Sleep; perhaps the single most important dictator of our happiness, health and wellbeing. Sleep is when all the restorative and recovery processes take place in our body. From reinforcing memories of what you learnt in school to restoring energy levels and even rebuilding and growing the muscles you trained in the gym that day. Additionally, many studies have proven that individuals who don’t get enough or good enough quality sleep are at higher risk of dementia, heart disease and even cancer, thus living shorter lives on average.
It’s undeniable how important sleep is for your life and health but how exactly do we optimize it? What is good quality sleep and how much do we need? Keep reading and we’ll show you exactly how to optimize your sleep for a long and healthy life.
How much sleep do I need?
As much as people love to throw around rules like “you should always have 8 hours of sleep” or “you should take mid day naps”, the fact of the matter is it depends. How much sleep you actually need is completely up to your own body and is different for different people. Factors like illness, injury and over training can also influence how much sleep you’ll need but a good time of thumb is to get out of bed when you feel well rested or when you naturally wake up.
What even is quality sleep?
Note that we have, or at least attempted to, answer the question of how much sleep you need, lets define sleep quality. Although sleep quality is a subjective measure, we can summarize it using 3 key points:
1. Sleep efficiency: This is essentially how much of your time in bed you actually
spend sleeping rather than laying awake
2. Rest quality: This is a rating of how well rested and clear minded you feel after
3. Sleep latency: This is the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep once you get
Now that we’ve defined sleep quality into specific metrics we can track, let's look at some ways to optimize and maximize those metrics to increase our sleep quality and improve the quality of our lives.
1. Light Timing:
Light is probably the single most commonly used metric to determine what time of day it is. Believe it or not, this system exists biologically and influences us on a cellular level, even if we don't notice it. Both your skin and eyes have photoreceptors that tell the rest of your body what time of day it is so your hormones can adapt accordingly. One of these hormones is melatonin which produces feelings of sleepiness and triggers other systems related to sleep and recovery. Not only are your sleep wake cycles determined by light timing but so are many other hormone levels. Numerous studies have shown individuals who get more sunlight exposure also had higher levels of testosterone. For these reasons, it's recommended to get direct sun exposure in the morning, close to sunrise time. Watching the sunset and minimizing bright lights after the sunset are also key to regulating your sleep wake schedule.
2. Meal Timing:
Although your eating schedule doesn't have as strong of a modulating effect on your sleep wake cycles, poorly times meals can make it drastically harder to fall asleep and greatly reduce sleep quality. This happens for a variety of reasons but primarily due to blood sugar and insulin levels. After eating a large meal, especially one containing a lot of sugar or carbohydrates, your body deploys a lot of energy into digesting it. Your body also experiences a temporary spike in blood sugar. This blood sugar spike promotes feelings of wakefulness and increases energy. This spike is then followed by an insulin spike which although makes your feel tired and sleepy, does not mean digestion is over. Falling asleep before the digestive process is over can cause digestive problems and drastically decrease how much REM sleep you get thus leaving you feeling unrested and sick the next day. For these reasons, it is recommended to have your last meal at least 2 hours before going to sleep.
Sometimes you just have to chill and play it cool, pun intended. This may be no surprise for those of you who tend to run hot and release lots of heat, but having a slightly colder than room temperature room at night can drastically improve sleep quality. This is because your body temperature actually drops 1-2 degrees so a cooler environment can make it easier for your body to enter this state.
4. Get Tired:
This one may seem like common sense but its an all too often overlooked component of sleep. Many of us have those nights where we just cant seem to fall asleep. This often happens when our minds are exhausted but bodies still full of energy. There's 2 ways of reducing the energy in your body; 1 is to consume less energy or food and the other is to burn more energy by exercising. Although exercise too close to bed time can also affect your ability to fall asleep, a nice evening workout or even jog can do wonders for sleep quality.
5. Practice mindfulness:
Above we mentioned how to tackle the problem of a tired mind but an energized body. But what do we do when our body is exhausted but our mind just won't stop talking? This is actually an increasingly common problem in a society of over stimulation. Although there's no quick overnight fix that guarantees a quiet and controlled mind, there's things you can do which add up over a long enough time period. These things involve mindfulness meditations and practices. These practices will build your mental strength over time and ensure you can help you control your mind rather than letting your mind control you.
In conclusion, optimizing sleep takes a lot. It can be overwhelming trying to consider and balance all the factors that affects your sleep quality but the key to getting good at anything is starting somewhere and taking small steps. Chose one of the above tips, whether its meditation, a better workout routine or a more strict eating schedule, and focus on that for a few weeks. Once you’ve built that habit try focusing on another one of the tips for another few weeks. Although progress will take time, the benefits will be well worth it and you’ll be much likely to maintain the habits you’ve built.