Health is based on three pillars: sleep, nutrition and fitness. I chat with some of the most interesting people I know to discover more about their Health Stacks: the behaviors and products they use to stay healthy and fit.
Recently, I had an hour-long Zoom conversation with Simon Huck. Simon is the founder of JUDY, an emergency preparedness brand that offers emergency kits to families across the country. I spoke with Simon about his health and sleep journey over the past few years.
Simon started his health journey when he moved to New York City at 20 years old
Simon talks candidly about his struggles with insomnia, and how he has overcome his sleep struggles
Eating healthy and reducing sugar intake have been a huge game changer for Simon's overall wellbeing and sleep hygiene
Simon uses his workouts to unplug from the world and views them as a treat
I used to tell people, "Oh, I've always been healthy," but that really wasn't the case. I always had a sweet tooth growing up so I did not eat as healthy as I do now. In college, there wasn't really a workout culture, so I found myself not working out regularly. It wasn’t until I was 20 year old that I had my fitness “make-over” when I moved to New York City and realized that people in this city are in such good shape. I really didn't take my health and fitness seriously until I started living in New York.
It is definitely sleep and I could talk about it forever because it has been such a challenge for me. I have worked with doctors, specialists, and experts all over the world to try to fix my sleep.
After 25 years of battling with insomnia, I am now a recovered insomniac. For the longest time, it was something that really controlled my life because I was so anxious about not getting sufficient sleep. Now I'm in a much better place, but it took years and a lot of hard work.
My main problem with sleep stemmed from anxiety. I've never been a person that could fall asleep right away. A big challenge for me was having anxious thoughts, primarily about work. Even if I were to get up and go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, my anxious thoughts would start and wouldn’t be able to shut them off by the time I got back into bed. Thus, I would be up for hours. I realized that I needed to cleanse myself of this anxiety and maintain a regular sleep schedule if I was ever going to fix my insomnia.
In the beginning, I tried everything to fix my sleep. I am the person who invested thousands and thousands of dollars in every sleep voodoo magic trick you could do. When I first started dating Phil, my fiance, I was moving apartments and I had to get a new mattress. I bought eight different mattresses and I kept shuffling them. I’d have them stacked in my living room and I would just shuffle them out to try and figure out which mattress would give me the best sleep and finally landed on one that worked... I am the case study for bad sleep and I think mattresses are important.
My first attempts to try to help my anxiety and sleep involved using Calm and Headspace. I practiced some of their anti-anxiety meditations, and those were helpful for clearing my mind before bed. I've been slacking these last two years, though. Some people find it easy to meditate, but as someone who is really anxious, I find that meditation makes me feel worse on occasion. Personally, I don't think meditation is mandatory for good sleep. However, meditation does seem to work for a lot of people, especially my friends who suffer from anxiety like me.
After trying meditation, I looked into therapy programs to help my sleep since my issues stemmed from anxiety. One program I tried was CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia). CBT-I wasn't unsuccessful, but I had problems committing to it. I wanted to do something personalized and within my own control, and I didn't want to have to go to a doctor once a week. Along with those reasons, I also did not want to completely change my lifestyle in order for the program to work. I have a major sweet tooth and continued to drink alcohol, but I wasn’t ready to give those things up, even though I knew it was affecting my sleep and the potential positive effects of the CBT-I program. How could I complain about not sleeping when I'm having sugar filled cocktails three times a week, or when I'm having a chocolate multiple times a week? There are a lot of habits in our own control that can improve our sleep, but a lot of people don’t want to give up things, such as sugary foods and cocktails. Even though I did not continue CBT-I, it taught me that my sleep problems weren’t going to be fixed until I started to make lifestyle choices. Because of this, I basically just went completely boring, sober, and sugar-free for eight months and it did wonders for my sleep.
During the time of making big lifestyle changes, I was not particularly fun. To improve my sleep, I had to get rid of alcohol entirely (even though prior to that, I was only drinking on a Friday or Saturday night). Drinking messes with your sleep rhythm and sleep hygiene for days. I find I’m still dealing with a hangover on a Wednesday if I was out drinking on a Saturday. Living in New York City, it can be hard to have proper sleep hygiene since there's a lot of people out there who are really living big on the weekends. It’s important to be disciplined because big weekends out will affect your sleep for the entire week.
Once I made those lifestyle changes, my sleep started to improve drastically. Aside from lifestyle changes, I went to Mount Sinai and I participated in several sleep studies. They were moderately helpful, but the biggest game changer for my sleep came from a book I read called The Sleep Solution by Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep expert. His book changed my life and mindset about sleep. It’s a great book for anyone out there who is struggling with sleep. I send it as a Christmas gift to all of my insomniac friends out there. Dr. Winter taught me to treat my sleep like I treat my bicep or any other muscle in my body - I have to work at it and condition it and over time, it will get better.
One of the key takeaways I had during my sleep journey was that when I start something, I need to follow through and not get discouraged. The biggest thing I see with my friends who are struggling with their sleep is that they try something for three days and then they'll say, "It's not working." I’ll think, "Well, nothing works in three days."
Something I like to keep in mind about sleep is that no one in the history of the world has ever died because they didn't sleep well. Non-sleepers are functioning. They're going to Wall Street every day, they're acting in movies, they're nurses and doctors, and there are functioning people all around the world who do not sleep well. A lot of people don't sleep and they're still able to do their job every day so it's not the end of the world for them. I used to have horrible anxiety if I didn’t sleep much the night before. Now I know that if I only get a few hours of sleep, it won’t be the best day, but I’ll get through it. I used to cancel meetings because I was sleep deprived, but I don’t do that anymore. Now, I don't cancel my workout, I don't cancel my social plans, and I make no changes for my lack of sleep. It's allowed me to persevere. Plus, the more I do, the more tired I am at night and the better sleep I get the next day.
If you can make small, consistent changes to improve your sleep and health, you will see improvements over time. You have to go crazy in the beginning with how disciplined you are. I kept a really detailed sleep journal, went to sleep clinics, followed the advice in The Sleep Solution and reduced my alcohol and sugar intake. All of that hard work led me to finally curing my sleeping issues and I have been sleeping like a baby ever since.
Health and wellbeing to me relates back to all the cliche things, such as being careful about what you eat and drink, and getting enough sleep. Sometimes those cliches can go in through one ear and out the other, however, it’s important to be conscious of them everyday since they are all connected.
I find that alcohol is poison for my sleep for my health. I do love an espresso martini and I also enjoy the feeling of being a little bit tipsy when I’m out with friends, but I know it isn’t the best for me. If I’m out and drinking, I'm constantly thinking, "Okay, do I need to be productive on that Saturday or Sunday? What do I need to accomplish?" If I'm able to, I will have one or two drinks on a Friday. When I was younger in college, I didn’t need to make those kinds of decisions. The 20-year-old Simon was able to have five drinks and wake up the next day and feel phenomenal. However, now, it’s a completely different story.
I am now really mindful of how much alcohol I drink and also how much sugar I consume. I’ve struggled with candy and sugar all my life. I've had a love affair with sugary treats since I was a kid. I've gone a few days without it, but then I would start to crave sweet treats. However, as I get older, I'm so sensitive to what I consume; it affects how I sleep and other areas of my health. For example, last night before I went to bed, I ordered double extra-large Pinkberry with chocolate chips at 10pm. I was up until 2:30 in the morning running around my apartment because of all the sugar. Limiting both sugar and alcohol has not been a vanity thing for me, it just makes me feel so much better overall.
I am very careful of the type of foods I eat. I primarily eat organic fish and chicken. I’m lucky enough to have a chef who's been cooking for me for the last seven years. She cooks for me and several others, so I am able to design my own menu. I’m not a good cook, so this has been a big way that I can eat healthier. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I get pre-cooked meals dropped off at my place. That's probably one of the biggest treats that I allow myself now because it’s been such a game changer for my health and fitness. My body feels better and my sleep is better. Also, since I naturally love sugar so much, having pre-made healthy meals has made limiting my sugar intake much easier. There's no preservatives or excess sugar in any of the food she makes, so I know it’ll be healthy and don’t have to think more about it.
I eat three times a day and I also have two snacks. I eat at the exact same time every day. I eat at 9:00 AM, 1:00 PM and then 7:30PM, with snacks in between. I run my body very much like a clock. I have not tried intermittent fasting, although everyone around me has and loves it. I've always been really skinny, so I think that I would lose too much weight if I tried that.
For exercise, I don't do any cardio, which I know is bad, but I do weight training six times a week, typically in the afternoon. Living in New York city as a gay man, you have higher standards of how often you have to work out. Anywhere else in this world, you could work out three times a week, but in New York, as a gay man, you've got to do six to look the way you want to.
I put my phone on “do not disturb” during my workouts, especially when I work out with a trainer. That one hour of no phone time is really important to me. There's nothing worse than a workout where, in between sets, people check their emails. Instead, during a workout, you get an opportunity to zone out the world for an hour and focus on yourself and the training only.
I actually don't use any products. For me, many health-related products aren't really that helpful. A lot of friends of mine swear by them, but I know myself well enough to know that they’re just not for me. Part of my sleep transformation was not keeping track of certain metrics because it would discourage me. My sleep hygiene is pretty strict, though. I go to bed at the same time, and I wake up at the same time, but I try not to keep track of a lot of other things. If I do, I get myself sidetracked and start over-analyzing, which ultimately discourages me from staying on track with my routine.
I have two, and I think both could upset people who are reading this. One, I'd love to take a pill and not have to deal with food at all. If you could just give me a pink pill and I could just take it and I would be satiated, I would do that. Most people love food, so that takes away a big part of their life. Unlike most people, I eat to live, versus live to eat.
Secondly, I would love to hook up to a machine that could put me into a deep sleep for eight hours each night. I could awaken and not have to deal with any of the anxieties of going to sleep.
My number one health hack involves food, sleep, and alcohol. Anything that is going in your body is going to affect how you feel the next day. To make healthy decisions, questions to ask yourself are: Are you having a healthy meal? Are you going to bed early? Are you taking care of yourself? Are you going to the gym? For me, the gym is a place where I go, sweat, and leave feeling better. All of the things I prioritize are not necessarily the cleverest hacks, but they are the ones that work.
I wake up around 5:30-6:00AM to start work. That tends to be my most productive time when I can respond to emails before people are awake, and set the priorities for the day and for the week. During this time, I also read the papers - the New York Times, the New York Post, and the Washington Post - as well as entertainment sites. I'm a big consumer of media and I like doing it in peace and quiet. I'm then on back-to-back Zooms or phone calls right up until my workout at 1:30 or 2:00PM.
Normally, I go to bed around 11:00PM, depending on what we're doing, and on the weekends, 1:00AM would be the latest. I sleep around 6-7 hours a night now. This is me in my 30s, though. In my 20s, I was living my best life, staying up until 2:30-3:00AM on the weekends.
At 7:30 PM, I make sure to put my phone away and not be responding to any work emails that aren’t urgent until the morning. If you email me after 7:30PM, I'm typically not responding until the next day. Since I want to be really present in my life, I set a rule for myself not to use my phone after that time. It's also been a hack for good sleep, as well. Winding down a few hours before sleep is essential for me so that I am not ruminating late into the night.
As an anxious person, there are so many things that keep me up at night. The silliest of things can keep me up, such as a conversation I had with a family member or a friend that unsettled me, or obsessing over a work-related task. I find that it's the things that keep me up at night that are the things that become non-issues when I wake up in the morning, and I can’t believe I even thought about them. I don't know what happens at night, but it seems like the brain decides to ruminate on certain things that end up not being of any importance the next day.