Ample and quality sleep is one of the most important, and sadly neglected, elements of a sound mind and body. We can spend so much time and energy on our physical fitness, nutrition, and socio-emotional aspects of our lives and completely bypass one of the pillars of health.
We often fall into the trap of foregoing sleep in an effort to “get more done.”
As we’ve all experienced, though, the less quality sleep we get, the less chance we have at being our most productive selves. Yet, quality sleep isn’t so easy to come by, especially in our GO, GO, GO world.
In this post, we’ll talk about why sleep is so important, and we’ll give you 5 strategies for making your sleep better.
You Know Sleep is Important… But Here’s Why You Should Make it a Bigger Priority in Your Life
Just like “eat well” and “stay active” are incredibly vague, but still important, concepts, “get better sleep” can seem amorphous and out of reach without an understanding of what “better sleep” is.
The optimal window for sleep is most commonly between 6 and 8 hours. Some people can do well with less and some need more, but just as in a bell curve, the vast majority of us fit in to that amount. As we sleep, our body cycles through stages from a lighter to a deeper sleep, and this cycles repeats throughout the night (in an 8-hour period, your body should go through this cycle about 4-5 times).
Deep sleep is when we experience accelerated muscle repair, and in children it’s the most important time for physical growth. Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is released into the bloodstream, which is good for muscle development and healing.
During this phase, breathing slows, muscles are relaxed, and it’s difficult to wake up from external stimuli.
These cycles are why the length of sleep matters. While naps are great when you are sleep deprived, they can’t fully substitute for the longer periods of sleep we are supposed to get at night.
Our individual sleep needs can vary, so one practical way to determine our specific requirements is to track how much nighttime sleep we get while waking up without the need from an alarm. Sleep experts recommend consistent times for going to sleep and rising in the morning to establish healthy patterns and also to give you a baseline tracking for how much you need.
What Happens When We Don’t Get Enough Sleep
A lot about how important sleep is and why we need it is measured in terms of what happens when we don’t get enough of it.
Slower reaction times (enough that it is equivalent to being intoxicated), decreased memory retention (poor performance on tests), and decreased athletic performance (slower and weaker muscle contraction and increased fat storage) are just a few negative effects of sleep deprivation.
So unless you like being drunk, stupid, and less physically capable, you should work on improving your sleep habits.
5 Ways to Get More, Better, and Deeper Sleep
There are many tools and strategies you can use to improve your sleep. The following 5 tips have been proven to have a big impact, and we’ve used them successfully over the years.
1. Sleep in Cave-Like Conditions
The best environment for sleep is a room that is completely dark and relatively cool.
Many people think their room is totally dark at night, but you’d be surprised how much excess light you probably have coming in after you turn out the lights.
Do you keep your cell phone in your room? Maybe you have a wireless router, a TV or DVD player, or even a smoke alarm? All of these electronic devices have small, seemingly insignificant LED lights that have actually been shown to disturb sleep quite significantly.
…exposure to light suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that influences circadian rhythms… [and] even dim light can interfere with a person’s circadian rhythm and melatonin secretion.
(Quoted from Harvard Health)
Even a small amount of light creeping in through the slits in your blinds can tell your body not to enter full-on sleep mode.
So what can you do to fix this issue?
- Remove as many electronic devices from your room as possible.
- For those devices that can’t be removed, use duct tape or any dark towel or t-shirt you have lying around to cover those little LED lights.
- Invest in some blackout curtains to make sure no light is coming in.
2. Stop Using Electronics at Least 30 Minutes Before Bed
This tip is closely related to the previous one, as the reason is the same – the “blue light” emitted from electronic screens (including TVs, computers, and phones) interferes with the body’s natural production of melatonin. This makes sleep – and certainly deep sleep – much less attainable.
The earlier you stop using these devices, the better, as the particular light they give off has been shown to suppress melatonin for up to 3 hours.
If you’re anything like most people living in the modern world, though, stepping away from all electronic devices 3 hours before bed might not be so realistic (though I think everyone would benefit from trying it every once in a while). So what should you do?
One great option is to install a light adjusting app on your devices.
- Visit https://justgetflux.com/ to download an app that will automatically adjust the lights on your device so that the screen does not emit blue lights, those lights that are specifically harmful to your body’s melatonin production.
3. Go to Sleep and Wake Up at Around the Same Time Every Day
You don’t have to follow this rule rigidly but when you get into the habit of going to sleep at around 11pm every night and waking up at around 7am every morning, your body gets used to this. When your body adapts to this regular schedule, you’ll find yourself naturally getting tired at around 11pm every night and waking up at around 7am every morning.
This means less forcing yourself to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning. It will happen more rhythmically and naturally.
Falling asleep and waking up are the parts of the sleep cycle that people struggle with most, so getting in the habit of following a fairly regular sleep schedule can be very beneficial.
For more on building habits, click here.
4. Meditate Before Bed
I am not suggesting you attempt to enter an hourlong, trancelike state before bed every night, but some simple meditation techniques can be very helpful with ridding yourself of any anxieties or thoughts that may keep you from falling into a deep sleep easily.
This simple technique may be both the easiest and most advanced mental training practice you’ll learn.
- In a comfortable position – choose sitting or lying down, and stay with it for a while before switching around – close your eyes and just observe your breath.
- Some teachers have you count, while others ask you to regulate the breath in some way. I’ve found it’s best just to “watch” your breath and concentrate not on controlling the inhale and exhale but simply to observe it.
- Set a timer and start at 5 minutes, adding a minute every day or so to a max of 15.
- It will be difficult at first, just like everything that’s worthwhile, but keep at it. Don’t do anything but concentrate on how you are breathing. Don’t force it and soon you’ll find that you’ll be “losing” yourself and the timer will ding before you know it.
- The key, and I cannot stress this enough, is to not strain. You can’t force yourself to relax! Keep at it everyday but if in a session you find yourself working too hard to concentrate, it’s best to bag it and try again later.
Try this technique for a few minutes before bed to relax your mind. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, you can use this technique again to help you fall back asleep.
5. Take Supplements as Needed
Sometimes, even after implementing all the suggestions above, people still struggle with falling asleep or staying asleep. This is when the use of certain supplements can be valuable.
Each of the following supplements can have different effects on different people, so don’t be surprised if you try one of these supplements and get different results. Some of the most commonly used supplements for sleep include:
- Melatonin – Like I mentioned above, melatonin is really important for regulating sleep-wake cycles. While you should optimize your environment for melatonin production, supplementing with melatonin before bed can also help with this regulation.
- Magnesium – This is one of the more common nutritional deficiencies in the Western world, so you may do well to take this supplement anyway. In some people, it can have a calming or sedative-like effect, so it’s best taken before bed.
- Valerian – This supplement is known to help with anxiety and sleep issues.
These are just a few things you can try, but they are all available over the counter at any health foods store (or online), and they’re relatively cheap. For a full list of supplements that can help with sleep quality, click here.
Overall Health Must Include an Emphasis on Sleep
Don’t nullify the hard work and effort you put towards your workouts and diet with poor sleep habits. Getting a good restful night’s sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise for optimal health.
In fact, because most of the body’s natural recovery happens when we are sleeping, training hard without getting enough quality sleep is disruptive and can not just hamper your progress but actually set you back.
If you’ve struggled with sleep over the years, the 5 tips we shared in this article are a good way to put you on the path to better quality sleep. Implement these strategies and see how you feel after a couple of weeks of sleeping in a more optimal environment. You’re likely to see a big impact on your mood, cognition, exercise performance, and of course, energy levels.
Sleep is just one of the important ways to improve your health and recovery abilities. In the next article we’ll talk about 3 other areas you should focus on if you want to recover faster and make better progress.