You’re here because you want to know how to sleep better.
And I’m going to help, but we need to start by addressing the elephant in the room. The biggest reason most people don’t sleep well is that, as a society, we’ve perpetuated this idea that sleep is a waste of time.
So let’s start there. It’s not.
Sleep is Not a Waste of Time!
Beginning as early as our teen years, most of us wear our lack of sleep like a badge of honor. All-nighters are cool, and sleeping too much means we’re lazy.
Until about 140 years ago, most humans slept an average of 9 hours. Go back 1,000 years, and the average was 11 hours a night – perhaps because of physical activity and candles as our light source. No matter the reason, what’s clear is that we’ve been sleeping less and less.
Although there’s no ”optimal” amount of sleep, most experts suggest that eight hours is generally adequate to allow the body to make repairs, rest, and feel refreshed.
But you may be wondering if you really need to spend 30% of your life in this vulnerable, passive, shut-eye state to function well.
The answer is a resounding yes!
Although sleep deprivation may not immediately disrupt cognitive function, over time it has an unquestionably detrimental effect on our wellbeing. This negative effect can manifest itself as cognitive decline, weight gain, immune deficiency, and even things like muscle soreness and mood challenges.
So when you’re sleeping, you’re not being lazy. In fact, I’d argue it’s just the opposite. Your body is doing a whole lot of work at night!
What Happens When We Sleep & When We Don’t
What is it doing, exactly? Well, to begin with it’s doing the things you might expect like recharging your batteries (so to speak) and resetting your adenosine receptors (helping you become alert).
But beyond this simplistic idea of “resting” your body is actually going through a series of four stages, each of which serves a different purpose.
The most commonly known of these stages is REM, or Rapid Eye Movement. A lot of folks think of it as your stage of deep sleep, but it’s actually a very active part of your sleep cycle. The other three non-REM stages, or NREM, however, are the deeper, more restorative parts of the cycle.
Throughout the night you cycle through the stages of NREM, followed by a REM stage approximately every 90 minutes. These cycles grow progressively longer and deeper as we near the morning hours. So those extra few hours you’ve been missing out on are truly the most valuable, and un-lazy ones!
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, skimping on these cycles can have significant negative impacts on your health, in any number of ways. In fact, scrimping on sleep could wreak havoc on your metabolism, and lead to weight gain (if for no other reason, because the more fatigued you are, the less likely you are to be active).
In addition, research has found a direct correlation between the lack of sleep and the neurotransmitters that regulate eating habits.
One study compared a group of sleep-deprived subjects (they averaged 4 hours of sleep) to another group that got a full 8-10 hours of sleep. They found that the sleep-deprived group produced more of the neurotransmitter ghrelin (the messenger that notifies you of hunger) and less leptin (the neurotransmitter that lets you know you feel satisfied). The researches further found that the dysregulation of these two neurotransmitters led to higher food consumption, and often less nourishing choices.
You may also find yourself a bit more down, since a lack of sleep cycles inhibit neurotransmitters from repairing themselves. Soreness, too, is also a common repercussion of a lack of sleep, since your body hasn’t had the chance to repair micro tears in your muscles!
How to Sleep Better
Is that enough to convince you that sleeping is not only not a waste of time, but vital to optimizing your physical and mental health?
While I’m not a sleep scientist (yes, there really is such a thing!), I am fascinated with cognitive health and all things optimization. So, let’s just say I’ve spent a bit of time looking at my own sleep health and obsessing over how to sleep better.
So based on that research (and my own experience), here are four simple actions you can take to sleep better — starting tonight!
- Go to sleep at the same time every day. Remember when you were a kid and your mom told you to “get ready for bed”? Well, you need to start doing this for yourself! Setting an alarm to remind yourself to “get ready”, is incredibly helpful. Use it as a cue to turn the lights down, turn on some relaxing music, put away your phone, or whatever you need to do to begin quieting your mind. Just as a morning routine is essential to having a great day, your evening routine is essential to having a great night of sleep. If you have an Alexa or other smart assistant at home, you can even have it turn down the lights at around 9 or 10PM, as a cue for you to start your bedtime routine. It’s also a great way to let your brain know it’s time to slow down.
- Take a warm bath. Not hot, mind you. Warm. Why? We sleep best in a lower temperature, and for our body to fall asleep, our core body temperature must drop by a few degrees. Baths work by releasing the heat from the core of your system, and drawing the blood and warmth to the surface, facilitating a subtle inner cooling. You can also feel free to put in some soothing “add ins” to help ease your body into a restful state. Magnesium is my favorite, but algae, essential oils, herbs, and even tea can also be incredibly soothingoptions. And don’t stop soothing your body after you get out. Osea’s body oil is absolutely glorious to slather on post soak, especially if you’re feeling some winter dryness!
- Limit evening fluids. This may seem obvious, and for some of you it may not be an issue, but for most of us drinking too much of anything too close to bed leads to mid-sleep wake-ups! Water is essential (by the way, did you know how you drink your water can impact you too? But I digress…), but you want to try to keep it to earlier in the day. Beyond just disrupting sleep by waking you up, these late-night loo-calls will interrupt the vital work your kidneys and liver do in the 3am to 4am timeframe. Also, you’ll risk throwing off your circadian rhythm — another no-no. Save the extra glass of water for morning to initiate peristalsis and get your body in “go.” And for those who enjoy an adult beverage or two in the evening, know that it has an impact. Reducing or eliminating them may help you sleep better by improving your thermoregulation. When you consume alcohol, it incapacitates your body’s ability to regulate temperature, and often leads to increased body temperature, and thus a mid-cycle wake-up.
- Dump your brain into a journal. If you’re into journaling, pull it out before bed and have a go! And if you’re not into journaling, well you might want to consider giving it a try. Reflecting on how your day went and how you’d like tomorrow to go, takes the worries and thoughts from between your ears and allows you to let them go — clearing the way for a bit of restful bliss.
After a fitful night of tossing and turning, we all wonder how to sleep better. The truth is that unless you have a sleep disorder, it comes down to being mindful about your environment, your mind, and your body — and taking some simple actions to make the most of your night. Your brain and body will thank you.