Become a morning person. How to end insomnia for $520.99

[edit 7.29.2012: see the bottom of this post for up-to-date recommendations]



I regularly can't fall asleep.  

I often can't fall asleep even when I feel tired.  

Once asleep, I generally sleep through the night just fine.  

It's nearly impossible for me to wake up early in the morning.  

Pulling an all-nighter is surprisingly easy for me.  

I generally direct my lifestyle to avoid morning commitments.

I have delayed sleep phase syndrome, a common form of insomnia.  Sound familiar anyone? 

Or as Wikipedia describes it:


Attempting to force oneself onto daytime society's schedule with DSPS has been compared to constantly living with 6 hours of jet lag; the disorder has, in fact, been referred to as "social jet lag".[7] Often, sufferers manage only a few hours sleep a night during the working week, then compensate by sleeping until the afternoon on weekends. Sleeping in on weekends, and/or taking long naps during the day, may give people with the disorder relief from daytime sleepiness but may also perpetuate the late sleep phase.
People with DSPS can be called extreme night owls. They feel most alert and say they function best and are most creative in the evening and at night. DSPS patients cannot simply force themselves to sleep early. They may toss and turn for hours in bed, and sometimes not sleep at all, before reporting to work or school. Less extreme and more flexible night owls, and indeed morning larks, are within the normalchronotype spectrum.



6-7% of adults report delayed sleep phase syndrome and 17% of university students have symptoms that qualify (from a recent study).  My sense is that entrepreneurs, through both cause and correlation, have significantly higher rates of insomnia than the general population.  I'll talk a lot more about this relationship in a future post, but the anecdotal evidence of morning-hating entrepreneurs is not difficult to find.

If you're like me, you've tried lots of different methods.  You already know about exercising, skipping caffeine, eating well, developing sleep habits, using white noise or a fan, etc.  If you actually have delayed sleep phase syndrome, none of these actually work.  And because they take so much discipline, you generally don't keep up with it anyways.  I get so annoyed by people who have normal sleep cycles offering me solutions that work for them.  Simple solutions like listening to pleasant music, counting sheep, taking a bath...they just don't work.


I've bought virtually every gadget out there and seen lots and lots of doctors.  After years and years of struggling with this problem, I actually have a fairly normal sleep pattern now.   


Here's how I did it:


1.             Avoid bad light at night 

2.             Get bright light in the morning


It's actually that simple.  Caffeine matters and sleep habits matter, but none of them fix the underlying problem: that your circadian rhythm is not working right.  I first realized this when working at summer camps growing up.  I always had tremendous sleep problems during the year and then they would magically go away every summer when I was up at camp.  The key was that at summer camp, I was exposed to early morning light outside every day and I had no access to the bright blue light of TVs and computers at night.  In response, I went to sleep at normal hours and woke up (reasonably) easily.


It took me years, but I've now found the right mix of gadgets and systems to duplicate this success:



1. Avoid Bad Light At Night


This is super important.  The body falls asleep as melatonin rises and serotonin falls.  Seritonin is stimulated by blue wave light.  Very simply, the more light at night, the harder it is to fall asleep.


Let's be real here though, I'm not turning off my lights or living by candle light.  There's no way I'm turning off my HD TV, Macbook, iPad, or iPhone either.  I need ways to limit bad light at night without hampering my digital lifestyle.


For the computer, I use a program called f.lux.   It adjusts the color of your screen to reduce the blue light composition.  It's far more important to reduce blue light than it is to simply turn the brightness down, though I do that too.  F.lux will slowly adjust my monitor color levels to a light red tint after sunset and then return to normal after sunrise.  It has a Disable-for-an-Hour feature that lets you easily bypass it whenever you want.  I highly recommend it and it's free.


I double up with a physical filter as well.  I got a blue light filter made by Low Blue Lights, which is basically just a high-priced orange clipboard, but I'm not complaining.  With a little piece of velcro, it affixes to my monitors and really blocks out the blue light.  While F.lux starts working at sunset, I use the physical filter when I'm using my laptop in bed.   Want to see just how effective this is?  Have it on for just 10 minutes in a dark room, enough for your eyes to adjust.  Then remove the filter.  You'll be shocked at how blindingly bright your monitor now looks, even on its lowest setting.


Low Blue Lights also sells red light bulbs that you can use as a reading light.  These are awesome.  They always feel way too low in intensity when you first turn off your regular light, but once your eyes adjust, you realize that there's still plenty of light to read by. 


2. Get Bright Light in the Morning


There are two reasons to get light in the morning.  First, the early light will help you wake up and feel refreshed.  Additionally, the light, if bright enough, also helps you reset your circadian rhythm so that your body will start the countdown to night earlier.  Several gadgets can help you achieve this:


First, I use a sunrise alarm clock.  This is an alarm clock that slowly turns on to mimic a sunrise (duh).  The beauty here is that you set it to start 30-60 minutes before you need to wake up.  It increases the likelihood that you'll naturally wake-up before your alarm goes off.   With my sunrise alarm clock (and all these other methods...), I wake up before my alarm all the time.  It dramatically changes your mood to wake up naturally.


You can geek out on your success by tracking your sleep habits.  I use Sleep Cycle : An iphone app that monitors your sleep by tracking your tossing and turning.  It also has a built in alarm clock that tries to optimize the time it wakes you based on when you're in the lightest sleep.  I don't use it anymore since the sunrise alarm clock works so well, but it's a nice idea.  My friends at WakeMate are working on a similar concept.


While the sunrise alarm clock will help you wake up, it won't reset your circadian rhythm--which is the root cause of delayed sleep phase syndrome.  If you have the means, go spend half an hour in bright sunshine outdoors and you'll be fully reset.  If you have any type of normal job or class schedule, this won't be possible.  You need really bright light in the morning to reset your schedule and it needs to be done every morning.  Your office light probably gives you 500 lux of light.  Standing outside on a bright day is closer to 10,000 lux.


I have two powerful lights.  The first is a bright flourescent light that supplies 5000 lux of light.  Importantly, I have it sitting next to my bed, and the bulb part reaches out over where my head is.  I connect this light to a standard timer, the type you use to program your outdoors lights.  I set it to go on about 15 minutes before my alarm clock.  This way, if my sunrise alarm clock (which uses a normal bulb) doesn't wake me up, I get a huge burst of light as well.  Ideally, I would have large bay windows that wash me with natural sunlight at the perfect time each morning, while blocking out all light the night before when I try to go sleep.  Since that's nearly impossible to pull off, this is the next best thing.


I generally get out of bed pretty quickly after my 5000 lux overhang light turns on.  By then, I'm refreshed and awake, and I start my morning routine.  I still haven't gotten the needed ~30 minutes of bright light to reset my circadian rhythm though.  If I don't get this bright light early in the morning, it will be harder for me to go to sleep that night.  


So, while eating my breakfast, I have a 10000 lux light that sits on my table pointing into my eyes.  I've tried the really big box lights from BioBrite.  If you're really struggling to adjust your schedule, this is the way to go.  If it's overkill, than I also recommend the much smaller light notebook.  It delivers 5000 lux of light but is far less intrusive.




Shopping list and total Cost: 


$0      F.lux

$30    Blue Light Filter

$25    Low Blue Light bulb

$120  Sunrise alarm clock

$130  Bright overhanging light

$30    Timer

$180  Light notebook

$.99   Sleep Cycle


So, for a total of $520.99, you can squash probably one of the most frustrating bad habits in your life.  


There are, of course, many many other solutions--please share what has worked for you in the comments.



[Edit 7/29/2012:]

Finally, a company made a decent product that addresses this issue.  I now whole heartedly recommend the Naturebright Per3 as both a sunrise alarm clock and bright overhanging light.  It replaces the need to work with our own timer, since it's integrated into one.  I've bought two, one for each side of my bed.  I've now also bought over a dozen for friends and family members that suffer from delayed sleep phase syndrome.  Reception has been quite positive.  Go try it out-


NatureBright Per3 Deluxe Wake Up Light



Find discussion of this post on Hacker News and on Reddit


I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  
I would be remiss not to recommend the following opportunity: @JasonFreedman.
Don't be shy.  You can send me a Linkedin request or become my bff on Facebook