The first thing a doctor should ask in any exam for illness or anxiety is, “How well are you sleeping?” If you are not sleeping well, you are sick.
When we aren’t well-rested, we cannot do peak work, whether physical or mental. Proper sleep regulates hormones that control energy, appetite, attitude, happiness, and sex drive. Inadequate sleep causes our immune system to fail too. When you start looking into the dangers of insufficient sleep, the research is flat out scary.
Poor sleep always negatively affects the mind, body, and spirit. Until you get on the right track with sleep and take a retrospective look back, it’s impossible to fathom how tremendously things can improve. This article will be worth more than any other activity you could be doing right now, other than sleeping itself.
Attempted biohacking by taking expensive supplements, guzzling custom teas and cocktails, and using miracle gadgets or tricks to game the system is a waste of time and money in the absence of good sleep.
Eight hours is the recommended goal for adults, but that is not a rigid number for everyone. Some people require a little less or a little more. But before you jump on the, “I don’t require much sleep.” train, you probably do need more than you think. Your number will have to be tested and tweaked over time.
Two main factors determine when we sleep and how deeply we do so.
1 — Biologic (circadian) rhythm
2 — Adenosine accumulation
Circadian rhythm — Our bodies prefer to get into a regular sleep cycle and a daily routine. Millions of years of human evolution have given us an incredible internal clock that matches very closely to a 24-hour day. That internal clock changes body temperature at different times of the day, alters metabolic rate, and produces energy when needed. Our circadian rhythm determines when our brain ramps up and when it shuts down. When we get out of sync and change the routine from one day to the next, we confuse our system, and the strategically precise times get bumped around, causing a cascade of damaging events. Utilizing circadian rhythm is the tricky part because the key to maximum efficiency is consistency.
The second factor that determines when we sleep is chemical. Adenosine is an important neurotransmitter that binds to receptors in our brain, inhibiting our nervous system, making us sleepy enough to get the rest we need. Adenosine levels continually rise every hour that we are awake. As adenosine builds in our system, more and more of it binds to the receptors in our brain, inhibiting arousal and making us sleepier. As adenosine accumulates, the urge and necessity to sleep intensify. As we sleep, adenosine levels drop. It takes about 8 hours of sleep to clear 16 hours of adenosine buildup.
With a basic understanding in place, now is an opportune time to introduce one more character in the sleep drama. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that tells your brain when to sleep. It signals you to go to sleep as it builds in your system. When light dissipates, this hormone increases. In a natural setting without flashing billboards and overhead kitchen lights, melatonin activity initiates at sunset. Any light source, natural or manmade, delay and reduce melatonin release. When exposed to too much light, we miss out on the sleepy benefits of melatonin. All lights affect our sleepiness by blocking melatonin, but certain wavelengths of lighting, like the blue spectrum lights found in many LED lights, are worse. LED lights can block 50% more melatonin than other sources.
Now you have a basic understanding of adenosine, melatonin, and circadian rhythm. Let’s get practical and lay out the top ten strategies for achieving superior sleep.
Sleep Hack #1 — Maintaining Rhythm
Establish a bedtime and a rising time. Religiously adhere to both times for at least two full weeks to establish a consistent circadian rhythm. Allow yourself the opportunity for eight hours of sleep per night, even if you assume you need less. If there is an occasional late night, and you miss your target bedtime, still adhere to the set wake time. Try not to disturb your waking rhythm by sleeping late. Consistent wake time is critically important for good rhythm. Snag a nap later if you need one.
Sleep Hack #2 — Reducing Lights
Most modern smartphones and tablets have a night setting, which reduces the blue lights automatically. Find this setting and use it. At a minimum, reduce the brightness on all screens to the lowest levels. Wear regular sunglasses daily in the late afternoon whenever you are outside. An additional option is to wear special glasses inside after dark. Many manufacturers now make blue-blocking glasses for indoor use.
Control your home lighting and turn off all unnecessary lights after dark. Use strictly non-blue lights for the last few hours of the day. Blackout as much of the bedroom as possible, including electronic devices that emit light. Change your bedside lamp to a lower voltage, less bright, non-LED light bulb. Installing dimmer switches on light fixtures is very beneficial too
Sleep Hack #3 — Keep Your cool
Temperature is just as powerful as light when it comes to sleep. Our core body temperature must drop three to five degrees each night to sleep well. We sleep better if we are a little chilly rather than a little warm. We fall asleep easier in a cooler atmosphere, and we achieve deeper sleep there. Drop your home thermostat a few degrees two hours before bedtime, and bump it down another few when you head to the bedroom for the night. If you have a programmable thermostat, set it to drop through the night gradually. Wear less clothing and use less bedding so that your body temperature can drop more efficiently
Sleep Hack #4 — Bedroom Basics
Reserve your bed for two purposes: Sleep and sex. Don’t eat or watch TV in your bed. Don’t check your email, read books, browse social media or crochet. If your phone is too much of a temptation, leave it in the other room or a drawer. Switch on the “Do Not Disturb” mode. If you need entertainment, do it elsewhere. When you want to sleep, go to bed. Have a set space for meditation or reading and a reserved sanctuary for sleep. Our brains tend to associate behaviors with different settings and stimuli. Train your brain to associate your bed with sleep, not scrolling.
Sleep Hack #5 — Cutting Caffeine
Caffeine has become a prominent substance in modern society. People use it and abuse it all day and all night. Caffeine is a psychoactive stimulant that deserves way more respect than we give it. We are addicted to caffeine because it reduces sleepiness, allowing us to work more hours and feel more energized. Caffeine does not produce energy, as often advertised. It merely delays sleepiness by blocking adenosine. Caffeine binds to the very same receptors in the brain that are needed to bind adenosine. Remember, adenosine accumulates every hour we are awake. When caffeine attaches to the receptors, adenosine gets blocked from binding to the site. Therefore, we don’t get as sleepy as we should because the adenosine is left in the system with nowhere to express sleep signals.
The problem here is that the half-life of caffeine is around six hours. The half-life does not mean the halfway point before it is used up or eliminated. A six-hour half-life does not mean that the substance is gone in twelve hours. This term simply defines the point at which half of a substance is no longer biologically active. At the twelve-hour mark, up to 25% of the caffeine we ingest can still be active. That means that the Americano we drink at 10:00 AM could still be blocking adenosine at 10:00 PM. When the caffeine is finally metabolized and wears off, the binding sites become available again. Then adenosine rushes in to attach, creating a caffeine crash. We cannot escape daily levels of rising adenosine. At some point, we must clear it with sleep. The longer we consume caffeine and stay awake, the bigger the pending crash will be. Also be aware that “decaffeinated” is not the same thing as caffeine-free. “Decaf” merely means that there is low caffeine.
Sleep Hack #6 — Anchoring Alcohol
Alcohol is the next bombshell on the list. Many of you don’t want to hear it, and I didn’t either. I had a glass (or more) every night for over a decade. It was part of my decompression routine. I was convinced that it helped me go to sleep, and it served as an essential cap to end a long day. The truth is that alcohol is a sedative, which means it will sedate you, not make you sleep. Sedation (unconsciousness) and sleep are not the same things. Drinking alcohol may make you feel sleepier initially, but you won’t stay asleep. Alcohol breaks the natural sleep cycle and breaks up healthy sleep. Alcohol also blocks REM sleep, which is why some people can’t remember much of the night before. A single night of drinking can cause sleep disturbances for several nights. The takeaway message here is simple; alcohol is terrible for your sleep.
Sleep Hack #7 — Regular Rituals
Besides having a prescribed time to go to bed and a set time to rise, it’s profoundly beneficial to have other consistent routines too. These things function as cues to signal to our brain what is coming next and allow our bodies to adjust to provide resources at the right times. When we eat, work, read, exercise, recreate, meditate, all matter. Try to do these things at the same time each day, so your body can learn the patterns. Try not to do heavy exercise or eat large meals within three hours of bedtime.
Warm showers before bedtime can become a powerful cue for the end of day routine. The hot water lowers core body temperature. Temperature spikes while in the shower, but shortly after, the body cools, which sets you up for better sleep by giving you a head start on the needed temperature drop for deep sleep. A warm bath an hour before bed is sound sleep medicine.
Sleep Hack #8 — Screen Time
The last hour before bedtime should be screen-free. Most mobile devices now have a setting for automatic shutoff using “screen time” or “do not disturb” settings. Silencing and disabling all sounds and notifications produces big benefits. If your device is too much of a temptation, leave it in another room and use something else for your morning alarm.
Sleep Hack #9 — Bedtime Alarm
A pre-set, consistent time to rise each day is essential. The next step is to set alarms or notifications for bedtime and pre-bedtime. The pre-bedtime announcement should be about an hour before bedtime. The first phase is when we start dialing everything down; activity, lights, temps, screens, and so forth. You can develop and refine the pattern that works best for you. Stretching, followed by a warm shower is a great start. Relaxation breathing is a favorite next step for many. Others listen to light music, read, meditate, color, or work crossword puzzles until they reach the second alarm. This final time goal is when the lights officially go out, and when the head hits the pillow.
Sleep Hack #10 — Don’t Get Worked Up. Get Worked Down.
Occasionally we lie in bed, awake, not tired enough to fall asleep. This mild insomnia may especially be the case in the beginning phases of establishing proper rhythms. Don’t fret or get frustrated. If it takes more than 15 minutes to fall asleep, get up. Resume your quiet, mild, pre-bedtime activities until you get sleepy. Avoid screens and keep physical activity low, but do something other than lie in anxiety, thinking how badly you wish you were asleep. I like to read, journal, or plan the following day in these gaps. A few times per month, for a host of complex reasons, our rhythm may be a little off. Manage it calmly, and go back to bed once you feel a strong urge to sleep. If you have a bedtime audible like some of these I have described, still maintain your standard wake time the next day.
The bottom line is that if we want to perform at a high level (with less anxiety), we must be serious about sleep. These methods work. Develop your powerful routine and defend against the daily onslaught that tries to disrupt it. Goodnight.
Dr. Nate Dallas is a clinician, national speaker, and the author of the new book, You’re Too Good to Feel This Bad.