The other day, a friend of mine who used to work crazy hours told me about his desire to become a true Sleep Master. He had at long last accepted the science of sleep, which I talked about a few months ago in this blog. Exhausted all the time, his health and relationships were suffering and he was making a change.
He now knows that sleep reduces the risk factors associated with heart attacks, strokes and cancer, strengthens the immune system, boosts problem-solving and creativity, reduces stress, builds muscle, regulates appetite, and helps us to manage mental and emotional health challenges.
My friend’s understanding of the facts is awesome. And his sleep-wake balance is a lot better. But we then talked about another challenge he faces every night: not getting into bed at the right time to clock 7 to 8 hours of sleep, but falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night.
Sleeping soundly gets harder as we age. You may have noticed that you take longer to drift off or wake up more frequently than when you were younger. With age comes wisdom: we have learned from our mistakes. But with age also comes disrupted sleep, which is the last thing we need to stay healthy, succeed at work and be the best for our families.
So what can you do? Below are three science-based methods to become a true Sleep Master and improve your performance at work, at home and with your loved ones.
Sleep Master Method 1: Defend Your Last Hour
Set up a routine that starts an hour before bed that allows you to decompress and relax. Many of my clients who have trouble staying asleep are the ones who work or manage the household right up until they collapse into bed. You can avoid this by finding a calming activity you love and doing it before bed.
Ideally, stay away from screens like your TV, computer or smart phone. Melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate sleep) is produced by your pineal gland, which is located deep inside your brain and is very sensitive to light. The brightness of screens stimulates your brain and prevents the pineal gland from releasing the melatonin you need to be drowsy. Read a novel, take a bath, listen to relaxing music. Choose low-stress, non-pulsing light activities. You will enjoy that hour immensely and benefit from a regular daily rhythm.
Sleep Master Method 2: Keep Your Sleep Cave Dark
Staying asleep requires a dark room. Really dark. As in, no hall light outside your door, no light in the ensuite bathroom, and no alarm clock beaming from the table beside you. As indicated above, light in our environment signals the brain to wake up. As the sun rises, our melatonin levels drop and we pop out of sleep.
If your sleep cave is not dark enough, your brain is signalled to wake up. If you get up to use the bathroom in the night, turning on any lights will disrupt your rest. Other small changes in your bedroom can make a big difference: get blackout blinds, switch off lights around you, and cover your alarm clock. If you would like to use a nightlight, find one that emits red light in the night and blue light in the morning. Red light stimulates melatonin production (think sunset) and blue light turns it off and wakes you up (natural daylight contains blue light).
Sleep Master Method 3: Be Cool
In the evening, increased melatonin levels in the body cause the blood vessels in the skin to dilate, releasing body heat into the environment. This cooling promotes drowsiness and helps us fall asleep. Basically, a cool environment tells your brain and body it’s time to knock off. So keep your bedroom cool — at about 19 degrees Celsius or 66 degrees Fahrenheit. Being cool should help you stay asleep during the night.
Embracing the science of sleep is one thing. That’s when you accept that sleep is needed to maintain mental, emotional and physical health. Embracing the science of the sleep environment is another. But with the knowledge of both, you’re well on your way to becoming a Sleep Master and living a high-performance life.
A good night’s sleep is the foundation of physical health and mental energy.
I’m a science geek. I like to know why a particular approach to life or technique for success works. Otherwise, I tend to glaze over when faced with another “X Ways to Achieve Y Results” article. In the absence of research or evidence, I’m less likely to pay attention and less motivated to make a change in my life.
Maybe that’s just me. But I’ll assume you’re also a “but how do we know that really matters?” person and lay it out for you — on the subject of sleep.
Sleep is free, available to all, beyond good for us and largely ignored as the foundation of physical health and mental energy. It’s the first thing that gets cut when life is busy and the last thing we add back in when a chunk of time comes our way. But if we were smart, it would be our main priority, and the rest of our lives would be built around it.
As an entrepreneur, you likely travel a lot, and you already know that jet lag (which science geeks call “flight dysrhythmia”) can cause all kinds of unpleasant symptoms: insomnia, loss of appetite, depressed mood, upset stomach, fatigue and mental fuzziness, to name a few.
And the farther you travel, the worse your jet lag will likely be. Why? Because crossing time zones throws your internal rhythms out of sync with your external environment. It’s like your body stays back in New York as you head off to your first meeting in London!
On the topic of sleep, I can generally divide people into two categories: those who fervently wish they could have more, and those who brag about how little they need.
While these are radically different attitudes, both groups share one fundamental reality: inadequate sleep to build and maintain optimal health.
We already know that poor sleep is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters and medical errors, as well as weak concentration, problem-solving, memory and stress management. We also don’t exercise well or recover properly from workouts. And we are not more productive at work, despite believing that all those extra hours at the office boost our performance.
The Problem With Not Getting Enough Sleep
The science of insufficient sleep is pretty scary. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we sleep 20% less than we used to a century ago. Seventy million Americans have a diagnosed sleep disorder – and that’s just the people who actually went to the doctor to get diagnosed.
Why should we care? Lack of sleep is not going to kill us, right?
Wrong. It turns out that insufficient sleep – less than 6 hours per night – can cut our lives short. If you don’t sleep well:
You are likely to gain weight. Adequate sleep regulates the appetite hormones Leptin and Ghrelin. You eat more when you’re tired (and tend to crave sugary and fatty foods) not only because good decision-making is impaired, but because your hormones are disregulated.
Your brain can’t repair and regenerate. During sleep, the size of neurons is reduced by up to 60%. Why? Because extra space between your brain cells allows your glymphatic system to clean out the metabolic waste that accumulates. That’s right – you literally wash your brain of waste products and damage when you sleep well.
In short, good sleep is the foundation for living a healthy, high-performance life. Here are a few proven techniques that you can use to sleep soundly.
3 Proven Ways to Sleep Soundly
1. No screens before bed
Get rid of your screens, including your TV if you have one in the bedroom. This can be a huge lifestyle change, but having a light that flashes at you at 240 frames per second is a surefire way to keep you awake. It’s not good that 61% of people fall asleep with the TV on.
Avoiding light from screens allows your pineal gland to release the right amount of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) at the right time. Television, iPads, laptops and mobile phones all compromise your ability to fall asleep and then sleep deeply. So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips and pick up a good book instead.
2. Your bedroom needs to be really, really dark
Unfortunately, melatonin production drops as we age. This means that we need to stay away from light during the night, too. You should have thick blinds or curtains in your bedroom, keep all lights off (including in the bathroom), and even cover your alarm clock. If you would like to use a nightlight, find one that emits red light in the night and blue light in the morning. Red light stimulates melatonin production (think sunset) and blue light turns it off and wakes you up (natural daylight contains blue light).
3. Your bedroom should be cool
In the evening, increased melatonin levels cause the blood vessels in the skin to dilate, releasing body heat into the environment and cooling the body. This cooling promotes drowsiness and helps us fall asleep. At night, a temperature of 19 degrees C / 66 degrees F in your room should be cool enough to help you stay asleep.
If we are well rested, we are less stressed, stronger and more effective in our exercise, sharper in our work and just plain more fun to be around. The catch is that the North American attitude toward sleep tends to be that it isn’t particularly important. As a result, we’re getting sick and not performing to our potential.
As you plan for a world-class life, the more you can commit to getting a great sleep, the healthier and better you’ll be.
A couple of years ago I had the bad luck to catch a virus that my two year old daughter picked up at her daycare. Thankfully she only got a mild cold. I got viral myocarditis – basically the virus went into my heart and caused loads of very painful inflammation.
Until that point I was doing reasonably well with sticking to an exercise routine. But after the illness I could barely walk up a flight of stairs. And if I did make it up the stairs I’d have to rest for a few minutes to recover. Suddenly I was in the worst shape of my life.
So as an exercise physiologist I decided to use myself as a test subject and experiment. I went back to my research and explored what was needed to get back into good physical condition as fast as I could, and to lose as much body fat as possible. I wanted to get fit and get lean.
The few weeks I was laid up in bed recovering from the virus I checked out as many research papers as I could. What I discovered was not what I expected. Apparently, the first thing I needed to do was sleep more. Believe it or not to build the foundation for a better, healthier life we need to be better rested.
I hear what you’re thinking. It’s easy to talk about getting more rest while you’re lying in a hospital bed for weeks. In the real world there just isn’t enough time to get everything done and sleep well. Work, family and exercise is sometimes more than many people can handle at once. But the research clearly shows that if we take a bit more time to sleep, so many things that people want to achieve in life become possible. Let’s take losing body fat as an example.
We are in the midst of a worldwide obesity epidemic. We are also sleeping less than we ever have in history. Amazingly, those two problems are connected. Sleep helps regulate the amount of leptin and ghrelin in your body. Those are hormones that help to control and manage your appetite and satiety. So if you sleep better, you’re better able to avoid cravings for sugar and high fat foods.
What if you want to exercise more? Have you ever tried having a great workout when you’re tired? It’s really tough. Once again it comes down to hormones. When you sleep, your body releases Human Growth Hormone, which promotes fat breakdown and increases in muscle mass. That’s right, sleep means more muscle and less fat!
Somehow it has become almost a badge of honour to sleep less or to try to get by on as little sleep as possible. But sleeping less causes so many problems I don’t think that the payoff is worth it.
According to the Centre for Disease Control in the United States sleep is critical to health. Insufficient sleep is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters and medical errors. Not to mention that after a sleepless night we all have problems concentrating, remembering things and we can get more irritable. We can become more stressed more easily. And that’s the last thing we need in this crazy world where volatility is the new normal.
So how much sleep do we need? We’re all different. I need eight hours. You might need 10. The generally accepted research suggests that children need at least 10 hours, teenagers need about 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours. There is a small percentage of the population that has a gene that allows them to sleep for 3-4 hours a night and to be rested. I wish I had that gene, but sadly I don’t.
When I was trying to recover from my heart infection, my wife and I made sleeping a priority and got between 8-10 hours a night for about three months. We got healthier, and my fitness improved dramatically. And I was much better at work, even though I took more time out of the day to sleep.
So what can you do to make sure you sleep better? It’s really important to create an environment in your bedroom that helps you to sleep well. Stay away from electronic screens for 45 minutes before you sleep and keep your room as dark as possible. Melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate sleep) is produced by your pineal gland, which is located deep inside your brain and is very sensitive to light. Because the pineal gland responds to light via neurons that project from your eyes, you have to ensure that you are in a dark space while you sleep so that the pineal gland can release the right amount of melatonin at the right time to help you sleep better.
So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips, and pick up a good book instead.
Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.
Recovery is an aspect of training that is getting significant attention right now because research is revealing the various techniques you can use between workouts that will have an important effect on your response to training. By understanding and applying the science of recovery and regeneration, you can plan effectively to ensure that you give your body the help it needs to repair, heal, and grow. This is the key to becoming “the 24 hour athlete.”
There is a reciprocal relationship between sleep and exercise. If you sleep properly, you will probably perform well during your next workout or race, and if you exercise regularly, you will be able to sleep well. By understanding and applying the science of sleep, you will know how to optimize your health, fitness and performance.
Greg Wells is the author of Superbodies, a scientist, physiologist and health professor at the University of Toronto. The 41-year-old has biked across Africa, ran marathons in the arctic and spent 16 years advising Olympic athletes and coaches.
Arguably one of Canada’s most qualified health experts, Wells acted as the sports science analyst on CTV during the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games. On the day when the kinesiology professor thought he might die, however, Wells was unable to make sense of his own body.