curtains (or a sleep mask if you can’t hang curtains)
  • Screen filter apps like Twilight, F.Lux, Iris, or Night Shift (for iPhones) or these red gel films to go directly over screens
  • Unplug from all devices several hours before bed if possible
  • Wear blue blocking glasses after dark–studies show they really work for insomnia and “night owl” syndrome.[11][12] Uvex Skyper and DeWalt DW0714 glasses are budget-friendly effective options you can use at home, or the high-end offerings from BluBlox are more stylish

I can’t stress this enough, if you think you’re a night owl, try blue blockers and unplugging from devices at night paired with the next tip. You’ll be amazed at the results.

4. Get more natural light during the day. Obtaining light exposure on your eyes and skin at the correct times (day, not night) helps set your body’s clock, which may result in better sleep.[13] Morning sunlight is ideal, but try sneaking outside for natural daylight as often as possible, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time.[14]

Limit alcohol before bed. When you go to sleep with alcohol in your system, the result is a “rebound” effect in the middle of the night and less REM sleep.[15]

You’ll get better rest by cutting out the booze at least a few hours before bed (allow one hour for each drink at a bare minimum).

PS I don’t normally condone day-drinking, but it actually makes sense to drink in the afternoon or early evening as opposed to night, especially when hanging out with family in the holiday season.

Hope you enjoyed these tips. They really work and they’re worth a try even if you already sleep just fine.

Sleep Like a Caveman

The Science: