If someone gave you a task which afterwards would reduce your risk of all known diseases, reduce inflammation, improve attention, boost immune system function, improve memory, enhance cognitive power and speed, improve recovery from exercise and injury, build strength, increase speed, increase muscle size more efficiently, improve grades in school, develop healthier skin, make you more productive at work, increase athletic performance, lose weight more easily, and live longer, would you do it? Before you answer: yes, there is a catch as there is with anything that seems this perfect. You have to do it for the same amount of time at the same time every day.
If you haven’t already guessed what this magical task is: it’s SLEEP. The list above is hardly an exhaustive list of the benefits of consistent, quality sleep. When you think about it, sleeping is a terrible survival strategy for an organism living in the wild, but we need to do it. That is how important sleep is for our systems. Why else would we spend one third of our existence in a stationary, vulnerable state where you could be attacked and eaten at any point?
As a physical therapist, trainer, and nutrition coach, I view sleep problems as second only to a lack of oxygen and water as far as things needed for survival. Correcting a sleep problem makes all of my jobs easier simply because it makes EVERYTHING function better. You can live 5 minutes without oxygen before brain damage and 3-4 days without water. To most individuals’ surprise, however, you can likely only survive 10-14 days without sleep. Most people can go 30-40 days without food, and one individual was even able to go 385 days without food under medical supervision. They all, however, need and needed sleep.
Now, rather than inundate you with the details about how sleep can create these improvements, I will just provide you with a list of interesting facts and actions you can take to improve your sleep quality. If you have any questions or want more details about any of these suggestions, please feel free to contact me.
- The average human sleep cycle (working through the phases of sleep including deep sleep and REM [Rapid Eye Movement]) sleep is about 90-120 minutes.
- You need a total of at least 35 sleep cycles per week, which works out to 7-9 uninterrupted hours per night. Infants, children, and teenagers typically need more, but adults of all ages need the same amount.
- Only 1-3% of the population is actually capable of having less sleep due to a genetically shorter sleep cycle.
- Substance and medications do not mimics actual sleep for the human brain. They may render you unconscious or sleepy, but may not promote a normal sleep rhythm/structure. At times they are necessary for a variety of reasons, but the goal is to promote as much natural sleep as possible.
- Missing a few hours of sleep has the same effect as having several alcoholic drinks regarding your physical and cognitive capacity, but you are not as aware of the negative impacts.
- Sleep is the primary time for your body to reduce inflammation.
- Sleep is critical for learning, memory consolidation, and cognitive function.
- Deep sleep, which occurs mostly in the first half of the evening, is where the brain is cleaned out via the glymphatic system, which theoretically helps to reduce the risk of dementia as we age.
- Wearable movement trackers (e.g., Fitbit, Apple Watch, Whoop, etc.) do not effectively measure the quality of your sleep. The only way to do this is by tracking electrical signals from your brain. That said, sometimes you are able to observe trends in the data that may be helpful for determining changes in your sleep quality.
- You will likely require more sleep if you are sick, stressed (physically or emotionally), or recovering from training/competition.
- Noise that does not wake you up still impacts the quality of your sleep. This is everything from a snoring partner, pets, and noise from outside your home.
- Start your sleep preparation 2-3 hours prior to your ideal sleep time.
- Go to sleep around the same time every night, even on weekends.
- Avoid food for at least 2-3 hours prior to sleep. This allows the body time to digest food and drop body temperature as well as send more blood to the brain for sleep.
- Avoid significant fluid intake 1-2 hours prior to bed.
- Avoid exercise within 2-3 hours of sleep.
- Avoid caffeine after 12 p.m. The average half-life of caffeine is 6-8 hours. This means that if you have your 20 oz. Starbucks coffee in the morning at 8 a.m. (e.g., Blonde Roast, 475 mg of caffeine), you still have at least 120 mg in your system at 8 p.m. This obviously varies since some people process caffeine faster or slower; however, this can now be determined through genetic testing.
- Reduce light exposure 2-3 hours prior to sleep. The kitchen and the bathroom (typically the last room we are in before going to the bedroom) are usually the brightest rooms in the house. Placing dimmer switches on lights usually makes light reduction easy. With new technology, you can even program this to happen automatically. The reason for this is that melatonin, the hormone associated with sleep, starts to rise about 3 hours prior to sleep. Blue light exposure dramatically reduces the release of melatonin by upwards of 50% and the normal peak of melatonin has a later onset. Some people are more or less sensitive to blue light and may not need to be as diligent with light exposure.
- Use orange or red nightlights or LED strips of the same color to provide light in the evening or in places like the bathroom.
- Set your phone for night shift/mode to maximum starting at 6 p.m., or you can also adjust the settings of most phones to make the screen completely red. Just don’t shop for clothing with the filter still on, you will end up with some odd colors
- Blue light blocking glasses are becoming very popular and can be useful around the house if you cannot adjust the lighting. You will find types at all price points, but all you really need is a pair of cheap orange safety glasses. If you want stylish ones, then you will probably not want to go with these. If you want to go high end for blocking all light (blue, green, and violet) that interferes with melatonin production, I recommend the TrueDark glasses.
- Reduce your amount of TV watching in the evening, particularly cognitively stimulating or suspenseful topics/shows.
- Use the computer program F.Lux or Iris on computer screens to automatically adjust screen color based on time of day. I have used both, and now primarily use Iris because it has more adjustment options.
- If you wake up in the middle of the night, put on the blue light blocking glasses to avoid excessive blue light exposure.
- Meditation can help to promote calming the mind to help you relax prior to bed. I recommended the following apps: Oak, Calm, Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, and Waking Up.
- Sleep pressure is the sense that you are sleepy and is primarily the result of adenosine build-up from your body using energy. Regular exercise is one of the simplest ways to build up adenosine. Caffeine suppresses adenosine.
- When using melatonin, consider time released melatonin as this comes closer to mimicking the normal rhythm of melatonin's rise and fall over the period of sleep.
- When using melatonin as a sleep aide, avoid taking it within 2 hours of your last meal as it can interfere with the normal decrease in blood glucose, which can interfere with sleep.
- The bedroom should ONLY be used for sleep and intimacy. This helps create a correlation for sleep when you enter the room.
- Remove TV and technology from the bedroom. The exception for this can be your phone if you are using it only as an alarm clock. This is especially important for children and teenagers; they will sleep better if they are just using an alarm clock and do not have access to their phones in the bedroom.
- Use blackout shades in the bedroom. You want the room to be as dark as possible. I place cardboard in the windows to block out the light, but blackout shades are now widely available and affordable.
- Remove or place electrical tape over any other light source in the room. This includes clocks (unless red or orange in color, but even these are not ideal), lights on chargers, or other appliances like humidifiers.
- You want the room to be cold as tolerable. In the winter, this is easy simply by adjusting the thermostat to a lower temperature within an hour prior to your normal sleep time. Not only does this help with sleep, but also saves you money.
- In the hotter months this can be a little more difficult, but my experience with the Ooler device made a huge difference in sleep quality. Check it out here and get 25% OFF of your first purchase. This is a mattress pad that allows you to temperature regulate your bed for optimal sleeping. I will warn you up front that this is a higher priced item, but think of it as an investment to improve the quality of 33% of your entire existence. To me, that is a small price to pay.
- White noise helps to block out small sounds that our brains pick up and interfere with our sleep quality, even if we do not wake up. I personally use the Dohm White Noise Machine, but there are numerous apps and devices out there to provide white noise. You can also experiment with other sounds like rain, pink noise, or brown noise.
- Consider using an eye mask to block out more light if you are unable to make the bedroom completely dark.
- Keep a small glass of water near the bed in case you wake up thirsty since dehydration is a common cause for waking up.
- Allow yourself to wake up gradually. Utilize an alarm clock that slowly increases volume or use a light based alarm clock.
- Get a little activity with a 5-15 minute walk, particularly if you can do this outside in the sunlight.
- Get as much sunlight exposure through your eyes and skin as you can in the morning and during the day. We are diurnal (opposite of nocturnal) creatures and light exposure not only helps to set our circadian rhythms for sleep, but it is also critical for increasing our Vitamin D levels and decreasing our evening light sensitivity.
- Most of our lives are spent inside where our light exposure is minimal. If you cannot get direct sunlight exposure during the day, you want to be near windows with good light exposure.
- Wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
- Ideally, you want to wake up without an alarm; but if you are using an alarm, you want to wake up around the same time each day.
- Eating at the same time each day can also help facilitate better quality sleep.
- Consume all of your daily food within an 8-10 hour window (ideally starting in the morning).
- Meditation can also be helpful at this time to set your mind and intention for the day. Consistency with meditation is key.
- Unless you have a high sensitivity to blue light, it is not recommended to wear blue light blocking glasses all the time since blue light is important for stimulating the release of cortisol to keep you awake and keeping a good balance between waking and sleeping states.
- If you have trouble sleeping, you may want to avoid taking naps during the day. If you do not have sleep problems, the early afternoon is likely your best time to take a nap.