I’m sure you’ve heard by now, sleep is a big deal! Everybody knows that they need to sleep 7-9 hours per night, but the studies show that there is an alarming number of people in the UK who are sleep deprived. More than a quarter of Britons experience poor quality sleep on a regular basis, and the majority of us sleep 7 hours or less per night, with more than a third of us sleeping just 5-6 hours per night (1).
Insufficient sleep places a significant stress on the body and has been conclusively linked to obesity, insulin resistance, heart disease, impaired brain function and many other common health complaints (2,3,4,5,6,7).
Without adequate sleep, the human brain and body become less able to repair itself from the stress and strain of life and this gradual build-up of a sleep debt not only causes immune and hormonal chaos, but it also leads to significantly reduced ability to cope with everyday life.
Why Is This Basic Part Of Life Such A Big Challenge?
Unfortunately, sleep has suffered somewhat of an identity crisis over the years. It is just not sexy to focus on resting well. It is far more acceptable and rewarding to push hard, stay up late, work extra hours and get up at the crack of dawn to cram more in and get ahead. There are obvious prizes for those who achieve well, but no tangible rewards for those who sleep well. Or so it seems.
In this blog post, I am going to share with you some of the research-backed strategies that I use in my own life, and have recommended to hundreds of patients over the years to great effect for optimising sleep. If you can learn to value quality rest and renewal as much as you do your waking hours of productivity, then you are on the path for significantly more energy, better moods, faster metabolism, a sharper mind and far fewer health problems over-all.
The Two Sides To Sleep
I’d encourage you to think about two important aspects of sleep. Firstly there’s the quantity of sleep that you are getting, which, in plain English is merely the number of hours of kip that you get each night. This is relatively easy to track and improve with a little bit of effort. Then there is a much more significant beast to contend with; the quality of sleep that you achieve each night. Not all restÂ is created equal, and so your goal needs to be not only to sleep the required number of hours per night but also to make those hours count.
How Many Hours Should I Sleep?
Let’s begin with the easy part.
The weight of the research out there seems to suggest that the optimal quantity of sleep for most adults is 7-9 hours night. You need more if you place your body under significant stress. So 7-9 hours is the zone to aim for in the majority of cases.
If you are failing to hit this sweet spot, then my advice is to reconsider your evening priorities. Going to bed an hour earlier can be a lot more beneficial to you than catching up on work or winding down with the TV. The more significant focus, energy and clarity that adequate sleep brings to your life will be worth much more to you in the long term. Sleep, like meditation (and any other tool that helps to declutter and focus the mind) actually buys you time.
There is an old wives tale that goes a little something like this: hours before midnight count as two. I agree with this statement. It pays to remember that we evolved as hunter-gatherers, for nearly 2 million years without the benefit of artificial light to keep up awake into the small hours.
‘Hours before midnight count as two!”
This meant that as soon as the sun goes down, our inborn circadian rhythms would kick into action as the pineal gland secretes the sleep hormone melatonin, gently inducing sleep, until sunrise, when natural sunlight begins the opposite process to wake you up.
Our natural circadian rhythm helps to highlight another important general rule that the further we stray from what nature intended, the more likely we are to run into health problems. There is no doubt that you and I are wild animals, who are physiologically designed to operate at our best when we follow a natural sleep/wake cycle.
You may be wondering if you really need 7-9 hours per night and the truth is that most people do. You may be able to shortcut the required hours and thrive on just six if you can increase the quality of your sleep. The only way you can know withÂ certainty if you are achieving this is to track your current sleep habits and pay attention to what is going on with your current sleep patterns and practices.
Rule #1 Track Your Sleep
This is a big deal.
“What gets measured gets managed.” Peter Drucker
And more importantly, what gets managed gets improved!
It is easy to assume that just because you go to sleep at 10 pm and wake up at 6 am that you have achieved a healthy 8 hours of sleep. This rest may have been interrupted, you may have been tossing and turning and failed to fall into the deeper cycles of sleep that are required for full recovery.
You have a few great options available these days to measure and monitor your sleep.
1) Phone Apps
There are several apps that you can download for your iPhone. I won’t bombard you with options (two that I like are sleepcycle and sleep tracker pro) there are many, but test them out and find out what works for you. Here is a guide to some of the good ones that are available. Just remember to put the phone into sleep mode during the night.
2) The Oura Ring Wellness Computer
If you are serious about finding out how well you are sleeping, then you may wish to look into more advanced tracking technology like the Oura Ring. This fantastic piece of kit is a wellness computer that tracks everything from sleep cycles to body temperature, heart rate, movement and heart rate variability, compiling all of this into a useful app that shows you how rested you are when you wake up.
I’m a bit nerdy, and I love technology. The data that a device like the Dura gives you is phenomenally useful and remember, if you don’t track it, you can’t improve it!
3) The Firstbeat Lifestyle Assessment
This is another of my favourites. This piece of technology is a portable heart rate variability device and motion tracker that you wear, strapped to your chest for 72 hours. The data that it feeds back to you after this period is priceless. You will learn how much you are sleeping, whether your sleep was continuous or disturbed, whether you were in a state of parasympathetic rest and recovery, or whether you remained in a stressful revved up state from your day. You also see how much you have been moving, how exercise affected your nervous system and how your nervous system reacts to the foods that you eat, the alcohol you drink and the type of work that you do. Beneficial stuff. You can learn more about the ultra-valuable functional assessment here.
Improving Your Quality Of Sleep
If you suffer from insomnia or are just looking to improve the quality of your sleep, then these tips are tried and tested. You may be tempted to dive in at the deep end and test them all at once, (that’s the sort of thing that I would do!) but it is much more sensible to test them out one at time for a few days, so that you can track and find out which one influence your precious sleep.
I) Avoid Screens After 9 pm
Computer screens, Ipads, iPhones, televisions, tablets, phablets, really anything with a screen will emit the blue spectrum of light which stimulates the pineal gland in your brain. As long as this stimulation remains it prevents the pineal gland from releasing the sleep hormone melatonin. This is why you should turn off all screens by 8-9pm and allow your body time to wind down before bed.
You may wish to try the ultra-cool blue light blocking sunglasses. I wear these most evenings to help reduce the amount of blue light entering my eyes.
Another good option, if you must use a computer late at night is to download and install a smart piece of software called F.Lux. This program will automatically dim the emission of blue spectrum light from your computer once the sun goes down.
These two bits of tech can help you to avoid the worst of the overstimulation that comes from late night use of screens, yet there is no substitution for merely turning them off.
II) Remove All Electrical Devices From Near Your Bed
This one’s important. In the same way as blue light from a screen can stimulate your pineal gland and keep you awake, so can EMF radiation from plugged-in radios, electric blankets, mobile phones (that are not in sleep mode) and plugged in tvs on standby mode. Make it a goal to keep the 1-2 meters from your head an electricity-free zone.
If your sleep is particularly disturbed, you may wish to test out turning off your wifi at night. If you like the idea of this but also think that it is impractical to turn it on/off every day, then you can look into getting a timing plug socked, like this. Job done.
III) Black Out Your Room
This is another biggy. Those little standby LEDs on your computer, the little red light on your extension cord, or the street lights shining through the edges of your curtain could be seriously impeding the quality of your sleep.
I’d encourage you to do whatever it takes to completely black out your room at night. We are talking can’t see your hand in front of your face level of darkness. This can easily be achieved by duck taping over LEDs and small lights as well as installing blackout curtains in your bedroom.
In a previous flat I didn’t want to spend the money on full blackout blinds, so instead, I purchased blackout material and just stuck it to the windows instead. I didn’t mind my room being perpetually dark since the quality of sleep was worth it to me. Here are some options: blackout material, temporary blackout blind, and stick on blackout plastic. And, if all of those options seem like too much hassle, then the Dream Sleeper mask blocks out 100% of light, is super comfortable, and also great to travel with.
IV) Avoid Caffeine After 3 pm
This one should be pretty clear. If you are having trouble nodding off and caffeine is in your system, well, what can I say!
V) Avoid Alcohol After 6 pm
This one is tricky because alcohol can have a significant calming and relaxing affect upon your mind. It can even induce sleepiness and help you to fall asleep more easily, but it will prevent you from going into deep sleep. It will also lead to disturbed sleep, because of the way it disrupts blood sugar handling. If you wake up around 1-3 am at night; then this is a potential sign that your liver is under stress trying to manage your blood sugar which has been sent on a roller coaster ride from the evening’s alcohol.
This pattern is straightforward to see when you run the First Beat Lifestyle analysis on yourself. The nights when you drink more than 1-2 glasses of wine, you will see that your body just doesn’t drop into the deep parasympathetic rest mode. Instead, it stays in the red, stressful sympathetic mode all night.
With the Oura Ring, or a sleep tracking app you may also notice that it shows you woke up several times in the night, even tho you don’t remember doing so.
Alcohol and quality sleep do not mix well, unfortunately.
VI) Get Your Pillow Height Right
If you have ever had neck or back pain, you will appreciate how important a comfortable, relaxed position is for quality sleep. Aches, pains and niggles can not only keep you awake, but they can wake you up frequently through the night.
It pays to remember that your spine is a precision instrument and as such, it needs to be carefully cared for. The wrong size or type of pillow can place your neck and back under mechanical stress which can prevent you from falling into a deep sleep.
Fortunately, this problem is relatively easily rectified by building your own pillow to the perfect height and firmness for your body. The exact size of the pillow will vary depending upon your body shape and the softness of the mattress that you sleep upon.
The video below teaches a simple way to build your perfect pillow by using bath towels. When you get it right, you will find that you drift off to sleep quicker and move around far less during the night, often waking up in the morning with the bed covers unruffled still in the same position that you started in. This is because with your spine properly supported, your body can get into a state of neurological ease where deep rest becomes much easier to achieve.
VII) Keep The Temperature In Your Bedroom No Higher Than 20 Degrees Centigrade
Many people keep their homes too warm (particularly their upstairs bedrooms). Studies show that the optimal room temperature for sleepÂ is between 15.5 to 20 degrees C.
VIII) Take a Hot Bath 90-120 Minutes Before Bedtime.
This increases your core body temperature, and when you get out of the bath, it abruptly drops, signalling your body that you are ready to sleep.
IX ) Get Exposure To Bright Sunlight During The Day
Your pineal gland produces melatonin roughly in approximation to the contrast of bright sun exposure in the day and complete darkness at night. If you are in darkness all day long, it can’t appreciate the difference and will not optimise your melatonin production.
A good way to do this is to get out of the house first thing in the morning and exercise/walk outdoors so that daylight can bathe your body.
If you live somewhere dark and dreary (like the UK) in the winter months, you could use one of the so-called SAD lights to expose yourself to full spectrum light first thing in the morning. Not only will this help you to feel more awake, but it can also often help with mood regulation in the winter months.
My favourite method of bright light exposure is The Human Charger. This clever piece of kit was initially developed to help travellers overcome dreaded jet lag, but it can work wonders at improving your circadian rhythm and sleep quality (if you use it in the mornings) too. It works just like an iPod; you put the light emitting earbuds into your ears and press go. Bright full spectrum light then bathes the inside of your ears and stimulates the photoreceptors mimicking exposure to bright sunlight. There is a lovely soothing/warming sensation that follows. Personally, the human charger made a big difference to my quality of sleep (as tracked using the Oura Ring), with far fewer restless nights and significantly increased time spent in deep sleep. Perhaps that is no great surprise since I live in London and sun exposure is often minimal.
X) Try These Natural Supplements
Finally, there are several nutritional supplements which can be helpful for enhancing your quality of sleep and overcoming insomnia. These are supplements that I have personally found useful in the past, have science to back up their use, have achieved success with patients in my practice and generally thought to be very safe for most people to take. (Please remember to check with your personal Doctor before starting any new supplement protocol)
Omega 3 With Your Evening Meal
Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for pretty much all aspects of your health. In fact, they are known as essential fatty acids because our bodies cannot manufacture them on their own, we require them from our diet. A recent study found that children who consumed higher levels of these essential fats experienced better quality sleep (8). Omega 3 oils are known to play a role in the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, and a 2008 study in the Journal of Nutrition suggested that a diet deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids lessens the melatonin rhythm, weakens the circadian clock functioning, and has a part in nocturnal sleep disturbances.
There is a reason why we call fish oils an ‘everybody, every day, for life’ supplement. Maintaining adequate levels of these fats is crucial to all aspects of your health, and the shocking fact is that the majority of people are deficient in them. You can read all about the proper dosage of omega 3 fats, as well as the other recommended daily supplements for optimal health, here.
Magnesium has calming effects upon the nervous system as well as the musculoskeletal system. Deficiencies in magnesium are quite common due to poor diet and high levels of stress and several studies have found that supplementing with magnesium is effective for improving sleep and treating insomnia (9,10,11). It is important to note that magnesium may have a laxative effect on some people, especially if you exceed the recommended daily dose. There are many forms and chelates of magnesium, such as magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate, or magnesium malate, the typical dose would be (400-600mg in the evening with food). Another option would be to take 1 or 2 teaspoons of Natural Calm before bed, or enjoy relaxing in a magnesium salts bath. The biggest challenge with magnesium is finding the right source for your body. At SpineCentral we find that Applied Kinesiology testing is one of the best ways of finding out what type of magnesium you require, with your unique body and needs.
L-Theanine is an amino acid that is founding green tea and has been shown to have calming effects on the brain (12). For the purposes of improving sleep the recommended dose is 200-400 mg, taken about one hour before bed.
Taurine is an amino acid that reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol levels and increases the production of GABA, which is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter our bodies natural off switch. A good starting point is to try taking 500 mg before bed.
As mentioned above, Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a major inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps the body to relax. It is particularly important for achieving deep sleep. Many anti-anxiety medications and sleeping pills, including alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), work by increasing the amount of GABA in your brain. Some natural sedative herbs, such as valerian, also work by increasing GABA.
You can supplement directly with this as it is available in many health food and supplement shops. A dose of between 250-500mg per day is the recommended starting point.
(Again, please check with your Doctor before starting any new supplementation programs).
5-HTP is a naturally occurring amino acid and is the precursor to melatonin (the natural sleep hormone), and the recommended dose is 50 to 100 mg an hour before bed. (Please Note: do not take 5-HTP if you are taking SSRIs or other antidepressants. People who are taking antidepressant medications should not take 5-HTP. These medications could combine with 5-HTP to cause serotonin syndrome, a dangerous condition characterised by mental changes, hot flashes, rapidly fluctuating blood pressure and heart rate, and possibly coma.)
Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever tracked your sleeping patterns? Do you suffer from insomnia? Have you found any natural remedies or strategies that have helped you to overcome this problem? We love hearing from you and reply to all of the questions and comments we receive.
Yours In Health,
Richard Gliddon, Doctor of Chiropractic
Founder of SpineCentral
Creator of Wake Up Wellness
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