Very early on, humanity (which had been made of clay and blood from rebellious gods to work as a simple labor) became so numerous that the noise of the streets, houses and workshops was unbearable. “The country looked like a bull that bellowed”, says the Atrahasis.
The Enlil, lord of heaven and earth, could not sleep and ordered the plague to begin. That is the story with which the ancient Akkadians explained that all the evils of the world had begun with sleep. With the lack of sleep. Who can blame them?
Our way of understanding the dream will have changed a lot in the last 4,000 or 5,000 years, but when in the middle of a suffocating summer night someone wakes us by honking their damn car, the idea in Enlil usually seems even moderate. Today, as then, sleeping has become for many an impossible mission. Today we enter the scientific literature to extract eight tricks and advice to help us sleep better.
Eight tricks to fall asleep
1. Sleep is pure routine. It has never been just a matter of amount of sleep, especially it has been a matter of quality. As we get older, our dream gets worse and worse. More than half of older adults suffer from insomnia symptoms (Ohayon, 2002) and studies tell us that a constant and organized lifestyle can help us sleep better (Zisberg, Gur-Yaish and Shochat, 2010 ; Monk, 2010). And no, it’s no use sleeping late on weekends: going to bed and waking up at the same time every day is the best option to regulate sleep we are children (Mindell and others, 2015), elite athletes (Bird, 2013) or normal people.
2. Exercising seems like a good idea. Traditional recommendations tell us that exercising is excellent especially if we do not do it very close to bedtime. At least 30 minutes most days and always 2 to 3 hours before going to sleep. This may be the case (Reid, 2010), but the reality is somewhat more complex: there is no doubt that physical activity and good sleep are related ( Loprinzi and Cardinal, 2011), but we lack information to know if one cause the other (or vice versa). This is important because exercising is something great but difficult (and obsessing about our inability to introduce it into our day-to-day life does not help).
3. Neither coffee, nor alcohol, nor tobacco are our friends. Caffeine, for example, is not only related to lack of sleep, but also to poor quality ( Kerpershoek, Antypa and Van den Berg, 2018). Its effects (Snel and Lorist, 2011), such as alcohol (Singleton and Wolfson, 2009) or nicotine (Jaehne, 2009), are well studied. That is why we must put special emphasis on this issue: our history with these products (the fact of using alcohol or snuff as forms of emotional management) or even certain physiological reactions associated with them can help us fall asleep in the short term: in the long term, they dissolve our ability to sleep.
4. If possible, avoid medications that delay or interrupt your sleep. Those of point three are the best-known compounds that have a direct effect on our sleep, but they are far from being the only ones. There are numerous commonly used medicines and remedies that play in the same insomnia team (Roehrs and Roth, 2018). Therefore, if we begin to experience problems sleeping, commenting with our doctor is the first movement. There are usually alternatives and most of the time the only thing that separates us from them is to tell our doctor what happens to us.
5. Save sleep. Naps are one of the most amazing things in the world. No ‘buts’ or anything like that. Science says it: the first great study on this wonderful practice (Rosekind, 1995) allowed NASA to show that sleeping an average of 25 minutes improved between 16% and 34% our cognitive functions (Mednick et al., 2008 ; Naska, 2007 ; Saunders and Chaput, 2012). However, it is better to save sleep: if we do not use them correctly, it can make it very difficult for us to sleep at night (Dhand and Sohal, 2006).
6. Relax before you sleep. It is relatively common to arrive at night with life around the neck. Our days are so full of activities that we fall collapsed on the bed with our heads upset with tasks to be done and things to do. Nobody can sleep in that way. This is why experts recommend performing relaxing tasks before going to bed (Blanaru et al., 2012 ; Nicassio and Bootzin, 1974). Things like reading, listening to music or, directly, using relaxation techniques can become our allies. What is not recommended is to go around in bed doing nothing.
7. Use our physiology. There is a whole set of techniques that use our natural physiological responses to induce us to sleep. The best known (for being another traditional advice) is to take a hot bath. Especially in winter. It is true that there is some evidence (Sung and Tochihara, 2000) that indicates that the fall in body temperature after leaving the bathroom can be confused with the physiological phenomena that occur before falling asleep.
8. The environment where we sleep is as important as we are. One of the things that most influence our dream is the space where we sleep. And we usually forget that while we sleep we are as deeply attached to the environment as when we are awake. Noise (Fietze and others, 2016), air quality (Strøm-Tejsen, 2016) or temperature (Okamoto-Mizuno and Mizuno, 2012) are elements that we must take into account when designing the bedroom. But also everything that can distract us (Harvey and Payne, 2002). Avoiding distractors and avoiding excuses is half the job. That includes, of course, the distractors that we carry with ourselves.
And an advice
The text began saying that 4,000 years ago there were problems with sleep, but it is not true. At least, not in this sense. As Summers-Bremner explained in his book on insomnia, in the ancient world the conception of time was something really very different from what we have today: before, time was not gold.
This is something that acquired a cultural form with the processes of industrialization. It was then that we began a race against the dream, against the time that could not be bought and sold. However, our needs are not cultural, but embedded in our DNA (Kuna et al., 2012).
The idea behind all sleep experts is that we can use certain techniques to help us sleep, but the only way to cultivate a good night’s sleep is to reconcile with it. Be aware that our body has its own rhythms and that, against them, the Gods themselves struggle in vain.