If you’ve been following the #WeHackHealth hashtag, quite a few people who work in the field of information security have been sharing health tips, encouraging each other to focus on their own health, and showing progress reports on their efforts. Several people I know have been following it closely, participating, and reaping the benefits of this wonderfully positive movement. Started by @HackingDave, this use of social media to encourage others to live healthier lives is something I have been wanting to contribute to for quite a while, but I wasn’t sure quite how I could add value. That is, until my most recent trip to San Francisco for #RSAC 2023!
A summary of this blog post is available in PDF format here.
I’ve been struggling with poor sleep since my teens (that’s 30 years, for those who enjoy math). During my 20’s I used to stay up until at least 1:00 am most weeknights, then getting up at 6:30 to 7:00 am to go to work. The weekends were worse. I was part of the local music scene in Ottawa, playing at live music clubs several times a month, and would often be out until 2:00 am, 3:00 am, or even later on the weekends. Sometimes my fans would wait until the club closed (2:00 am) I would put my drums/guitars/whatever back at my place, then take me out to dinner, at 3:00 am. This whole time I worked full time as a software developer as well, doing the 9-5 routine. My thought was “If I’m not going to be asleep anyway, why bother laying in a bed being bored when I could be out having fun instead???” In my early 30’s I was slightly less ridiculous, until I met a doctor who asked me what my “sleep hygiene” was like. I had no idea what that was. He suggested that if I got better sleep that it could help with other issues I was having, and I set upon a path to get better sleep.
To be quite clear: I walked around like a complete zombie until around 11:00 am every day. I was an auto-pilot, and since I found coding easy and fun… It didn’t bother me. I zoned out, into the code, and worked until lunch…. I can’t imagine how I must have seemed to my co-workers, 1/2 asleep, trying to get work done, I must have looked a mess.Sleep-deprived-Tanya
Before I get any further down this path, I’d like to inform you that I am not a doctor. I’ve never been to med school, or studied medicine in any way. In fact, I’ve never even played a doctor on TV (I know, so lame!). You should not take any of this as official medical advice, this is just what I have learned through lots of (non-professional) research, trial-and-error, and personal experience. Please talk to your doctor before trying anything with an astrix (*) beside it. Most of this stuff is harmless, but I will put the little * if I think you should ask your doctor first. Feel free to ask your doctor about anything anyway! In summary: I am definitely not a doctor, but just a regular person who hopes sharing her sleep journey might help you get better sleep.
WTF ‘Sleep Hygiene’?
Sleep hygiene means setting a time to wake up and go to sleep, every single day, and sticking to it. If you have children, or remember being a child, they usually have a “bedtime”. For some reason, as we become adults, we tend to throw this idea away. I told the doctor that suggested it that I never slept anyway (literally 2-3 hours a night, but sometimes as much as 5 hours. Yay?) but he insisted I try for it for 3 straight months, and I thought “WTF not?”.
His instructions: go to bed and wake up at the exact same time every single day, weekend or weekday. Give yourself 9 hours or more. Do not deviate, even if there’s a “super cool party”. * I might have asked if it was okay to skip this for parties and he gave me a serious frowny-face…
For the next 3 months, I went and laid in my bed at 11:00 every night, and forced myself to get up at 8:00 every morning. I did not think it would work. But it was SUCH A GIANT IMPROVEMENT (after a few weeks of being diligent). I did more than just this, but I started sleeping more hours. And for the first time, I started to feel drowsy around 11:30. And my other health condition improved noticeably. #WIN
Caffeine, Addiction, and Timing
Caffeine is a drug that a large portion of North American adults are addicted to, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve had lots of friends who drink several coffees a day (multiple pots, in fact), they can’t sleep, but they also tell me “It doesn’t really affect me”. If caffeine doesn’t affect you, why are you always consuming it? This does not add up.
If you feel really tired, sleepy, or have ‘brain fog’ later in the day, it might not be that you are genuinely tired, it *could* be that you are having caffeine withdraw. Once I stopped having caffeine, I noticed I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t have almost any caffeine (just de-caf tea or herbal teas) for a few years, and felt way better. I do drink it now though, but I stop early afternoon, no matter what.
If you love coffee, tea, diet cola, or whatever, that’s okay. But you need to only consume it at certain times if you’re having sleep issues. If you work the regular 9-5, I suggest no more caffeinated drinks after lunch, or just have decaf from then on. I personally don’t usually even have decaf past 1:00 pm (there is caffeine in decaf drinks, it’s just less!), but you can find your own rhythm that works for you.
Lowering the Lights (Dimmers are the best!)
I read a book called “The Primal Blue Print” By Mark Sission, and I loved it (and yes, eat paleo and do all the stuff he says). Then did what I always do, read every other thing the author ever wrote. “The Primal Connection” is a book about reconnecting with our bodies and nature, and one of his suggestions was lowering the lights, and removing blue light, when the sun sets.
You can get dimmer switches and change out a bunch of your lights in your house or apartment for a couple hundred bucks (I know, not cheap!) but I have found it worth the expense. If you LED or CFL lights, it’s important you buy the ones that are dimmable and “warm” temperature, otherwise they will flicker and be really annoying, or make a buzzing sound (also annoying). I walk around the house at a certain time and lower the lights. Everyone in the house starts chilling out. I usually do this around 9:00 pm, but do what’s best for you.
Also, I don’t mean walk around in the dark. I mean turn them down to 70% or 60%. So that you feel a bit relaxed. It will make sense over time which amount of dimming is best for you.
Amber/warm versus bright blue daylights
When you buy lightbulbs lots will say “bright White” or “daylight”, or “blue white”, those are great for an office, bathroom, or your kitchen, where you want to be fully awake and alert.
Some lights will say “Warm” or “Amber” lights, they are great for your bedroom, living room, dining room, anywhere you want to relax and wind down.
I typically use these to try to get myself more awake or more relaxed/wind down for bed. If I work late in the living room we have a special extra light that my partner setup, to hep me concentrate on my writing. It works like a charm!
TV and phone screens often come into our bedrooms with us. All of them are able to display most colours, including blue, which tells our brain “WAKE UP IT’S DAYTIME”. There’s a setting on your phone where you can have it slightly dim the screen, and remove most of the blue light, when the sun sets. Doing this will help you sleep, and you can automate it easily.
For televisions, this is harder. I’ve seen people who buy funky orange lensed-glasses and wear them in the evening to remove the blue light themselves, but I am not personally a fan. If you watch TV via a computer/stream, some of them have settings that allow you to change and remove the blue, but not all. I used to have a raspberry pi that did this for me, but I just got a roku and I’m not sure if I can do that with it yet. Check your own devices if you have this option.
Sleeping in *complete* darkness helps me get very deep sleep. I have blackout blinds on all my bedroom windows, no visible LEDs, and we turn off the lights in other rooms so that they don’t shine through under the door. I take this very seriously, and travel with black electrical tape so I can cover all the lights in hotel rooms. I have received feedback from my significant other that this one change made a huge difference for their sleep. Removing all lights is worth the effort!
I am one of many people who are affected by Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD), sometimes known as “seasonal depression”. If you don’t know what it is, basically I get really bad brain fog every winter. It’s hard to concentrate, and I feel “down”, for months at a time. I remember my grades used to plumet in the winter semester, and soar in the spring… It’s not real depression, it’s much less serious. That said, it still sucks, and I moved across Canada just so I can avoid this situation as much as possible. (You can read more on SAD here)
SAD is caused by not enough sunlight. Our bodies NEED it. You can treat SAD by taking vitamin D, getting lots of sun in the winter (for instance, taking a vacation, or moving to a less-wintery-place if you’re me), and using a Sun Lamp.
A sun lamp generally has to give off 11,000 lumens of light or more, and sometimes they are bright white, or blue light. You need to sit in front of it for 15-30 minutes (depends on the model) every morning, ideally as soon as you wake up. I’ve been doing this every winter, since I was 23, and these lamps changed my entire life.
Note: these lamps are great for treating jet lag, SAD, or just helping you get better sleep. You are telling your body “HEY, this is MORNING”.
Word of caution: do not use these lamps at other times of day. It will just keep you up and mess up your sleep. I’ve seen people say “Oh, I forgot this morning, I will do it after work” NOOOOOOO. Do not do that. It will not make for a fun night of sleep. :-/
Magnesium is a type of salt that is really good for us and if you are; a woman over 40, someone with chronic pain, someone with (list other symptoms), it’s advised that you take it.
That said, it’s ALSO good for sleep! I take a small amount with water before bed, and it even kinda tastes good to boot.
Note: if you take too much magnesium you will have “exciting” trips to the bathroom. Start small and work your way up to the full dose over several days or even weeks.
You might not realize it, but many of us have rituals we perform every day. We have a “get ready for work” ritual, a list of specific things we do in order to feel “ready”. Often, we also have nighttime rituals, to help us get ready for bed, whether you consciously realize it or not. Most of include brushing our teeth, journaling, turning off all the lights in the house, locking the doors, saying “goodnight” to people you live with, etc.
Years ago, I had a friend who had TERRIBLE nightmares. She feared going to sleep, and would often stay up as late as possible to avoid this vivid and awful dreams. We talked about it and I asked what her ritual was before bed and she said she didn’t know. She didn’t have one.
It turned out she did have a bedtime ritual, but it was the opposite of helpful for her. She would watch TV to try to avoid going to bed, and worry about what she would dream about. She would treats, to try to calm herself. She would “keep herself really busy” until she would fall into bed. This was NOT working for her.
Together we came up with a new one for her:
- Herbal tea instead of sugary snacks
- Calling a friend when it’s not too late, so she can have a nice conversation and remember there are a ton of people in her life who love her
- Journaling all of her worries, then locking it away into a drawer
- Stretching (I gave her a bed time yoga video I used to do every night)
- Reading something non-scary in bed, instead of TV or phone
- Lowering the lights 2 hours before sleep
Although her nightmares did not stop completely, it went from “pretty much every night” to “once a month” and “I don’t always remember them”. She started sleeping WAY better. She was also happier. One top of that, she took the lighting item to a whole new level and redid all the lighting in her entire house and has inspired me in decorating every place I have lived ever since!
Some of us don’t sleep because we are worrying. Worrying about work. Worrying we don’t have work. Worrying about money. Worrying about our loved ones. Worried no on loves us. Etc. This is NOT good for sleep. I personally worry about having too many things to do (and that I might forget one) and/or missing a flight. I’m SO WORRIED about flights. Sigh. We all have our hang ups.
Anyway, one way to get around this is to write everything in your head into a journal. It doesn’t even need to make sense. Getting it out is what matters. Whenever I wake up in the night concerned about something, I tried to write it down. Then I always fall back to sleep so easily. I have seen this work for several people in my life, including children! Just the act of writing it down can make us feel better when we are upset, even if we never read it again. Even if you are not upset, just making a list of what’s in your head can help…
- Gotta sign the kids up for summer camp
- Can’t forget the gas bill
- Did my friend apply for that job or not? I’m going to ask. She might need a nudge.
- Don’t forget to call your mom this weekend!
Bedrooms are only for 2 things, and one is way more fun than the other
“Bedrooms are for sleeping and sex. Nothing else.”Mark Sission, author of the Primal Connection and other amazing books
I remember reading this in the primal connection, and thinking “Gosh, I want to live at your place.” But I used to do everything in my room… I would play guitar in my room, read in my room, whatever. If I wanted to avoid roommates, my room was the place to be, rather than the common room. Once I changed it to “only two things happen here”, it sounds weird but I go in and I know that’s what I’m doing. I’ve added “Get dressed” and “put away laundry” to the list, but I try to not do general activities there, and instead use other spaces. It helps my family members know I’m not avoiding them, and it sets the mood for sleep.
Note: If you live in a bachelor apartment or have a bunch of roommates, just ignore this one. This is one of those “if you’re lucky enough to have space for” rules.
I have travelled all over the planet and I’m pretty “good” at Jetlag now. Using a sun lamp, and following the eating windows in the section below can really help. I also sometimes “cheat” and take a sleeping pill to make myself sleep at the correct time the first day, and I force myself to have breakfast first thing in the morning in my new time zone even though I hate eating breakfast. But I need to tell my body “I am breaking the fast” and “this is morning now!”.
Diets and Eating Windows *
Our bodies are not meant to eat every moment of every day. When we eat at weird times, it can (negatively) effect our sleep. I am as guilty as the next person of having a snack in the evening lately, but if you are having a lot of trouble sleeping and you snack at night, I suggest reading this book: Your Circadian Code. Although the author jumps over into “this is how you can lose weight” a bunch, if you can ignore that part, the rest is REALLY GOOD. And, if you’re trying to lose weight, this could be a double whammy for you. The guy who read for the audiobook has a really nasal voice, but if you can get over that it’s not very long, and all of it was very helpful for me.
Mediation is staying still and attempting to clear your mind and just observe your thoughts, body and breathing. I used to think it meant ‘trying hard to think of a specific thing’, concentrating very hard. But that’s not true, not really.
Meditation has been linked to all sorts of excellent health benefits, both physical and mental, such as lowering stress and anxiety, reduced chronic pain, more patience and calmness, happier outlook on life, etc. AND it can help with sleep!
If you meditate regularly, it can help you clear your mind so you can go to sleep. Start listening to your body, calming down your sympathetic system, and you’re miles ahead in getting to sleep fast. Regular medication can help with your sleep overall as well!
There are all sorts of hypnosis recordings and psychologists you can do it live for you, that can help you sleep. They hypnotize you, then tell your that sleep is your friend (not literally, but basically, they make you believe that you can sleep, you should sleep, and you will sleep). I used hypnosis years ago to help me stop drinking cola. It worked. For 5 years. Until I started working at Microsoft and travelling all over the world and I needed caffeine to power through various travels. 5 years is pretty good!
Comfortable bed – note, it might be way harder than you think!
I used to have a really soft bed. When I went to the store to buy it, I laid down on the soft bed with my friend and we both agreed, it was super soft and comfy. But then it made my back hurt, and I was very confused about it.
When Is started travelling for work all the time I got to stay in lots of different beds, in different hotels. I decided the Marriot’s beds were the best! I learned I could buy it cheaper direct from a place that sells beds, rather than the hotel, for about half the price. And I learned they choose FIRM beds. I thought that would hurt… but it’s SO MUCH BETTER. So if you have back pain and a really soft bed, consider trying out a very firm bed. Having a comfortable bed is really, really helpful.
Snoring and Sleep Apnea *
I got tested and I have incredibly mild sleep apnea. The doctor told me to sleep on my side and I would never snore again, and hug a pillow if it hurts my shoulders. I only sleep if I’ve had a glass of wine I swear! But I digress.
If you snore a lot, you likely have sleep apnea. I’m not saying you are doomed, or that you need to immediately get a C-PAC machine. But when you’re snoring it’s because you can’t quite breath exactly how your body needs to breath. This interrupts you sleeping in tiny internals. The louder and more irregular your snoring, the more likely you are getting CRAPPY sleep. If you know you snore, and you feel really tired when you wake up, even though you should have had “enough” sleep, you likely have this going on. There are a bunch of options, and a doctor or sleep clinic can help you fix this!
Carbs & Sugar near bedtime
I love candy and sugar. I wish it wasn’t true, but it is. I definitely want to have a sugary treat before bed, every night, but it’s not helpful for my sleep. It’s likely not helpful for your sleep either. If you are an evening snacker (and I’m not saying you are!), consider not snacking after dinner for a week or so and see if you’re getting better sleep. Might be a habit worth breaking!
Massage and/or physical affection
Also in the Primal Connection book was the idea of human touch and affection. I come from a very affectionate family; we hug each other all the time. I’ve always been “touchy feely”, but not everyone is. The book pointed out that human touch is actually a need, not a want, like I had thought. In the book the author suggests that the reader “just have sex”, which is all well and great if you have that option available to you at the time, but we don’t all have a special someone just waiting to supply us with all the sweet loving we need, whenever we want. Way to make me feel inadequate Mark! (just kidding, I think the author is awesome)
As an alternative, you can get a massage or acupuncture, you can hug a friend, you can get a pet (not the same, but still helps make humans happier), you can play a high contact sport like ball hockey, do acrobatic yoga, and more. If no one has touched you in months, this is something you might want to look at. I’m not saying this to cast judgement or make anyone feel bad. I’m telling you this because it might improve your life, and every human deserves happiness.
General Health, Weight, Stress, and Happiness
Prepare for some really obvious advice, that I didn’t always understand. If you already know it all, cool! If not, also cool! We do not need to be perfectly healthy every moment of every day, but there are things we can choose to limit, to reap big benefits. When I dropped sugar, alcohol, processed foods and gluten from my life for 5 years, every part of my body was great. My hair was softer. My skin was perfect. My sleep improved. But you don’t need to be very, very strict in order to benefit; I’ve loosened up over the years on some things. Below is a list of places you could “be more healthy” and for each one you do, you will not only sleep better, there will be other great benefits too!
- Alcohol is very bad for our bodies. I know it’s socially acceptable and “everybody’s doing it”, but you don’t have to, or you can just have some on special occasions. Having less (or none) will make you a healthier person, full stop. Also, all those news articles proclaiming that “having a glass of wine a day is good for you” are complete bullshit and the studies they based it upon where incredibly biased. I will definitely have an internet argument about this if you want!
- Sugar is bad. Not as bad as alcohol, but it’s also in way more foods and still total garbage for us. It’s SNEAKY, especially in the United States. Read the ingredients. Having less sugar will also help you be healthier.
- Processed food is bad. It usually also has sugar, salt and chemicals. Having whole foods instead of processed foods will mean way more nutrients (to power your amazing brain and body) and less sugar and salt. Whole foods means eating vegetables with butter and spices, or salad with oil and herbs, or meat that you’ve grilled. It’s not something that has a list of ingredients.
- Eat LOTS of veggies. LOTS. Eat tons of veggies and your body will thank you.
- Spices, herbs, especially turmeric, are your friend. They contains tons of stuff that’s good for us (nutrients, vitamins, etc) but they also make food taste better. Then you can have very tasty meals, of unprocessed foods. Spices and herbs are the secret!
- Lifting heavy things and sprinting is good. The paleo folks have lots of mixed feelings about cardio, but basically every health expert agrees that moving around often, lifting heavy stuff sometimes, and sprinting once in a while, is good for us. Think: playing sports once a week, walking to and from work, and lifting weights once a week. This recipe can be very easy to stick to, be really fun, and keep you lean and trim.
- Regular cardio can be quite bad, which I found surprising. Instead focus on “movement”, often. Plus play and have fun! Seriously. This is paleo wisdom, and I gotta say, I agree with it. I used to do the “tons of cardio” thing, and it never really worked for me. It spikes your cortisol (I have enough already, thank you) and it’s nowhere near as fun for me as playing sports, doing a yoga or pilates class, ‘playing’ in my garden, or goofing around with my kids at a park. Make your “exercise” a fun part of your life, and you will be fit forever.
- Me and my weird walking desk: I have a walking desk, I really like it. I use it whenever I have a meeting where I just need to listen (think: team meeting). I used to use it a lot more than right now, because I cannot create content and walk at the same time. But I can listen and walk easily. If you’ve thought about getting one, they are now cheaper than ever before. And you don’t need to walk all day! If you walk one meeting per day, you’re awesome!
- Grounding is good. I thought this was “total crap” when someone first suggested that I “touch dirt”, but over the years I have grown to love gardening so much that I now own a small hobby farm and grow a lot of the food my family and I eat. It works for me, and might not work for you, but as a self-described ‘city-slicker’ and tech worker who lived downtown and was surrounded by concrete most of her life, clearly it had it’s effect on me.
- Filling your own cup. Doing things for yourself that bring you joy and comfort. THIS is important. We cannot just work and do things for others. If we do not take care of ourselves, we will have nothing left for anyone else. This can mean making a piece of art, writing a story or blog post, joining a sports team, having a great big laugh with a good friend. Your happiness greatly affects your overall health. No joke!
For those of us that travel on airplanes, often
- WATER! Drink a lot of water. Note to self: Coffee is not water. Neither is diet soda.
- Walking: walk around the airport a lot, rather than more sitting. It will help ensure you don’t get swollen ankles on the plane, but also help you feel better later.
- Compression socks and more: if you are on a plane often, wear compression socks or even compression outfits.
- More water. Seriously.
- Do calf raises and any sort of neck/shoulder stretches/movement, at least once, per trip. It prevents blood clots and will make you feel way better.
- Don’t sit on those crappy chairs at the gates if you can avoid it. They are uneven, so that your hips tilt back, which makes your head no longer even, so then you move your head forward. In summary: they are very bad for your back, neck and posture.
- Carrying your own food, that doesn’t suck: I often bring protein powder that is high in fat & collagen as well, plus a shaker when I travel. Then I always have a food option. As a person who is sensitive to gluten and all sorts of other stuff, it’s hard to find food in airports for me. Bonus points: put two plastic bags around it. I had mine explode once and I smelled like a chocolate milkshake for the rest of the trip. I was not impressed, although my colleagues found it pretty funny. “Why does this elevator smell like…. A chocolate milkshake?”
- The Circadian Code (better sleep, jetlag and weight loss)
- The Primal Connection (better sleep, reconnecting with your body, find joy and pleasure)
- The PDF Summary of this blog post.
Thank you for reading.