Why Can’t I Sleep?

I am waking up at 3 or 4am every night and I can’t get back to sleep. What is my problem?

D. Paul – Canada

Dear D. Paul,

There was a time when I couldn’t empathize with your question. I would fall asleep immediately and wake up with my alarm in the morning. Alas, past results are not an indicator of future success. For tons of reasons, I also wake up in the middle of the night. I’m not a sleep expert or an expert on really anything. But I’ve got some tips that I’ve picked up over the years.

First of all, there’s something that the professionals call sleep hygiene. Basically, it means that you establish a routine of predictable, healthy activities before you head to bed. Kind of like we did when we had toddlers. We’d feed them, wrestle for a bit, throw them into the bath, read a couple dozen books, tuck them in, sing, pray, turn out the lights. Though it never happened that way in our home, that’s theoretically how it was supposed to work.

We need to set something similar up for ourselves. Eat dinner, but not too much. Drink a bit of wine, but not too much. Watch some TV, but not too much. Walk the dog. Do some yoga, meditation and deep breathing. Make your lunch for the next day. You probably don’t want to work out, but I’ve known men who swear that an intense workout late at night helps them sleep better. Doesn’t work for me. The most obvious thing, and a recommendation you’ll read everywhere, is to avoid your phone and computer screens the hour before you head to bed. I’ve read that it might be messing with our hormones and prompting mid-sleep wakeups. But I’m not a medical researcher, so won’t vouch for that. How about going old-school weekdays and avoiding the TV, reading a book or a Kindle paperwhite if you’d rather?

And then most important, head to bed at the same time each night.

Second, as part of your sleep hygiene you’ve got to think about what’s on your mind. Something at work stressing you out? For me, I’ve taken on a habit of writing in my journal before bed. It’s my version of an Ignatian monk’s Examen. I look back at my day and consider where were things cool (recognizing God’s presence) and where were they messed up (conscious of God’s absence). You don’t have to take a religious approach to the journaling, but it works for me. Being honest of what was going on during the day helps me shed some of my stress. Not all of it. I’m too tightly wired for that.

Once you’ve cleaned up your sleep hygiene, consider what’s waking you up at night. Your phone could be the number-one culprit. Charge it outside the bedroom. Maybe it’s the streetlight. Get some thicker blinds. Maybe you’re too hot or cold. Open or close the window before you go to bed. Maybe it’s the LED alarm clock. Cover it up. All kind of obvious and dumb advice. I’m really just recommending that you look at the physical environment and fix what needs to be fixed.

Oh, maybe you’ve got to pee. Not sure what to do about that, except not drinking a ton of water before bed. Toddler wisdom.

So, what happens when you’ve established your sleep hygiene and created a comfortable sleep environment and you still wake up and can’t get back to sleep? Super stressful, right? Maybe this is counterintuitive, but I’d get out of bed if it’s more than 15 minutes. Keep your hands off your phone. Do some yoga or deep breathing. Walk around the house or the backyard. Drink some herbal tea. Read! Once you start getting sleepy, head back to bed — don’t just fall asleep on the sofa. You want your brain to associate sleep with bed. Toddler wisdom again!

Yup, there’s melatonin and then drugs. The drug you take will depend on when you’re having the toughest time — falling asleep, in the middle of the night, or in the morning. Talk to the doc.

Chop That Wood

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