What if I told you there was something that existed that could guarantee an exponentially better life? Are you interested yet? How exactly would this “thing” make your life better you ask? How about increased immune system function, more self-control, less cardiovascular strain, decreased risk of metabolic disease, stronger desire to exercise, better memory retention, and perhaps most importantly just being a decent human to be around? I know, you’re thinking this “thing” is too good to be true, that this miracle drug either costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and/or has numerous negative side-effects. I’ll do you one better, not only is this “thing” free, but it’s not a drug, and it’s so absolutely vital to human existence that even over the course of a thousand lifetimes, we haven’t evolved to need less of it. Drum roll please…
If you’ve worked with me over the past two years, you’ve probably noticed something in our conversations. A certain interest has surfaced, and my fascination with this topic has coerced me into a deep dive on all things sleep hygiene. From studying the effects that different light temperatures have on the suprachiasmatic nucleus (internal clock), to how specific temperature fluxuations can convince the body that it’s daytime or nighttime through action on the hypothalamus. Full disclaimer, I am neither a sleep “expert”, nor am I doctor on sleep health, therefore I will not be recommending any kind of pharmacological interventions. In fact, I do believe for a majority of the people out there that struggle to attain adequate sleep, that some simple atmospheric changes, routine changes, and discipline during the day can get you a better result. In this post, I will leave out a majority of the fancy scientific jargon, and give you some simple suggestions to help with your sleep hygiene as soon as tonight. I’ll break things down into each pertinent “sense” and end with a section on what to do during the day to help your sleep hygiene. Just make sure to read this with a blue-light filter or more than two hours before your head hits the pillow.
Eyes- Windows to a Good Night Sleep
This one is relatively simple; minimize bright light, especially blue light later into the evening. When exposed to blue light, your brain is thinking “oh, it’s daytime, let’s think about all of the things we need to do today, time to go!”. Before alarm clocks existed, this was a pretty awesome way for our bodies to wake up when the sun came up to get our day started when everyone else did (unless you had a rooster!). Some easy to follow tips: take your television out of the bedroom, turn on your blue-light filter on any devices at 8pm, read only paper books or on a kindle (no iPads without blue-light filters), use blackout curtains, and make sure if you have a partner in bed with you that their habits match yours.
Ears- The Body’s Subconscious Watchdog
Although the conscious brain is all but shut off during deep sleep, there is one sense that operates throughout the night at a certain capacity. Hearing the roar of a lion off in the distance in the middle of the night was beneficial to our ancestor’s survival, and that same wiring exists in today’s human. We’ve all experienced this before, the heat kicks on and the floorboards creak loudly at 2am, our eyes open and we are immediately on high alert for that potential threat. Here’s the thing, these audible interruptions in our deep sleep take a toll, so here are some things you can do to prevent noises from regularly waking you up (before you actually want to). Let’s get the difficult one on the table first, no animals in the room and definitely not in the bed. Fido tosses and turns, licks his paws, moans and groans, all night, probably waking you up several times throughout the night whether you are aware of it or not. Not only does he wake you up with sounds, but his cute, furry, 60 pound body gives off a lot more heat and predisposes you to more sleep interruptions as well (we’ll get to that later). Try sleeping with a white noise machine to help drown out other random noises (car horns, creaky floorboards, the neighbor’s barking dog, etc.).
Touch- A Melting Pot of Sensations
From sensing temperature, to light touch, and vibration, the body’s sense of touch contributes a great deal to rounding out the quality of someone’s sleep hygiene. First and foremost, the temperature of your room and more importantly your body’s core temperature can set the stage for a deep restorative sleep. When you think of temperature regulation in the body, think Hypothalamus. When you think of the internal clock, circadian rhythm, and chronotype, think Suprachiasmatic Nucleus. When you think of melatonin secretion, think Pineal gland. All of these important structures deep inside the brain work closely together and influence one another in a critical way. When your brain registers sunlight, typically there is also warmth being registered, and daytime is associated with both. You can start to understand how important it is for your sleeping environment to not only be quiet and dark, but cool. Now for some simple “hacks” to increase the odds of attaining a good night of sleep. Adjust your temperature of your house down 3-5 degrees as bedtime approaches. The bed might be cold at first but your body temperature being retained by that comforter will quickly warm you. Also make sure your bed is big enough to give you some space from a sleeping buddy. Another body close by (whether your partner, or fido) can cause more heat to be retained and your core temperature to remain high.
The Routine- Earn Your Sleep
Once you’ve addressed the simple fixes to ensure your sleeping atmosphere is cold, quiet, and dark, we can talk about whether or not you’ve even earned that night of sleep. What I mean by this is is have you strained not only your brain but your body enough to feel tired at bedtime? From when you first wake up in the morning, melatonin levels begin to slowly rise, as does overall sleep demand. Both start at an ideal zero point and rise throughout the day, unless acted upon an outside force or substance. For example, caffeine consumption has been shown to suppress melatonin secretion by the Pineal gland, so be sure to restrict caffeine intake to before noon. While your melatonin level is slowly rising, a good way to increase sleep demand is to exercise regularly, even if it means only going for an evening walk through the neighborhood. Ideally by 10pm, your melatonin has reached a peak, triggering the onset of sleep (in your cold, quiet, and dark sleep chamber), and the high level of sleep demand will be sure to carry you into a deep, uninterrupted 7-8 hour slumber.
Keep it Simple, Sleepy
This whole sleep hygiene thing sometimes requires medical (pharmacological) intervention, and that is over my head, but for most of my clients or just people in general, following these simple rules can alleviate many obstacles to attaining 7-8 hours of sleep. Keep your room cold, quiet, and dark. Exercise regularly. Abstain from alcohol consumption prior to bed (contrary to popular belief, alcohol is actually bad for quality sleep). Wake up at a regular time each day. You’ll be surprised how a good night’s sleep can actually improve your ability to stick to an exercise regimen or stay disciplined enough to reach for the vegetables instead of fries.
“If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake that the evolutionary process has ever made.” – Matthew Walker, PhD Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at UC Berkeley
Always remember, sleep is the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Yours in Wellness,
Prevention over Treatment