If somebody asked you, “what is the most important thing for living a healthy life?” how might you answer? Would you talk about diet? or perhaps, fitness? You might even bring up the importance of lowering stress, and enjoying your time. All of these are good answers, but you might not realize that how you sleep is more important than all of them.
How we sleep has a huge impact on our health, longevity and performance, but few of us prioritize it like we should. Either we sleep too little, like the college student staying up til 2 am partying on Sunday and up until 3am studying on Monday, or we sleep too poorly, sabotaging our sleep quality by watching television late into the night, or disobeying our circadian rhythm by changing our sleep schedule every few days.
But hey, what’s the big deal about sleep anyway? Why does it matter so much in the first place?
What Happens When You Sleep Poorly
Some people take pride in sleeping less, and are convinced that they feel just fine. 99.99 percent of the time, they are lying both to you and to themselves. Though some studies have indeed found genetic variants that allow a person to sleep 6 hours without negative effects, experts believe that only 1–3% of the population can truly perform this way, and even they display elevated inflammation and impaired production of melatonin.
For the rest of us, the results of sleep deprivation are biological havoc. Inflammation rises, cellular regeneration comes to a halt, blood pressure rises and can eventually become heart disease, and mental faculties suffer sharp declines in performance. These effects are amplified if you lead an active lifestyle or regularly engage in periods of intense focus.
Sleep deprivation can even become fatal. A genetic disease known as fatal familial insomnia causes sufferers to die within a few months due to progressively more severe insomnia. Yep, you heard that right, humans will die from lack of sleep in a matter of months.
This is because sleep is the only time when the brain and body repair themselves. When you sleep, the brain washes itself with cerebrospinal fluid, which lowers inflammation and detoxifies the brain. This process, known as the glymphatic system, only occurs while you sleep. Simultaneously, your brain reorganizes its neurological structure and processes information. Without this process, your brain quickly becomes a chaotic mess, and any information that has not been organized into your memories will simply disappear. Merely going 3 or 4 days without sleep will cause hallucinations, and further decline quickly follows.
The second reason lack of sleep can kill you is that it hinders your body’s hormonal recovery. During sleep, growth hormone and testosterone rise, which your body uses to detoxify, repair muscle tissue, repair your adrenal glands which are directly tied to your level of stress, and repair your immune system. Without enough sleep, your brain and muscles whither, your immune system falters, your stress spikes, and your health rapidly declines.
And we don’t even notice! Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of chronic sleep deprivation is that most people can’t even tell it’s happening. People who sleep 5–6 hours a night or less for a week will perform at the level of someone who abstains from sleep completely for two days. However, when surveyed, these same people believe they feel fine, despite performing similarly on tests to someone who has a .1 percent blood alcohol content (aka legally drunk.)
How To Prioritize Sleep Within a Busy Lifestyle
One of the biggest reasons people skimp on sleep is to have more time for a busy lifestyle, but losses in performance and efficiency from a lack of sleep negate the effect of having more time. With that said, how do we optimize and get enough sleep while maintaining an active life? We’ve mentioned that you need 8 to 10 hours of sleep, but we haven’t spent as much time discussing your quality of sleep.
When you get good quality sleep, you should be able to fall asleep quickly, and wake up with energy. If this is happening, you should already be saving time and energy by not laying around in bed, at night because you’re too stressed out, and in the morning because you’re too tired (there goes the two hours you saved be sleeping 6 hours last night.) So we’re going to talk about 10 ways you can maximize your sleep efficiency, and meld a busy lifestyle with a healthy sleep schedule.
- Take a cold shower, or an alternating hot-cold shower before bed. We’ll return to cold showers later in the environment section, but cold showers and cold exposure trigger a relaxation response in our bodies, as well as increasing endorphins. Dunking your face in cold water is a remedy for panic attacks, and athletes who do a cold exposure before training maintain more stable heart rates during intense exercise. Stemming from this, many have found that a short cold shower helps incredibly for going to sleep at night. If you do not tolerate cold well, or find that the shower wakes you up more than it helps you relax, try alternating between hot and cold water instead. Turn the shower to as hot a temperature as you can bear for one minute, then switch back to cold, and vice versa for up to 10 rounds. Always end on the cold water, not the hot.
- Take an Epsom Salt Bath. In other articles, I’ve discussed the incredible benefits of magnesium, and improving your sleep quality is definitely one of them. One way to further maximize the benefits of minerals for sleep quality is the epsom salt bath. Taking an epsom salt bath is one of the best ways to relax before bed, release muscle tension, replenish electolytes, and recover from injury or exercise. This can also be a great time to do some meditation and relax if you have such a practice. I recommend the product Ancient Minerals Magnesium Bath Flakes, available on amazon.
- Journal before bed. Stray thoughts keep us up at night. We lie awake, wondering about the day coming, analyzing the day past, and worrying about the future. This tip isn’t just a throw away suggestion, a study recently published in the journal of experimental psychology discovered that writing before bed significantly improved participant’s ability to fall asleep quickly. More specifically, writing a to-do list about your tasks for the next day was effective. The more specific the to-do list, the faster participants fell asleep. Start writing about your plan for the next day, or at least journaling, for 5 minutes before bed.
- Get 8–9 hours of sleep, 10 if you are an athlete. I know, 8 hours is a lot of time to do anything other than work, and this is why sleep deprivation is so common. In a study performed in 2003 by the journal “Sleep,” it was discovered that those who slept 6 hours a night every night for two weeks displayed cognitive decline similar to those who did not sleep at all for two days straight. Furthermore, the 6 hours a night group was completely unaware of their cognitive decline, believed they felt good and well rested, while performing low on tests. This is one of the biggest problems with sleep deprivation: after a couple days of too little sleep, you stop noticing that your performance is declining. Occasional sleep deprivation is inevitable, but don’t let it become chronic. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to major cognitive decline, contributes to cancer, Altzheimer’s and diabetes, and increases inflammation.
- Sleep Consistency: Sleep at the same times every day, and avoid variance. If you get 8 hours a night, but some days you go to bed at 8, others at 10, and others at midnight, this affects your quality of sleep. Our circadian rhythm is our body’s natural sleep cycle, and everyone has a different natural rhythm. Genetics play a partial role, however, extreme circumstance can “shift” your rhythm. If you change your sleep schedule all the time, however, your rhythm never adapts and you end up with lower quality nights. Whatever your sleep schedule, aim to make it as consistent as possible, including on weekends.
- Turn off Screens Two Hours Before Bed: Light affects our biology. In particular, light affects our circadian rhythm. In a natural environment, our eyes process sunlight, which lets us know what time of day it is. At the brightest time of the day, the sun releases lots of high frequency blue light, along with red and infrared. As the sun goes down, this blue light dissipates drastically, signaling our bodies to produce melatonin, the hormone responsible for making us feel sleepy. Unfortunately, high fluorescence light bulbs emit blue light frequencies. Same with cell phone screens, televisions, and our computers. The result is that our body doesn’t get the “sleep” light signal on time, when the sun goes down. If possible, begin using low lighting and stop using screens when the sun goes down, or at least two hours before bed. If you must work late, consider investing in a pair of blue light blocking glasses, or simple sunglasses with orange lenses. These do a good job of blocking blue light. You can also install software such as f.lux on certain devices, which will darken the screen into a more amber color which is less abrasive.
- Keep your room cold and dark:We just mentioned the effect of light on sleep, now we’re going to expand on that an also mention temperature. In short, it is easier to fall asleep in a cold environment than a hot one. In fact, it is believed that evening shifts in temperature from hot to colder are more influential on circadian sleep rhythm than sunlight. In short, keep your sleep environment somewhat cool or cold, and keep it dark. Pitch black darkness is best, and you can make this happen using special window blinds and by covering or unplugging electronics with LED lights. As far as cold, most people find that a room temperature between 62 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit works well.
- Inversion or Foam Rolling Before Bed: Foam rolling and inversion are two great ways to sleep soundly, while also improving mobility and oxygenation. Inversion refers to hanging upside-down using devices such as the Teeter inversion table, or Gravity boots. Inversion tables allow you to hang upside down, which helps the health of your spine, oxygenates the blood and brain, and strengthens your core. Foam rolling, on the other hand, refers to a method of releasing muscle tension and knots with devices called, you guessed it, foam rollers. Foam rolling is great for you, and is one of the best ways to release body tension that even yoga has a tough time remedying. If you don’t want to spend the money on an inversion table, or learn to use a foam roller (price is not really a factor considering you can use a simple lacrosse or golf ball for the same purpose) then simply stretching for a time before bed works well. The theme here is to release tension before bed, and many top performers such as the investor and author Tim Ferris swear by these techniques.
- Use a Sleep Supplement: It’s time for the first shameless plug of this book. We are affiliated with the supplement company Vasayo, but this isn’t just about promotion. Many people use pharmaceuticals such as Ambien to address sleep issues. However these drugs are damaging to the brain, and the “sleep” experienced is more akin to a state of unconsciousness than it is to sleep. Few of the processes that heal your body and mind during sleep occur. Alternatively, a good sleep supplement can work wonders to “correct” circadian rhythm problems and address insomnia without side effects. Vasayo’s Sleep Supplement is natural, uses liposomal delivery for increased absorption, and contains natural sleep vitamins to gently help you relax. If you’re skeptical of taking a promoted product, another great option is Dr. Kirk Parsley’s Sleep Remedy. Dr. Parsley is a former Navy Seal who made sleep research his life work after discovering that sleep deprivation is a major component in the health problems of special forces members. I have used both of these, they have similar ingredients, and my experience is that they both elicit feelings of sleepiness, as though you are ready for a good night’s rest. Vasayo Microlife Sleep and Doc Parsley’s Sleep Remedy (click to go to product pages)
- The “Siesta,” or Power Nap: This is one of my favorite daily habits, and a great way to deal with needing more sleep but not finding time. Take a midday nap. Just napping for 20 to 60 minutes will refresh you for the rest of your day, and shows evidence to be a more natural way of sleeping. What I mean by this is that our ancient ancestors appear to have slept in “chunks” throughout the day, with a long nightly session, and occasionally daily napping. For my part, this nap left me feeling fresh right up until I went to bed at night, and for every 20 minutes of napping, I felt like I got an extra hour of sleep. As with nightly sleep, keep your nap at the same time every day. Also, if you drink coffee in the morning, this may affect your ability to nap. Try decaf for your morning cup or simply begin having your coffee after your nap.