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).
Our sleep affects our digestion, physical regeneration and the function of our brain
During nighttime our brain does its “housekeeping” — it physically cleans itself from waste products via the glymphatic system as well as stores data to long term memory — which is crucial for learning. So if we don’t get proper rest then our brain can be severely disturbed in its function. When sleep deprived our brain enters a “survival mode” and parts of the brain that are used for higher functions like decision making, logical thinking etc. are impeded. Our body tries to conserve energy, especially when under stress. This can be physical, mental stress or also “stress” from sleep deprivation. This can result in a tendency to resort to habitual behaviours as our brain goes into “survival mode”.
Sleep deprivation messes with our gut flora (which is crucial for healthy digestion) and our sense of hunger, as it suppresses leptine which is a hormone related to satiety. Furthermore problems with sleep have an effect on our body’s insulin sensitivity. The tricky thing is the combination of the effects on the brain, gut flora and on leptin levels as well as insulin sensitivity as it can promote bad food choices. Increased feelings of hunger combined with a decline in our ability to make proper long-term decisions can thus lead to weight gain and potentiall diabetes.
Mental and physical performance suffer. There have been many studies and I recently took a look at a study on “The Effects of Fatigue and Sleepiness on Nurse Performance and Patient Safety” which concluded with: “The evidence is overwhelming that nurses who work longer than 12 consecutive hours or work when they have not obtained sufficient sleep are putting their patients’ health at risk; risk damaging their own health […]”
If you think that you are “winning time” by sleeping less you might actually be making more mistakes by sleeping less which you then have to fix afterwards. You’re not winning anything but losing both in your work performance and health-wise.
As you prioritize sleep and get proper rest, incorporating these 5 tips for proper sleep, you can improve your sleep quality, performance, overall happiness and health:
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).
Now if we don’t get appropriate sunlight during the day our body gets confused and the line between day and night becomes fuzzy. We may feel really tired in the morning as well as throughout the day (as our sleep quality suffers). This is often compensated by heavy caffeine use which in turn can further affect sleep quality. Even having a coffee 5–6 hours before sleep can impair deep sleep (without you knowing it)! More on that below.
I’ve been in the “Twilight Zone” quite a lot in my life, feeling exhausted in the morning, never quite waking up — until it got dark outside… It is such a relief to have a properly functioning sleeping rhythm these days and to enjoy getting up early. If you’re stuck in a negative spiral: There’s a way out! So be creative and find ways to get your daily dose of natural sunlight.
The advent of modern technology has introduced a “second day” to our bodies, if we so choose. This messes with our natural biological rhythms. If we sit in front of a bright electronic screen for the entire evening prior to going to bed our body thinks “I need to be awake and active!”. Melatonin is suppressed — this is not what you want! Shawn Stevenson suggests to avoid screens at least half an hour before going to sleep and to use a blue light blocker like Flux on your computer. I use both use Flux and stopped doing computer work right before bed. I now get to bed earlier and sleep better than I used to.
There are studies linking excess light during the night (everything besides the moon and stars) to depression as well as a decrease in sleep quality and quantity. The suggestion is to darken your bedroom so that you cannot see your hand before your face. If you are living in the city, chances are there is going to be a lot of intrusion from the outside. You cannot change that, but you can get opaque curtains that block light pollution at night completely. I’ve been making my bedroom darker and it’s much more cozy this way!
Not quite sold yet? Check out this article on The Guardian describing a study where campers fell asleep about two hours earlier as they were deprived of all artificial light exposure in the evening.
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.
It is recommended to not shift sleeping and wake times for more than 30 minutes. Shawn Stevenson as well as other resources suggest: it is a bad idea to sleep in on the weekends. The reason is that our body expects a consistent rhythm (dictated by the sun) and synchronizes to it. So remember: If you want really great sleep then you should “hit the pillow” before 10–11pm hits.
Now if you think you’re a “night owl” — I can understand. I was a night person for most of my life. Check out my article about Getting Up Early to find out why and how I changed to being a (happy) morning person.
It’s really important that you have a sleeping environment where you feel comfortable. You can get some plants like english ivy or snakeplant — these two help clean the room air. What may also help you relax and feel at ease is a small indoor fountain or arranging things for symmetry.
Laptops, tablets and phones create an unsuitable neuro-association for your bedroom. You want to associate your bed with sleep — not with browsing the internet, working on the laptop or watching an exciting movie. If there’s one thing I learned in the last few years it is the power and impact of habits and rituals.
16–20 degrees Celsius is a good temperature. If it’s too hot then your body will have difficulty downregulating its core body temperature, a process that happens during sleep. This is probably a little colder than most people sleep.
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.
Drinking in the evening has been found to disturb deep sleep. Alcohol makes falling asleep easier, but the body goes “too deep” during the first part of the night (this is because of alcohol’s effect on adenosine) and then sleep gets “too light” in the later parts of the night as the body tries to compensate. Thus your whole night can be negatively affected. Alcohol prior to sleep should be avoided.
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.
I really recommend getting the book: “Sleep Smarter” by Shawn Stevenson. I’ve learned a lot from it and implementing the tips my sleep and energy levels have improved. I hope that this overview was helpful to you and I wish you great sleep!
Check out more details about the sleep studies on my blog post at lukasweichselbaum.com.