Our bodies and brains don’t actually shut down during sleep:
1. Our brain is active. It takes all of the information we absorbed during the day, processes it, forms the right associations and puts it into long term storage. This is critical for human functioning because, upon rising, the brain is rid of any unnecessary junk leaving space to store new memories and communicate with the rest of our body. That’s why kids need so much sleep – because they take in so many new things that need to be processed and filed away.
2. The body repairs and regenerates itself. It sees an increase in growth hormones and testosterone which are necessary for muscle repair, as well as the health of your immune, digestive, musculoskeletal, and endocrine systems. Cut your sleep by an hour and the results are noticeable – on our faces, our performance and even in our blood.
NOT ALL SLEEP IS CREATED EQUAL
There are two more things that are worth understanding about sleep: First – we sleep in stages – light sleep (stage 1 & 2) and deep sleep (stages 3-5).
The deep sleep is where all of the restorative/memory consolidation work gets done. Which means that we need to aim for better, deeper sleep, and not necessarily more of it (especially when that final hour is spent mucking around with the snooze button)
I, for one, am not spending nearly enough time in REM sleep. Apps like Sleep Cycle can actually track the quality of your sleep by your breathing patterns.
Even if I get almost 7.5 hours of sleep, I typically have only one or two periods of deep sleep, which is not enough for a restful and restorative night.
Second is circadian rhythm.
Have you read stats like “5pm is the most ideal time to exercise” or “do your cognitive work in the late morning”?
That’s because we have a biological rhythm that allows us to follow the sun’s cycle. We sleep when it’s dark, we’re awake when it’s light and, depending on the time of day, our bodies release different types of hormones to help us perform different tasks.
One of those hormones is melatonin, and it regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Not surprisingly, the presence of light (artificial or not) affects the production of melatonin.
HOW TO GET A BETTER NIGHT OF SLEEP
There are SO MANY tips on sleep. Mattresses, daytime activities, eating what and when (diet and sleep is a massive topic in itself), naps exercise, sleep position, pajamas, supplements – you get the picture. I read them all, am trying many, and am sharing the most commonly recommended, easy to implement best practices.
Side note #1: Check out my round up of apps, gadgets, products and resources to improve sleep.
Side note #2: Consider yourselves warned: some of these sleep tips are intimidating and inconvenient.
1. Track your sleep: The first order of business is to establish a baseline and track your sleep with a journal or a free app like SleepCycle (place it under your bed sheet and it monitors your breathing patterns).
2. Sleep in total darkness: Because of our circadian rhythms, the presence of light prior to sleeping signals the body to limit the production of melatonin. Not only does it disrupt sleep, but it also poses some health risks. So get rid of or cover up your electronics, install blackout curtains or sleep with an eye mask.
3. Get rid of the “blue light”: Too much exposure to light before bedtime is one of the biggest culprits of sleep struggles. “Blue lights” in particular (as opposed to the “red light” of fires and candles) mess with your body’s ability to produce melatonin. Starting 60-90 minutes before bed, avoid or limit the usage of tablets, smartphones, TVs, computers, clock radios and other blue light emitting devices. Even better, get them out of your bedroom. This sounds inconvenient, but there are a lot of blue light blocking devices and apps that help combat this.
4. Keep your room cool: The ideal temperature for falling and staying asleep is somewhere between 65 and 70 degrees, the cooler the better. Studies show that cooler body temperatures lead to more deep sleep, where as hot environments and higher body temperatures lead to more wakeful states.
5. Adjust your sound: Sound frequencies can actually alter brainwaves and influence the body’s functioning (mainly because the neurons in our brains use electricity to communicate with each other), and there has been a lot of data to suggest that we can achieve more periods of deep sleep if we listen to certain “binaural beats” aka brainwave entertainment. A simple white noise app will suffice (and hopefully mask the bark of your little white Maltese… or your husband’s is snoring) or, for the more adventurous, a special binaural deep sleep inducing track.
6. Clear your mind: This is a great time for a little introspection so that your day ends on a positive note:
Say a prayer
Write down the things you accomplished during the day
Write down the things you’re grateful for
Get thoughts, ideas and problems out of your head with a journaling session (this is especially helpful if you’re the type to lie in bed rehashing all of the unfinished projects, unending to do’s, people to talk to and things of worry that are in your head.)
7. Don’t drink caffeine after 2pm: Caffeine is a stimulant and has sleep disrupting effects.
8. Don’t drink alcohol: But if you do, have your cocktails earlier in the evening and not right before bed (hooray for happy hour!) – because while alcohol might help you fall asleep, it lessens the amount of time you spend in REM sleep. This likely explains my above sleep chart – I usually pour myself a glass of wine or two once the kids are asleep, which, as it turns out, is too late.
9. What you should take before bed: There are dozens of supplements and minerals that are known to enhance sleep. The more popular ones include:
Magnesium (if you’re a female experiencing night sweats, magnesium is worth trying) in the form of vitamins, lotion or even an epsom salt bath/foot bath
A teaspoon of raw honey
Lavender lotion or essential oils
10. Create a bedtime routine: Our bodies like predictability. They’ll work better when you sleep and rise at the same time. The key here is to start winding down at least 30 minutes before bed, getting your brain into a more restful state, and to find what group of activities benefit you the most.
11. If you can’t sleep, get up: If you are not able to fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed. Read or journal under a dim light. Dense fiction will surely put you to sleep quickly.
These days, I quit eating and drinking 2 hours before bed. I shut off my devices not long after that, and whip out my blue light blocker glasses, all in pursuit of that extra cycle of REM sleep. And, to be honest, it sucks. It sucks because I do my best work in the hours before bed sipping on a glass of wine. It sucks because it’s yet another thing I have to give up.
I remind myself, of course, that it’s all in the name of experimentation, but I do question, more and more, what the right balance is between our quest for optimal health and maintaining our sanity.
I can only conclude that finding perfection in things like sleep, fitness, mindfulness and diet, is unrealistic.
And that the key to meaningful progress lies not just in those small improvements, but also in our ability to build self awareness. Awareness of the things that we need, the things that are important to us, and what our triggers are:
Dairy gives me allergies –> Indulge on occasion.
Powering down 30 minutes before bed vs. 60 doesn’t impact the quality of my sleep. –> Keep working.
Gluten gives my mom migraines. –> Avoid.
My husband can’t fall asleep when he has red meat at dinner. –> Indulge on occasion.
White noise makes my kids fall asleep faster. –> Always have access to it.
These are the hypotheses we need to test. So that we can have actual answers, not assumptions.
So that we can be empowered with the knowledge of what triggers X, Y or Z (whatever X, Y and Z might be in your life), and how to fix it if it’s broken.