Ultimate Guide to Perfect Sleep (Part 2)
You’re Probably Not Getting Enough, Why You Should Get More, and 14 Top Sleep Hacks
It turns out people tend to be terrible predictors of how much they’re sleeping.
In an interview about his book, Why We Sleep, Professor Matthew Walker explains what he has learned in his sleep lab:
Falling asleep is like landing a plane. It takes time. You've got to sort of gradually descend. I think one of the problems with insufficient sleep is people are not very good at predicting how poorly they are doing when they are under-slept...
So, your subjective sense of how well you're doing is a miserable predictor of objectively how you're doing. So, it's a little bit like a drunk driver at a bar. They've had a couple of shots and some beer. And they stand up, and they say, well, I'm perfectly fine to drive home. And you say, no, I know that you think you're fine to drive.
But trust me. Objectively, you're not, and the same is true for sleep. So, I think many people walk through their lives in an under-slept state not realizing it. It's become this new natural baseline.1
Could you be one of these oblivious victims, living chronically under-slept?
It may have been so long ago that you don’t remember what a good night’s sleep feels like, but the benefits are undeniable.
The benefits of getting enough sleep include:
- Increased metabolism function
- Functioning immune system
- Sharpened cognitive skills, such as memory, learning, and reaction time
- Sharpened attention
- Improved mood
- Lowered risk for illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease
- Stress reduction
- Prevention of harmful bodily inflammation
- Increased ability of the body to repair itself from strenuous exercise, illness, or infection
- Reduced risk for car accidents
- Spurred creativity
- Possible increased longevity2
Outside of all of these research and scientifically backed benefits, you simply feel better!
Are you ready to get your perfect night and stop sleepwalking through your life?
Here are our top tips for improving your sleep.
1. Keep a Solid Morning Routine
It’s only because of the invention of artificial light that we stopped following the sleep cycle our ancestors had: waking up just before sunrise and going to bed just after sundown.
Getting up early (just as the cavemen did) is one of the best things you can do to improve your sleep. When you wake up with the sun, you jumpstart your circadian rhythm, or natural sleep-wake cycle. An interruption in this cycle is one of the biggest reasons people have trouble falling or staying asleep.
If you’re not used to getting up at or before dawn, it may be difficult at first. Instead of going from waking up at 10 a.m. to waking up at 5 a.m., start getting up earlier in 15-minute increments. Within a couple weeks, you will ease your body into an earlier waking hour.
It’s also important to establish a morning routine because this can give your psyche time to adjust to the morning hour. For example, every morning I wake up, drink some water, walk my dogs, have breakfast, and spend about an hour journaling, reading, or meditating before I start my work. Including enjoyable activities in the morning gives you something to look forward to and gets your brain ready for concentration, instead of dreading that rush to make it onto the freeway before the morning traffic begins.
2. Get Some Natural Sunlight
Have you ever heard of red light? This wavelength of light, which comes from the sunrise, travels through your bodily tissue easier than other wavelengths. Why do we need this light source?
Red light, or more specifically light in the mid-600 nm and mid-800 nm range, increases adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the body. This molecule is able to store and transport chemical energy between and within cells. The more “cellular currency” exchanging throughout the body, the better you will function overall.3 While it is best to get this light at sunrise, artificial sources such as lamps that produce infrared wavelengths are also available.
In addition to soaking up the sunrise, exposing yourself to as much sunlight as possible during the day is also important to regulate your sleep cycle. Represented throughout the animal kingdom, as diurnal (opposite of nocturnal) beings, we are meant to be up when the sun is shining and asleep when the sun goes down.
Melatonin, the brain’s sleep hormone, is released when you are no longer exposed to sunlight. Melatonin’s signal helps to regulate your biological clock. The earlier you are able to expose yourself to sunlight in the morning, the earlier melatonin will be released in the evening, making you sleepier and protecting you against insomnia.
Sunlight also affects the regulation of serotonin in the brain, and it converts to melatonin when the sun sets. Therefore, getting those rays also helps improve your mood and energy level.
3. Increase Your Physical Activity
While you may be aware that exercising more has a number of positive health benefits, it can also help protect you from insomnia. A review of recent sleep research reveals that morning aerobic exercise alone may be an effective alternative treatment for chronic insomnia.4
Other clinical data shows that strength training was found to decrease time in wakefulness and increase the amount of REM time during the night overall, improving sleep quality.5
4. No More Eating Before Bed
Do you find yourself often waking up in the middle of the night, around 3 a.m.? For some people, this is normal, as research reveals that our ancestral DNA cues wakefulness to check for potential threats. However, it could be your blood sugar getting you up instead.
If you’d like to sleep through the whole night, do not eat at least 90 minutes before bed. If you’re eating right before you go to sleep, especially carbs, the initial blood sugar spike will inevitably lead to a blood sugar drop that will wake you later. If you’re hungry, try adding a food high in tryptophan.
5. Get Tryptophan in Your Diet
Tryptophan, also known as the amino acid in turkey responsible for the “Thanksgiving coma,” increases levels of serotonin in the brain, a hormone that promotes relaxation. When the sun goes down, serotonin converts to melatonin, which activates your sleep cycle. This process inhibits the release of insulin, protecting you from a drop in blood sugar that could wake you during the night. According to the USDA, foods high in tryptophan include turkey, chicken, whole milk, wheat bread, white bread, semisweet chocolate, and sweet chocolate.6
6. Cut Your Caffeine Intake
Caffeine, a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant and the most popular drug in the world, is a staple of the diet of many people. Sufferers of insomnia or other sleep problems usually consume caffeine when they wake up after a restless night in order to “wake up” and remain alert.
Caffeine acts on the CNS in as little as 15 minutes after consumption. It makes us feel more alert by blocking sleep-inducing brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin and increases the production of adrenaline.7 However, it takes an average of five hours in order for the body to be rid of it. If you want to have a restful sleep, you should plan on no caffeine at least five hours before bedtime.
7. Limit Your Alcohol Consumption
If you think that wine is helping you sleep by keeping you drowsy in the evening, think again. While you may fall asleep faster, the quality of sleep you get after alcohol consumption is subpar.
Research shows that drinking alcohol before bed induces slow-wave brain activity called delta waves. This is the deep part of REM sleep that helps cleanse your brain and helps you form memories from your experiences. While this may sound like a good thing, alcohol also causes alpha activity in the brain. Because alpha activity only occurs during a wake state, it is thought to interrupt the benefits of deep REM sleep. Regularly consuming alcohol before bed may not only interrupt your sleep-wake cycle; it also could inhibit short- and long-term memory formation.8
8. Try Natural Supplementation Before Bed
Have you tried any of the sleep supplements on the market today? Several of them have actually been scientifically proven to drastically improve sleep. Because many different nutrients affect the regulation of melatonin and serotonin, which naturally control your sleep cycle, nutritional supplements can have surprising effects on sleep quality.
- B-Complex Vitamins: B vitamins, such as Niacin (B3) and vitamin B6, play a role in how tryptophan is converted to serotonin. These nutrients are naturally found in animal products, so vegetarians may tend to have a B vitamin deficiency that could interfere with sleep.
- Magnesium: This is an anti-stress mineral that, while abundant, represents the #1 nutritional deficiency in the world today. Individuals suffering from low magnesium often have restless sleep. Because of its relaxation properties, adding magnesium to your diet may give you a more restorative and deep sleep.
- L-theanine: L-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves that promotes calm focus, relaxation, and sleep. L-theanine does not act as a sedative, but by reducing stress and anxiety, it induces a restful sleep. Thanks to this boost of relaxation, L-theanine may help to decrease the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
- Melatonin: When it gets dark, your body releases melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone naturally produced in the pineal gland that plays a role in regulating your circadian rhythm. Research reveals that melatonin may improve sleep duration and quality. An analysis in 2013 of 19 different studies on the utility of melatonin supplements for primary sleep disorders, such as insomnia, revealed that melatonin shortened the amount of time it took to fall asleep slightly. It also improved total sleep time and overall sleep quality.9
9. Limit Your Everyday Exposure to Blue Light and Invest in Blue-Light Blockers
When it becomes dark outside, your brain releases melatonin to make you feel tired. However, this signal may get interrupted by the light emitted from cell phones, television, and other electronic devices. Research reveals that blue light emission from technological devices suppresses the natural release of melatonin, interrupting natural sleep cycles.10
Blocking blue light should be a primary goal before bed and a very simple way to improve your sleep quality. Most technological devices such as cell phones and tablets have the option to switch to “night mode,” which eradicates the blue light from the screen. You can also invest in amber-colored glasses or sunglasses if you need to use technology at bedtime.
10. Try Binaural Beats Before Bed
Binaural beats are a type of musical entertainment that can be experienced through headphones. These tracks use a pair of tones, a different one in each ear, that are different frequencies from one another. The differences between the tones create an illusion of a third tone, called a binaural beat, that your brainwaves will mimic. There are binaural beats for deep sleep as well as relaxation. Curious? Try a playlist here.
11. Create the Perfect Sleep Environment
In order to fall asleep quickly and have a restful night, you need to make the association between your bedroom and sleep. Therefore, you should make sure the bed is only for sleep.
Creating the perfect sleep environment means making it as dark, cold, and stimulus-free as possible, similar to a modern-day cave. This makes a neuro-association between entering the bedroom and the release of sleep-inducing chemicals. Remember to turn the heat down — research shows that the best sleep quality happens with a room temperature between 60 and 67 degrees.
Consider investing in blackout curtains or using a sleep mask to block out light pollution. If you are awakened by noisy neighbors or your partner snoring, you can try using earplugs or a white noise machine to keep the annoying noises from disrupting your slumber.
12. Go to Bed Earlier
Just as you need to wake up earlier in order to improve your sleep quality, you also must get to bed earlier. By getting to bed early, you will be in better sync with your natural circadian rhythm, and it will be easier to wake up in the morning. Don’t worry if your friends make fun of you for turning in early — there is nothing normal about being up late. As humans, we were not meant to stay up past sundown. By getting up and starting your day early, you can achieve a lot more in life than others who sleepwalk through the day.
13. Try Some Sleep Technology and Discover Your Own Chronobiology
Fitness trackers and smart watches are increasingly popular due to their sleep-tracking features. You may benefit from using one of these devices to track how much REM sleep you are actually getting. You can also try a sleep cycle app, such as Sleep Time. This app is based on the 90-minute five-stage sleep cycle, showing you the ideal times for you to wake up based on these cycle in order to avoid waking up during deep sleep. It also can automatically set your alarms for you so you don’t have to remember!
Using sleep technology is one way you can discover your own sleep chronobiology. Everyone has their own sleep chronotype, also known as individual biological clock. Although you can choose when you sleep, wake up, and eat, your genetics have a built-in preset for the most optimal times to do so. When you are synced with your chronotype, life just moves smoother. Are you an early riser or a night person? Try taking this quiz by sleep scientist Dr. Michael Breus to determine what your sleep biology is!
14. Nap Hack
It is a common myth that napping during the day ruins your chances for a good night’s sleep. It turns out napping is a way you can put good sleep in the bank for your body and work with your natural sleep cycle.
Research on napping has shown that short 20- to 40-minute naps tend to be rich in deep REM sleep. Individuals who nap every day tend to have increased alertness, creativity, memory, and recall during the second half of the day. If you have lost a night of sleep one way or another, napping can actually help your body get out of a sleep-deprivation cycle. Napping earlier in the day tends to yield better results than a late-afternoon or evening nap.
You’ve come a long way from part 1 of this guide, from learning about how and why we sleep to the dangers of losing it.
Now that you understand that sleep is incredibly important, it’s time to prioritize sleeping as a key factor in your overall health. From simply turning down the heat in your bedroom to a quick midday nap, we hope you can use these tips to get your perfect night tonight!
To your health,
Contributing Editor, Clear Health Now
If you missed part 1 of this guide, you can check it out here.