I have always been a bad sleeper. Notoriously bad. So much so that when I moved back home after college, my mom referred to me as “in-house security” because I seemed to be up all hours of the night (Typically rummaging through the fridge). I can nap like a champ during the day, but when it comes to getting that quality 6-8 hours at night, forget it!
Of course, my bad sleeping habits translate into bad waking habits. I live on caffeine and energy drinks. I crave sugar-laden food. I struggle with concentration and focus. My motivation wanes.
And of course, all of that daytime caffeine makes it hard to wind down without self-medicating at night (Bonjour, pinot noir!) I’m drowsy every day at around 2, regardless of what I am doing at that time. I am a mess!
As a notoriously bad sleeper, I have tried nearly everything to improve the quality of my slumber. There is no supplement, herbal tea, or over-the-counter medicine that I haven’t sampled. I meditate, I listen to soft music, I make sure that my room is at the optimum temperature, I put my left foot in, I take my left foot out… Most methods would work for a time, then it was right back to waking up every couple of hours.
As with nearly everything that I learn at Anxiety Resource Center, I had to face the fact that the issues caused by lack of sleep ran much deeper than my less than stellar daytime habits.
Anxiety, stress, and depression – things that do not play well with my already raging case of ADHD – thrive on sleep deprivation. I was providing a fantastic breeding ground for exacerbating mental health symptoms which then jacked up my sleep…
The spiral continued.
A couple of years ago, the doctors and I put together “The ABC’s of Better Sleep,” (A fantastic resource, BTW), and I learned a lot of great techniques to improve my sleeping habits, some of which continue to help me, but I went through most of the alphabet looking for a consistent answer to my sleep dilemma.
Because life, in general, is funny and my life in particular borders on hysterical, the thing that finally helped improve my quality of sleep had nothing to do with me consciously trying to improve my quality of sleep.
I started utilizing a specific window of time to eat.
I know, technically it’s called intermittent fasting, but as someone who has spent a lifetime dieting and is only now developing a loving relationship with their body, ‘fasting’ holds a negative connotation. It’s almost punitive, but that’s a topic for another blog. Also, I didn’t limit the type of food that I was eating, I was simply adhering to a strict 8-hour window in which I could eat. I eat breakfast at 10 am and once that clock hits 6 pm, fork down, you’re done, Steph.
This was a change for me because I have been known to eat right up to bedtime. As in, lying in bed, snacking, right before I visit sleepy town. Giving myself a meal deadline means that on average, I have at least two hours between eating and heading to bed. So, my food gets a chance to digest while I’m still conscious.
Changing my late-night eating habit was not easy. My body and my brain were used to the ritual of ‘bites before bedtime,’ but as with most things now that I know will be a challenge, I give myself the “one week trial.”
The one-week trial was suggested to me by Katy when I was trying to change another bad habit in my life (I am nothing if not a work in progress). The idea is that if you’re trying to incorporate a new habit into your life, set the goal of doing it for one week.
You can do anything for a week.
The second day of my new eating schedule was when I noticed the difference in my sleep. I slumbered like a champ! Deeply, and mostly through the night, without the typical issues that caused me to wake up multiple times. It was a miracle. The following days were more of the same, and even if I got up once to pee (My average is 3 times!) I fell right back to sleep.
Two weeks in (Yes, I was able to pass the one-week trial!) I woke up to find that one of my cats had gotten sick in my bedroom. That means that I had slept so soundly that I didn’t hear my cat puking by my bed. Anyone with cats knows how impossible it is to sleep through the sound of a feline getting sick.
While I was researching eating before bed in order to offer a more science-based rationale, I came up against a unique situation. For every article that said that eating before bed was horrible, there was one that said it wasn’t that bad and actually could be beneficial. Of course, if done in moderation.
Moderation and I have met, but we never got past the acquaintance stage.
The thing that all of the articles were in agreement with was that eating right before bed can potentially mess up your digestion and definitely cause GERD. During that first week of my experiment, I didn’t have any of the typical nighttime belly issues that have plagued me for over a decade.
I have conducted my own experiment to test my theory, mainly by falling off the wagon and eating right before I went to sleep. I paid for it big time. Dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds as a bedtime snack gave me horrendous acid reflux, and anyone who’s experienced that phenomenon knows that you cannot just go back to sleep after that!
That was all of the evidence I needed to prove that for me, cutting off eating prior to my bedtime was beneficial to my health.
I started adhering to a tight schedule for eating because frankly, I was sick of feeling like crap and despite my free-wheeling attitude, I thrive with structure. I have been pleasantly surprised at how much better I feel overall, which I honestly believe is more reflective of quality sleep than choosing to eat between an 8-hour time frame. A solid night’s sleep meant making better choices during the day which gave me more energy which then meant that by bedtime, I was worn out.
It was another spiral, but this time I was on the upswing.
Even if having a specific window of time to eat isn’t your thing, but you’ve tried everything humanly possible to have a better night’s sleep, try not eating anything a minimum of two hours before bed. If you struggle with it, as I did, try having a glass of water, or decaf tea when you would normally be eating. You’ll be surprised how different your sleep quality is after even the first night.
It’s funny to me that I rave about my eating schedule for no other reason than the overall improvement of my quality of sleep, but if you have struggled with sleep for as long as I have, this unexpected side effect is everything. Give it a try. You have nothing to lose!