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Best ways to improve your sleep

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If I asked you what are two of the most important factors to improve your health, how would you answer?

Unless you fight tigers for a living I say the two most important factors to improve your health are proper hydration and adequate sleep (however, if you fight tigers for a living that probably bumps sleep to number 3 on the list).

To stay hydrated drink lots of water throughout the day. Like double what you are probably drinking now.

Now that we have covered the hydration piece, we have the rest of the article to focus on how to improve your sleep.


The Role of Sleep

Sleep serves a number of functions, but the goal is ultimately to keep you healthy and functioning like a human rather than a zombie.

During sleep growth hormone is released to repair and/or grow damaged muscles and tissues. Memories and thoughts are consolidated, with useless information being discarded.

Sleep helps us stay alert, concentrate, make decisions, and rejuvenates our body and mind for the next day. All these factors allow us to be productive humans. Take even one of them away and daily performance and health will decline dramatically.

zombie-business-man ←You, after a poor nights sleep


Sleep Architecture

Sleep is broken into cycles lasting roughly 90 minutes. During each 90 minute cycle we experience NREM (non-rapid eye movement) and REM (rapid eye movement) stages of sleep.

NREM sleep→NREM sleep accounts for roughly the first 45-60 minutes of the sleep cycle and makes up 70-75% of your total nights sleep. This phase of the sleep cycle is broken into 4 separate stages.

•Stage 1→You fall into a light sleep and are very easily awoken. Basically you’re in stage 1 as soon as you lay down, close your eyes, and begin to feel “sleepy” .

•Stage 2→You begin to become disengaged from your surroundings and consciousness fades. Body temperature begins to lower.

•Stage 3→Skeletal muscles relax. Dreaming is common in this stage.

•Stage 4→Also known as “slow wave sleep”. This is the deepest and most restorative sleep. Growth hormone is released, muscle and tissue repair occurs, breathing is slow, and body temperature is lowered even still. Arousal is very difficult in this stage of sleep.

REM sleep→REM sleep accounts for roughly the last 20-30 minutes of the sleep cycle and makes up 20-25% of your total nights sleep. Studies using electroencephalography (the electrodes attached to your head that measure brain activity) show that during REM sleep the brain is actually very active.¹

Although research into exactly what occurs during REM sleep is still on going, researchers hypothesize that during REM sleep your brain is sorting and organizing the events and information from the day, and discarding what is deemed useless information.

Studies have proven, however, that if people are continually woken before they enter REM sleep that they become moody, depressed, and very lethargic.

sleepcycles ←Stages of sleep


How much sleep should I get?

The recommended amount of daily sleep for adults is between 7-9 hours.

Now, let’s clear this up right now. When I say 7-9 hours, I’m talking about 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep in the best environment possible. I’m not talking about laying on your neck for 8 hours because you were drunk, or getting up every 2 hours to pee. I’m talking good quality sleep here.


Well…what factors affect my sleep?

Great question!

The biggest destroyer of quality sleep are the lights emitted from electronics.

Laying in bed while working on your computer, having a netflix and chill type of night with the tv on, or just using your phone to cruise around on facebook are all factors affecting the quality of your sleep.

Why do lights inhibit quality sleep?

Another awesome question.

Your body is programmed to secrete the hormone melatonin (hormone made the pineal gland in the brain) as the day fades into night.

In a nutshell melatonin is responsible for the regulation of sleep. Light emitted from electronics, especially blue light, trick your brain into believing it is still light out (daytime).

A lack of melatonin secretion throws off your circadian rhythm (your biological clock) making it much harder to fall asleep.

Light from electronic devices also requires a lot of effort from the eyes to process. Your brain stays alert and active while this influx of information is coming in via the retinas.

When you are trying to fall asleep (down regulate) this extra stimulation is the last thing you want your body to experience.


How to improve your sleep

•Remove all lights from your sleeping area→ Yes, this means no more pre-bed Facebook browsing or late night emails. Cover or remove any light that is emitted into your room. Imagine that you got lost in a cave, with no light source…that’s how dark you want your room to be.

Once the light sources are covered or removed I suggest getting very dark curtains, to further block out external light coming into your room. Again, you are going for the darkness of a cave.

I recommend stop using electronics 30-40 minutes prior to jumping in bed. If this isn’t possible consider using blue light reducing software for your computer and phone.
 

•Set a regular bed time→ If you know you must be up at 5 am every morning, plan to be falling asleep by 10 pm. Notice I said falling asleep, not getting in bed.

 

•Limit caffeine and large volumes of fluid→ Caffeine effects everyone differently, but I recommend no caffeine at least 5 hours before bed. Try coffee in the mornings, shift to green tea towards the mid-morning and early afternoon, and end the day with water. 

Also, refrain from drinking a ton a liquid right before you jump in bed. Disrupting your sleep cycles in the middle of the night to pee is a great way to degrade the quality of your sleep.

 

•Deep breathing or meditation→ A great way to help your body down regulate for the night is to practice deep “belly breathing”.

I first learned about the concept of belly or box breathing from Navy Seal Commander and founder of Sealfit.com, Mark Divine.

Try breathing in through your nose for 2-5 seconds, gently hold that breath for 2-5 seconds, slowly exhale for 2-5 seconds, and gently pause for 2-5 seconds before initiating the next inhale. Repeat this cycle of breathing for 5-10 minutes.

I do this almost every night. Slow breathing helps me to reflect on my day, quiet my mind, and down regulate before bed.

•Daily exercise→ Regular exercise forces you to expend energy. Expending energy leaves you feeling tired and ready for a night of deep restorative sleep.

One caveat to this, is to avoid working out 1-2 hours prior to getting in bed. Your body will be wired, and still in flight or flight mode, which makes it hard to calm down.

 

•Set a soothing alarm clock→ Setting an alarm that slowly brings you back from the dead is the best way to start your morning.

When your alarm is crazy and causes you jolt out of bed, you start the day in fight or flight more. Already anxious, frazzled, and panicked.

If you wake up to an alarm, set one that is soothing and can gently bring you out of dreamland.

←You can’t honestly tell me you’d be excited to wake up to this alarm every morning…

What about the folks who work nights?

Throughout the duration of this article, I’ve made the assumption that you are working a 9-5 office job.

You’re awake when the sun is up and sleeping when the sun is down (more or less). However, what about the folks who work nights?

The nurses, EMTs, cops and fire fighters, military, construction workers, and any other job that requires you to work at night.

I still recommend the above as good places to start.

However, remember our friend melatonin from earlier? Lucky for us, scientists have figured out how to turn this natural hormone into a supplement. Melatonin (the supplement) is available at any grocery store, or health food store. 

For people working nights, I recommend taking 3-6g of melatonin prior to whenever you usually go to sleep. Research has proven both short and long term use to be safe.

However, if you have concerns please consult your physician before taking a melatonin supplement. 

Final thoughts

I hope I’ve given you some new ideas about how to improve your sleep.

As with anything, ease into these changes. If don’t sleep well, try to recognize 1 or 2 areas in which you can improve (such as getting rid of the lights and getting in bed by 10pm).

Keep these changes simple, until they become habit. Even small changes can have a big impact on the quality of your sleep. 


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