Sufficient quality sleep is crucial to elevating performance and healthspan simultaneously. It’s not always as easy as just telling someone to get more good sleep. Dr. Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience at UC Berkeley and author of the book, Why We Sleep, lists the 4 pillars of good sleep as Depth, Duration, Continuity, and Regularity. Exercise and eating well can help a lot, but here are a few more tips and strategies to practice and draw from.
ALLOW TIME FOR SLEEP
In our world, you could be engaged 24/7 and easily stay busy. We are creatures on a 24-hour circadian clock (as all animals on earth are) and in optimal conditions, we need to spend about a third of that time daily getting restorative sleep. But for most, the to-do list never ends. STOP being engaged in the day early enough. 9 hours before you need to wake up, start your pre-bedtime ritual.
STOP CAFFEINE INTAKE EARLY
A minimum 12 hours (the quarter-life of this stimulant) before you need to be asleep (and 20 hours before you need to be awake) stop ANY caffeine intake (coffee, tea, soda, dark chocolate). Caffeine stays in your system for over 12 hours. It can also elevate cortisol (your awake hormone) for as long as 18 hours because it inhibits the body’s natural ability to clear it.
STOP EATING EARLY
4 hours before you need to be asleep (and 12 hours before you need to be awake), you should be DONE EATING. Besides insulin resistance being highest at this time in the day, recent research indicates our normal evening melatonin production (the sleep hormone) reaches receptors in pancreatic islets. This impairs insulin production and thus glucose management and we store more fuel as fat. Synchronizing your central circadian controller (which responds to light) with your peripheral circadian controllers in your gut can have numerous health benefits including better sleep (and all the good things that come along with better sleep). For more information on this science, go to Dr. Satchin Panda’s website from the Salk Institute or read his book, The Circadian Code.
EARLY BRIGHT LIGHT EXPOSURE
Early bright light exposure has been shown by research to lower cortisol levels in the evening. Light like the sun (10,000 lux or more) early in the day actually reduces stress hormones later in the day and improves sleep. So, getting outside early (preferably without sunglasses) or even getting morning exposure to light from a SAD lamp (a full-spectrum lamp designed to help prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder) should help you sleep better.
STOP EVENING BLUE LIGHT EXPOSURE EARLY
1-2 hours before you need to be asleep (and 9 hours before you need to be awake) GET AWAY from blue light. Blue light is emitted from any screen – your TV, phone, tablet, or monitor. It’s also a good idea to turn OFF half of the overhead lights in your home. Blue light, which also comes naturally from the sun, turns on our cortisol in the morning and was meant to be naturally reduced later in the day as sunlight fades. Blue light late in the evening will actually turn OFF melatonin production and this takes time to turn back on. If you must be in front of a screen, get a good pair of blue light blocking glasses which block the light spectrum between 380-550nm, and set your screen brightness to reduce blue light later in the day (even as early as 4 hours before bed). You can even get smart bulbs now that change the spectrum of light in your home from blue earlier in the day to red later in the day. These can also be set with voice-commanded in-home virtual assistants.
CREATE A DARK SLEEPING ENVIRONMENT
Make sure your bedroom is dark enough. If you can see your hand held up 18 inches from your face, it is too bright. Consider blackout blinds.
CREATE A COOL SLEEPING ENVIRONMENT
Set your bedroom temperature between 15.5 and 19.5 degrees C (60-67 degrees F) as your body’s core temperature needs to drop before falling asleep. Data shows we typically fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply when our core temperature is lowered. Some people need to be at the top of that range (especially to get into deeper sleep cycles), while others prefer the lower end. Play with it and determine what is best for you to feel refreshed in the morning. Hopefully you are compatible with your partner.
TRY A CONTRAST SHOWER RESET PROTOCOL
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, having a cold shower or ice bath right before bed for a few nights can help if you need a sleep reset (due to insomnia or travel across time zones) – this is likely related to the same mechanism as above. A slightly less aggressive protocol that has yielded similar results is this 7-minute contrast shower protocol. Switch between 10 seconds of Hot water followed by 20 seconds of Cold – do this 5 times and finish with 2 minutes of Cold. Use whatever level of Cold and Hot you can tolerate then head straight into your cool, dark bedroom. Try to progress to more extreme temperatures over a few days.
TAKE MAGNESIUM BEFORE BED
Besides being a mineral many of us don’t get enough of in our diets (it is a very volatile ion, even if you are getting a lot of deep green leafy vegetables), magnesium can help calm your nervous system and make you drowsy. Taking 200-400mg 20 minutes before bed is a good time for this supplement if you have trouble falling asleep. Many supplement compounds are ineffective due to poor absorption or bioavailability, or are just hard on the gut. Magnesium Bis-Glycinate or Magnesium Malate (purchase it here) are the 2 forms MDs have recommended to me for oral supplementation. Read more about the magic of magnesium here.
SKIP THE ALCOHOL BEFORE BED
If you are using alcohol as a sleep aid, STOP. Research shows it interferes with optimal sleep cycles and flat out blocks the crucial restorative REM sleep (as do THC and opiates). Often after using alcohol to fall asleep, you wake up once you sober up. Being sedated and being asleep are not the same state.
USE WHITE NOISE
Whether from a machine or an app, white noise can simultaneously calm your mind and block out noises that may disturb your sleep.
FOCUS ON BREATH
Meditate solely on the mechanics of slow deep belly-breaths through your nose; think of exhaling tension from your body and mind with each successive breath until you are totally relaxed. Stay focused on just your breath.
IF YOU ARE AWAKE, GET OUT OF BED
If you spend 20 minutes or longer awake while in bed, it can start to create a dysfunctional association in your brain. Your brain should associate your bed with sleep. If this happens, stay in the dim light and walk to another room. Read a book until you are sleepy. Then return to bed. This will help break the cycle even though it may mean less sleep time that night.
MONITOR YOUR SLEEP
At the very least, track your time in bed and how you feel in the morning (before coffee) out of 10, with 10 being fully refreshed. There are also a number of wearable devices and corresponding apps that can monitor everything from resting heart rate, to time spent in the various stages of sleep, to heart rate variability (HRV – the variation in intervals between single heart beats, which can be a good indicator of your autonomic nervous system health). The apps for these devices can make recommendations on where you stand relative to optimal ranges.
If you are still stuck in a state of insomnia or poor sleep quality, see a medical practitioner. The endocrine pattern created by poor sleep can be a vicious cycle – the effects of poor sleep can be a continuing cause. Try to request non-addictive interventions that encourage healthy sleep stages, not just a loss of consciousness if at all possible.
Hopefully, this little list will be useful, but we are here if you need a more in-depth examination of your sleep habits. If we cannot help, we will direct you to someone who can.