“If you can’t tell what you desperately need, it’s probably sleep.” -Kevin Kelly
"A well-spent day brings happy sleep." -Leonardo da Vinci
If the elixir of life could be boiled down into one word, it would be sleep. It is the fountain of youth, the pathway to learning, and the end-all-be-all to mental stability. I am really not exaggerating. When we sleep our cells repair themselves, our brains consolidate memories, and our hormones and neurotransmitters rebalance. We all know this at an intuitive level, yet so many of us are undersleeping. Some restlessness is not by choice, but we have a lot more control than we realize. How we structure our day influences how well we sleep. This post will be about some simple connections that you may or may not have made between your life and your slumber.
A good night's sleep actually starts in the morning. The body's natural cues for circadian rhythm in order of importance are light, temperature, and calories. Cortisol peaks in the first couple hours of being awake, and it is essential to not blunt this rise. The feeling of morning grogginess is often from low cortisol. We can encourage a healthy circadian rhythm by exposing our eyeballs and skin to the early morning sun. The low-band infrared radiation from the sun helps jumpstart cortisol production. Eating a substantial breakfast, rich in protein, and doing a little early morning exercise are two other ways to help regulate morning cortisol.
The middle part of the day is just as important as the morning. We only have a certain amount of energy available to us each day. In an ideal world, we spend it on things that are important to us and don't overreach into our reserves, and never waste it on pointless tasks. But let's be honest, we so often find ourselves overspending our energy on small fires of our own and others' making, and failing to get to what we actually want to get done. This could be as simple as missing our exercise or meal times due to other obligations, and as deep as existential angst from not realizing your true potential. To the body, the signal is the same.
When we spend our days in a state of frenetic tail-chasing, it catches up to us at night. Instead of being able to relax, our mind is still stuck in the past, rehashing our lost opportunities, and ruminating on what we actually desire. The antidote is setting boundaries during our day and focusing on just one or two things that are important per day. Think about it like this, if you accomplish those few things each day that are truly meaningful, then the other accomplishments and losses throughout the day are not that big of a deal. You can take them or leave them.
A useful way to clear up your mental bandwidth for focusing on essential items is to create sustainable habits. If you don't have to think through what your meals, your exercise, or your other basic tasks need to look like each day, then you have that reserve of energy to spend on the work only you can do. Outsourcing tasks to other people (like hiring a coach to manage your exercise, or an extra hand at work or around the house) is another way to economize your limited time resources. The tradeoff of money for extra time is worth it, especially if you are money-rich and time-poor.
Our food and exercise habits are important for creating the best hormonal environment for going into the night. It is best to stop any caffeine consumption by noon and to avoid strenuous exercise later than 6 pm. Stimulants and exercise both raise adrenaline and cortisol levels, which we want to be low in the evening. The next thing we can do is plan on eating 2-3 hours prior to our bedtime. That way the body will have digested the majority of our food before we sleep. Eating more of our daily carbohydrates in the evening is also an adventitious decision, as carbs raise our serotonin levels which reduces our pre-bed stress. Engaging in intimate touch and sex are also great ways to raise our serotonin and oxytocin levels in the evening.
In the evening there are a few things that will greatly diminish sleep quality. The first is alcohol. This neurotoxin is without a doubt the number one disruptor of deep sleep. A little bit with dinner is fine, but drinking more than two servings especially in the 1-2 hours prior to bed is not recommended. The next major sleep disruptor is blue light. This could be from television, cellphones, computers, and even incandescent, LED, and fluorescent lights. Remember what I mentioned about circadian rhythm and light exposure earlier? When we expose our eyes and our skin to blue light we are sending a signal to our body that it is still daytime. When blue light disappears, the night begins. Blue light inhibits melatonin production in our brains, and we need melatonin to fall and stay asleep.
Temperature is the last thing I'll mention for now. As I said above, it is the second most important factor for circadian rhythmicity. As the sun comes up, the world heats up and so does our core body temperature. As the sun goes down, the temperature drops. Even a few degrees of fluctuation help put our bodies on track. Getting out of sync with the outside temperatures (and light for that matter) puts us at a deficit. Excessive AC in the summer and a too-warm house in the winter spell trouble. Yes, people get away with working inside under artificial light and forced air all day, but it is ideal to be able to get outside often and reacclimate to reality. Try to mimic the natural swings in temperature in your house. I personally sleep best between 58-65 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything over 70 degrees and I have trouble remaining asleep between sleep cycles. There are in-bed cooling technologies (like the Chilipad) that will help solve the age-old argument between co-sleeping couples. In Finland, they use two separate sets of sheets and comforters on their beds.
We covered a lot, and there is so much more yet to discuss. We didn't even mention sleep aids, light pollution, and noise, but that will have to wait for another day. The bottom line is that the single best thing that you can do for your health and the health of those around you is to get some sleep. The more naturally you can do this the better. Start small with just one or two changes from this post and add more as you go. I will shamelessly plug that the single most common side-effect that I hear from my acupuncture patients is improved sleep. Sweet dreams everyone.