This is a guest post by Alexander Heyne of Modern Health Monk.
The perfect night’s sleep, every night. Can you imagine how good life would be?
Can you imagine how much energy you’d have throughout the day?
Can you imagine how much healthier you’d feel?
… But how many of us actually get sleep like this every night? If that’s you every night, consider yourself blessed!
The unfortunate truth is that insomnia is more common than ever – and that’s no chance. So let’s jump into mastering sleep:
- Big factors that affect your sleep
- How to perfect sleep
Why We’re a World Full of Insomniacs
A study came out last year talking about how insomnia is on the rise in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, sleeping pill and medication usage has also been massively on the rise. We’re becoming a world that collectively sleeps less, and medicates more. But why?
I have some both scientific, and anecdotal evidence for why our sleep quality has been getting progressively worse.
- Electronics usage
How many of you have looked into the screen of your phone or computer before bed, while laying on your bed, or just in the few hours before bed?
Well did you know that sunlight naturally emits a wavelength of light in the ‘blue spectrum’ – which helps signal our body to wake up. So in the morning and throughout the day, we are exposed to this light and it helps stimulate hormones in the body to wake up.
But at night, when the sun is gone, the body detects no light and then it lets melatonin (a sleep hormone) start rising – making you sleepy.
Sunlight, in other words, is one of the main drivers of your circadian rhythm.
There’s just one problem: if you’ve been looking into your computer screen or iPhone after the sun has set, your body still thinks the sun is up – and it actually tricks your body’s hormonal sleep system.
For example, this study found that people using backlit LED devices (computer screens, phones, etc.) blocked the onset of melatonin (the “I’m sleepy” feeling), by several hours.
Now, when I was a little kid I totally knew this to be true! If I played on the computer I would stay up hours past my bedtime and not feel tired.
Indoor lighting has the same effect – depending on what lights you use, if you did an experiment where you turned off all your lights when the sun naturally set, you’d probably fall asleep hours earlier than you usually do.
So, first: Limit usage of devices like computers, phones, tv, etc. close to your bedtime. To be safe, stop them three or more hours before you plan to sleep.
There’s a saying that stress Is “the number one killer.” Now, whether or not that’s a scientific fact I don’t know, but you and I both know that we find ourselves stressed a lot.
I could theorize all day about why we’re all so stressed, citing things like the increased pace of life, decreased attention spans, and the constant multitasking, but instead, I’ll just show you why stress affects your sleep.
Back in the stress and six packs article, we talked about the stress hormone cortisol. High cortisol (aka high stress) is a known factor for increased belly fat.
And your sleep?
Normally, cortisol is high in the morning, to help you wake up, and low at night, so you can relax and settle down to sleep.
But here’s the problem: many of us are getting the opposite. We’re having high night time cortisol, and low morning cortisol. So we end up unable to fall asleep, and deathly tired in the morning wishing we could hit the snooze button one more time.
If you’ve ever found yourself with a racing heartbeat even though you’re deathly tired, you might have had a high cortisol night.
When you’re constantly stressed throughout the day, you throw your body’s fight or flight system out of whack. So the key is really to try and keep your cool throughout the day.
Also, stimulants like coffee and red bull increase cortisol in your body. So if you’re consuming stimulants, not only is it contributing to your stressed feeling and potentially increasing body fat, it’s also going to be affecting your sleep. Stick with your morning coffee, and if possible, drink non-caffeinated things in the afternoon and later.
How to Perfect Sleep – The Four Crucial Rules
Sleep is supposed to be effortless.
Think about that for a second. For those of you that might be struggling.
Sleep is meant to be effortless. You’re tired. You lay down. And then suddenly you wake up in the morning refreshed. That’s how it’s been for millennia. That’s where you want to try and find yourself again.
Let me introduce you to a few key rules that will help get your body back on track – these are “rules” that have been put forth by research at Harvard (it’s Harvard’s suggested “sleep hygiene” rules), as well as some of my own experience in testing many of the common sleep techniques.
A. Spend less time in bed.
Minimize your time spent in bed. The single, most effective rule I’ve ever found for insomniacs is to spend less time in bed.
One of the problems is that when you’re having a hard time sleeping, there is a strong tendency to want to sleep in. I mean it makes sense – if you didn’t fall asleep until four am and you normally fall asleep at midnight, you probably want to sleep those extra four hours.
One of the keys to great sleep is keeping a regular schedule, which means getting up early no matter how poorly you slept, and it also means only going to bed when you’re tired. The more you keep this schedule, the stronger your bedroom and bed become a “sleep trigger.”
Many people first experience insomnia when they go to college, are freelancing, or are unemployed. That’s simply because they are constantly varying their sleep schedule.
B. Only go to bed when you’re tired… not when you’re supposed to.
When I had a bout of insomnia in college, I started reading some sleep books. Many of them cited this rule to “go to bed at the same time every night.” Honestly, I don’t buy it. I have a new rule: wake up at the same time every day.
For example, say you had an easy day today. You’re not tired at all. Do you still go to bed at 11:30 or do you wait till 12:00 or 12:15 when you’re tired? For me, going to bed early just made me toss and turn forever.
So here’s what I’d suggest: wait until you’re tired.
The longer you’re spending in bed, the worst your chances of getting deep, restful sleep.
In my deepest fits of insomnia, by far the most effective thing was forcing myself to get up early.
I was freelancing so my schedule was variable – some days I’d get up at 8, and others at 11, especially if I slept poorly. Well, ironically enough, this led to the worst insomnia of my life.
After now realizing that, it makes perfect sense – people who get up early in the morning often have the best quality sleep. So make yourself get up early even if you don’t have to.
The key is to get up at the same time every day – but only go to sleep when you’re tired.
C. If you can’t sleep for more than 10 minutes, leave your bed and go into another room.
The key here is to maintain the association of your bed with sleep.
Many people do work on their bed, watch movies, read books, etc. But you want the brain to see your bed and instantly think “SLEEP!”
The other thing is that you can’t “force” yourself to sleep. Sleep is attained from relaxation, so the more you try to force it, the more you’re probably going to release stress hormones and keep yourself up. Just stay relaxed.
D. Keep a regular schedule.
Your body is designed with a circadian rhythm – a hormonal system that integrates your own internal schedules with the sunlight outside.
The worst thing for your body is constantly changing its schedule.
I don’t think we often realize this. Waking up for class at 7 am, and then going out till 5 am on the weekend is a great recipe for a broken sleep cycle!
I realize this is very hard, especially if you’re young and like to go out – but just keep it in mind. Every system in your body thrives with a regular schedule.
Everything from going to the bathroom, to sleep, to eating – your body loves regularity.
D. Fix Beliefs That Won’t Let You Fall Asleep
Here’s a scary thought: in many chronic insomniacs, their mind is the only thing that keeps them awake. Let me explain.
Have you ever started suffering from a health problem or issue that happened so much, and affected your life so much, that you started telling people about it and it became a part of your identity?
For many chronic insomniacs the same is true – we often tell ourselves “oh, I usually can’t sleep anyway” or “ahh man, every time I drink coffee after 6 I can’t sleep” or as soon as you see your bed you think “great, another sleepless grumpy night, here I come…” Many of us even schedule our lives around having insomnia.
Well guess what? These become self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you have a deep internal dialogue going on, telling you that you can’t sleep, or that you need to sleep in, or that you have sleep issues, work on turning off your brain and ignoring the “I’m an insomniac” dialogue. Sometimes that’s actually the only thing that needs changing.
About the Author: Alexander runs Modern Health Monk, a site that shows people how to reverse health problems caused by 21st century life. Check out his free weight-loss crash course, or recent article on fixing neck and shoulder pain for office workers.