Sleep is the most overlooked aspect of health and fitness. Especially in American society where we emphasize do more, go faster, and don’t let up. We cram so much into a day . Then when bedtime rolls around, we still have more to do so we continue to stay up into the wee hours. By the time we crash, we log 5-ish hours of sleep. (This ish is because we woke up 2 or 3 times during this sleep period). We wake up the next morning sleep deprived, reaching for the vent at Starbucks.
Being in the fitness industry, most people only talk about diet and exercise when it comes to health. But I see health a little more holistically and I apply a 4 pillar approach to health. The four pillars are:
And to be completely honest with you, I would say that the order I wrote these 4 pillars in are the order of importance. “Rest is Best” quoting a song from Daniel Tiger. In the category of sleep I include the deep restorative sleep we should be getting at night, plus quite time during the day. Quiet time can include naps, meditation or just taking a break to sit down and read.
When we are sleeping well we feel great! We make better food choices and don’t overeat. We can handle stressful situations better when we are rested. If you feel rested and energized, you bet you’ll want to get some exercise in.
But the opposite is true when you don’t get enough sleep. Your are so tired and sleepy, all you want to eat is sugar and processed carbs to give you an energy boost. When you’re tired, it’s not only major stresses that are getting to you. Little things are making you fly off the handle and blow up on people. Do you think you want to exercise when you are tired? Not really.
I’ve always been a solid sleeper. I’m one of those people who “needs her sleep”. When my son Frank was just over 3 months old, I experience major sleep deprivation when he was getting up every 2 hours. I was never so tired in my life. I experienced the many negative effects of not sleeping. I was always hungry and wanted sugar. I was not too pleasant to be around and little things would trigger a major reaction. I did exercise because I felt a little boost of energy. But that soon puttered out because my adrenal glands got fried. So fried that I started dealing with insomnia. Let’s just say, I’m glad to be sleeping well again.
Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. During that time, we need to go through at least 5 full sleep cycles. (A sleep cycle is 90 to 110 minutes) There is a sliver of the population that has the genetics to go on less sleep than that. You would know if this is you. Many people fool themselves into thinking they don’t need a lot of sleep, but instead they survive on coffee and stimulants all day to stay away.
So What Does Sleep Deprivation Do To You?
I mentioned a few ways that a lack of sleep can affect your nutrition, your stress management, and your drive to exercise. But lack of sleep will wrack havoc on your body. Here’s what can happen when you skimp on zzzz’s at night.
High Blood Pressure
Poor Exercise Recovery
Lower Sex Drive
Irregular Heart Beat
Impairs Attention and Alertness
Depression and Anxiety
What’s Causing You Not To Achieve High Quality Sleep?
That’s a tough question. There could be a host of different factors that get in the way of your nighttime slumber. But to make things simple, I’ll narrow it down to 3 things: Nutrition, Stress and Light.
What You Eat and Drink Could Be Keeping You Awake.
Let’s start with beverages. If you’re slamming coffee all day long, this could be impairing your sleep. Caffeine has a half life of 8 hours. So if you have a coffee at 4pm in the afternoon you will still have caffeine in your system at midnight. That could be tough if you’re trying to get to sleep at 10pm. Humans metabolize caffeine differently. Some of us metabolize it quickly, some of us slow, and some of us are moderate. (I did DNA testing and found out I’m a moderate caffeine metabolizer) How you metabolize caffeine will also effect how much and how long caffeine stays in your body.
Alcohol consumption is also not good for your sleep. Yes, it may help you drift off but it does not allow you to get into the deeper levels of sleep you need to restore your body. What happens more often than not is after a few drinks, we find we are waking up during the night. This is from a blood sugar drop after a few hours of consuming alcohol. You wake up because your body feels like it’s going hypoglycemic. Alcohol is really tough for the body to process. Just realize that when you play you pay. You won’t sleep well after a few cocktails.
Now that I bashed a few of our favorite beverages, let’s talk about how the food we eat can help or hinder our sleep. There are two things that can disrupt your sleep: too much sugar at night or going too low on carbohydrates all day.
Having too much sugar at night right before bed could make sleep very difficult. We don’t want ride the blood sugar roller coaster right before bed. The optimal dinner or bedtime snack would have a mix of protein, fat and complex carbohydrates. When I discuss how to structure our meals, I emphasize a low carb, high fat breakfast in the morning and then by the time dinner rolls around that is your time to include healthy carbohydrates. Healthy carbs at night boost serotonin which in turn helps us make melatonin. Ever experience carb coma after eating a big plate a pasta? I’m not giving you the green light to indulge on pasta, but I do think it’s smart to eat a smart portion of health carbs at dinner.
That also leads to my other point. Your adrenals can take a beating when you are too low on carbohydrates for too long. What happens is that they start to emit cortisol at the wrong times, like at 2am in the morning. And guess what….You’re away. Usually a small snack of protein and carbs will help rectify this problem within 30 to 60 minutes. But follow my eating advice in the above paragraph to eat macronutrients that work with your natural hormone rhythms.
Stress Is Keeping You Up.
Stress is a broad category that encompasses emotional stress, physical stress, nutritional stress, chemical stress, electromagnetic stress and psychic stress. I mentioned nutritional stress above and will talk about electromagnetic stress below. So let’s focus on emotional/psychic stress and physical stress.
Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night with your brain cranking away on the problems you faced the day before? The worries and emotional stress of these problems are keeping you awake.
Watching the news, a scary movie or reading an intense book right before bed can stir up both emotional and mental stress making going to sleep very difficult.
Creating a bedtime routine that is relaxing and peaceful is ideal for the most restful sleep. We have established bedtime routines and times for our children. Wouldn’t it make sense to do the same thing for us?
Start winding down for bed between 30 and 60 minutes before your actual sleep time. This is not the time to watch TV or look at your phone. (More on that in a little bit.) It’s time to get the lights low and start to relax. Journaling at night before bed is a great way to dump the days stress out of your brain onto paper. A gratitude journal where you write down 3 things you are thankful for each day is the best way to combat emotional stress. Part of your bedtime routine could include reading a book or magazine. Remember, keep it light and positive. You don’t want to get all excited reading and not be able to fall asleep. Other things you can do at night is meditate, foam roll, practice deep breathing exercise, or listen to relaxing music. The thing about a routine is that it get’s your brain and body ready to rest.
Physical stress in the right amounts can help you sleep but in excess will lead to insomnia. Regular exercise and movement is one of the four pillars of health. In the right amounts it will help management mental and emotional stress and help you sleep well. I always believe a good workout can burn off the stress of the day.
But over-exercise or over-training can lead to the opposite. There was a time in my athlete life that I was severely over trained. I ended up with chronic insomnia because my adrenal glands were fried. This is how too much exercise can wreck your rest and recovery. One of the worst culprits is too much cardio done at too high of a heart rate. When it comes to endurance training and health, I recommend The Maffetone Method. This is a smart way to still play your favorite endurance sports while remaining healthy.
I do have to mention another form of sleep disruption/stress that comes from your partner. (I’m talking about snoring here.) A snoring partner can be the worst for restful sleep since you are waking up multiple times a night. Earplugs and a noise cancellation machine may help depending on the volume of snoring. But if none of those solutions work, then you’ll just need to sleep in separate rooms. It is not a worthy act of love to sacrifice your sleep just to be in the same room as your partner. You will be a much happier pair if you both get good sleep.
Bright Light. Bright Light.
Our buddy gizmo had it right when he did not want to be around bright lights. Bright lights, especially blue light, can inhibit our melatonin production, which helps us get into a deep sleep. Because we are up in the dark hours of the days, we light our homes up with lamps so we can see. But in recent years, we have so much light exposure from our computers, smart phones and mega TV’s. And like I mentioned at the beginning of the article, we are on the go more than ever. So we are plugged into computers longer as we work later and we’re on our phone longer so we can be “connected”. All this light exposure is affecting how we sleep. It’s making it more difficult for us to fall asleep, stay asleep and get deep sleep.
So what do you do? We don’t live in caves anymore. So how can we reduce the amount of light exposure in modern living?
Let’s take the first step by getting our room darker.
That means get the TV and computer out of the bedroom. If you use your phone as an alarm clock, put it on airplane mode and turn it face down. Do NOT look at your phone in bed. Put duck tape on any of those little lights that are on electrical devices in your room.
The next step is room-darkening curtains, especially if you live in the city. The bright city lights outside don’t help with deep sleep. I also recommend a sleep mask too! This will make sure you are sleeping in the dark.
If you do these things, this will help you sleep in a very dark, sleep promoting environment.
You can take it a step further and buy light bulbs that do not emit blue light. I have theses type of light bulbs in all of our bedrooms. As we start our bedtime routines in our rooms, we are limiting our blue light exposure so that we can get our body ready for deep sleep.
Another step is to wear blue light blocking sunglasses. I wear these in my house starting around 7pm until bedtime. Yes, they look kind of dorky, but they do help me fall asleep easily at night. These are great to use if you must be on the computer at night doing some later work.
What Else Can I Do To Sleep Better?
Essential oils can be very helpful when it comes to feeling relaxed and sleeping well. A few that I use are lavender, chamomile, eucalyptus, and some calming blends. I put them on my pillow and I put them in my son’s crib.
Supplements that can help with sleep include valerian root, hops flower, magnesium, and passionflower.
To become a good sleeper you need to commit to changing old habits that are keeping you awake. It may take a week or two to start seeing some changes in your sleep patterns. So stick with it and be consistent. Sweet dreams are right around the corner