Sleep is such a complex issue that this will require a follow-up post to cover all the important facts you need to know. So please enjoy part 1 of this two-part Sleep Series.
Other than helping you feel more alert and energetic in the day sleep is one of the most important factors in our lives. Seriously. Lack of sleep is not a joke or some new age productivity hack!
This isn’t just going to be a few quick points taken from googling and social media mems. This is the legit science and facts you need to know.
Why am I so passionate about sleep? No, I’m not lazy, and other than not getting enough of it, I live day in, day out seeing the detrimental impacts of sleep deprivation and how it impacts mental health, physical health, and social well being.
Trust me when I say that poor sleep is not a joke! My wife was diagnosed with a neurological condition just on 4 years ago which changed her life completely. She went from being a relatively normal, active, working Mum, to being deemed permanently disabled, unable to work, barely able to function on a daily basis, confused with distracted attention and a range of other condition-specific issues making some days a living nightmare for her. All of this based on her body’s inability to regulate in and out of proper sleep.
When I say sleep is life and death, I’m not being dramatic. We need to give sleep the respect it deserves and the attention it needs so that we are able to function and live the lives we are striving so hard to build. (Funnily enough, often at the detriment of our sleep).
Sleep is a major factor in the following issues;
As you can see, sleep is certainly not to be taken lightly!
I’m sure you’ve heard the term Circadian Rhythm before? This refers to the 24-hour process determined by the light and dark cycle of the natural environment. This cycle includes our sleep periods and around 15% of our DNA is controlled by this cycle, including the body’s repair mechanisms, and hormone production for sleep and alertness.
So there is an inbuilt process we are biologically programmed to follow that determines when and why we must sleep.
So for those who burn the midnight oil and stay up late and then drag themselves out of bed each morning to get to work, you aren’t listening to your body! And no, coffee is not the answer!
Here is one tip to take away before we get too deep into the sleep rabbit hole. You need to create a bedtime routine which primes you for sleep. Something that happens in a sequence that lets your body know it’s time to prepare to sleep. So if you think watching tv or playing games/ checking social media before you pass out is a good routine before bed, guess again!
This simple action will dramatically improve sleep quality immediately.
By screens I mean, ipad, smartphone, computers, television, digital screens for clocks anything powered with a screen that gives off any light!
All of these devices emit a spectrum of light (Blue light) which can give you major sleep problems. This artificial light triggers the body to ramp up production of daytime hormones (like Cortisol) which disorients and stimulates the body, counter to what it intuitively should be doing in preparation for sleep (this sleep process normally begins naturally as the sun sets).
There is research that has shown that light from electronic devices in the hours before bed adversely impact overall health, our circadian clock, and alertness. The science suggests that just simple iPad use prior to going to bed increases the time it takes to fall asleep, causes you to feel less sleepy, results in shorter periods of time in REM sleep and results in less production of melatonin (sleep hormone) naturally. These people studied also reported feeling much more tired the following day compared to non-device users and book readers, even when both had 8 hours sleep!
Some quick background:
Our body has been designed over millions of years to operate a certain way through many chemical, neurological and environmental cues. Digital technology and screens have only been around for less than 100 years.
WE ARE NOT DESIGNED TO STARE INTO SCREENS!
Before I get into the practical tips, I understand that removing devices and screens from the sleep routine is difficult. We have socially infused technology into our lives. We have made the smartphone an extension of our body and soul, responding like well-trained dogs to the flashing, beeping, buzzing and need for instant connection and access to information and people. We are addicts to our tech! To the point where removing your smartphone from the bedroom may cause actual anxiety! This is true. Screen use releases dopamine (pleasure/alertness brain center chemical) the same chemical pathway activated in drug use and other addictions, so yes we are addicts in the truest sense of the term!
Even though these next tips sound simple, be aware that you will need dedication and willpower to stay the course and implement these strategies into your sleep routine!
What to do:
Do this from tonight and see the difference it will make in just a few short days!
“Luke . . . . I am your Father . . . . ” (Darth Vader)
There is no questioning the research and it is well established that we sleep better in a dark environment. We all know this! However, many of us don’t take full advantage (or for shift workers, can’t take full advantage) of this fact.
Having any sources of light in the bedroom is going to disrupt your sleep. Yesterday I covered tech-based artificial light sources that emit sleep harmful blue light. This is not the only light type that disrupts our sleep.
Did I hear someone say this isn’t a problem as they “use a sleep mask”? Sadly, the impact of light on your sleep isn’t just about the light you see. Did you know that 0ur skin has receptors that pick up light? It’s true. Your skin has photoreceptors similar to those found in the retina! So we truly are solar/light interactive!
The skin picks up light and creates a chemical called Rhodopsin which is a light-sensitive chemical found in the retina. So when your skin picks up any hint of light, it sends signals to your brain and organs to prepare for daytime! Another genetic function from our survivalist days and one which disrupts sleep. Importantly, this means that sleeping in the dark to optimise sleep must mean complete blackout, not just blocking light to your eyes!
A research study was conducted to test this, where a person was placed in a completely blacked out room with a fibre-optic light placed behind their knee. This light was enough to affect sleep quality, melatonin production, and body temperature. (We talk temperature later)
So light is the enemy of sleep, the Jedi night to our dark side quest! It is such a big factor in this age of artificial light sources that some of us, without even knowing, are living in an environment of almost constant daytime conditions. This significantly impacts our body’s ability to produce melatonin (studies show at least a 50% decrease in production). There are also other harmful effects of this everlasting artificial day we create!
The health impacts range from heightened blood pressure, increased risks of osteoporosis, inflammation, poor thyroid function, poor insulin sensitivity, poor immune function. There is also some evidence that it impacts the prevalence of vision problems later in life.
So think twice about all the little blips, flashes, dull glow and other insignificant light sources you have contaminating your bedroom! All light sources carry varying degrees of blue light and other spectrums which will impact your sleep quality. Even moonlight has its impact, but nowhere near artificial or sunlight!
So how do you join the “Dark Side”?
“My bed is a magical place where I suddenly remember everything I was supposed to do.” – Bill Murray
Do you find that when you get into bed and start to relax, it’s like a green light for your mind to start considering the who, what, where, how and why of everything in your life? This is your “Inner Chatter”.
This is not a bad thing, just a barrier to getting into an ideal state for sleep. Our inner chatter is our brain processing information and our consciousness sorting through what things need attention from the long subconscious sorting list. This is normal, however, in our hyped up and over sensitised world, we can get overstimulated and this chatter can be defending!
We need strategies to turn the volume down and get our inner chatter to find peace and become a relaxing stream, rather than a new years eve fireworks show!
So how do we get our inner chatter under control? Most of this chatter is from the stress and busyness we experience in our day from the masses of information and sensory stimulus we are bombarded with. So how do we train our brain to lower the volume and shift attention to calm and sleep?
Meditation or brain training is a great way to teach your brain to switch focus from mass information processing to attention to the here and now. Research has shown that meditation sequences can increase “feel good” hormones and endorphins, lower stress hormones like Cortisol and in some cases reduce inflammation.
Meditation doesn’t have to be a complex process with all the bells and whistles. It can simply be the dedicated time where you focus on your breathing, some repetitive counting patterns, relaxing imagery creation in your mind, or you can listen to guided meditation sequences, but preferably not on your phone or device!
As you become more practiced in meditation it may take you less and less time to calm the mind and hit a relaxed state. So don’t give up after the first few attempts. Stick with it and it will get easier and more effective!
Meditation has many benefits aside from just helping you get to sleep. Studies have shown that the active practice of attention and focus on relaxing the mind and body change the brain waves and chemical flows in the body, which in turn can change the physical structure of the brain, thickening the regions associated with attention and sensory processing.
Some studies have also shown meditation to provide significant health benefits from lowered blood pressure, reduced risk of stroke and heart disease, and a reduction in chronic pain and associated biomarkers. Not coincidently all health impacts associated closely with heightened stress.
Now specifically for sleep, meditation has shown as an effective treatment for insomnia and has recorded over a two-month study, improvements in sleep latency, total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and depression reduction. The application of meditation sequences during the daytime has also shown to improve the quality of nighttime sleep.
Part of meditation practices which even applied on their own can also have benefits, Breathing, and Mindfulness.
Breathing is one of our few autonomic nervous system functions which we can consciously control. Oxygen intake has a profound impact on the function of our body. We need it to live, but it also has an impact on our brains, muscles and organs function. When we are not paying attention, we often breath more shallow and shorter breaths. When we focus, we can change to taking regulated, deep and long breaths. When we consciously focus on this type of breathing, we are controlling our automatic stress and fight or flight responses which is another genetic survival response embedded in our DNA. We are in effect wrestling our state of anxiety down by force of will.
We can apply this type of breathing to any situation where we feel stress in order to lower the physiological and psychological impacts of heightened stress.
How can you breathe to achieve this result?
Sit up straight and tall, head facing forward and shoulders relaxed. Place your hands in a comfortable and open position. When you inhale, breath in through the nose. focus on filling up your belly then your lungs and then chest with air. Once you have filled every bit of your body, hold it in for a 2 to 4-second count and then slowly control the exhale, again through the nose so that every bit of air is allowed to exit the body. Once you have emptied all the air, pause for at least a 2 count before repeating the inhale again. Do this cycle for 5 to 10 rounds to start with and see how you feel.
If you are beyond this basic learning, try box breathing where you control your breathing by counting for equal time the inhale, pause, exhale and pause starting with 3 second counts and increasing a second for every 4 rounds and see how long you can work up to and then stay at the maximum time sequence for 10 cycles.
The other component I mentioned was Mindfulness.
Mindfulness goes hand in hand with meditation and breathing. It is the practice of bringing your conscious attention and focus into the current second.
Be . . Here . . . Now!
What this does is helps you practice being present in the moment. This practice releases your focus on the past, on the future and on the imaginary creation of your mind. It is about bringing your attention and focus right back to only what is happening in this present moment, each moment at a time. Each breath, each heartbeat, each sensory input registering the current sounds, smell, almost slowing down time to capture it frame by frame as it happens. This is the art of mindfulness. this doesn’t have to be restricted to meditation or breathing but can be applied to everything in your day, from walking somewhere and focusing on each step, each adjustment of balance, direction, each sound and object passing by, each person’s face and so much more.
The more you practice the better you get at these things. Practice mindfulness when you engage in conversations. Draw yourself to focus on the person’s words, their face, listen intently only to them, connect with their breathing and just be in the space with them. See what difference it makes.
So let’s go over how all of this will get you sleeping better tonight!
I hope this has given you some factual and practical strategies to address some things that might be imp[acting on you getting better sleep. If this has helped, make sure you check out the second installment of this sleep series (coming soon).
Author: Vaughan Carder