The Sleep of the Righteous, Part 1

I’m becoming an 8-year-old.

I can’t eat sugar, I do best when I follow a schedule, and my “lights out” time is 9:45 p.m. Not exactly a rock & roll lifestyle.

But nine is the new eight, and racking up hours of shut-eye has become almost as much a bragging point as not needing sleep used to be. The evidence in favor of more sleep is pretty compelling. You probably know from your own experience that if you don’t get enough sleep, you feel cranky or blue or your workouts suck or you make poor food choices… or all of those rolled into a ball of sleep-deprived misery.

People with more than this anecdotal evidence have preached the gospel of Morpheus in the past few months: Psychology Today‘s “Science of Willpower” blog explained the dangers of skimping on zzzzzs, and The New York Times shared studies that indicate sleep improves fitness.

There’s lots of good information there, and I recommend that you read those posts for science that will make you fall in love with the idea of falling asleep. The little nugget that finally convinced me to stop saying, “Oh, I need more sleep… [sigh]” and to do it was this: “8-9 hours of sleep is CRUCIAL to fat loss.”(Oh, vanity! What a bitter pill when you make me do the right thing for questionable reasons.)

I was a notoriously poor sleeper before I committed to paleo/Whole30 nutrition, but starting September 1, I got busy getting horizontal (for sleeping, of course). Since then, I’ve learned a handful of reliable tricks for falling asleep, staying asleep, and getting back to sleep if I have a middle-of-the-night wake up.

Today, I’m going to share pre-bed tips that will help you create a great sleep environment and make falling asleep a fitting end to a badass day. Tomorrow, I’ll give you ideas for what to do if you wake up in the wee hours when you should be snoozing. I hope they help you sleep the sleep of the righteous.


Create a ritual.

At CrossFit Central, every workout starts with the same warmup. I once heard Jeremy Thiel explaining the philosophy behind doing the same warmup every time. He pointed out that the ritual is as important as the act of warming up. Good mood/bad mood, distracted/alert, waking up/energized, when you start that CrossFit Central warmup, you officially begin your workout. The time for excuses has passed and your body and mind have been alerted that you are now committed to that day’s training.

Going to bed, especially if you’re beginning a new sleep program, should get the same treatment. Define the steps you need to take and do them in the same order. Every night. At the same time. This alerts your brain and body that sleepy time is coming.

My nightly ritual goes like this: I turn down the thermostat to 65F, put on my leopard print pjs, loosely braid my hair, wash my face, and brush my teeth. Then I announce to Dave that it’s sleepy time. Literally. I do. I say, “It’s time to get sleepy.” Then I take Pure Pharma Magnesium and turn out the lights. If I read my Kindle, I wear blue-blocker shades.

I’m not advising you to adopt my ritual – but I do recommend that you create one of your own to signal your mind and body that it’s time to start winding down for the day.

Cool out.

According to The New York Times, the optimal temperature for sleep is cooler than you might think–around 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit. A decrease in core body temperature initiates sleep, and temps above or below that range can lead to restlessness. I usually set the thermostat at 68 about half an hour before I’m ready to turn in. I was skeptical that temperature could make a big difference, but I was proven wrong. I’ve experimented with 72, 70, 65, and 69… my best sleep happens when the thermostat is at 65– \cool enough to encourage snuggling under the blanket.

Invest in good sheets.

A few years ago I discovered the book 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals About Your Love Life, Moods, And Potential.It provides a “hormone horoscope” based on where a woman is in her roughly 28-day cycle. This one little book helped me come to understand my crazy mood swings and bloat-lean cycle so I could prepare emotionally for the ups-and-downs of being a chick.

One of the bits I read in that book—that I admit I thought sounded wackadoodle–was that women at certain times in their cycles can be very sensitive to scratchy or wrinkled, lumpy sheets. But then I realized that on certain days of the month, I flipped and flopped and ruched around in the sheets, and the fitted sheet corners that didn’t fit quite right felt like gravel under my pillows.

I splurged and bought expensive 300-count sheets at a time I really couldn’t afford them. They fit properly and have just gotten smoother and softer to the touch. They were a wise investment.

You sleep on your sheets every night. Every. night. Buy good ones.

This year, Dave and I also replaced our comforter with two individual feather comforters, so we can still snuggle together in our Queen-sized bed, but we each have control over our personal blankets. Highly recommended approach.

Black it out.

Your bedroom needs to be dark. Pitch dark. You can sleep in the basement, install blackout curtains, or wear a mask. We covered our windows with aluminum foil (no joke!), and I sleep in a mask. It took a few tries to find the right one for me.

Tried and discarded: velveteen with an elastic strap (too scratchy); lavender-infused, bead-filled (too scented); strapless and bean-filled (too hard to balance).

The mask I’ve been using for years is made of 100% silk (stays cool at all times, very smooth and soothing) held on with a ribbon that ties in the back (so the tightness is adjustable. I tied it at the perfect length to slip easily over my head, and it stays put, without being tight.) The added bonus is that it’s shaped like a butterfly, so I go to sleep every night reminded of the beauty of metamorphosis and the magical changes that happen while we sleep.

Update: I now sleep with this one, and I LOVE it.

Turn off the blue screens.

The allure of a TV, laptop, smart phone, or iPad can be hard to resist, but you must do it. Sixty to 90 minutes before bed, power down your blue-light electronics. Our gadgets muck with our melatonin, a.k.a., our sleep hormone, and when we don’t produce the right amount of melatonin, our sleep suffers. (Mark Sisson has a nice post on this subject.)

I’ve been forcing myself to say an early goodnight to my electronics and reading by candlelight before bed. It’s very soothing and, I have to admit, I often have to re-read a few paragraphs the next day because I drift off peacefully mid-read.

Enjoy a before-bed snack.

NOTE: I’ve stopped snacking before bed, but it might be an OK idea for you. Maybe give it a try…

I can always tell when my diet is off track because I wake up in the middle of the night with my stomach rumbling. If I’m short on overall calories, or my proportions are out of whack, my tummy lets me know, usually between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m. when I’m between sleep cycles.

I’ve learned to combat this unpleasant experience in two ways

1. I pay attention to my calories and proportions.
2. I “save” fat, protein, and carb calories for a pre-bed snack of one to one-and-a-half tablespoons of Sunbutter. The amount is dependent on what else I ate that day.

This habit does two things for me: It plays into my commitment to ritual and it gives me good, clean, healthy calories that also taste like a treat right before bed. I look forward to it in the lull between dinner and bed (when I’m sad because my food for the day has almost all been consumed).

Update: I’ve increased the fat and protein I eat throughout the day and have found that I don’t need the right-before-bed snack anymore.

Hydrate with moderation.

I used to live in fear of starting a workout in a dehydrated state, so I guzzled water all day and all evening, right up to the time I went to bed. That meant I dreamt of having to pee almost every night – and I would wake up one to three times to wobble to the bathroom, trying desperately to stay as close to sleep as possible.

You might have guessed by now that I have an overactive noggin, and once the need to pee opened the door a crack, full consciousness would often kick the sleep door down. I spent many middle-of-the-night hours making stress-induced lists instead of sleeping. Just as light would start to streak the sky, I’d fall back into fitful sleep, only to be awakened too soon after… for workouts, for work, for whatever.

No more. Instead, when I wake up in the morning, I drink a glass of water to prep for my workout. (While we’re on the subject of fluids, I didn’t mention caffeine above. I can address caffeinated beverages in three words right here: Don’t. drink. them.)

So, there you go… my tips for sleeping the sleep of the righteous. Read part 2 with tips on how to improve fall asleep and get back to sleep.


Question: What’s More Dangerous Than Eating Glass?

Answer: Sleep deprivation. I used to be a terrible sleeper. Tossing, turning, fretting. I spent many nights lying with my eyes open, completely stressed about...

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The Sleep of the Righteous, Part 2

Previously, I shared some of my tips and tricks to help you join the "nine is the new eight" snooze club. Today, I'm going to tell...

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  • Melissa says:

    Great tips, thanks for sharing! Would you mind telling us why you are drinking Emergen-C every night?

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    I'm drinking Emergen-C and just started testing out Peter Gilham's Natural Calm (magnesium supp) to try to manage my stress/cortisol levels. I have some stubborn, fluffy belly fat that I'm trying to eliminate, and I got some good advice over at Urban Gets Diesel about supplements to help with sleep quality and stress management.

    Here's the post from Melissa:

    Because I'm still testing it out for myself, I didn't include it in my "official" tips and tricks.

    My tummy blubber is going away,but I suspect it's a combination of my good habits: better sleep, solid nutrition, new training program, stress management, etc. Just gotta keep doing it all…

  • MelissaG says:

    Nothing knocks me out like Natural Calm. It also seems to be helping me stay asleep which is huge, in the past I'd normally be up from 1am-4am every night.

  • Littles says:

    Hey Mel- great post.
    This week I got back on track with my eating, which carries over into my sleeping. I went from 151 last week to 148 today. I haven't seen 148 in 12 years.
    The more I sleep the more I lose.
    I do a 1/2 apple with almond butter before bed, it makes me so happy to have my "treat" and I'm not starving when I wake up the next day.
    I think I'll go look for sheets today, I do hate mine.

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Hey, Littles. I'm excited that you're going to buy new sheets. Be sure to come back and tell us about what you get. Dave and I are re-decorating our bedroom in the next few months, and I can't wait to invest in some new sheets and a super fluffy comforter. I set the thermostat at 67 last night, and it totally ruled. I was cold! And then… zonk!

    Update on the Calm: I've been experimenting with it for a week, trying different amounts to see if I could make it work for me. The recommendation is 1/2 teaspoon to start… i've tried 1/2 tsp, 1 tsp, 1/2 tsp twice a day, and 1/4 tsp. It definitely helps me zonk out, but that's never been my problem. I have trouble STAYING asleep, and I feel like the Calm is disrupting my sleep. Even at 1/4 tsp., I wake up around 3:00, and with higher doses, I had some FUNKY weird dreams. I think it might not be for me.

  • Barbara says:

    Hey Mel~

    I've been taking Natural Calm for about 5 months now, on/off. I believe that it DOES help with sleep but be careful with those spoonfuls.

    Um…"eliminate" would be a key bathroom word here.

  • steffy says:

    I was going to ask you about that emergen-c stuff too. I saw it at Target the other day and wondered why you would drink that. The one I saw had fructose in it so I thought it may not be the best option.

    I did find this stuff called Owater – which does not have any sugar added.

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Hey, Steffy. The Emergen-C Lite has only 1g of sugar, but provides 1000mg of Vitamin C, along with B Vitamins, and other antioxidants. For anyone worried about the damage of stress on their bodies, I think it's a good tool in the cortisol-fighting toolkit. It does have fructose, but 1g doesn't undo all the other good stuff for me.

  • Melissa says:

    Huh, interesting. Let us know how the Emergen-C works for you. I too have a little of that belly fat I'd like to see disappear, but I'm sure that's directly correlated to my diet, which is nowhere as clean as yours.

    Man, those are so many Melissas on this blog! I am Melissa G too, so whenever I see the other Melissa G post, I get weirded out. 😛

  • JL says:

    So many Melissa’s!! Mel-Thanks for posting this (so long ago!) I’ve had this on my “need to read” list for a while. Glad I finally was able to read it. I will read the 2nd part tomorrow…seeing as its 10 p.m….I need to sleep …. 🙂

    • Mel says:

      I know! We’re taking over the place.

      Hope my tips help. I’ve had a LOUSY week of sleep… not sure why. I’m ready for it to end so I can get some solid rest.