One Habit that Truly Improved My Sleep
Does the thought of sleep make you smile & look forward to this evening, or does it fill you with a sense of dread and frustration? For many, it’s the latter. According to the CDC, 35.2 percent of American adults report sleeping less than 7 hours a night. (And that stat, currently the most comprehensive one available, dates back to 2014. It would not be surprising if the number were even higher now.)
Until very recently, I too struggled to rack up the requisite seven hours of shut eye. I attributed this to chronic stress, my lifelong personal tendency to sleep lightly, and midlife. For years, I've set myself up to sleep well, having studied the top recommendations, but a good night’s sleep had remained maddeningly elusive. Still, a few things did definitely help. Meditation made a difference, as did wearing a sleep mask regularly. Limiting caffeine to the early hours of the day mattered, too. But for me ONE habit has sealed the deal on solid sleep: changing when I eat.
Late last spring, I read a remarkable, research-based book by Dr. Satchin Panda of the Salk Institute entitled, The Circadian Code (2018). I’ll admit that, at first glance, the title & description made me wonder if this was one more fad book about fasting, but I gave it a try. And thank goodness! Panda outlines in depth the myriad health reasons to moderately rein in the number of hours a day we allow ourselves to eat. According to his research, 50 percent of Americans tend to eat within a period of 15 hours a day or longer. This forces our bodies to keep some processes going (like digestion) when they should shut off for the day and others (like healing & repair) to be short changed. According to Panda's body of work, we need not starve ourselves or take on draconian fasting to reset our systems, but we should try to contain all of our eating within a 12-hour window (at the longest). And windows of eight or 10 hours seem to imbue even more benefits.
So, intrigued by this research, I committed to a manageable middle ground: 10 weeks of a daily 10-hour eating window. I didn’t change WHAT I ate but WHEN I ate, making sure to finish all food and beverages by 6:30 pm every night. I was really eager to see what health benefits I might experience. Panda predicted tons of them. Ultimately, there were indeed enough positive changes to convince me to hold tightly onto to this habit for the long run. And in the short run—I mean, within a WEEK of starting this routine—something incredible happened: I began sleeping for a solid eight hour span a night. (This was totally out of “character!” Even my family was like, “Who are you and what have you done with Jackie?”) I don't exaggerate when I say that this felt miraculous.
I’m sharing this experience with you because, as many experts now say, sleep is our third pillar of health (along with diet and exercise). Without enough of it, we suffer in ways both obvious (that grouchy mood, for example) and unseen (like inflammation that sets a body up for disease). So, if you’ve tried all kinds of things to improve sleep, then this “eating window” approach, or time restricted eating (TRE) as it’s formally called, may serve as one more strategy. Just be sure to check with your doctor if you have health concerns of any kind.
Here are a few additional tips based on my experience and Panda’s advice.
It turns out that consuming artificially sweetened, calorie free foods and drinks counts as “eating” because these still kick start the metabolism and should be skipped during your fasting window. Little did I know that I myself was likely “eating” for 15 hours a day because I was starting at the crack of dawn with the indulgence of a Splenda-sweetened energy drink. (Never been a coffee chick.)
Our bodies rely on a number of internal circadian clocks to function well, so try sticking to a very predictable schedule. Wake up, eat, stop eating, and go to bed at basically the same time every day, including on weekends. It sounds boring, but it feels great.
But don’t panic or give up if your schedule slips. Just jump back in as soon as you can, knowing that life throws us curve balls. Remember too that, if you’re constantly fighting to stick to this new routine, maybe you need to tinker with it a bit or take baby steps. For example, going directly to an eight hour window of eating will feel Herculean to most people. This is not meant to be some quick fix but an opportunity to reset health for the long run.
Maybe you’re also wondering what OTHER benefits I bumped into this summer? First, I’ll mention that many people lose weight when they dramatically shift their eating in this way. (Panda’s research shows that the eight hour window works best for this.) I didn’t lose weight, but I work with clients who have. And some have reported remarkable changes in bloodwork, which they attribute to changing their eating in this way. For me, the transformation has been subtle and yet stunningly significant. Not only do I sleep much better as mentioned, but I rarely have any stomach upset, my body seems to ache way less, and my mood is definitely steadier throughout the day. In short, I’d call that better quality of life!
I highly recommend you check out this book, if you’re curious. (That’s literally what I did—checked it out of the Carnegie Library online before deciding to buy a copy.) Whether or not you do, and whatever habits you might shift, may your sleep be sound.