Having been a light sleeper all of my life and possibly a bad sleeper, certainly in the last few years (thank you hormonal chaos aka perimenopause), I have spent a lot of time digging into the world of sleep science and sleep hygiene.
It’s probably no surprise to any of you that sleep is important. We know that we can live without food for months, water for days, air for minutes. Sleep, just one lost, limited, disturbed night of sleep puts the body into a high state of stress the following day, just to get the body through until sleep time. Digestion and cognition will be impaired and recovery and restoration of the body’s system will not occur as they should. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a form of torture – it works, quickly, to make the victim far more amenable to interrogation as one’s resolve, will- power and mental and physical strength rapidly diminish leaving the victim incredibly vulnerable to coercion.
What is less well known is the degree of biological magic that goes on during sleep, especially when we are in deep, non-REM (nREM) sleep. As we phase in and out of deep sleep, REM (dream) sleep and light sleep, different functions are prioritised in the body and brain. REM sleep appears to when the brain processes and stores information, moving current memories to a different part of the brain so they become past, long-term memories; it is also thought that dreaming allows our subconscious to make sense of information, thoughts and feelings we have experienced throughout the day, allowing us to work though emotional and psychological challenges. In REM sleep, we are paralyzed so that we don’t act out our dreams and cause harm to ourselves or others nearby.
Deep sleep is when we make human growth hormone, mending our muscles and bones, and it’s also where the brain cleans out accumulated debris from the day’s functioning. The cells in the brain actually shrink by up to 60% to allow space for fluids to pass through, cleaning as they go. Proteins, tangles and toxins, all associated with degenerative neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and Dementia, especially Alzheimer’s are associated with the lack of cleaning of these plaques and tangles. This is a relatively recent discovery known as the glymphatic system. As with the lymphatic system in the body working to flush out and remove toxins, so too the glymphatic system kicks in at night to clean the brain.
The first half our sleep is where we get most, if not all, of our deep sleep. The hours before midnight have long been referred to as beauty sleep, and the old wives take that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours after midnight both refer to the body’s deep cleaning, renewing and restoring abilities, along with plenty of fat burning, that occurs if you go to bed nice and early.
So, clearly sleep is something not to be compromised on or considered a waste of time. I consider it THE most important aspect of long-term health and resilience. But what if you’re not a good sleeper? That can be extremely stressful. You know you need to sleep you just don’t seem to be able to do it very well.
I have tried so many things (some, yes only some, listed below) and I have learnt over time which things are really key for me. Everyone is different so different things can be more or less beneficial, but here are the real essentials:
- Good sleep starts first thing in the morning. The earlier morning daylight exposure you can get, the more energised you will be during the day and conversely the greater the shut-down sleep mechanisms will kick in once it’s dark. Don’t wear sunglasses and ideally no contact lenses of specs. Naked eye exposure for 10 -15 minutes, even on a dull day, but outdoors, sends a strong message to cells in your eyes and as your eyes are really just hanging down bits of your brain, your brain knows it’s wake up and get going time. Indoor lighting is not effective at this.
- Conversely, make sure your environment is dimly lit during the whole of the evening. Ideally from around 6pm, dim down lights and turn off overhead lights where you can. Have ambient, side lighting with lamps with warm bulbs (red or orange bulbs are great). With dim, warm lighting, the brain is now being told the sun is going down and it’s time to get ready for sleep. The brightest light in most people’s homes is the bathroom. Just 5 seconds of a bright blast of your bathroom light just before bed and your brain will be waking up, so use the landing light, or a night light if you can. Ablutions by candlelight anyone?
- Blue blockers help greatly with your evening light exposure. Screens, smart phones, even TVs give off blue spectrum light, which the brain interprets as daylight. So make sure any computers and phones you use have a nightshift mode and set it to start at around 6/ 7pm and that will block some, but not all, of the blue light coming from your devices. Also wear blue blocking glasses (the darker the lenses the better) and certainly if watching TV. If you wear spectacles, you can get ‘fit over’ blue blockers that will sit on top of your specs. It may sounds ridiculous, it is not. We are primal beings with a brain that understands that wakefulness should happen in the bright daylight and sleep should happen once the sun goes down. Electric lighting and screen exposure activates your daylight sensors so your brain elevates stress hormones which suppress sleep hormones.
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day of the week. The body needs to know when to produce wake hormones and when to switch to making those for sleep. Help get your body into a natural rhythm by being very regular with your sleep / wake timings.
- Alcohol: it may help you feel sleepy but for most people it stops them getting into deep sleep mode, so don’t be fooled into thinking you sleep well after having a few. You may pass out, but you don’t rest and restore – why do you think you feel exhausted the day after a big night?!
- Caffeine: some people know they can’t have caffeine, or only a little first thing, as it is so stimulating. Other people appear to be able to fall asleep having just had a double espresso after dinner. We have different capacities to metabolise caffeine (and alcohol), largely based on genetics, but what sleep studies have shown is that those people for whom caffeine seemingly has no effect on sleep, they do fall asleep but will stay in light, non-restorative sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of around 8 hours and a quarter life of 12 hours, so there is active caffeine in the brain long after you finish drinking it. Caffeine blocks cells in your brain from taking up sleep hormones, so aim to stop caffeine by 2pm at the latest.
- Magnesium: the master mineral, involved in literally hundreds of our bodily functions, especiially reguation of our nervous system, is greatly depleted in our soil and therefore our food. Getting enough from the diet these days is really hard. Taking supplemental magnesium can be really helpful to relax the muscular and nervous systems. Taken after dinner, it often helps with quality of sleep. A hot bath with 2 big handfuls of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) can also really help sleep.
- Don’t do vigorous exercise in the evening as this will elevate stress hormones and suppress sleep hormones. Ideally exercise in the morning and do restful, relaxing modes of exercise and breathing in the evening.
- Keep your bedroom really cool. We only get into deep sleep mode once the body temperature and blood pressure drops. Make it really quite chilly in your bedroom (16 – 18˚C).
- Breathing techniques can be really, really helpful. If you’re lying in bed with a busy head and can’t get off to sleep, or if you wake at silly o clock and can’t get back to sleep, take some slow in breaths through the nose and breath out for twice as long as your in breath. There are many traditional breathing techniques to help induce sleep, so look some up and find one that suits you.
- NO phones, screens, TV etc. in the bedroom. Seriously, read a book, an actual book, it will greatly improve your sleep.
- Some people swear by a cold shower before bed especially to increase deep sleep. I’ve not tried this, it feels so counterintuitive – I much prefer a hot Epsom salt bath, but if you can manage a 30 second cold blast at the end of an evening shower, this could help.
- If you do wake up in the middle of the night and you can’t get back to sleep, make sure you’re really comfy in bed, don’t be tempted to check your phone or get up and make a cuppa. Instead focus on your breathing and be happy that you still have a few hours left for sleep rather than fretting about the fact that you need to get up in a few hours.
- If you have a partner that is restless, who snores, who has a different sleep cycle to you, consider sleeping in separate beds. It is no reflection on the state of your relationship and it may well help the state of your relationship as you won’t be so sleep deprived!
These are just a few health hacks for good sleep, but they can be hugely transformative, so give one or two a go and then if it’s not working, try something else. We are all designed to be good at sleep but modern life gets in the way, so think primal, keep the room dark, quiet and cool and hopefully you’ll wake up feeling ready to go out and hunt!