Sleeping for Joie
If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself at the end of a day stressed out about how little you got done. It happens all the time, either due to procrastination or to over-commitment. My type A personality just wont let it go; not willing to admit defeat, I remind myself that the day isn't over yet. I work better at night, I'll say to myself. I’m motivated now, mostly due to the self-imposed eustress. You know what, if I pull an an all-nigher, I might even get ahead. After all, I’ve done it hundreds of times before.
Alright, so what’s the problem? Aren’t some people just more productive at night? I won’t go so far as to dispute that; after all, I personally have a history of producing more when the room is quite and the city is fast asleep. It's hard to function in a society that operates from nine to five. In short, it's not sustainable, and furthermore we often sacrifice on sleep by staying up longer. We don't make up the time with a proper eight hour cycle; our “catch-up” game might end up being three or four combined with an afternoon nap.
We have been told for a long time about the importance of sleep—ever since we were children, but few experts have ever really provided an explanation. Truth is, until relatively recently, the research just wasn't there.
Three years ago, I had a wake up call on the importance of sleep. Thanks to Russell Foster and other neuroscientists, we now understand the correlation between sleep and the onset of Alzemiers in later years. When we sleep, our brain flushes out all the toxic chemicals that build up during the course of the day. Bottom line, not sleeping kills.
"Ok, sure, sleep is important to our overall well being. You might agree, but you go on to justify your lack of sleep: "I’ve got a deadline, responsibilities that will impact me tomorrow, not twenty or forty years from now." That’s fair, and I am not trying to convince you to change your habits overnight. It's simply not that easy to do. My argument to you is that it begins with the mindset. Getting serious about sleep and not just for your own well-being. The myth of nightly productivity is a fallacy. You have have more control over your life than you are willing to admit. It's a decision, followed by action, that creates new habits. Over the last dozen years, I’ve tried over and over again to develop better habits, routines, and to design a productive schedule I can stick to. I dream about executing consistently, day-in and day-out. Well, all of those schedules and routines begin and unfortunately end with sleep. I always begin by blocking off the amount of hours I need to sleep in order to be healthy; the rest is organized around it. The problem, as you might imagine, is that I don’t go to bed on time nor do I wake up at the same time everyday. As a result, I’m not productive and fall back into my less than comfortable ways of getting things done. I work through the night, sleep less, and my consistency goes right out the window.
What I want to share with you today is a series of things you can do to help ensure you are getting quality sleep everyday. It takes discipline and, honestly, it’s a work in progress for me as well, but they do work so here we go.
Step into the Sun
I didn't go to med school, and I like many of us, I half-slept through health class. As a result I went on for many years of my adult life not knowing what hormones are. If by chance you might be anything like me, let's begin by demystifying some terminology--with a term you've heard hundreds of times: the hormone.
A hormone is usually represented as a chemical formula, but it's easier to think of them physically--as substances floating through your bloodstream. When a hormone interacts with a certain type of cell, that cell can change it’s behavior, almost like it got a “power-up.” We—human beings--are just a collection of cells. So, in short hormones impact our behavior. That’s basically it.
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that makes you sleepy. When the concentration of melatonin increases in the body, we begin to start yawning, nod off, eventually falling asleep. You might have seen melatonin at a local GNC or pharmacy. There is plenty of internet, and printed advice, prescribing Melatonin supplements (in pill form) to help with sleep. The problem with this approach is that your body can quickly adapt to this and, as a result, stop producing melatonin naturally. This results in poorer sleep.
"Ok so where does melatonin come from?" you might wonder. Melatonin is actually best friends with another hormone called serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone that is most closely associated with happiness and Joie. Think calm serenity and peacefulness bliss. Those feelings are due to a rise in serotonin in your body. The relationship between serotonin and melatonin is that they swap every night and each morning: serotonin becomes melatonin, and melatonin becomes serotonin. This means that the more serotonin you have before bed time, the better you’ll sleep, and the more melatonin you have when you wake up, the better you'll feel in the morning. Cool, huh?
How do you accumulate more serotonin? The truth is, there are lots of ways, but the most common is by getting some natural sunlight, especially in the morning. When you wake up, try to go outside as soon as you can. Natural sunlight among other means begin to stimulate the production of this happy hormone. Besides waking up to the sun, you can try to sit next to windows. If you work in a typical cubicle filled with florescent light, consider getting some therapy lights which help trick the body.
DISCLAIMER! Be careful not to be in the sun for too long, exposing yourself to to too much UV light. Wear sunblock, or risk getting cancer as you age.
Watch out for blue light and coffee
What is blue light? It’s the color blue. No seriously, blue light is the light that emits from your computer screen, cell phone, or maybe even your fancy digital alarm clock that uses white LEDs. Basically, blue light delays the onset of melatonin production and thus triggers wakefulness. I’m sure you’ve heard of this one before: Don't use the computer before bed. But it’s important. Blue light is a sleep killer. Instead of browsing the web at night to exhaustion, set an alarm on your phone when it’s time to wind down for bed—at least two hours before. Then, switch to other activities like reading a book, going for a night stroll with your significant other, maybe write in a journal, or consider meditating. If at all possible, have a conversation that’s offline or play some analog games. Do avoid sports and working out--more on that later 😃
While blue light kills sleep, so does coffee. Even if you aren’t affected by it (I fall in that category), it ultimately raises cortisol (another hormone often associated with stress and adrenaline) and that directly fights against the conversation of serotonin to melatonin. The result? You might still be dead tired and fall asleep, but you’ll miss out on REM sleep. That’s Rapid Eye Movement sleep, the phase of sleep when you’re dreaming. It’s one of the deepest levels of sleep and is associated with quality sleep. In short, if you don’t dream, chances are you didn’t get a good night’s rest. That’s not always the case--we often forget our dreams--but REM sleep is important when it comes to the quality of sleep. So don’t drink coffee, but if you can’t quit all together--I know I can’t--impose a six-hour curfew on coffee before bed. It will make a difference over time.
—Oh, one more thing on coffee. If you are trying to quit, try reducing the number of days when you drink coffee to be two days on and two days off. Then do the same for weeks and months. Eventually it will become a choice 😃
It’s getting hot in here
Temperature is one of the sure-fire ways to get you to bed or keep you awake. Despite what common sense may lead you to believe, you should sleep in a room that’s somewhat chilly. Ideal room temperature is 68 degrees for the average human body.
Wait a sec, when you were little, you recall, your mom told you to drink hot milk. Doesnt this counteract the “keep it chilly” rule? ’t’s often a good idea to take a bath sometime before bed--A hot bath, even. Sure, the bath was scorching, but by the time you go to sleep your body is actually colder than it was before. You end up falling asleep like a baby. It’s the lowering of your body temperature that helps with sleep. Maybe our bodies have evolved this way while we were sleeping outside during hunter gatherer societies--who knows. Either way, give it a try. I mentioned taking baths as one solution. Another option is investing into a cooling mattress. You can always wear socks if your feet get cold.
It Takes Guts
If you focus on everything mentioned above, you’ll probably do well, but there’s more. Not surprisingly, what you eat has an effect on how well you sleep. Serotonin (that happy hormone we talked about earlier) also helps with digestion. Did you know that your gut is effectively a second brain? It’s true, it has more neurons than any other organ, including the nervous system. This means your gut is often the trigger for most hormones, and therefore influences moods and behavior. The trick to good gut health is to manage the ratio between good and bad bacteria. Good bacteria comes from foods that are rich in selenium, vitamin c, potassium, vitamin D6, as well as those that contain probiotics (think pro = positive, biotics = bacteria). My personal favorite is to focus on magnesium-rich foods like pumpkin seeds, and Brazil nuts which help with labido. Of course, avoid foods that have a negative impact on your bacteria, such those containing preservatives, food additives, and other agricultural chemicals. Also avoid chlorine, if you like to take swims at night in the pool.
Set the mood
Your setting is critical to triggering the brain into thinking it’s time for bed. Your bedroom should be completely deprived of blue light, pitch black, and used only for sleeping and sex. More on that later 😃 Ask your sleep partner to keep work out of the bedroom. Use an ionizer to keep fresh air moving or get some houseplants. The snake plant is a particularly good choice because it emits a lot of oxygen. Jasmine has also shown to increase sleep quality (More Here).
Have you noticed how, after masturbation or sex, you find yourself tired and more inclined to sleep? There's some science behind it. An orgasm creates a cocktail of hormones that all impact sleep in various ways. Oxytocin, a hormone sometimes referred to as the "cuddle hormone,” calms the mind and, as a result, reverses the stress hormone, coritsol. Serotonin rises, which as we know is the key to melatonin production. norepinephrine manages your sleep state, vasopressin increases sleep quality, and prolactin improves the onset of REM.
Good sex not only leads to better sleep, but has been linked to longevity as well. Being active during sex can help exhaust the body resulting in better sleep, as well as increase the overall satisfaction of the experience.
Keep the room pitch black. Consider using blackout curtains. If you have to use an alarm clock use one with dim red lights. Ideally get rid of technology entirely from the bedroom. The bedroom is a sacred place reserved for only two activities.
This last tip is my personal favorite. When I first started dating Sam, I told her I sleep naked. Now I have science to back it up. If you aren't willing to lose the drawers then at least be sure to to avoid tight-fitting underwear and stick to pajamas. Finally, massages, at least once a week, have also been associated with better sleep. If you spend your nights alone, consider some accupressure for a self massage.
Time your exercises
This one I only learned about recently. Working out early in the morning can actually help improve your sleep more than working out at night. The reason? Another hormone, of course. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is not all bad and actually helps with your metabolism. Cortisol spikes in the morning as well as during workouts. Ideally we want our body to predictably ride that hormonal wave as long as possible before the onset of sleep. There is also a thermodynamic reason, hinted at earlier. The later you workout the higher your body temperature rises, which has a negative impact on sleep. When choosing the type of workout you do, opt to lift heavy weights at least twice a week.
Sleep Positions and feeling at peace
According to medical studies, the best quality of sleep comes from sleeping on your back, unless you suffer from sleep apnea. I remember first learning about the benefits of sleeping on your back, as far back as middle school. Yet, I've never quite mastered it. Instead, I subscribe to something called the half-military crawl position, introduced to me by Tim Ferris in the 4 Hour Body. This position is ideal for keeping you still. You pretend you're crawling under barbed wire with one knee up and the other leg straight out. You can also choose to fold your arm under your pillow if that's what's comfortable. What makes this sleeping position so great is how it keeps you still and thus lets you more easily drift into never-never-land.
Humans tend to have very busy brains. If you wake up in the middle of the night and have a hard time falling back asleep, try meditating. Using mindful breathing that focuses on your breath instead of your conscious thoughts that stirred you awake.
Our final tip for you is to stay grounded. Literally, try to find an opportunity to let your feet touch solid ground. The result helps neutralize free radicals and reduce jet lag.
So how much sleep should you get? Honestly, it depends on you and your genetics. If you can afford eight hours, that will put you in a good place, but some people need a bit more, and some much less. What’s almost more important is I you go to sleep. As humans, we have evolved to ideally fall asleep with the setting sun or between 9 and 11 pm. You can shift your schedule bit by bit to eventually get in that range, say 15 minutes each day. I already mentioned that there have been strong associations between lack of sleep and Alzheimer's. Not only that, but your immune system will suffer, and there have been studies associating sleep patterns with cancer. Just do it, and make it a priority, and when you wake up tomorrow. Get up happy, smiling, and eager. Wash your face, and go outside as soon as you can. Happy Days.