Sleep - The Missing Link
Updated: May 15, 2022
We all know what it's like to wake up knowing that you had a rough night. Whether you couldn't fall asleep in the first place, or tossed and turned throughout, or woke up for multiple bathroom breaks - knowing that you missed out on valuable sleep is disheartening and, well, exhausting.
But there's more to it than just being tired all day. Sleep is when the body recovers, heals, detoxes, stores memories, and files away new information. Without sleep, you are less likely to be able to make decisions, solve problems, and be an overall rational human being. It's the one time that the brain itself gets a cleaning as it pushes out waste products.
Without the healing we do during sleep, we are more likely to develop chronic illness (from heart disease and high blood pressure to diabetes and obesity, and even dementia). We are also more prone to accidents, especially car crashes. There is no disease, big or small, that will truly get better if you are not sleeping well. And you are more likely to catch everything that goes around as your immune system is diminished.
The big picture takeaway from this is: sleep is important. There's nothing heroic in pulling an all-nighter. The saying "I'll sleep when I'm dead," while true, is no reason to think you don't need to sleep now.
"Sleep is not an optional lifestyle luxury -
it's a non-negotiable biological necessity."
Matthew Walker, PhD, author of "Why We Sleep"
So... what can we do? For some people, there are underlying conditions that need to be diagnosed and dealt with. Sleep studies may be required. But, for many of us, there are steps that can be taken to improve the nightly struggle. I won't sugarcoat this and pretend that it is easy - many involve developing new habits and schedules. But is a bit of a lifestyle adjustment worth the ability to heal and to think properly? To not always just be exhausted?
How much is a good night's sleep worth to you?
The good news is that most of these techniques are free. I would recommend picking 3 of these to start - incorporate them successfully into your evening routine, for a few weeks, and see what happens. Then, if needed, pick a few more. I've put the 3 most important at the top of the list, so that would be the ideal place to start - but if those don't seem feasible at the beginning, then do what will work best for you. Just remember that you likely will not see immediate results - give it some time.
Maintain a daily sleep schedule. For example, in bed by 10pm and up by 7am. Our bodies respond well to cycles and schedules. Do this every day, including weekends. (We tend to get the bulk of our deep healing sleep between 10pm and midnight, and the bulk of our REM sleep from about 4am to 6am - so an earlier bedtime is recommended.)
Keep your room cool – 67 degrees is considered the ideal sleeping temperature. The body has to drop its core temperature by 2-3 degrees to fall and stay asleep.
Keep your room dark – ideally, no light at all. Use blackout blinds and curtains, get rid of all electronics that have any light whatsoever, and wear an eye mask if you can.
Limit caffeine in general, but ideally none at all after noon. For most people, it takes 8-10 hours for caffeine to clear your system.
Alcohol (as well as most prescription sleep aids) does not actually help with true sleep - it knocks you out, but does not promote the healing deep sleep that we need. So, limit or eliminate alcohol if you are struggling to sleep.
Avoid naps. If you really couldn't sleep the night before, then a 20 minute nap can get you through the rest of your day. But avoid anything longer.
Try to add movement throughout the day. This doesn’t have to be a workout routine, just not sitting.
Try to get outside as soon as possible after you wake up for 10 minutes. If you can take a quick walk in the sun, that’s even better. This tells the body that “the day starts now” and helps it get onto the proper schedule.
Keep your phone far away from you or even in another room overnight. If that’s not feasible, put it into airplane mode – the electromagnetic field generated otherwise can disrupt sleep. Also, keep your wifi router as far away from the bedroom as possible.
Develop a “sleep hygiene” routine. These are nightly practices that tell the body that it’s time for sleep, and help to wind down.
Turn off all screens 1 hour before bed. Use apps that turn down the background lights and reduce the blue light as the sun goes down. Use “blue blocker” glasses to filter out the blue light from lightbulbs (it’s the blue light that tells us it’s daytime).
Keep as few lights on as possible as the sun goes down, and keep those as dim as possible.
Take a shower before bed. Stepping out of a hot shower into a cooler room helps accomplish the necessary body temperature drop.
Try not to drink too much water after 8pm. Ideally, drink your water throughout the day so that you don’t need it later where it is more likely to cause nighttime bathroom runs.
Take a bath or foot soak with epsom salts – not only is this calming, but the magnesium in the salts will help with sleep.
Try guided sleep meditations – Insight Timer is a free app that has quite a few options, or there are also many on YouTube.
Find a 20 minute restorative yoga routine that you like. This focus on gentle stretching is amazing for relaxing the body and brain.
Practice breathing exercises. My favorite is called the “box breath” - breathe in for a count of 5, hold for 5, breathe out for 5, hold for 5. Continue as long as needed.
For many people, eating something high fat / protein before bed to help reduce the risk of a cortisol spike in the night (this is likely what happens when you bolt awake at 2am and can't go back to sleep). So, about an hour before bed, have a boiled egg or two, some leftover chicken, etc – this will affect insulin minimally, and will hopefully fuel you throughout the night.
Other than this snack, stop eating at least 2 hours before bed.
Melatonin is a safe, natural supplement that can help you fall asleep - I recommend finding one that does not have additives or sugars. Take 1-2mg 30 minutes before bed during this transition phase.
Hopefully there are some items on here that will make a difference! Let me know if anything works particularly well for you, or if there is something I missed. I wonder what the world could be like if only we all managed to consistently sleep well...
For a deeper dive, read "Why We Sleep" by Matthew Walker, PhD. Or at least start by watching his TED talk ( https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_walker_sleep_is_your_superpower?language=en ).