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Part 2: How to Manufacture the Greatest Sleep of Your Life

May 22, 2017 | Austin Gill

Welcome to part 2. Click over to part 1 if you missed it!

Sleep & Mood

The connection between sleep debt or insomnia and mood disorders like anxiety and depression is well-documented and almost universally accepted among healthcare professionals.

You’re probably thinking, “Insomnia? That’s a bit extreme”, but there are infinitely varying degrees of insomnia as well as multiple forms of the disorder that affect most of us at one time or another, such as:

  • Difficulty initiating sleep
  • Difficulty maintaining sleep
  • Early morning wakefulness

Insomnia, in all it’s forms, is a significant risk factor for psychiatric diseases. As one study showed, insomniacs were 20 times more likely to develop a panic disorder. (Krystal, 2013)

But you don’t have to be formally diagnosed with insomnia to be at risk. Trouble sleeping for as little as one week significantly increases feelings of irritability, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. (Dinges, 1997)

Without enough sleep you’ll be less friendly, less empathetic, and much less positive.

Researcher Rosalind D. Cartwright attributes this emotional imbalance to loss of deep sleep, or slow wave sleep caused by heightened brain activity in areas of the brain responsible for emotion.

Participants in her study, after only minimal sleep loss, exhibited signs of heightened emotions in association with less “neutrality”, which is your ability to remain, well, neutral by recognizing what is worthy of an emotional response and what isn’t.

When you lose neutrality, everything seems important and triggers emotional responses, even things that aren’t important and shouldn’t result in a strong reaction.

Without neutrality you’re at risk for completely losing your cool at even the slightest disturbance. (Simon, 2015)

Best to get your 7 to 9 hours each night, unless you enjoy being a complete emotional wreck.

Which brings us to . . .

Sleep Improvement Tip #5: Avoid Blue-Light One to Two Hours Before Bed

Sleep & Cell Phone Blue Light

Netflix is the best. I especially love all the Marvel series they’re doing right now, so it hurts me to tell you that your nightly bedtime binge is bad for your sleep.

Artificial blue-light from phones, TVs, e-readers, and any other electronic screen disrupts your sleep cycle by tricking your brain into thinking it’s daytime and that it needs to stay alert. As little as 5 minutes of blue light shuts down melatonin production. (Fonken, 2013)

When you’re unable to completely avoid screens, the next best thing is to filter out the blue light. Here are some nifty ways to do that:

Pro tip: If you want to take your sleep to another level, avoid artificial blue light even during the day, and especially first thing in the morning.

 

Sleep & Memory

There are two basic processes involved in memory--encoding and retrieval. Sleep is essential for both and different phases of sleep play different roles in ensuring your memory functions well. (Wagner, 2008)

Here’s how it works:

  • Learning and memories recorded during waking hours are encoded in the hippocampus and neocortex. During deep sleep, pathways are opened between the neocortex and the hippocampus that synchronize memories between these two areas, a process that’s essential for long term memory and fact recall. (Born, 2010)
  • Deep sleep is also uniquely important for motor-task learning and application of real life skills, such as standardized test taking. (Walker, 2005)
  • REM sleep is vital for emotional memory consolidation. It reduces the impact of negative emotions while preserving positive ones, a process aided by dreaming.

This means that when you sleep the brain essentially replays events of the day and tucks them away where they are safe and can be easily retrieved. Sleep, then, is like practicing for memory.

Here’s one more way to practice better.

Sleep Improvement Tip #6: Make Your Room as Dark as Possible

Dark Bedroom

We already learned that artificial light throws off your body’s internal clock, or Circadian Rhythm, causing you to sleep less and lowering the quality of your sleep.

It’s now been shown that even small amounts of light DURING sleep have detrimental effects on sleep quality.

This was first proven when scientists exposed mice to dim light while they were sleeping and tracked  metabolic changes. They found that the changes resulting from dim light exposure while sleeping led to obesity, chronic disease, improper liver function, and reductions in brain health. (Fonken, 2013)

Darken your room as much as possible. Like hand in front of your face can’t see it dark. Every lumen counts.

  • Get blackout curtains
  • Ditch night lights
  • Cover tiny blinking lights on monitors
  • Cover lights on any power strip
  • Cover the clock face on your alarm
  • And anything else you can think of. Embrace the darkness.

And if you wake up at night to go to the bathroom, don’t flip on all the lights as you walk by. Your eyes will adjust, and so will your aim.

 

Sleep & Creativity

In addition to strengthening and organizing memories, the brain also integrates new information during sleep, an action responsible for the creative insight phenomenon that has produced many wonderful contributions to humanity.

Of the many types of thought, sleep affects divergent thinking most. Divergent thinking is the type associated with creative problem solving.

One brilliantly designed study asked participants to solve a problem involving complex algorithms. What they weren’t told is that there was an easy shortcut to solve the equation.

Two groups attempted to solve the equation three times then took an 8 hour break before attempting again. During the break, one group slept and the other remained awake.

Upon returning, 59% of the group that slept during their break found the shortcut, compared to only 20% of the group who stayed awake. (Wagner, 2004)

Sleep improves creativity in all fields from language fluency and art, to music and business. It does this by enhancing your mental flexibility and originality.

Lack of sleep, alternately, destroys creativity. Quickly.

Sleep Improvement Tip #7: Use Sleep Supplements, Sparingly

Steaming Tea Mug

Supplementation is a powerful way to aid sleep. I don’t, however, recommend frequent use.

It’s important for your body to be efficient at falling asleep and staying asleep naturally. Reserve the supps for when you need them most, like after a long flight or an unusually stressful week. But here are several that can work wonders:

  1. Magnesium calms nerves, relaxes tense muscles, and helps regulate heart rate. It’s often used to treat insomnia. Here’s a good article by Dr. Axe for everything you need to know about magnesium. You can get this into your system in powder form, by taking an epsom salt bath, or from a topical magnesium oil. Some people even report that rubbing magnesium oil on their skin before bed gives them vivid dreams.
  2. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain. It’s understood to be a neurotransmitter that regulates your wake/sleep cycle. Taking just 2.5 mg at bedtime will help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly.
  3. Chamomile tea is an easy to use and long trusted sleep aid--and you don’t have to worry about any long-term consequences. I like to add a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar and honey to mine, a trick I picked up from author and lifelong insomniac Tim Ferriss.
  4. Essential oil aromatherapy is a reliable method for inducing relaxation prior to bedtime. This technique has been proven to sooth even clinically induced restlessness associated with things such as cancer treatment. Lavender and sandalwood are excellent choices to freshen the air with while you cozy up to your new fiction novel.

 

Sleep & Aging

The aging process - and the reasons why we age - still isn’t fully understood. That’s partly because aging is a very complex process and there’s no single cause; it’s influenced by multiple factors.

And it just so happens, everything we’ve discussed so far is one of those factors. Too little sleep:

  • Disrupts metabolic function leading to waste buildup and inflammation
  • Destabilizes your hormones which can lead to things like weight gain
  • Predisposes you to metabolic disease risk
  • Causes  blood sugar levels to spike
  • Stresses your body internally and exposes you to external stressors
  • Throws off your hormone regulation making you emotionally sensitive
  • Destroys your skin by drying it out, creating fine lines and wrinkles, revealing brown spots, and causing dark circles under the eyes making you look older than you are
  • Negatively impacts brain health and cognitive function that help stave off neurodegenerative diseases.

In short, proper sleep slows aging. (Mazzotti, 2014)

On that note, here are my final considerations for getting a good night’s rest.

Sleep Improvement Tip #8: Experiment with New Things

Sleeping in the Park

The same habits, hacks, and routines don’t work for everyone. You have to find what works best for you, and the best way to do that is to try new stuff. Here’s some ideas to get you started.

Take cold showers about an hour before bed. They lower your core body temperature, improve circulation, and are surprisingly meditative (it’s hard to think about other things with icy cold water beating down on you). All this combines to help you fall asleep faster.

Get a Massage. You’re welcome for the excuse. Massage therapy removes muscular tension from your body that causes restlessness at night. Besides, massages are awesome.

Spend some time outdoors. Being outside exposes you to natural light, which keeps your circadian clock in sync. Nature is inherently relaxing.

Stop drinking alcohol 2 hours before bed. It’s true that alcohol will help you fall asleep faster because it’s a sedative, but it also lowers the quality of your sleep significantly. For optimal sleep, enjoy a drink or two with dinner then stop for the night.

 

Conclusion & Summary

Congratulations! You’re now a sleep expert. We’ve covered a lot, so let’s recap.

Sleep is a key regulator of your health and wellbeing. It significantly impacts your:

  • Stress levels. Dropping from 8 hours per night to just 6 hours increases your morning cortisol levels by 50%. Starting the day already stressed is a recipe for disaster.
  • Metabolism. Sleep balances the hormones that regulate hunger, suppress blood sugar, and store fat. Even a little sleep loss can negate the benefits of a good diet.
  • Disease risk. Many metabolic and mental diseases are associated with sleep loss. The good news is that getting plenty of sleep can reduce your risk of ever developing them to begin with!
  • Energy levels. Too little sleep cripples your body’s ability to use energy from food, even when it’s available. No amount of caffeine can make up for that.
  • Mood. Consistent quality sleep keeps you happy, friendly, positive, and open to new ideas. Without it you’re at risk of becoming an emotional wreck at the slightest disturbances.
  • Memory. Brain activity is heightened when you sleep, creating new connections between areas of your brain then tracing them over and over. This is how long term memories are created.
  • Creativity. New information is introduced during sleep that can lead to creative breakthrough. Sleep also strengthens divergent thinking, the kind you use for creative problem solving.
  • Aging. Quality sleep keep yours mind and body balanced and healthy, ultimately slowing the process of aging.

Sleep is a big deal. One that’s overlooked by most people, but not by you. You want to improve the quality of your sleep in order to improve the overall quality of your life.

As I mentioned before, the best way to sleep better is to sleep more.

Here are 10 science-backed ways to sleep more and better.

  • Be consistent. Wake up between 5a and 8a, and fall asleep between 8p and midnight - every day. This rhythm will improve the quality of your sleep and will make falling asleep easier.
  • Develop a nighttime routine. Find simple things like meditating and washing your face and do them every night. This signals your body that it’s time to sleep.
  • No caffeine after 2 p.m. Caffeine can affect sleep and cause nighttime wakefulness even if ingested 6 hours before falling asleep. So no caffeine at least 6 hours before bed, preferably 8.
  • Turn the temp down. Your body temperature drops throughout the night in order to enter different stages of sleep. Keeping your environment cool make this process easier.
  • Avoid blue light 1 to 2 hours before bed. Artificial blue light tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime and keeps it from falling asleep. If you must use screens, get some blue blockers.
  • Make your room as dark as possible. Light bulbs, even tiny ones in nightlights, disturb your sleep during the night. Get blackout curtains, cover your clock face, and ditch the night lights.
  • Use supplements, sparingly. Taking things like melatonin can help you fall asleep faster. Just use them sparingly. But you can use chamomile tea and aromatherapy to fall asleep every day!
  • Experiment with new things. Not everyone is going to have the same routine. Don’t be afraid to try new things and move things around to find the system that gives you the best possible sleep.

Your final challenge is to make sleep a priority. There is nothing else that has as much impact on your overall health and wellbeing as the quality and consistency of your sleep - not your friends, not the game, not nutrition, and definitely not your work.

I’ll say it again, if you’re going to spend of your life doing something, you might as well do it well.

 

As always, sleep tight.

Austin

 

Austin Gill

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