Before we dive into the 8 simple rules for getting a solid night's sleep, I want to briefly talk about the importance of sleep for the human body and psyche. Sure everyone knows it is important to get a good night's rest, yet how come so many of us suffer from some kind of sleep dysfunction? When discussions of human optimization arise the two main topics always seem to be training and nutrition. However, sleep is equally as important. When your sleep is thrown off you are setting yourself up for a ton of recovery issues. Without sleep, it doesn’t matter how good your nutrition, supplementation, or other fatigue management strategies you may use are. You will still be tired, you will still be under recovered, you won’t be able to perform at your optimal level, and you will still have disrupted hormonal and immune system function. So many people have excellent nutrition, top of the line training programs and yet they wonder why they are not seeing the results they feel they should be getting. The definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. So instead of restricting your nutrition to strict guidelines or spending excessive time in the gym, let's take a look at your recovery starting with the 8 simple rules to getting a restful night's sleep.
1. OPTIMAL HYDRATION
How much water do you drink each day?
Do you get up to go to the bathroom?
If you can’t answer #1 and think you drink less than the human body requires, you likely have a hormonal imbalance. Cortisol is the main hormone we produce in times of stress and dehydration causes a great amount of stress on the human body. Cortisol is catabolic meaning the breakdown of muscle tissue, it also promotes wakefulness and alertness. Something we want in high levels when being chased by a lion, not when it’s time to rest.
If you answered yes to number two, we are simply disrupting our deep sleep wave cycles, therefore affecting our sleep quality.
To solve these problems, aim for half your body weight in ounces of water every day. Ideally through the day so we reach our target water intake 2 hours before bed to stop you from emptying the tank mid-sleep (Example 200lb person who goes to bed at 10 pm would drink 100oz of water by 8 pm.)
2. CREATING YOUR DEN
I want you to picture a bear in hibernation. What does the inside of the den look like? Are there any sounds? How about the temperature? When a bear or any animal selects a home to hibernate in or sleep, they are looking for a cool, dark, cozy, and quiet place to slumber.
As humans are not much different than animals. Having a pitch-black room is extremely important as light exposure can disrupt the time it takes to get you to sleep. Exposure to light also signals our body to be awake and that means stopping our production of melatonin, our primary sleep hormone.
This means we need the blinds completely closed, the hall light is turned off, the TV is turned off, our phones are away from our bed, and no sleeping with a night light. (Having a poor sleep should be scarier to you than the monsters under your bed.)
3. THE TWO HOUR RULE
The “Two-hour rule” is very simple. However, there is a lot of science to back up just how important this rule really is. Essentially all we are doing is putting our “lives” or for better words our phones on airplane mode 2 hours before bed. It is that simple yet a lot of us struggle with this one (the cell phone addiction is very real).
This means no texts, no emails, no social media, no creeping, no work mail, no contests, and definitely no quizzes to find out which kind of vegetable you are... All of these send signals to our
brain creating chemicals of alertness. When our signals for sedation are disrupted we drastically
increase the time it will take to fall asleep. We are also giving our brain a big dose of dopamine,
a hormone that promotes feelings of being rewarded or feeling motivated. Our body doesn’t link
feeling motivated with “I want to go to bed”. Dopamine is also shown to elevate our heart rate,
definitely not something we want when we are trying to unwind and relax.
Last but not least, our phones also expose blue light. Having learned above light disrupts sleep
by draining our primary sleep hormone melatonin, this is now a double whammy and something
we 100% want to avoid. For any cell phone addicts out there don’t worry I’ve got a solution for
you. Most cell phones these days have a “Nightshift” option under display and brightness
settings. If you don't stay up to date on the latest trends, however, you can download the apps
f.lux or twilight which eliminate blue light once sunset has occurred at your geographical
4. CIRCADIAN RHYTHM
The circadian rhythm is often referred to as our “body clock” essentially it is our biological cycle following the natural pattern of the sun and the moon. We rise with the sun and go to sleep with the moon. Circadian rhythm plays a role in appetite regulation, hormone secretion, blood pressure, and many other important factors.
To follow your circadian rhythm you must do one simple rule: Go to bed at the same time
every night and wake up at the same time every morning. Like anything in life, we need to practice being consistent. This will lock your circadian rhythm into place ensuring you a solid night’s sleep and leaving you with more energy throughout the day. In addition to following our natural rhythm, we will have higher testosterone to cortisol ratio. With the higher anabolic to catabolic ratio, we have a greater potential to build lean tissue and burn fat.
5. ANXIETY AND STRESS
Stress and anxiety is the NUMBER ONE reason why people have sleeping dysfunctions! This is a huge problem that really doesn’t get enough attention in the spotlight. The best way to improve our sleep quality/length is through stress management, not supplements. Yes, supplements can help but we are really just putting a Band-Aid on the wound and not addressing the real reason as to why you may have had issues falling or staying asleep in the first place. The truth is we should NEVER have any problems falling or staying asleep, it is supposed to be a natural process to the body. So why do so many of us struggle with this issue?
Well we constantly concern ourselves with what needs to be done tomorrow, what you could have done differently today, worrying about missing your morning alarm... The list goes on and on , I'm sure you have already thought of a hundred reasons yourself. Worrying about something late at night never solves the problem it only takes away from our sleep length/quality which will only cause more stress and anxiety for the next day; a vicious cycle.
Luckily there are a couple of strategies we can utilize to help solve this common problem. The first is my favorite and it takes very little effort (the reason why I’m a big fan). Some deep breathing techniques or meditation go a long way. The power of the breath is outstanding in its ability to bring us into either a state of relaxation or anticipation all depending on our intent.
I want you to try this exercise right now. Lay on your back in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly. Take a couple of deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Each inhale and exhale should take about 4-5seconds. Observe which hand raises first, if you found the hand on your chest raised first it means you are taking “shallow breaths” and in a state of anticipation. With some new intent try to raise only the hand on your belly with the same breathing tempo for as long as you like or need and notice if you feel more relaxed or at peace. It is all about being comfortable in the present with where you are and who you are and that is the number one tool for dealing with your stress and anxieties. If you find your mind likes to run off as it probably will, I recommend downloading the app headspace for some guided meditation.
Method two is using a journal or a “brain dump” or making a checklist for the next day. You can write whatever is on your mind. Studies show that once you write something down it is quite literally off of your mind. Having the freedom to not have to worry about remembering something goes a very long way. Writing our problems down also gives us the opportunity to put things into a new perspective. I find once I write my issues down they seem a lot smaller than how I perceived them to originally be. After your brain dump, try writing down 3 things you are grateful for. This will help you realize who or what brings you joy in life and the feelings of gratefulness and happiness are the ultimate stress reliever.
6. CAFFEINE AND ALCOHOL
How many of us have spent the night partying, went home, and slept a solid 8-9 hours (maybe longer) yet still woke up feeling tired and unrested? It’s not just the hangover and dehydration that follows a night of partying, but also the effect alcohol has on our sleep quality.
Now alcohol has been shown to improve our ability to induce sleep... or pass out, but that’s where the positivity ends. Alcohol disrupts our REM sleep or deep wave cycles when consumed too close to bedtime. What this means is our sleep length may be the same but our sleep quality will 100% suffer. The good news is a glass or two of beer or wine with dinner should be no problem but when consumed late night reading or watching TV it will definitely have a negative impact. If you are a late-night drinker with low energy throughout the day and reports of poor sleep, the late-night drink should be the first habit to go.
Coffee and caffeine have plenty of research to back up their health benefits so no worries there, but when we are talking sleep there are a couple of things we need to keep an eye on. First of all, caffeine has a 5-hour half-life. Meaning 5 hours after consumption half of the active stimulus will still be buzzing around in your system. In other words, if you took a pre-workout with 400mg of caffeine (roughly today’s standards) at 7 pm. By 12am you would still have 200mg of caffeine in your body. 200mg of caffeine is equal to 12oz of coffee which is about 2 cups. But this doesn't end here, by 5 am you would still have 100mg of caffeine in your system equivalent to one cup of coffee which will indefinitely affect your sleep quality. If you rely on that 400mg of caffeine to get you jacked up before your workout, I would save it for a time where you could train in the morning or find another way to get yourself in the zone. Music, goal setting/visualization or breathing techniques have all been shown to improve performance. For the avid coffee lovers out there I would recommend cutting back on the sauce around 2 pm to avoid this overlooked problem.
7. NAPPING 101
Don’t get me wrong, napping is an awesome strategy to repay sleep debt from the night before or to recover in between grueling training sessions for the more advanced athlete training multiple times throughout the day. However, before we just start napping when and wherever we please there are 2 main topics to keep in mind; our circadian rhythm and nap length/quality.
First, our bodies have a natural low in the circadian rhythm which takes place about 12 hours after the middle of your sleep. Meaning, if you slept from 11 pm to 7 am your halfway point would be 3 pm, usually around the time we're reaching for another coffee. So if you were to nap during the day, strategically the best time to do so without throwing your circadian rhythm off would be 3 pm.
Second, have you ever taken a nap for 2 plus hours and woken up feeling more exhausted or unmotivated? You’re not alone. Our nap length should be no longer than 30 minutes. When we exceed this 30-minute window, we end up slipping into our deep sleep cycles sending a signal to our brain saying it’s time for bed. The excessive nap is likely to throw off your natural circadian rhythm causing you to stay up later than normal. Sure if we didn't have a morning alarm this wouldn't be such a big problem but lots of us do have a daily schedule and can’t press the snooze or stop button. This lack of sleep is now likely to have us “crash” after work and feel the need to take a nap. Thus repeating the cycle over and over again.
7. LATE NIGHT ACTIVITY
This final rule is kind of a split decision but I still felt it necessary to add to this list. Physical activity such as sports, running, resistance training, etc... all increase our need to sleep but they also increase our sleep quality. Meaning, our body needs more sleep to recover from the intense stimulus we created but since our body is exhausted we reach our REM cycles much faster. Sounds like a win-win right? Unfortunately, there is still one thing to keep in mind; the increased cortisol from the intense training will keep us in a state of alertness no matter how tired we may feel. Cortisol just like caffeine has a half-life. However, cortisol should return to normal levels 3 hours after training (earlier depending on your post-workout routine/stress management.) So, as long as you give yourself up to 3 hours to recover post-workout, the late-night activity should not be a factor in getting a quality night’s sleep. It may actually help you get a deeper sleep.
I hope at least one of these 8 simple rules will improve your sleep length or sleep quality. As
always, thank you for your time and dedication constantly striving to improve your health and