Counterintuitive Sleep Strategies
“I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”
We’ve all heard that cliche. Unfortunately, if you believe it, you’ll probably be there sooner than later. Sleep is essential to good health, which is why it’s one of the cornerstones of progressing from pain to performance. Lack of sleep is one of the biggest complaints I hear from people. If you find yourself sluggish, tired, want a good night’s sleep, and want to fix it, I’m going to share three counterintuitive sleep tips to get you on track.
- Get up earlier
It makes sense: getting up earlier means that you will get tired earlier in the day and then go to bed earlier. While that’s part of it, there’s also another, more biological reason for adopting this routine.
Our bodies have what’s known as a circadian rhythm. This is defined by the National Sleep Foundation as a 24 hour clock that’s running in the back of your brain. This circadian rhythm responds to light levels; essentially, our bodies are designed to wake up when it’s light outside. So people who get up close to dawn will find that their bodies fall into a healthy circadian rhythm.
If you think about it, we aren’t designed to be awake when it’s fully dark. Just look at our senses...
- Sight: we don’t see well without light
- Hearing: we can’t pick up those little noises that would help us find our way in the dark
- Smell: it’s not strong enough to guide us in the darkness
Some people might have better night vision than others, or better hearing, but is it really on a par with nocturnal animals like owls? No, it’s not. That’s because the human body was not designed to operate fully at night-time. Our bodies are designed to be asleep when it’s dark. This means that if you’re awake when it’s dark, your circadian rhythm is naturally going to be off, which is going to result in you feeling sleepy during the day.
Kids can benefit greatly from getting their bodies into a good circadian rhythm. This can be especially useful in the summer when it gets dark much later and they’re used to staying up late because of vacations.
For example, a few weeks before they go back to school, you can start to implement the same routine of making your kid’s wake up time a few minutes earlier each day. Then, when school starts again, your kids are already used to getting up at 6:30 instead of 8:00. Instead of starting off the school year feeling tired and sluggish, they’re going to be wide-awake and ready to go. This is a routine backed up by the Sleep Foundation which lists problems that can occur if a kid’s sleep routine is messed up in the summer: “These include changes in mood and difficulty paying attention, as well as problems with learning, loss of appetite, overeating, and maintaining weight.”
Just as you wouldn’t expect your kids to change their routine overnight, don’t put the pressure on yourself to make an instant change either. Give your body time to adjust to the new routine if you want to feel the maximum benefit of it. You can use the same strategy to implement a new wake-up time.
One thing to highlight is weekends. A good, healthy routine of getting up between 5:30 and 6:00 every weekday is going to be completely thrown out by staying in bed later at the weekends to ‘catch up’ on your sleep. Do not make a habit out of this. Even on weekends, get up within a 30 minutes of your usual wake-up time.
Everybody needs to get a good dose of sunshine as early as possible in the day. The most optimal time frame for this is 6:00 to 8:30. Sunlight is so important to your body because it regulates your biological clock and resets your hormone levels.
For example, as explained by the Sleep Foundation in their very good article, one hormone that gets reset by sunshine is melatonin. It's our “good sleep hormone” because it’s the one t
hat makes us feel sleepy. When the body is first exposed to sunlight, its production gets cut off and it’s not produced again until much later in the day. So a body that’s not getting any sunlight until 10:00 or 11:00 is going to keep producing melatonin and so is going to continue to feel sleepy.
Try and expose as much of your skin to the sunlight as possible. If you can walk around with your shirt off first thing in the morning, then that’s going to be great for your sleep. But even if it’s an overcast day, just turning your face up to the sky is going to help maximize the sunlight your skin can absorb.
If you work in an office with no windows or little sunlight coming in, then you’re going to need to make an active change to make sure your melatonin resets itself properly. The best thing you can do is take your breaks outside, and even have your lunch outside. By stepping outside your office to catch some sunlight, you’re also getting up and moving around which means that you’re adding a little bit of exercise to your routine. You’re getting the double the benefit with just one change.
- Working out
Obviously working out is, by itself, good for you. But by following some simple tips and strategies, you can ensure that it will benefit your sleep as well.
Life is full of stressors and includes:
- Work (particularly if you’re unhappy in your job or work long hours)
- Family life (including caring for family members)
- Paying bills
- Raising children
Not many people think of working out as adding stress to your body, but it does. When you’re working out, you’re pushing yourself and putting a huge amount of physical pressure on your body, and your body needs to recover from that. A person who doesn’t get enough sleep after exercising is effectively wasting some of their exercise time. If you’re not allowing your body to rest and repair during sleep, you don’t get the full reward of a workout..
Research has shown that the best time to exercise is in the morning. It can be great for those with busy lifestyles because, as Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer with the American Council on Exercise in San Diego says: “[Some people] get their exercise in before other time pressures interfere. I usually exercise at 6 a.m., because no matter how well-intentioned I am, if I don’t exercise in the morning, other things will squeeze it out.” Even if you can’t fit in a full work out, it’s still essential to get in some activity first thing in the morning, whether that’s jumping jacks, using a jump rope or just going for a walk with your dog.
A lot of runners might be put out by my next comment but intense strength based workouts are better for your sleep than a slow steady jogging session. There are a few reasons why jogging is not good for your body. It gets your sympathetic nervous system really amped up for a long period of time. It increases cortisol, a hormone made in the adrenal glands that, among other things, is responsible for the “fight or flight” response. Once you’ve got cortisol pumping through your bloodstream, it’s hard to get your body to come down from that.
My one caveat to the “no running” rule is that some people experience a “runner’s high”, which is caused by the release of endorphins. These hormones have the same effect on the body as morphine. If you run to experience that high as a way of de-stressing and refreshing your mind, then go for it. But if you’re only running to lose weight and get in shape, then I suggest you pick something else to help with your sleep. A good option is strength training: a 20, 30 or 40 minute routine where you're doing a super set combining different motions and weight training exercise is going to be ideal. For example, do a squat followed by a shoulder press, alternating muscle groups to be efficient with your workout. This kind of exercise is also builds muscle mass (which running won’t do), as well as helping you sleep and burn more fat. It's also not going to tax your sympathetic nervous system as much as running would.
Workouts also increase your core temperature. At night, a person’s core temperature naturally goes down, so if it’s elevated immediately before bedtime with a workout, it’s directly going to act against you getting a good night’s sleep.
Since your core temperature goes down at night, another good tip is to sleep naked. Wearing pajamas, a sweatshirt, or any kind of clothes, will keep your body temperature raised keeping your cortisol levels up and disrupt your sleep. To help with that, you want to keep your room somewhere between 60 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
While workouts increase your core temperature, which can be a bad thing immediately before going to bed, timing your exercise be to your advantage. After a really tough exercise session, it’ll take about 6-8 hours for your body temperature to come back down to normal. But it doesn’t stop there - your body temperature actually keeps on lowering, which can be great to help you get to sleep.
Let’s say it takes 6 hours for your core body temperature to come back down and then to dip a little bit below its normal temperature. If you work out at 4:00pm then go to bed at 10:00pm, that well-timed workout will have the effect of making you sleep even better.
Taking a bath or sitting in a hot tub 30-60 minutes before bed is another way to get this rebound effect to work in your advantage. Perhaps save it for those days when you don’t have the energy to do any exercise at the right time.
Bottom line: please do not stress if you can’t exercise at the right time every day, or if you get up a little late one day, or can’t get out of the office much into the sunshine. These changes to your routine need to be made gradually; if they’re made all at once, that’s going to be putting even more pressure on your body and mind. Make these changes slowly, and reap the benefits of building a strong active body.
Which of these do you already do? Which are you going to try?
And please share this with any of your friends and family who have this issue.
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