Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Why is sleep so important and how can we drastically improve our sleep quality? I’ve been listening to a great audiobook called “Sleep Smarter” by Shawn Stevenson. Applying the tips and strategies from it I was able to improve the quality of not only my sleep, but my waking time as well. Following these simple tips you can do so almost “over night”.

Why sleep is so important

Sleep isn’t merely time where we are unconscious. It is a time where our body rests and regenerates itself. There are a lot of hormonal processes happening in our body during sleep. When we take great care of our sleep, this affects our entire organism. For a long time I thought: “I’ll sleep less, so that I can do more!”, but this book has laid out clearly (backed up by peer-reviewed studies) that there are many severe downsides to having suboptimal sleep quality and quantity. These include: depression, cardiovascular disease, increased inflammatory markers and obesity. Sleeping too little has been found to result in decreasing one’s telomere length — this means you’ll age faster (with all of aging’s downsides, not only wrinkles).

1) Light

The sun is crucial in establishing a natural circadian rhythm. This has a strong effect on optimal hormone secretion which in turn affects important deep sleep. Sunlight even on a cloudy day is stronger than most artificial light sources(even SAD-therapy lamps) it is always to be preferred. Especially get some sunlight during the early hours of the morning. The light tells our body that it’s time to be awake and active cortisol gets secreted. Cortisol is called a “stress-hormone” but it may be referred to as an “activity-hormone”. You want your body to secrete cortisol — in the morning, not in the evening. This way we can help our body settle into a natural rhythm: awake in the morning, sleepy in the evening. Besides sunlight helps us produce serotonin, the precursor to melatonin which is important for sleep (it helps shift your circadian rhythm to sleep).

2) Exercise

A great thing to do, especially if our sleeping rhythm is temporarily or chronically off (this means we have trouble getting and “waking” up or have difficulty falling asleep), is to exercise — especially in the morning. Only 6 minutes of high intensity exercise like Tabatas are said to help the body settle into a higher level of cortisol, helping facilitate a natural sleeping rhythm. As a result we can feel energised and awake in the morning and sleepy in the evening. I’ve shifted my daily workout to the morning, straight after getting up and haven’t regretted it since. That being said: Any exerxise is better than no exercise. A recent study even seems to refute the commonly held belief that evening exercise inferferes with sleep.

3) Sleep Rhythm

We’ve got to respect the natural hormonal cycles of our bodies which are heavily influenced by the natural cycle of the sun. Shawn Stevenson calls the time from about 10pm to 2am “Money Time Sleep”. In this time our body expects us to be asleep and we can make use of the natural secretion of Melatonin (which on average peaks at 10:30). That is if we got enough sunlight, were active during the day and avoided bright screens in the evening! Melatonin helps us to get proper sleep and suppressing it by staying up too late will mess with our sleep and we may enter a “second wind” as our circadian rhythm shifts into another phase of wakefulness. It might then be very difficult to fall asleep. Hormones and our rhythm get out of balance and as a result sleep quality suffers — even if we sleep the same amount of hours.

4) Bedroom

Plants

5) Beverages

For many of us a morning without coffee is difficult to imagine. Yet hear me out. Caffeine has a half-life period of 5–6 hours. This means that after six hours half of the amount of the stimulant is still in your system. If at 5pm you drink a big cup of coffee, at 10–11 in the evening you are still going to have half of that cup in your body. That’s like half a cup of coffee before bed. The problematic thing is: you might think that it’s no issue for you, because you’re able to fall asleep regardless but to cite one study: “Caffeine, even six hours before bed has been found to increase sleep latency and reduce total sleep time as well as time spent in deep sleep. REM sleep was not affected.” This may lead to a chronic sleep deficit and you may not feel as rested as when getting proper sleep consistently. The problem here is that feeling tired during the day may then lead to higher caffeine consumption which in turn can aggravate sleep problems. The solution is to have a caffeine curfew at around noon. I can’t comment from my personal experience as I don’t drink caffeine beverages.

A quick recap

  • Get morning sunlight. This helps your body get into a natural rhythm where you’re feeling awake and energized during the day and ready to sleep in the evening. At night you’ll have solid and rejuvenating deep-sleep.
  • Control devices in the evening, as it messes with your sleep cycle making your body think “time to be awake now!”. Also get rid of light pollution in your bedroom. It’s not about the stars and the moon but strong artificial light sources like passing cars or streetlights.
  • Get moving. Phyical activity improves sleep. Especially morning exercise can wake the body up and help with establishing a natural rhythm.
  • Follow the the sun’s rhythm. “Money Time Sleep” from about 10pm to 2am is the ideal time to spend in bed. If you are still wide awake at 11pm you might be getting into a second wind, making it hard to fall asleep and causing possible long-term problems with performance and health. Consistently go to bed once your Melatonin peaks (at around 10:30 on average) in order to help your body maintain and heal itself optimally. Being disciplined will yield great benefits!
  • Have a “sleep sanctuary” where you feel comfortable and that you keep cool. Make your bedroom a “device-free zone”, so that it’s associated with sleep instead of work or entertainment. This makes it easier to fall asleep. You can use plants or a small waterfall for a relaxing atmosphere. Setting up your bedroom for great sleep is an investment that can help you make sleep a priority in your life. It’s saying: “I’m investing time and energy in improving my sleep because I recognize that it is important and that great sleep has many benefits!”
  • Be careful regarding coffee and alcohol. Recognize that coffee has a half-life of about 6 hours. A caffeine curfew around noon can be very beneficial to get great sleep and thus perform and feel great during the day. Avoid alcohol before bed — you might fall asleep quickly but it harms sleep quality.

My purpose is to inspire you to hold yourself to a higher standard and improve your character. So you can enjoy harmony within your thoughts, words and actions.

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