Ellen Vora M.D. is a holistic psychiatrist practicing with Frank Lipman M.D. at the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. This week, we’re sharing Dr. Vora’s expertise in a new series on natural remedies to calm the body and mind. To learn more, check out her mindbodygreen class How to Control Anxiety: Doctor-Backed Natural Remedies for a Calm & Centered Life.
One recurring problem I hear over and over again from my patients is that they have difficulty falling asleep. More specifically, they can't shut off their minds. Thoughts are racing, preventing them from relaxing or falling asleep. What inevitably follows is the vicious cycle of stressing about not falling asleep, which amps up anxiety and makes it even harder to fall asleep. Sound familiar?
I could tell you the key to slowing the mind at bedtime is to reduce stress in your life (which is true), but I know firsthand that managing stress is easier said than done. We're not going to solve the multidimensional problem of daily stress this moment. But there's another cause of racing thoughts at bedtime that is much more easily remedied: being overtired.
Right about now, you may be thinking, Overtired? Exhaustion can actually prevent sleep?
Yes. When I hear a patient describe his or her struggle to fall asleep, I immediately think that this person needs an earlier bedtime. When we wait too long to go to bed, we miss the window of tired and become overtired—our bodies get jacked up on cortisol and actually prevent relaxation and eventual sleep.
My Experience With Exhaustion
I, too, had never heard of this concept. I was a firm believer that as long as you got enough sleep, it didn't matter what your sleep schedule was. I went through most of college sleeping 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., and I saw no problem with this sleep schedule, apart from the fact that it horrified the adults in my life at the time.
Then I became an adult myself and had a baby. At first, it was fun to be the hip parents who kept their baby up until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m., nursing while binge-watching Broad City or entertaining late-night guests (Hey, guys, we had a baby, but nothing's changed; we can still hang out!). Until one day I was enlightened by a book called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M.D., which taught me about the concept of "overtired" and the importance of an early bedtime. Before long, we had our baby on a textbook early sleep schedule, and this philosophy transformed our sleep as well.
The Science of Being "Overtired" & the Magic Bedtime
Overtired happens when you don't fall asleep when you're tired, and the body releases cortisol, a stress hormone, to meet the demands of staying awake. This results in wakefulness and sometimes a stress response. Overtired babies are irritable, and it paradoxically gets harder rather than easier to get them to sleep. It slowly dawned on me that adults suffer from the same issue. When babies get overtired, they're irritable and they cry. For adults, it can manifest as feeling tired but wired, a state of mind in which we can't shut off our minds just as we're trying to fall asleep.
The fact is, there's a window of time when you're sleepy. For most of us, that's about three hours after sunset, or somewhere in the range of 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. in our local time zones. If we push through and stay up past that window, whether it's because we need to finish work, check off a few more boxes on the to-do list, or we get sucked into one more episode on Netflix, our body thinks: Oh! We're not going to sleep even though we're tired; there must be a good reason: We must be at war or on the great transcontinental migration. In an effort to help us meet the demands of whatever may be keeping us up, the body releases cortisol, which gives us a jolt of energy, wakefulness, and stress. Thousands of years ago, this response was helpful for survival. But today is a different story. For us, this can feel like anxiety, panic, agitated wakefulness, or racing thoughts, even though we're exhausted. With cortisol coursing through the veins, we attempt to crawl into bed at midnight, or 1 a.m., and, big surprise, we can't sleep.
The Bedtime Experiment
I know a bedtime between 9 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. is unfathomable to the average 20- or 30-something. Often we're not even getting home from work or dinner until then. But I encourage you to try this for a week as an experiment.
1. Observe your second wind of energy.
When you start to look for it, you'll notice when your body passes the threshold into the overtired state. You might suddenly feel warm, or you might get what feels like a "second wind" of energy. You might find yourself falling down an internet rabbit hole with renewed vigor or even embarking on projects like cleaning the kitchen.
2. Notice your "tired window" or when your second wind begins.
Also, when you start to look for it, you can even notice your tired window. Perhaps it's 9:30 p.m. or 10:00 p.m., and you feel like curling up and falling asleep on the couch. But instead your first instinct is that it's too early to go to bed. You might even feel too lazy to start the process of brushing your teeth and getting ready for bed. So instead you glance at your phone. Resist the urge! We know too well what it's like to emerge from the phone vortex an hour later, bleary-eyed and overtired.
3. Take action: Go to bed.
Next time you detect that window of tiredness, brush your teeth and crawl into bed. Whatever you needed to finish can be done the next day when you feel rested and rejuvenated. In fact, you'll probably work more efficiently and produce better-quality work after a good night's sleep. By acting fast when the wave of tiredness hits you, you're preempting the overtired state, and you'll be able to drift off to sleep when your head hits the pillow rather than lying in a cortisol-fueled haze while racing thoughts crowd your mind.
While reducing stress overall is the definitive solution, a quick fix to prevent racing thoughts when you're trying to fall asleep is to aim for an earlier bedtime, somewhere between 9:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m., and crawl into bed right when you feel the first wave of tiredness hit. Even if this seems incompatible with your lifestyle, at least give it a try and view it as an experiment. Pilot a 10 p.m. bedtime for a week, read about your sleeping position, and experience the ease of falling asleep without the drama of cortisol-fueled racing thoughts.