Many of us go through life completely out of sync with our natural circadian rhythm. My college sleep schedule was to procrastinate studying until at least after 10 pm in which I would channel that last minute stress and pressure to pump out papers or concentrate on memorizing facts, all fueled of course by that 8pm cup of coffee at Starbucks which ultimately led me to stumble in to bed at 1 or 2 am. Through some miracle I managed to wake up after pressing snooze at least 5 times, make it to class at 9 am only to return home and crash for an hour and a half. I often think how much better I could have performed in school if I really dialed in my nutrition and sleep, it would have probably made a world of difference. I probably would have been more alert and present in my classes, I would have experienced less stress and been more creative. Well fortunately for both you and me I have learned to change my habits and I’d like to share some of my best sleep secrets!
1. Optimize your circadian rhythm
There are a few theories out there about circadian rhythm:
1. Our modern lifestyles has forced an unnatural circadian rhythm that defies what it would be in nature, ideally we would wake up with the sun and go to sleep shortly after sunset
2. There are specific types of circadian rhythms that are unique to our set of genetics, according to Michael Breus in his book he sites four types of circadian rhythms:
The bear- goes to sleep shortly after sunset and wakes up after sunrise
The lion- the early bird, goes to bed very early wakes up very early
The wolf-stays up very late, creative surges late in the evening.
The dolphin- irregular sleep schedule, insomnia.
I think that both theories have merit, the trick is limit the variables that would muddy the waters, such as blue light and stress, and monitor how you feel best when these variables are eliminated. For example, when I was living in Taiwan I was trying to wake up at 5:45 to go surfing every day. I spent most mornings in the water greeting the sunrise, I spent the days napping at noon and spending time outside in the garden. My stress was non-existent and my diet was clean. I spent little time on my phone or exposed to blue light. I dialed in all of those variables, and yet it was still difficult for me to fall asleep at 9pm and I never felt alert or well rested by mid-morning. I realized that for me, I feel best when I fall asleep around 11 and wake up around 8 or 9. I have consistent energy throughout the day with this schedule. I am a Bear :)
Soon after waking step outside take a breath and look around.
Drink coffee outside.
Start the day with a refreshing walk.
2. Get more natural sunlight
This is so important I cannot stress it enough! Sunlight literally begins a cascade of a hormones and communicates to your body that is time to get up and start the day! This cascade of hormones also begins your circadian rhythm for the day setting it up to where your cortisol (stress hormone) is highest upon waking and slowly tapers off throughout the day so that by the time bedtime rolls around your cortisol is low and your melatonin is high (sleep hormone). Think of this hormonal cascade as a teeter-totter, with cortisol on one end and melatonin on the other, as one is high the other is low, which makes sunlight so effective. Did I mention that Vitamin D is a precursor for melatonin and not enough of it could affect how much your body is able to create. So there! Two HUGE reasons why you should get more sun.
3.Limit blue light exposure
Just as getting enough sunlight throughout the day is important limiting your blue light exposure in the hours before bed is equally just as important. The blue light that we get from our phones, computers and TV screens essentially confuse our bodies in telling them that it's still daylight outside and that we should keep working to get food. It drives cortisol up, just like real sunlight, which also drives melatonin down. Remember the teeter totter? We want melatonin to be as high as possible leading up to bedtime which means cortisol has got to be low and when we expose ourselves to blue light we make it an uphill battle for melatonin production.
Create a bedtime for phones and computer time (ideally 2 hours before bed)
Download apps like f.lux or Iris on computers that filters blue light.
4. Create a bedtime ritual
Having a bedtime ritual is all about conditioning your body to tell it, it's time to go to sleep. Not only can you condition your body for sleep but you can also use your ritual to wind down and kick stress in the butt and out of your bedroom! My bedtime ritual involves having a cup of tea, like chamomile or kava, reading a book and fitting in a meditation before hitting the hay. Maybe yours could involve cuddling with a loved one or a pet, journaling, saying what you are grateful for, prayer or listening to a podcast or some relaxing music.
Plan out a few relaxing activities that you will enjoy and that will help wind you down at the end of a stressful day.
5. Turn your bedroom into a dark cave
I don’t mean to beat a dead horse but going back to the importance of light, just as sunlight is important for circadian rhythm and blue light can be a melatonin killer, by turning your bedroom into a cool dark cave made for sleeping, you setup your environment for maximum melatonin production. Think that turning off the lights is enough to hit the hay? Well turns out it isn’t, neither is just wearing a sleeping mask, because here is the kicker: our skin has light receptors too! One study put one group in a completely black out room but then simply showed a flashlight ON THE BACK OF THEIR KNEES then measured their melatonin levels compared to the control group who were kept in the pitch black room. What they found was that a little bit of light on the back of their knees was enough to decrease melatonin production.
Get black out curtains! These are great for knocking out light pollution from your neighborhood.
Buy some black gaff tape from Walmart and cover up all of the little blinking lights from TV monitors, chargers and anything plugged into the wall.
Take a towel and place it at the bottom of your bedroom door to limit light coming in from the hallway.
Set your bedroom temp to 70-75F, proven to optimize sleep.
Stop watching TV in bed! Seriously, easiest way to ruin sleep.
6. Keep stress to a minimum
Addressing stress yet again? I know, but it is oh so important when it comes to sleep! Let's talk about cortisol, the stress hormone, yet again. Many things can cause cortisol to rise in our bodies, besides light, and working to minimize anything over stimulating that creates cortisol cascade too late in the day will dramatically help in your sleep. That means putting curfew on work, or other engagements that are stressful and replace them with hobbies that you enjoy and are relaxing. Basically you want to tell your body that the work day is over, there Are no more lions to run from and it is safe to breath deep, relax and get warmed up for sleep.
Literally stop checking emails and taking work calls at 6 pm, or 5 hours before bed
Create relaxing hobbies and activities that help you to let go and wind down, like spending time with family, reading, cooking, and taking an evening walk
Avoid over stimulating exercise, like cross-fit or HIIT workouts, 3 hours before bed. These can cause cortisol to spike back up too close to bed
Add in mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga that have proven, that they help with chronic stress and anxiety
7. Fix your blood sugar
This one may not seem so obvious, but blood sugar is tightly linked to hormones with insulin resistance causing a host of hormonal problems. Basically if you over indulging in sugar you could be experiencing too many blood sugar spikes and crashes, even WHILE YOU SLEEP, which means that a blood sugar crash could easily wake you up from what should be undisturbed deep sleep. Really monitoring how much refined sugar or carbs you are eating and how they make you feel can give you real insight into why you keep waking up feeling groggy in the morning.
Cut back on carbs to the minimal effective dose, basically the least amount of carbs you need to fuel your activity and feel good.
Quite the evening night cap! Alcohol is essentially sugar and has been shown to prevent you from entering deep restorative sleep.
Up the healthy fats that supports satiety and helps to support hormone production.
Occasionally practice intermittent fasting which has been proven to be a quick way to increase insulin sensitivity
8. Get active
This may be yet another no brainer and so obvious that it warrants the question as to why I added it here to begin with. However nonetheless it's become easier and easier to put off exercise in our day to day life, so in addition to getting six pack abs you can add this to the list of reasons to move your body! We evolved to be very active throughout the day, it is only in the past 100 years that humans have become mostly sedentary. Moving your body and living an active lifestyle is a great way to expend your energy in utilize all that cortisol so that you essentially wear yourself out enough to get great sleep. Have you ever seen a dog run around and around outside to the point where by the time you make it home they pass out into doggy dream land? Well we are animals too, and just like you walk your dog, don’t forget to walk your body!
Create a habit or ritual of getting movement in throughout the day, start the day with a quick 5 min yoga session, or walk around the neighborhood.
Get involved in fun activities that you can actually stick with like, sports, dancing, or yoga.
If the only time you can fit in a workout is at the end of the day, make it right after work for as little as 15 min.
Take these hacks and have yourself a truly deep sleep!! :)
Stevenson, Shawn. Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success. Hay House, 2016.
Breus, Michael, and Mehmet Oz. The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype--and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More. Little, Brown Spark, 2019.