70 million Americans suffering from chronic sleep deprivation. You might be one of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “sleep is for the weak.” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Well, let me tell you why you need to throw those two phrases out of your vocabulary and start sleeping like it’s your second job. 

Proper sleep… and enough of it, is quite possibly the most important thing you can do for your health and your fitness. Not all sleep is created equal, and broken sleep is the one element holding you back from reaping the benefits that sleep provides you. Sleep is your body’s natural recovery process that provides it with extraordinary benefits. Muscles recover from the day’s efforts. Your brain consolidates learning and memorizing. Your hormonal systems work to manage stress and emotions. Natural cell death and removal occurs. The list goes on and on. If you are already working towards a healthier lifestyle by eating more nutrient-dense foods and making time to get a workout in every day but you’re not logging a minimum of 7 hours of sleep a night, you are shortchanging your results.

Some of the most significant health benefits of sleep are: 

  • decreased risk of heart attack, stroke, and cancer
  • Reductions in stress and inflammation (a contributor to weight gain and chronic disease)
  • improvements in energy, alertness, and cognitive function
  • lowered risk of depression and anxiety

The human body is the most amazing machine on the planet and it runs by an intricate network of interconnected systems. Just like nutrition, sleep is a comprehensive, multi-purpose feature, providing a framework for several different processes. After a full day of work, stress, and activity, the body partially ‘switches off’ during sleep by slowing down or even interrupting some of its functions. Your brain, heart, GI tract, and lungs all get a rest from working hard throughout the day. When these systems slow, your body conserves its resources because energy consumption from those systems is reduced. It is also during this time when the largest amount of growth hormones is secreted which builds tissues back up from however they were broken down from the previous day’s activities. This process is an important part of the recovery process as it helps consolidate worn-out cells in your body and builds new ones. You can see how sleep is critical for muscular development, but it is equally critical for fat burning as well. Your metabolic rate decreases when you sleep less which means your body burns calories at a slower pace than it would with more rest. So, skimping on sleep shouldn’t be an option if your goal is to grow muscle and burn fat.

While I wish I could tell you that muscle gain and fat burning were the only things affected by lack of sleep, the long-term negatives of sleep deprivation are quite real. It drains your mental abilities and puts your physical health at real risk. Recent scientific studies show that a lack of sleep causes significant increases in your risk for serious health concerns such as obesity, disease, and even early death.

Unfortunately, you can’t catch up on or make up for lost sleep. Sleep debt is an actual thing, and if you are sleeping less than seven hours a night you’re already at risk of the negative health consequences. Studies have shown that just one night of restlessness has an equivalent affect on your body as consuming several alcoholic drinks. Prolonged lack of sleep not only makes you more susceptible to disease, but also causes slower reaction time and can leave you more susceptible to illness or injury.

The good news is that sleep is one factor that you have complete control over changing… completely for free!

You may be asking yourself how you can start to get more sleep if you already feel like you don’t have enough time in the day.  Proper sleep (sleep efficiency or quality) and enough sleep (anywhere from 7-9 hours) are equal in importance for your health as is the quality of the food you eat, but you might not realize that until you improve your own sleep and reap the benefits of it. Maybe you get into bed and expect to fall right to sleep only to be unable to… or you get to sleep just fine but can’t stay asleep all night. You don’t have to accept either of those scenarios as the new facts of your like and that there’s nothing you can do to correct it. There are several things you can implement to get into a deeper sleep and stay asleep longer each night. Here’s how to build a better night’s sleep, regardless of your schedule.

Reducing blue light exposure

Avoiding looking at screens (cell phones, tv, computer, iPad, Kindle) not only relaxes you by taking away bran stimulating light, but the reduction in that specific light also stimulates the release of melatonin in the brain which will improve your sleep quality; getting you to bed faster and keeping you asleep longer. This not only applies to your electronics but also the lights in your house. In the hours approaching when you sleep, start dimming the lights or turning off unnecessary lights in your house. When you actually go to bed it is very important that your bedroom is as dark as possible to get the best sleep possible. You shouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face it’s so dark. As little as the blinking light off of a charging phone, or the light off of an alarm clock has been proven to disrupt sleep and cause decreased sleep quality. Blackout curtains are cheap and should definitely be in your bedroom. Flip your phone face down or have it in another room completely, cover any other blinking lights with electrical tape, and remove the TV from your room completely.

Getting onto a consistent schedule

Your body’s circadian rhythm is your body’s regulatory system for essential processes like energy expenditure. Without a properly functioning circadian rhythm, fat loss will be extremely difficult if not impossible. Getting consistent with going to bed and waking up at the same time every day whether that be weekends or weekdays regulates and keeps your circadian rhythm finely-tuned. When you have a routine sleep schedule, your hours of sleep will be better quality and you will feel more alert when waking in the morning. While this isn’t always possible to have a completely fixed sleep schedule if you are a first responder or work in other careers where you work nights or on a rotating schedule you can optimize your sleep routines to make the sleep you get more beneficial. 

Drop the temp in your bedroom

I bet you didn’t know that one of your body’s calls to sleep is the temperature drop that occurs when the sun goes down. Studies have shown that you will get your best quality of sleep in a cooler room vs a warmer one. You will get your best sleep when your bedroom is temperature is in the 16-18°C (60-65°F) range. When you fall asleep more quickly you optimize the recovery that additional time in bed provides and you get into deeper sleep cycles more quickly. Sleeping in a colder room slows your heart rate as much as seven beats per minute and when you look at that over a whole night of sleep, it can make a big impact of the benefits you will see.

You can also investigate a few things you can buy for your room to make your sleep more optimal. Several new mattresses on the market are aimed at increasing comfort, including those that have “cooling” technology, to keep you from getting too warm while they sleep. Memory foam mattresses conform to your body providing extra shape and support to put you into a better, more comfortable sleeping position.

Take a hot bath or a hot shower before bed

Again, this has to do with your body temperature before bed. It will cause you to be cooler rather than hotter. Exposing your body to hot water before bed opens the blood vessels on your skin as your body attempts to disperse heat, this change stays long after you get out of the hot temperature and will cause your body to drop in temperature. Another benefit of this is that it will help you relax and give you something to do away from your screens before bed.

Meditation and conscious relaxation

This one is underrated. Like I said before, we are stimulated all day long, often from the moment we wake up with our alarms blaring to the second before we go to bed, yet we expect to close our eyes and easily fall asleep. Simply making a conscious effort to relax and cool your thoughts when you get into bed can make a huge difference. Closing your eyes, taking deep breaths and focusing on nothing but relaxation.

Background/ White noise

Personally, I love to fall asleep to the sound of ocean waves. Maybe you feel like you need some background noise, maybe you don’t, but there can be some benefits to having it. If you live in urban areas where there is noise from busy streets and such, having some quiet white noise in the background can help muffle those noises that are going on beyond your bedroom door and keep you from being woken up or kept awake by them. If you’re not a fan of the background noise because it actually distracts you and keeps you awake, that’s fine. There’s no hard rule here, it’s more about you determining what works optimally for you and helps you get the best sleep possible. It’s important to note here that the TV does NOT count as white noise and actually stimulates the brain to keep you awake. Use options like a fan, a white noise machine or even your Echo Dot or Google Home device to play soothing, monotonous sounds like rain, a flowing river, ocean waves, or wind blowing. 

Avoid stimulants at all costs

Caffeine, chocolate, pre-workout, nicotine, and some other supplements can keep you awake past your bedtime because they may not metabolize out of your body quickly. Depending on you and your metabolism, you could drink a cup of coffee at noon and have some of that caffeine still present at midnight. Then if you are taking a stimulated pre-workout before your 6 pm workout, you shouldn’t be surprised when you’re wide awake in front of the TV well past when you should have started to catch some ZZZZZs Alcohol may make you feel sleepy initially but will disrupt your rest later in the night. I recommend stopping all stimulant use past noon every day.

Exercise regularly

Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep faster at night. Exercise also promotes deeper, more restful sleep. Just make sure you don’t exercise too close to bedtime, since this can leave you too energized to sleep.

Wind down

You are not a light switch that you can just flip to turn off when you’re done. Your body needs time to shift into sleep mode. Spend the last hour before bed doing a calming activity such as reading, meditating, or journaling. You can even do calming movements like stretching or yoga. Breathing activites like box breathing or belly breathing also help to relax the mind and body and prime you for sleep. It’s also important to associate your bedroom with only two activities; sleep and sex. This subconsciously primes your brain and body to know that there are only certain things that happen in that space. This strengthens the association between bed and sleep.

If you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired

It is best to take work materials, computers, and televisions out of the sleeping environment. Working or watching tv in bed disassociates your bed with sleep, and instead, tells your brain that your bed is your office which only works to further disrupt sleep. If you wake up to use the restroom, do not turn lights on or look at the time. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t immediately fall back to sleep, leave your bedroom and go to another room and repeat the same calming things you do to wind down; meditation, stretching, breathing, reading until you begin to feel sleepy again. Then return to the bedroom. It’s important to note that if you do need to do that, don’t look at clocks, turn lights on, etc as those things will only wake you up more by stimulating the brain to assume you’ve seen daylight and it’s time to wake up. Yes, I know that reading without light is rather difficult. This is where I’d tell you to get a pink Himalayan sea salt lamp or an actual candle to light and read by as candlelight and firelight to do emit the same blue light as conventional lights. 

Getting enough of the right kind of sleep is key to a healthy lifestyle. It boosts your immune system, assists in weight loss, helps you build muscle and recover and helps you think better throughout your workday. Whether it’s creating a better association between your room and sleep, creating a more structured nighttime routine, or getting a new mattress, you can elevate the sleep you’re getting to another level by implementing these easy strategies and aim to get take seven to nine hours each night. It’s never too late to practice good sleep hygiene!

Yours In Imperfect Action,

Dana