Everyone is talking about sleep these days; from the devastating effects it can have on both short and long-term on our health, but also to how sleep might be viewed as a performance enhancer. One thing is clear; people are finally talking about how the sleep when you’re dead mentality that pervades modern western society is detrimental to our physical and mental well-being. What about meditation? For some, it does help with their sleep, but as with many things in life, we might need a more holistic approach, especially when it comes to the fundamentals like sleep.
While I’m no professional expert, sleep is a subject I’ve learned about and experimented with a lot, so I thought I’d pass on this knowledge to you, focusing on the easier things you can do to support your body for more sleep.
So why should we care about sleep?
Proper sleep improves
- decision making
- athletic performance
- immune function
- tolerance to stress
- overall energy
Sleep deficiency on the other hand decreases cognitive performance and therefore 
- decision making
- controlling emotions
- dealing with change
Sleep problems have also been shown to make us more susceptible to negative stress in general and in the long term, it makes us more prone to depression and anxiety as well as increases our risk for weight gain and chronic health problems including heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and a lowered immune system in general. [2, 3] Yikes! When you sleep, your body goes into restorative mode and many crucial physiological processes take place when you’re sleeping.
So how much should you sleep?
The eight-hour average that is commonly proclaimed as the goal is exactly that, an average, and may mean a little more or a little less and the studies vary. This is where you need to know yourself and listen to your body and experiment with about 7-9 hours per night which is the current range supported by much research. Having said that, it IS very individual and we honestly still don’t know for sure. Additionally, it’s not only about the duration but also about consistency and quality of sleep. The key here is that it’s personal, but be careful, there’s a difference between sleep you survive on and sleep that is healthful and optimizes your life.
Sleep as a non-negotiable
Writer Maria Popova put it well in an interview: we live in a “[…] culture where we wear our ability to get by on very little sleep as a kind of badge of honor that symbolizes worth ethic, or toughness, or some other virtue – but really, it’s a total profound failure of priorities and self-respect.” Arianna Huffington speaks of sleep as a non-negotiable and a performance enhancer. In a society that wears the badge of “busy” with pride, few prioritize a good night’s sleep.
Of course, busy can often mean stressed which in turn can lead to sleep problems. Addressing stress is a huge topic for another day, but it is often a big part of getting your sleep in order. In turn, proper sleep makes you more resilient to stress.
Let’s look at how you can optimize your environment and pick up on some powerful general habits for better sleep.
Living according to your body’s natural rhythm
As humans, we have a natural circadian rhythm, your internal 24-hour clock that is essential for regulating when you fall asleep and wake up. Although the daily cycle of the circadian rhythm is partly influenced by natural factors within the body, it is strongly affected by external factors such as light and darkness in your environment. The circadian rhythm regulates when you sleep, rise, and eat – and a disruption to the natural cycle, in turn, affects these physiological processes, meaning you can get problems sleeping.
This can be due to the disruption of melatonin production. Melatonin, often referred to as the sleep hormone that makes you feel sleepy, is a natural hormone that is produced by your body, and is sharply raised when the body gets signaled that it is time for bed through less exposure to bright light and eventually darkness. Historically, this has happened naturally, as the sun set we were exposed to less light, but today our screens and bright lamps confuse the body by not providing the darkness needed for melatonin production.
Follow the light
This brings us to our beloved screens and their blue light. Blue light is the light emitted from your electronic screens and has shown to affect levels of melatonin more than any other light wavelength. Studies have shown that using light late in the evening delays the circadian rhythm while early morning exposure advances it. This is especially relevant for the shift or early workers. Those who read on light-emitting devices as opposed to physical books have shown to take longer to fall asleep, be more alert before bedtime, and experience less REM sleep which is the deepest sleep stage in which we dream. Even after eight hours of sleep, you’ll also be more sleepy and take longer to wake up than if you read a paper book. 
Chronic sleep problems? Read THIS post on sleep drive.
Let’s look at some tips to optimize the conditions for better sleep, but a quick note first:
- If you have habitual sleep problems/insomnia, meaning you’re not getting proper sleep for three or more months, the tips below might only have a marginal effect and may even make it worse if you stress out about getting it perfect. Read more about the concept of sleep drive here first if this applies to you.
- This leads me to: yes these things might help you and I encourage you to experiment, but you’ll go crazy if you try to perfect them. Take it easy, you don’t get extra points for doing it all.
If you suffer from sleep problems, see this as a smorgasbord of things to experiment with, not as a checklist. Many people sleep perfectly fine without these tricks, but I’m assuming you’re not one of them or you wouldn’t be reading this post.
Light and working with your body’s cycle
- You’ve heard it, but you have to limit your exposure to screens in the evening. It’s hard with all our TV-shows, social media, and general phone-addiction but aims to stop using screens AT LEAST an hour before bed. Two hours would be even better.
- Use screen light-adjusting apps or turn on the built-in feature most devices now offer. These mimic the natural day and night light cycle. They also, therefore, let your eyes rest, reducing risks for short or long term eye strain problems. Apps/programs for this include Iris and f.lux.
- Dim the brightness of your screens and but also other lights in your home at night and try to use lamps or light bulbs that emit a softer light. Dim red lights have the least impact on your circadian rhythm and melatonin production. Skip the fluorescent lights and go for candles and/or soft floor lamps, as opposed to bright lamps from the ceiling.
- If your geography allows it, try your best to get 20 minutes of sun exposure per day (ideally in the morning). Get as much bright light during the day as possible which helps with alertness and mood during the day as well as sleepiness at night.  Alternatives to natural light are light therapy glasses or a light therapy box – these are often used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) too.
- Consider an alarm clock that mimics the sunrise, slowly waking you up the way we used to wake up, with the sun. Or just a plain separate alarm clock. This is also a good way to help you use your phone less right before bed as you normally would set your alarm and then be tempted to scroll through your social media or work email.
Beyond adjusting your light habits, there are many other things you can do to optimize your sleep, including priming your environment for sleep and having a bedtime routine. (There’s a reason children have a bedtime routine, what makes you think you can go from active and engaged to fall asleep in two minutes? I mean some people can, but I’m not talking to you guys).
The bedroom setting
Your bedroom should be your sleep oasis. For optimal sleep, here are some things to consider:
- De-clutter. Stop putting your dirty laundry on the corner chair or stacks of paper on your bedside table. Your bedroom should be a relaxing place you associate with sleep, not with things that need to be taken care of.
- Make your room as dark as possible. Consider light-blocking screens or curtains and even minimize electronically gadgets that emit light through showing time or an on/off button. And don’t forget the good old sleep mask.
- Studies have shown that a cool room temperature of between 16-20 degrees Celsius (61-68 degrees Fahrenheit) is best for optimal sleep. Maybe you need different sheets or bedding to achieve the optimal temperature. Linen is a natural fabric that keeps you cool when it’s warm and warmer when it’s cold.
- Don’t do other things in your bed. If you watch TV, scroll through your phone etcetera in bed, you miss out on the opportunity of your brain associating your bed with sleep only (and intimacy of course).
- Keep a notebook next to your bed where you can jot down thoughts, words, anything running through your mind while trying to get to bed. You don’t need to turn the lights on for this, the idea is that you scribble down whatever comes to mind so that worrying about remembering to go to the post office the next day or your next big work idea doesn’t keep you up.
- Cut the noise. This includes closing windows, turning off the TV, not running household appliances, looking into double-paned windows, turning off your phone notifications / turning on flight or sleep mode. I use earplugs and it makes a huge difference.
The bedtime routine
In regards to sleep, many aren’t much better than when we were kids. Few adults or children will immediately fall asleep if someone says ‘sleep now!’ which is what many people inadvertently do when they keep busy with their TV or computer until bed. Kids and adults alike need a bedtime routine to give the body enough time to get the hint that it’s time for sleep. The nervous system needs to be in the rest-and-digest mode, the sleep hormones need to start producing, and your mind needs some time to wind down and process the day. Basically, if you act as you did all day long, your body will think you need to be alert and will make it harder for you to sleep.
Create a relaxing routine that prepares your body and mind for sleep. This can involve listening to music, lighting candles, drinking herbal tea, journaling, reading a book, drawing, taking an Epsom salt bath or hot shower, spending time just talking about your day with the person you live with, doing some yoga, or light stretching. A short routine is better than nothing, if 5 minutes is all you can do then great.
Stay away from stimulating substances like alcohol and caffeine. Even if you think it doesn’t impact your sleep and you fall asleep anyway, the quality of your sleep is likely to be affected.
Consider a down regulating breath exercise to prepare your nervous system for sleep.
Watch your liquids. Don’t drink a lot of water 1-2 hours before bed so you wake up having to use the bathroom. Don’t go to the other extreme either though and make sure you get enough water throughout the day.
Often wake up in the middle of the night? It might be due to low blood sugar. Try a small snack before bed, like a hard-boiled egg and some apple, or a spoonful of honey, and see what happens.
If you have serious sleep problems closer to insomnia, check out this post and if that doesn’t work, do not wait to seek professional help. In addition to the risks highlighted in the beginning, it’s also harder for you to keep up with healthy food, meditation and exercise habits as you’ll be reaching for processed sugar for quick but short-lasting energy and will skip your movement routine, which in turn makes it even harder for you to get your sleep in order. (And so the vicious circle begins..)
I was personally helped by a 6-week cognitive behavioral therapy program, which uses the concept of sleep drive (read more about that here) together with tips such as the ones above.
From sleepless to rested
In our busy lives, sleep is often the first thing to go – whether it’s for a social event or work. Sometimes that is more than OK, but it’s when this becomes a habit that you get into a slippery slope. By understanding the importance of sleep it’s easier to prioritize good sleep habits whenever possible. Doing so is an act of respect and self-love, if not just the smart thing to do. Hopefully, bragging about the lack of sleep and the overtime put in at work will soon be a thing of the past as the knowledge of the importance of sleep becomes more commonplace.
What do I do? I try my best to follow the principles outlined in the sleep drive post, use earplugs, keep my bedroom cool and tidy (ish), dim my lights, try not to look at screens, use an eye mask, and wind down before I sleep. Most of the time that is. Sometimes I’m scrolling on my phone and my room looks like a (not relaxing) mess. It’s what you do most of the time that matters!
 Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656292/
 Sleep Duration as a Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease- a Review of the Recent Literature https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21286279
 Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/
 Q&A: Why Is Blue Light before Bedtime Bad for Sleep? https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/q-a-why-is-blue-light-before-bedtime-bad-for-sleep/
 Linking Light Exposure and Subsequent Sleep: A Field Polysomnography Study in Humans https://academic.oup.com/sleep/article/40/12/zsx165/4439587#.WeheQPAzCjs.email