Why talk about sleep?
The main reason is that getting good quality sleep is AS important as nutrition and exercise in helping to reach your fitness or health goals (if not more important). Yet, sleep does not seem to get as much emphasis as a priority as the other two. Not surprisingly the three are interlinked and sleep can strongly affect your nutrition and exercise performance and vice versa.
Poor sleep, both in terms of quality (how well you sleep) and duration (how many hours you spend asleep) is a major risk factor for obesity and weight gain. This is not so surprising when you learn that poor sleep means you tend to make worse food choices, are generally hungrier (your appetite and satiety hormones don’t work as well in a sleep-deprived state), impairs tolerance to carbohydrates to such an extent that after only a few days of sleep restriction (4 hours a night for 6 nights in the study in question) healthy adults showed symptoms of pre-diabetes. This means that if you’re chronically getting less sleep than you should you are at greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Not getting enough sleep will also mean you have less motivation to exercise and won’t be able to perform as well at your chosen activity. And even if you manage to keep training and dieting if you’re sleep deprived you stand to lose a lot less fat and a lot more muscle in the same amount of weight lost! That’s baaaad. Getting enough sleep also boosts immune function in a major way and greatly increases your ability to fight off infections. Get colds a lot? Are you getting enough sleep?
Sleep also has a huge role to play in emotional and mental wellbeing too. Think about a time where you had a really great nights sleep. You were probably in a great mood and were more productive, you might have smashed your training session that day as well because you were full of energy and you were motivated to eat good nutritious foods. The science supports this as well, poor sleeping patterns are linked to depression and reduced ability to process emotional information and read social cues as well as concentration and focus. Your brain likes it when you sleep enough!
Invariably then the question arises, ‘how much is enough?’ This depends on the person but most people fall into the range of 7-9 hours being the best. There are some people who are fine with getting only 5 or 6 hours a night but these are in the minority, do not assume you are one of them!
I understand it might not be so easy to get this much sleep every night. We all have lives and things going on, stressful jobs, needing to work long hours, having to take care of young children or other family members, the list goes on. All I’m hoping to do here is to highlight how important it really is for your health to get adequate and good quality time in bed so that you might consider how you can make it more of a priority, rather than leave it as an afterthought or the first thing to get sacrificed on a busy day. Some of these tips and changes are easier to implement than others but take as many on board as you can and I guarantee you’ll reap the benefits of a better night’s sleep.
1) Minimise artificial light exposure in the evening. Use apps like F.lux, Twilight & Nightshift on your respective screens and even consider getting a pair of ‘blublocker’ glasses like @ambreyes. This will help prevent ‘iPad insomnia’. Similarly, make sure to get some natural light exposure during the daytime as this helps to regulate your circadian rhythm.
2) Sleep in a cave. Make your sleeping environment as dark as possible. Get a blackout blind and turn off/cover up any sources of light in your room when in bed. And have the room slightly on the cooler side.
3) Exercise, but finish high intensity workouts at least 2-3 hours before bedtime. I don’t think sacrificing sleep time (if you’re not getting enough to start with) to get a workout in is a good idea.
4) Get the app Sleep Cycle (Iphone) or Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock (Android). This app is worth getting solely for the smart alarm but then there’s all of the other useful features too that tell you about how you’re sleeping. It is worth much much more than what it costs.
5) Have a wind-down routine before bed. Dedicate 30 mins or an hour if you can to get off your phone/computer/TV and try to unwind by doing activities such as stretching, foam rolling, deep breathing/meditation, have a bath, drawing/colouring, reading from a book, listening to music etc. Have a mind that won’t switch off at night?
6) Similar to #5, avoid stimulating activities right before bed. You won’t find it easy to fall asleep if you go straight from working/studying/watching certain TV/movies (comedy or nature docs are a good choice though)/Playing video games to getting into bed and expecting to nod off right away. Take some time to chill and unwind.
7) Get up and go to bed at roughly the same time each day, even on weekends. Your body and your circadian rhythm loves routine. A couple of weeks of doing this and you really feel the difference.
8) Learn your tolerance to caffeine and other stimulants and establish a cut off point in the day for them.
9) Save some of your carbohydrates and protein for the evening time. A meal like this helps increase serotonin and melatonin and keep blood sugars stable for a good night’s sleep.
10) Try using some of or a combination of these supplements. Chelated magnesium, Valerian root extract, melatonin, 5HTP, Phenibut, L-theanine, phosphatidylserine, ashwagandha. Consult a doctor beforehand especially if you are taking any medications.
And then in some more detail..
1) Minimise Artificial light exposure at night time
Exposing your eyes to artificial light at night time (especially the blue spectrum) tricks your body into thinking it’s still daytime. This disrupts the production of the hormone melatonin which your body naturally produces at night under normal circumstances to help you fall asleep. The apps mentioned above dim your screens and give them a slight orange hue which makes them far less disruptive to melatonin production so you can fall asleep easier. This is a really quick and easy option that makes a big impact so you should have no excuse not to do it. Similarly make sure you get some light exposure during the day, natural light preferably so that your Circadian rhythm is in sync and your body knows to produce melatonin later when it gets dark. You could also consider getting some blublocker glasses @ambreyes have some really nice ones!
2) Make your sleeping environment as dark as possible and a bit cool
Eliminate sources of external light that might disrupt your sleep for the same reasons as #1. Get a blackout blind or something similar and cover up any other light sources that might come from TV’s (better yet don’t have them in your room) or other technology and make your room as pitch black as possible. If you can’t see your hand in front of your face when you’re in bed then you’re doing really well! Also have your room a little on the cooler side in terms of temperature. The body cooling down before bed is one of the main things needed for sleep onset. This is why a hot shower or bath works well because of the rapid cooling down that follows.
3) Get Active
Getting regular exercise is well known to help you get a better night’s sleep. Just be sure to finish up any hard workouts 2-3 hours before your bedtime. If you don’t have some time afterwards to cool down and relax your body will still be wired from the training session. It’s very hard to sleep when you’re still in ‘Fight or Flight’ mode, which is a good thing from an evolutionary perspective, having the urge to nap when running away from a sabre-tooth tiger wouldn’t have been ideal for our ancestors. So if you do train last thing in the evening have a hot shower or bath, when you get out your body temperature lowers a lot which makes it easier to fall asleep and consider doing a cool down incorporating some stretching and/or deep breathing after working out.
4) Get the app Sleep Cycle
Sleep Cycle is an app that tracks your quality of sleep and uses a ‘smart’ alarm to wake you up when you’re closest to being naturally awake. We have roughly 3 phases we go through during sleep: Light sleep, deep sleep and REM sleep. And a full sleep cycle consisting of the three lasts roughly 90 minutes. Sleep cycle tracks your movement in bed while you sleep and the alarm clock goes off when you’re most likely in a light sleep phase of sleep i.e when you’re moving around more (very little movement occurs in deep sleep or REM sleep) which leads to a gentle and comfortable awakening. Have you ever been woken up by your alarm in the middle of deep sleep or while dreaming? You feel groggy and potentially like a fridge fell on you during the night, no? Sleep Cycle can help you avoid that. In addition to the smart alarm is tracks your sleep quality and duration and you can see how much time you spent in deep sleep during the night. You can also set up sleep notes to see how certain things affect your sleep quality ( the app will tell you this). For example I can see from mine if I have a coffee in the evening my sleep quality goes to shit, I might technically be asleep but I can see the next day on the app that I don’t get very much time in deep sleep.
5) Have a Wind-Down routine before bed
Your mind doesn’t work like a light switch, you can’t just turn it on or off, think of it more like a dimmer switch. So if you go straight from doing the things mentioned above or anything else that requires a lot of brainpower to getting into bed you won’t be ready to nod off. So spare as much time as you can before bed, 30 mins up to an hour would be ideal but 15 mins is better than nothing and do some relaxing activities that appeal to you. Get off your phone and other screens (except to set up sleep cycle of course ? ) and give yourself some ‘me time’ to relax and chill out, essentially preparing the mind and body for sleep. I personally like to use foam rolling and stretching and the guided sleep meditations provided by the app Headspace. And if you find there’s thoughts keeping you awake – write them down (on paper) and get them out of your head. This ‘brain dump’ is wildly affective in helping to settle the mind. This tip might be a bit trickier to implement as it requires finding more time in the day, which can seem very hard to do but it’s one that will really make a big impact if you can give it a shot.
6) Avoid stimulating activities before bed
This tip for the most part encompasses things that you are emotionally invested in or trigger emotions as well as activities requiring the mind to be ‘switched on’. Think about it, how ready for bed are you after watching intense shows on Netflix or seeing your favourite sports team get hockeyed, simultaneously losing you fifty quid or coming off a 47 death streak playing Call of Duty online – the answer is not very. Wrap up these sorts of activities well before bedtime as suggested in #5. And choose some more relaxing or positive ones instead. If you’re going to watch some TV – nature documentaries or comedies will have a positive influence.
7) Get into a regular sleep routine
Like I said above, your body loves routine and you’ll notice the difference if you start going to bed and getting up roughly at the same time on a consistent basis. A lot of this is driven by our natural Circadian Rhythm or ‘body clock’. You’ll notice it in action if you do get up at the same time every day and when you finally have an opportunity to sleep in, you don’t, you just wake up anyway at your usual time. There is usually some sort of disruption switching from the weekdays to the weekend when a lot of people use the weekend as an opportunity to sleep in and catch up on some of the sleep they lost during the week. While it is beneficial to pay something towards your ‘sleep debt’ in this manner you’ll feel much better if you consistently get enough during the week and only add maybe an hour more on the weekends if you need it.
8) Have a caffeine cut-off
In our workaholic sleep-deprived society we tend to use caffeine and other stimulants as a crutch to give us enough energy to get through the day. This is obviously by no means an ideal scenario. If you can kick the habit and instead make sleep a bit more of a priority then over time you’ll find you won’t need to abuse stimulants to get you through the day and while you might enjoy a few cups of coffee (guilty) you won’t be relying on it to get you through the day. Figure out after what time stimulants start to negatively affect your quality of sleep and then establish a cut-off time. For me it’s no caffeine after 3pm if I go to bed around 10.30 – 11.00 pm. We all metabolise caffeine differently so it’s important to figure out what works for you as an individual. Some people will have it out of their system in a couple of hours, for others it could be half a day or longer if you keep adding to the caffeine that’s already in your system. So if you need to take pre-workout in the evening to get you through your workout and then can’t sleep because the caffeine keeps you awake and then you have to have loads of caffeine the next day to keep you awake and then repeat this cycle, yeah, don’t do that.
9) Eat some carbohydrates and protein in the evening
Consuming carbohydrates makes the amino acid tryptophan more available in the brain and protein rich foods provide this amino acid. In the brain it helps to release more serotonin which makes you feel content and happy and sleepy and serotonin is a precursor to melatonin , the hormone that helps you fall asleep. So you can take advantage of this by consuming a whole food protein and carbohydrate rich meal a few hours before bed. Consider shifting some of the carbs you would have at breakfast to the evening time and see if it helps you sleep better and go for a more protein and fats meal in the morning.
10) Use certain supplements to help you fall asleep and get a better night’s sleep
Magnesium – this essential mineral amongst over 300 other biological functions can help relax the nervous system and promote a better night’s sleep. Not all magnesium’s are created equally so opt for chelated forms like magnesium glycinate or aspartate or magnesium citrate. Avoid magnesium oxide, it has poor absorption in the body and can have laxative effects. You can also go for a topical magnesium cream or spray which you apply before bed or have a bath containing epsom salts. For oral supplements somewhere between 200 mg up to 1500 mg , depending on the type, 30-45 mins before bed should do the trick.
Valerian Root – The extract of this root can act as a natural sedative, helping you fall asleep. 500 mg – 1000 mg 30 mins before bed. With any of these supplements start at the lower dose and work up. In a minority of people valerian root can actually make you more awake so be aware of that.
Melatonin – The hormone we talked so much about already is also available in supplemental form. Unfortunately not over the counter in Ireland. It can be got in other parts of Europe and in the United States though. 1 mg up to 10 mg has been shown to work but more is not better so use the lowest dose possible to get the desired effect, 30 mins before bed. There isn’t any negative feedback loop associated with melatonin supplementation where taking the supplement reduces your natural production of it. It can be especially useful for shift workers or to overcome jet lag.
5HTP – Essentially supplemental tryptophan which we said earlier can help increase serotonin levels and therefore natural melatonin production. Like melatonin this isn’t freely available over the counter in Ireland. Typical doses range from 200 mg – 500 mg per day in the afternoon or evening. Consult a doctor beforehand if you are taking any medications or other drugs, this goes for all of the supplements mentioned but particularly for 5HTP as combining SSRI antidepressants with 5HTP can be fatal.
Phenibut – Helps increase levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain which makes you feel calm and relaxed and promotes deeper sleep. 250 mg up to 1000 mg taken in the afternoon or evening. As always start with the lower dose. Can only be taken once or twice a week due to potential for withdrawal symptoms. Do not combine with alcohol.
L-Theanine – This amino acid found naturally in green tea also helps to increase GABA and help you feel calm and relaxed without being sedated. It can also help to take the jittery edge off caffeine if they are combined (this is why green tea doesn’t make you jittery like coffee might). 100 mg to 200 mg before bed to help improve sleep quality.
Phosphatidylserine – Can help reduce cortisol/stress levels and is critical for cognitive function. 200 mg with dinner and then another 200 mg before bed.
Ashwagandha – Helps the body cope with stress / feelings of anxiety so that you can better wind-down and relax and get a good night’s sleep. 300-500mg is a good place to start.
So there you have it, everything you need to have a good nights sleep…good night Zzzzzzz
By Bodyfirst Nutritionist Brian O’HAonghusa