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The Gardener's Approach to Great Sleep
How to make a walled-in garden paradise of your sleep habits.
ONE FROM THE AGES
There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.
ONE FROM TODAY(ISH)
O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse.
—William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
(Not exactly “from today” but I thought it time that Shakespeare made his Stuff debut.)
ONE FROM US
Losing sleep sucks. It’s also terrible for us. Inadequate sleep vastly reduces every health marker and performance metric that’s been tested. A single night of poor sleep makes us a worse driver than when we are mildly intoxicated and more insulin resistant (ie. more likely to store body fat) than most pre-diabetics. Prolonged bouts of poor sleep are linked to drastically higher rates of Alzheimer’s, many types of cancers, and metabolic syndrome—that wonderful cocktail of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high body fat, and unhealthy cholesterol balance.
One of sleep’s most important functions is hormone regulation. We require healthy hormonal cycles for everything from mood regulation, to energy levels, mental focus, and how our body processes the food that we eat. Hormones are our body’s little messengers to the outside world. Their signals tell every internal system how and when to activate or disengage to be best suited for our changing environment. Simply put, hormones control everything and proper sleep is vital for healthy hormone regulation.
Despite sleep’s role in your (Inspired Human) development, we have never published anything about sleep outside of one lesson in the 30x30 Challenge. I’ve recently had some life circumstances pull me from optimal sleep. These times are expected but as I reclaim my sleep habit, I wanted to share a few simple tools to improve your sleep quality.
Optimal sleep comes mostly from keeping a few things out, rather than adding any new habits. Sleep is like a garden. A gardener focuses most of their effort on defense against harmful forces. Absent these destructive elements, a garden flourishes with only a few simple inputs. Get a few things right and your body will settle into great sleep quite naturally.
Here are a few of the most pernicious pests to a perfect sleep garden and how best to manage them:
1. Blue Light
It is nearly impossible to miss the warnings about the effects that “blue light” has on our sleep. Screens and the blue light that they emit are the newest and possibly the strongest threat to proper sleep.
White light is actually a mixture of every color of light. It seems counterintuitive to imagine because mixing every color of paint makes a brown-black color. We see color because objects reflect the same color of lightwave that they are while absorbing others. An apple reflects red wavelength light back into our eyes and absorbs all other colors. We need white light, with its full-spectrum of overlapping colored-light wavelengths, to see in full color.
White light exists in many different hues, from the warm and dim mood lighting of a romantic restaurant to the harsh lighting in a drugstore or laboratory. Sunlight cycles from very orange at sunrise and sunset to bright blue at midday. The screens on our devices deliver bright and crisp light to best display the colors and graphics on-screen. This light is free of the orange and red tones that make lighting feel “warm.” Instead, LED screens purposefully use white light with a high percentage of blue wavelength light. This “cool” white light creates the best blank canvas to project a wide range of images and graphics. While we might see whatever our screens display, our eyes detect much more.
Independent of our vision, our eyes have photoreceptors that help our internal systems determine the time of day by sensing the intensity and color of light. Our body needs this input to inform our various systems on how best to prepare for the type of activities or environment that it is likely to encounter. Backlit screens, with their white light heavy in blue wavelength, give a strong “daytime” signal to your body. Rather than preparing your body to shut down, rest, and repair, screentime before bed signals your system to activate and prep for action. This is the opposite pre-condition for great sleep.
You can install apps that dim your screens and transform the light to a warmer hue that mimics a sunset. These tech tweaks are great, but the best solution is to eliminate screen time an hour before bed. Turn off the TV, put away your phone, and resist the pull of your tablet. You will not only avoid the light, but also remove the other stimulating effects of news, social media, hearing human voices, and seeing human faces.
Optimal sleep requires more than the absence of blue light. It requires an extreme absence of all light. The tiniest amount of artificial light can disrupt your deep sleep. This requires more than blocking all light to your eyes. In addition to the photoreceptors in our eyes, we can also detect light through our skin via a light-sensitive chemical called rhodopsin. In Sleep Smarter, author Shawn Stevenson quotes a Cornell study on how this phenomenon affects our sleep:
“The researchers put a fiber-optic cable behind the knee of a test subject and illuminated a patch of skin that was no bigger than the size of a quarter. Even though the subject slept in what was otherwise complete darkness, that small amount of light was enough to affect the subject’s body temperature and melatonin secretion.”
Many sleep researchers recommend a sleep environment so dark that you cannot see your hand in front of your face. The easiest way to accomplish this is to remove all light-emitting devices from your room and close the curtains. Blackout curtains are cheap and available from every major retailer.
3. Sunlight and Exercise
We’ve now discussed how to properly wind-down toward sleep and optimize the conditions in your bedroom. However, sleep is only one phase of a daily hormonal cycle. As we saw in the lighting section, our bodies detect changes to light intensity and color throughout the day. We evolved this ability to match our internal clocks to the natural daily cycles in our environment.
Hormones are meant to cycle with the natural rhythms of a day. If you still struggle to sleep well after improving your bedtime habits, it’s time to work on your wake-up routine. In contrast to our natural wind-down sequence at night, we get a spike of invigorating hormones first thing in the morning that trigger alertness and prime us for activity and exertion. We need to maximize this wake-up sequence to kick-start the natural ebb and flow of our daily hormones. Direct sunlight and exercise are the best ways to signal to your body that it’s time to wake up.
Your morning exercise doesn’t have to be a significant investment of time and energy. More intense exercise is better—we are trying to wake up our system after all—but, a brisk walk or morning mobility flow will do the trick. If you already train regularly, try rearranging your schedule to train in the morning and see if you sleep better. If you cannot alter your training schedule, do something brief but vigorous in the morning that won’t interfere with your training later.
A proper morning wake-up signal also requires as much direct sunlight as we can get. This means going outside. Sunglasses filter most UV rays and even windows reduce your exposure, so actually get outside and skip the shades. However, sitting near a window is far better than indoor lighting if that is your only option. In addition to direct sunlight in your eyes, try to expose as much skin as your location, weather, time of year, and social situation allow.
When you signal a full wake-up in the morning, you set yourself up for optimal energy levels and focus throughout the day followed by a great night’s sleep.
Each of these sections could go five times longer. I could also include a discussion of everything from temperature and timing, to caffeine, body position, social stimulation, breathing, stress, and sex. However, the above factors provide the greatest benefit and you can implement them immediately. Master these three and you’ll sleep better.
If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson. It’s a well-researched, funny, and practical telling of how to best optimize your sleep habits and conditions and it’s a book that I have returned to many times. I also recommend the “Thermoregulation” and “Sunrise, Sunset” chapters of The Paleo Manifesto by John Durant and the “Sleep” chapter of The Body by Bill Bryson.
Please comment below or reply to this email if you are curious about my specific habits, supplements, and other tricks for optimal sleep. I would love to reply to the comments or perhaps add an addendum to this post that includes more direction and outlines my own sleep routine.
Thank you for reading today and remember…
Life is too short to be normal, but plenty long enough to prioritize your sleep. Live by the motto, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and you might just get your wish.