It felt like living in a dream. As the hospital doors closed behind me I stepped into daylight and filled my lungs with the cold morning air. It didn’t help. Neither did the splash of icy water or the pitch-dark espresso I had at home.

Two sleepless nights can really get to you. And despite having a system for dealing with night shifts, this time I disregarded my own advice. I went in unprepared and was now a living, breathing zombie.

sleepless zombie with no sleep
Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

Look at those dark circles around your eyes. You really need to get some sleep!

My wife looked at me with a mix of concern and laughter. After sleeping less than 4 hours per night I had the conversational skills of a 4-year-old and the reflexes of our 80-year-old neighbor. And without a good night’s sleep, I would surely catch a cold.

That was the last thing I needed. With 3 days left until our holiday trip to Rome, I couldn’t afford to get sick. Luckily, I also had a sure-fire remedy: sleep. But in my current state, a regular afternoon nap or your average 8 hours of slumber wouldn’t cut it. It was time to bring out the big guns.

I needed the best sleep ever

Remember the way you used to sleep as a small kid? When your mum would give you a warm bath, slip you in fresh pyjamas and wrap you in nice smelling bedsheets? That’s what I needed.

yawning baby sleep
Photo by Sadık Kuzu on Unsplash

But my mum lives in another country, I don’t sleep in pyjamas and changing the bedsheets wasn’t realistic. So I did what I usually do: apply science. Luckily, I have some knowledge about sleep and know how our bodies respond to different stimuli. But before this post turns into the best sedative you’ve ever read, here’s how you can get the best sleep of your life.

  1. Keep it cool. Your body temperature heavily influences the quality of your sleep (i.e. the amount of REM sleep, which is where the magic happens). Taking a warm shower will open your pores and cool your body. I also recommend sleeping in light clothes (or naked if you can), as this will prevent you from overheating and sweating.
  2. Open the windows. Fresh air is important for your brain’s recovery. You don’t want to doze off in a room with damp air and wake up feeling out of breath. The temperature in your bedroom also shouldn’t exceed 20℃ (68℉). So let some fresh air in before you hit the sack.
  3. Avoid caffeine. This is especially hard to do if you’re struggling to stay awake throughout the day. But caffeine will decrease your melatonin production, which tells your brain when it’s nap-time. Ever had evenings when you sat in bed with your eyes wide open, not knowing why you can’t sleep? It was probably due to low melatonin. So avoid coffee and tea 4-6 hours before going to bed.
  4. Avoid booze and cigarettes. Although both can give you a pleasant drowsiness, they will reduce the quality of your sleep. Both alcohol and nicotine reduce the amount of REM sleep you get. And when you’re feeling like a zombie, REM sleep is your antidote.
  5. Stay away from displays. They emit blue light, which signals your brain it’s time to go to work. That’s why you feel energized when you see the blue sky. Consider installing light bulbs with warm light in your bedroom and use night shift settings (or f.lux) on your laptop if you absolutely must use it.
  6. Tune down the lights. Besides using warm light in your bedroom, you should avoid turning on all the lights. Melatonin production is triggered by darkness, so you want your bedroom lighting to resemble a romantic dinner, not an operating room.
  7. Go to bed at regular hours. Your brain loves habits, so having a nighttime routine can work wonders for your sleep. Try to go to bed at the same hour every day. And before you ask: no, hitting the sack at 2 AM every day is not ok. Aim for the sweet spot of 10-11 PM to improve sleep quality and get the added benefits of growth hormone release.
  8. Use your bed only for sleep. Your brain responds to cues, so use that to your advantage. If you work or read a lot in bed, your brain will know this is a place where it needs to be highly focussed and alert. But if you only get in bed to meet the Sandman, your brain knows this is a place for relaxation and slumber. And you will enter dreamland in no-time.
  9. No heavy meals. Thanks to evolution, our bodies are primed to eat big meals during the day (after hunting) and not before bedtime. So if you were planning to order a pizza this evening, think again. You want your body to focus on recovery, not digestion. If you’re hungry, have some complex carbs (rice-cake, banana, whole cereals) or a glass of milk before bedtime.
  10. Use background noise. Humans haven’t evolved sleeping behind tightly shut windows. For thousands of years, we’ve slept outdoors, with the wind blowing in our ears, a river flowing nearby and wild dogs howling in the distance. That’s why we still sleep so well in trains, airplanes, and classrooms. Get a white-noise app and try it out. You might be surprised how fast you fall asleep with the soothing sound of rainfall in your ears.

Follow these rules and you will sleep like a baby again. It worked like a charm for me: I avoided catching a cold and we’re now on our way to Rome. Arrivederci!

Me and my wife in front of the Colosseum in Rome
Photo by the author’s beautiful wife

PS: Worldwide about one in three people have problems sleeping. Please share this article with your friends and family, because we all deserve better sleep.

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