Sleep seems to be one of those biological functions we all know we SHOULD get plenty of, but not many of us know exactly why. Even the top researchers only have educated guesses on exactly why we need to be spending roughly 1/3 of our precious 24 hours each day horizontal and unconscious. Which from an evolutionary point of view, spending that amount of time not feeding, not mating and completely open to predators has a lot of potential dangers.
So what do we know about sleep?
We can say with some degree of certainty that it has some pretty impressive effects on the brain, mainly;
Motor Task Efficiency (things like muscle memory and reaction time)
Emotional control and regulation.
I'm sure you've personally had these impaired after a night of average sleep, maybe you kept tossing and turning, your partner was snoring so loud he almost woke the neighborhood, or self induced by your favorite stimulant. Either way I can bet you've woke up the next morning feeling a little hazy, left for work and realized you forgot your lunch (memory), fumbled and dropped your keys as you try to juggle your double shot coffee and open the door (motor task efficiency), and finally sat down to work and had a complete mental blank when needing to solve problems (creativity) and to top it all off you were irritable as ever and would snap at anyone for just looking at you the wrong way (emotions)
And they are just some of the immediate effects of sleep deprivation. That isn't to mention the detriments to your health long term if you continue to function on low amounts of quality sleep (and I specifically mean QUALITY sleep) which can range from a;
comprised inflammation response,
impaired immune system,
impaired endocrine and reproductive system,
impaired cardiovascular system,
and is ultimately associated with a shorter life span.
So if you're not a big fan of sleep and work yourself into the ground and live by the moto "I'll sleep when I'm dead", you may just get your wish a lot sooner than you expect.
But what do you mean by sleep QUALITY?
It's one thing to be unconscious and a whole other thing to be in a state of deep and restorative sleep. Talk to anyone who uses a lot of alcohol, weed, sleeping pills or other sedatives before bed and you'll commonly get comments like;
"I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow"
"I sleep for 8 hours but I feel so hazy and tired when I wake up"
That's because those substances sedate us into a state of unconsciousness, not the restful sleep that we need in order to wake up feeling refreshed and energized.
Quality sleep means getting sufficient amounts of all 3 stages of sleep, light, deep and R.E.M sleep.
If we break down the average persons night sleep, it may look something like this;
15-60 minutes to fall asleep,
Wake up an hour or 2 later to go to the toilet,
Wake up around 1-3am (maybe from stress or other issue),
Snoozes the 6am alarm until the latest possible time so they can barely make it to work on time.
In this example alone we may be in bed for a full 8 hours, but with all these disturbances and inefficiencies only getting around 5-6 hours of actual sleep!
Consequently our sleep data could look something like this;
Light sleep; 4hrs
Deep Sleep; 30min
REM sleep; 5min
Awake time; 3.5hrs
That's wasting over 3 hours EVERY single night, thats 21 hours every week spent laying in bed, not resting, not making money, not having fun, just wasted.
After sleeping like that I'm sure you've just thought, "I need an extra coffee" or "I just need more sleep". More actual sleep, yes, not necessarily more time in bed, keep in mind that difference.
Before we get into how to spend more time getting QUALITY sleep, you're probably wondering, what do those numbers mean? What are we aiming for?
We've all heard the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night, thats easy,
the big metrics we want to see increase are the deep and REM scores. Now most sleep tracking devices aren't 100% accurate and have trouble differentiating between deep and REM so I don't suggest getting too caught up on one or the other, BUT, I do recommend people aim for a combination of deep and REM sleep totaling 50% of your total nights sleep.
This will also have a big impact on your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is another phenomenal biomarker I suggest tracking if you want to optimize your health, performance and recovery, but we'll save that for another article.
How do we get there?
(I won't go too deep into each action this time so if you want me to elaborate please comment on this blog and I'll be happy to expand in due course)
SUNLIGHT - sounds funny I know, but our brain naturally produces melatonin during the day when exposed to sunlight but only releases at night. Bright sun early in the day and dim lights in the afternoon/night help to regulate our sleep/wake cycle so our body knows when to be alert and when to rest.
CUT THE CAFFEINE - (and all stimulants) if you love a coffee in the morning like I do, have it 90 minutes after waking but no later than 10am. Caffeine has a half life of roughly 8 hours and even long after that it is still preventing our body (through blocking adenosine receptors) from fully winding down.
FOOD- If you struggle to get to sleep, save a big chunk of your carbs for dinner (I'm not saying eat more carbs, but save the ones you do eat, save for dinner, this helps to increase serotonin, which is a precursor to melatonin), as a rule of thumb eat no later than 2 hours before bed (some people, myself included, sleep much better eating as early as 4 hours before bed but this is highly individual), if your body is still digesting dinner while you try to sleep it will keep your heart rate from lowering until much later in the night, severely reducing your deep and REM sleep.
CUT THE NIGHT CAP- alcohol kills your deep sleep.
MANAGE YOUR STRESS- do something to unwind before you get into bed, for some people thats meditating, journaling, having a bath or just going for a walk.
SCREENS OFF- the blue light and stimulation keeps us awake, turn screens off at least 60 minutes before bed.
LIGHTS OUT - bright, overhead lights wake us up, dim lights below our eye line make us sleepy. (think about replicating nature with the sunrise/sunset)
CONSISTENCY- have consistent (within 30minutes) wake and sleep times, regardless of what day of the week it is.
SUPPLEMENTS- Supplements can be added in after you've ticked all the other boxes, my personal favorites for sleep are L-Theanine, Magnesium L-Threonate & Reishi.
Depending on what you already do/don't do a few of these might take some time to incorporate, but overall to get the best out of your sleep have a consistent night routine that incorporates a few of, if not all, of these points. Once you are consistent with your routine it is much easier to tell what is helping and what is ruining your sleep.
Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite.