You surely know the importance of sleep, or you at least know that you're supposed to be getting seven to nine hours of it each night, but if you're like most busy parents managing a household and a job, or young professionals juggling work and a social life, or really anybody with access to tv on demand and a smartphone, your sleep is likely inconsistent and being neglected on a regular basis.
Any thought of improving sleep is often pushed aside because the waking brain finds other tasks to dwell upon that seem much more important. But optimizing your sleep doesn't have to be another stressful thing to add to your list of things to do. It just takes a few simple adjustments in the beginning, and then you'll quickly be feeling rested enough to tackle any further steps toward becoming a super sleeper.
Understanding sleep hygiene will help you to easily fall asleep, whether it’s for a nap, or a good seven to nine hours of deep, restful sleep. Long gone will be the days of tossing and turning, waiting to drift off, or waking up repeatedly during the night just to wake up with a grumpy disposition and an appetite for every pastry your coffee shop has to offer.
Maybe your work takes you all over the country or the world, and you’re always jet lagged. Maybe you’ve gotten used to staying up watching your favorite show past midnight and can’t seem to get up in the morning. Maybe you just feel tired and drained all the time. Whatever the case, not sleeping enough, or sleeping well enough, can lead to inflammation, lack of energy, brain fog, and inhibit creativity, memory, and cellular regeneration. Sleep, then, is one of your most important traveling buddies on the road to becoming superhuman.
The Importance Of Proper Circadian Rhythms
Circadian rhythms are physiological and behavioral cycles that influence the timing of all your bodily rhythms on approximately a twenty-four-hour cycle. They help control a wide array of biological processes, such as the sleep-wake cycle, body temperature, digestion, hormone secretion, glucose homeostasis, eating habits and cell-cycle regulation. Your body assigns certain functions based on the time of day, such as tissue repair while you’re sleeping and feeding and moving during the day. The primary cues that dictate the circadian rhythm are light, food, movement, and social interaction.
If your circadian rhythm is irregular or not synched with the natural light/dark cycle as humans have been for millennia, then you're putting yourself at risk for obesity and metabolic disease, diabetes, weight gain, depression and increasing your risk for all chronic diseases. If your circadian rhythm is timed right, you should be sleeping from about 11 p.m. to about 7 a.m. So, if you’re not there, how do you get there?
Sleep Hygiene 101
Because so many factors influence your circadian rhythm and sleep quality, and because the modern world only adds more complications and potential sleep disturbances, you need to understand the major players influencing your ability to sleep.
How Light Affects Sleep
Believe it or not, getting a good night’s sleep begins in the morning before you’ve even gone to sleep. For your body to be in its natural circadian rhythm, wherever in the world you are, you have to be exposed to some kind of natural sunlight, or its equivalent, first thing in the morning. A simple 10 to 20-minute walk outside will help you reset your biological clock.
What happens when you don’t have access to sunlight? Well, you bring the sun to you. There are little biohacks that can mimic exposure to natural light that utilizes blue light. For example, you can replace some of the lightbulbs in your house or apartment with specially designed bulbs that bombard you with blue light.
There are also glasses called Re-Timer glasses, which emit a bright, greenish-blue light very similar to what you get from sunlight. You can wear these first thing in the morning to mimic the effects of sunlight and help set your biological clock, or wear them when you want your morning wake cycle to occur, such as when you’re jet-lagged or preparing for travel. As an added bonus, these light therapy glasses don’t cause the same retinal damage that light therapy boxes can cause when you’re using light to reset your circadian rhythm.
An alternative approach, or something you can do in addition to Re-Timer glasses, are special earbuds that stimulate photoreceptors in your brain by beaming bright light through the ear canal and ear structure. This small device called the HumanCharger just needs to be worn for twelve minutes. One study showed that people exposed to twelve minutes of light through their ears had greater activation of the visual and sensory-motor areas of the brain. Since up to 70% of all sensory information processing is directly affected by input coming in from your eyes, the benefits of this are massive. Spatial-awareness will improve, as well as muscle strength and coordination. If you live in an area, or if you’re traveling in a place that doesn’t get much natural sunlight, these earbuds should definitely be go-to.
Because blue light suppresses the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin to make you alert and awake during the day, if you're exposing yourself to blue light in the evening, you're inhibiting melatonin production that is necessary for priming your body to sleep. That’s why it is important to eliminate exposure to artificial light at the end of the day as much as possible. Fortunately, just like there are glasses to blast you with blue light, there are blue-light blocking glasses that block it. You can wear these while watching a movie, scrolling around on your computer, playing video games, or laying in bed with your cell phone. Generally, whenever the sun has gone down, you’ll want to eliminate exposure to blue light so that it won’t throw off your circadian rhythm. You can also purchase what are called biological LED bulbs, special light bulbs that emit no blue light, and replace the regular bulbs in your bedroom or kitchen or bathroom with some of these.
So, when it comes to light, more exposure to natural sunlight or blue light will dose you up to start the day, and eliminating exposure to that light, later on, will help you fall asleep more easily. Then, when you’re actually sleeping, you can wear a sleep mask to block out any sleep-disturbing ambient or electronic light.
How Smell Affects Sleep
There are natural olfactory compounds that induce relaxation. Rose, bergamot, lavender, these and more actually activate your “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and can be very calming. The parasympathetic nervous system helps control homeostasis, regulates different body systems, and allows it to repair itself. Some of the effects of the activation of the PNS are muscular relaxation, increased saliva production, and greater release of digestive enzymes. Sensory and chemosensory stimulation initiate different physiological processes that are themselves regulated by the PNS. Once activated, the PNS inhibits activity in organs related to the “fight or flight” response and excites organs used to “rest and digest”.
Now, take lavender for example. It has so many benefits beyond helping you fall asleep. It’s an antibiotic, antiseptic, and detoxifier It’s also a sedative and antidepressant, and stimulates the immune system. And more than that, the results of various experiments suggest that exposure to undiluted lavender for as little as 7 days helps inhibit anxiety-like behaviors that are the result of an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system. All you have to do is place a little lavender oil on your upper lip, or even get an essential oil diffuser that will diffuse the oil into the air around you while you sleep. You’ll literally breathe your way to a better night’s sleep.
How Sound Affects Sleep
At some point, you’ve probably laid awake, enjoying a cacophony of sirens, barking dogs, late-night parties at the neighbor’s, and those oh-so-quiet-yet-ever-present creaky house sounds. When you’re flying, there’s always beeps and clicks and loud children and engine hummings. The most effective way to banish all those noises is either earplugs or special wrap-around headphones that can play tunes, or just give you some peace and quiet.
Apps like Brain.fm or SleepStream have relaxing nighttime sounds available to lull you to sleep. Binaural beats are another sound hack for enhanced sleep. By sending two different sound frequencies to each ear through headphones, your brain responds by matching the brainwave speed to the difference between the two frequencies. In terms of supporting sleep, binaural beats at a specific frequency will relax the brain into a state of sleep.
How Temperature Affects Sleep
Believe it or not, your body temperature actually drops when you sleep. Your body temp may drop by as much as 2° C while you snooze, and this variation is regulated in part by circadian rhythms – core body temperature is high during the day, peaking in the midafternoon, and lower at night. At sleep onset, the metabolic rate in your cells falls, and as a result, they generate less heat, which means you generate less heat. So, as you drift off, you’ll begin to cool down by what is a significant amount from the human body’s thermal set point. At certain points during REM sleep, you’ll start to warm up again, due to a temporary loss of this thermoregulatory response. But, as you re-enter NREM sleep, you’ll start to cool off again.
The problem is that external factors can throw off your core body temperature cycle when not properly aligned with your natural circadian rhythm. Just a few of these are physical activity, drugs, fever, and menstrual phases. So if you spend your day running around doing errands, going to meetings, working out, and eating a lot for effective recovery, you might be messing with your body’s natural rhythms. By the time you get to bed, your body is generating so much heat, it’ll take much longer for sleep onset to occur than it should, and your sleep itself won’t be as restful.
Luckily, there are some biohacks you can keep up your sleeve for those situations.
You can purchase what’s called a Chilipad. The Chilipad uses water to generate a cool surface to sleep on. Just slip the pad underneath the sheets of your bed. If you’re traveling, when you check into your hotel room, you’ll want to drop the wall thermostat to around 65° F. You can also travel with a device called a Quantlet. Slap it on your wrist before bed and it actually causes heat to be drawn out of your body and then recirculates it as a cooling sensation on the underside of the wrist. It can be used to prime the body for sleep, and so can a cold shower, a hot-cold contrast shower ending on cold, cold air, or a cooling pad. Whatever situation you find yourself in, there are options for helping your body along in its circadian mission to chill out when you go to sleep.
Other Factors To Consider For Better Sleep
- Reduce and manage stress - Cortisol and melatonin are the major hormones that are influenced by your circadian rhythm and that tell the rest of your body systems what time it is. Cortisol peaks in the morning to rev you up for the day and gradually diminishes so that your body winds down to sleep. Chronically elevated cortisol due to stress can dysregulate your circadian rhythm.
- Keep a consistent schedule - Circadian rhythms operate on exactly that - a rhythm. That means doing things outside of your norm may throw it off. This includes an inconsistent sleep schedule (sleeping in on weekends), eating at different times each day (indulging in a late night snack), inconsistent timing of workouts (especially later in the evening if this isn’t your normal time) and pretty much any other things outside of your normal schedule. It may sound boring, but you’ll feel way better.
- Avoid stimulants later in the day
- Limit fluids before bedtime
Sleep Better Tonight
By hacking these four common factors affecting your sleep, you’ll not only sleep better, but you'll also improve nearly every body system, giving you the physical energy, mental focus, and spiritual clarity to tackle whatever life throws at you.
So here’s your task to get you sleeping better tonight. Figure out just one way that you can take advantage of these four variables. How can you enhance your lighting situation? What about sound? How can you smell your way to rest and recovery? What can you do to create a cooler space? Make the necessary adjustments and get the sleep of your dreams!