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The ultimate geek guide to getting better sleep

Wearables and Fitness Editor Richard Easton replaced caffeine with nothing but water in a bid to improve his sleep. Here’s why you should do the same – and how sleep-tracking tech can help you analyse your problems.

As Derek Zoolander once said, “Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty”, which I can only decipher as saying drinking more water will make me more beautiful. But aside from supposedly having a positive effect on my skin (my face currently looking awful might have played a part in me deciding to do this ridiculous experiment), drinking more water has been linked with other benefits including being leaner. Supposedly, if you drink more water you can raise your metabolic rate temporarily, with drinking 1.5l of water a day contributing to an extra 200 burned calories. Sounds awesome, right?

Related: What is VO2 Max?

But, for me, the big reason for switching to good ol’ H2O is to reduce my caffeine intake. I drink a lot of coffee and tea in a day. Well into double digits on a light day and well over the recommended daily allowance of 400mg. While I have a high caffeine tolerance as a result, I feel like it’s having a negative impact on my quality of sleep. Drinking lots of caffeine can also inhibit iron absorption from your diet, which can lead to you feeling fatigued.

How to sleep better

Photo by Mikesh Kaos on Unsplash

How to sleep better – The experiment

Right now I can get the prescribed eight hours of sleep a night, if not more, and still wake up feeling tired and disgruntled. Looking at my Fitbit Alta HR‘s sleep tracking and it’s clear my quality of sleep is poor. All the caffeine in my system could well be the cause, although it’s worth pointing out the benefits of your bed choice: get the best mattress you can to improve your nighttime comfort.

So for the next 10 days, I’m going cold turkey on all beverages that aren’t plain water. That’s no coffee, tea, diet soda, alcohol or pre-workout gym stimulants. Note: I will not be abandoning my protein shakes (mixed with water) because while I’ll give up all semblance of flavour in my life, I’m not sacrificing my lifting gains for any experiment.

Related: What is HIIT?

Along the way, I’ll track the important metrics in a diary so I can see what impact this week has, including my resting heart rate, weight and sleep quality. Also generally how I feel because I imagine it won’t be a fun experience. I’ve done it before, and three days in I had the worst caffeine withdrawal. Think blurred vision and excruciating headaches.

I’ll be logging the water I drink in the Fitbit app, too, just so I can see if there’s any additional correlation with how much I drink. I’ll be drinking from a 550ml Bobble bottle and a ZeroWater 12-cup filter jug. Only the finest filtered tap water for my impoverished self.

How to sleep better

With that all out of the way, let’s get to this.

How to sleep better – Day 0 (the control)

How to sleep better

  • 1 litre of cold brewed coffee (splash of milk, no sugar)
  • 1 Americano (double shot, black, no sugar)
  • 5 cups of English Breakfast tea (with sweetener)
  • 1 Lilt Zero
  • Resting heart rate: 55BPM
  • Weight: 64.9kg

My Day zero intake and sleep is quite typical, and you can see the problem immediately:  That’s a hell of a lot of Light sleep, with barely enough REM. My Deep sleep level is the real issue, though, which is when your body does much of its physical recovery.

According to Fitbit, if you’re waking up feeling extra refreshed, it’s because you’ve likely spent a lot of time in this stage. I did not wake up feeling extra refreshed even though I was in bed for nine hours. Ho hum.

How to sleep better – Day 1

How to sleep better

Really, really wanted to start the day with my usual routine of a cup of tea while I acclimatised to the state of being awake. Curse you, routine. Halfway through the working day I was getting really rather sleepy. Maybe caffeine does have an impact after all? Knowing my luck this feeling won’t last until the evening and I’ll find it difficult to fall asleep. Drank 2.5l of water throughout the day, as well as a few cups of hot water. Yes, plain, hot water as a surrogate for coffee goodness. It sort of helps.

You can already see some marginal improvements to my sleep quality. REM is still a little low compared to the benchmark for people in my demographic, but at least my Deep sleep has crept up within the lower boundary. While I got less sleep overall, I felt much better. You can see my sleep is peppered by far less Awake time as well, meaning I was stirring far less.

How to sleep better – Day 2

How to sleep better

Okay, so I’ve already survived a full day of no caffeine and it wasn’t as bad as I thought. That is until today. Basically from 3PM I started getting the worst headache, and that lasted through until the evening – yay, withdrawal symptoms are here. It got so bad I had to retire to bed at 8.30PM. It took me a while to fall asleep (because of the headache), but in the end I had a pretty good night’s sleep. It’s strange the withdrawal symptoms kicked in so early, though. I’ve gone caffeine free in the past, and it took three days before I started getting headaches and blurred vision. I’ve also discovered that, as I already suspected, black coffee is even more satiating than water. I find myself feeling hungrier throughout the day…

I woke up once early in the night but otherwise my Awake time is still looking pretty good. There’s a massive improvement in my REM sleep, which is supposedly good for memory and mood. It’s also when you have the most vivid dreams, which certainly was the case. It’s a shame I can’t really remember what I dreamt about. My Deep sleep is still within a good level, too.

How to sleep better – Day 3

How to sleep better

Things are getting a bit easier but it’s funny how turning on the kettle has become a sub-conscious activity. I keep doing it instinctively when washing the dishes as I’ll usually follow up with a cup of tea. My post-meal cup of tea is also sorely missed and I’m wanting a can of soda more than I thought I would. This is at least the first day where I haven’t had a banging headache, so there’s some solace. I got really, really tired in the middle of the afternoon, though, and I had to have a quick nap (hoping my manager isn’t reading this). [Editor’s note: I am and I will be amending Richard’s timesheet accordingly]

Overall, not as good a night’s sleep, but that’s because my two cats were being super annoying in the night. Hence the period of properly being awake. I always struggle to get back to sleep after getting woken up so that’s to the detriment of the rest of the night’s sleep quality. So a new tip for getting a good night’s sleep is to remove external influences. In my case the mistake was forgetting to lock the cats out of the bedroom.

How to sleep better – Day 4

How to sleep better
I got significantly less sleep than usual last night due to going to sleep later, having been at the theatre earlier in the evening, then needing to wake up early to take my mum to a hospital appointment. A lot can be said about maintaining a regular sleep pattern. With that said, I woke up feeling a lot less terrible than I had anticipated, but it was still the worst night’s sleep I’ve had during this experiment.

How to sleep better – Days 5 & 6

How to sleep better

Ah, the weekend. Usually the days I spend enjoying fancier coffee by bothering to make myself a latté with my beloved Gaggia Classic. This weekend was tough drinking nothing but water. I managed to get through and, in fairness, I think I’m through the most difficult patch now. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still love some caffeine.

I managed to hurt my neck at the tail-end of the week, so that means I haven’t been to the gym since Monday (Day 0), so no gauge on the impact this lack of caffeine has had. Another oddity I’ve noticed is I’ve been having way more lucid dreams lately, which is neat. Looking at the REM sleep and I can see why.

How to sleep better – Day 7

How to sleep better

I went to sleep ridiculously early for a Sunday night, and was in bed well before 10PM. This meant I actually had a solid 8 hour’s sleep before my girlfriend rose early to go swimming, and thereby woke me up earlier than I needed to be. Still, feeling good. Finally got myself back to the gym not really expecting much. But in the words of R. Kelly: “My mind’s telling me no, but my body, my body is telling me yes.” Which I assume was his ode to smashing out a PB on dumbbell bench press even though you’re feeling mentally a bit tired.

Perhaps I’ve never needed the double dose of pre-workout powder before training. Having finally bothered to look at the nutritional information, a single scoop is 200mg of caffeine and I’ve in past been taking about two and a half. That’s the equivalent of two and a half espressos. The recommended daily allowance for most adults as I mentioned earlier is 400mg. Gulp.

How to sleep better – Days 8, 9 & 10

How to sleep better

Right, so I actually made it a full 10 days drinking nothing but water. But the reason I’ve lumped all of these days together is that on Day 8 I got taken out with a bout of flu. So all the data became corrupted thus rendered null and void. I also might have had a few sachets of flu medicine mixed in with water although I opted for the no caffeine options.

The above Fitbit screenshot is from Day 9, which was when I was at my absolute sickest. Interestingly, you can see a lot of parallels with the sleep breakdown with Day 0. Basically, my sleep quality when I’m jacked up on caffeine is almost as bad as when I’m taken out with the flu.

How to sleep better – What I’ve learned

  • Water is good, too much caffeine is bad
  • Try and maintain a regular sleep pattern
  • My resting heart rate surprisingly increased
  • You can lose a little weight by drinking more water

Having come out the other side of this experiment, I’ve learned a few things. Unsurprisingly, the amount of caffeine I was drinking really was having a massively negative impact on my sleep quality and energy levels. It also put into perspective just how much caffeine I was consuming each day.

I’ve realised it’s also not that hard to drink at least 2 litres of water a day. Just grab yourself a bottle and keep topping it up throughout the day. While it’s only been 10 days, and some of that was spent sick as a dog, my skin has begun to improve as well.

Trying to maintain a regular sleep pattern is also really important in training your body to sleep better. Any disruptions to that pattern can make your sleep quality worse, as well as making it more difficult to fall asleep in general. Be sure to remove anything that might wake you up in the night because getting back to sleep can be tough even when you’re tired.

Related: Best fitness trackers

How to sleep better

One oddity, which caught me by surprise, was that my resting heart rate on average rose in the first few days of the experiment, likely as my body went through the worst of the withdrawal, before decreasing again and briefly levelling out still above my starting point of Day 0. You can see when I get ill in the second graph when my resting heart rate spikes drastically.

Having weighed myself after Day 7, I’d lost about 300g, which doesn’t sound much (I actually lost 1.5kg after Day 10 from being ill). But considering I hadn’t made any conscious effort to adjust my diet, and I was actually exercising less than usual due to an injury, that’s really quite good. Also worth noting is that I don’t add sugar to my coffee or tea and I’ve always drank diet sodas, so there were no lost calories from substituting these for water. If you’ve got a bigger penchant for the sweet stuff you’ll make a massive difference to your calorie intake by drinking water instead. Top that off with studies that show sleeping more is actually linked with losing weight and you might find yourself onto a real winner.

How to sleep better

Now, with the experiment over, I’m free to drink whatever I like again. Admittedly, I will be back on the caffeine, but in a far reduced manner. Just being more conscious of your sleep quality is a good starting point. Too many of us take for granted that getting the prescribed eight hours sleep is enough, when it’s really about quality not quantity.

Lead photo by Maeghan Smulders on Unsplash

Are you going to give a caffeine detox a go? Let me know @chocojetpack on Twitter.

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