How to Make Sleep Your Superpower!

It’s 6am; you wake to the sound of your alarm feeling groggy and tired. You reach over wishing you could hit that snooze button; 30 more minutes would have been blissful, knowing deep down you could do with an extra few hours at least. Begrudgingly you get up and crack on with your day, fuelled by coffee, quick meals and endless snacking… Fast forward to the evening; you arrive home late and exhausted, more work needs to be done and you’re set up for another 5hr sleep – dreading the sound of your alarm the following morning.

Now this may be an accurate representation of your sleep routine, or it may be way off. However, I want you to take a minute and think about your current sleep habits; when was the last time you averaged a good seven to nine hours sleep consistently? How do you feel day to day with your current sleep schedule? How do you feel when you manage to get a good quality sleep? Do you often lie awake wanting to sleep but non-stop thinking, worrying, or stressing about things in your life?

Well you’re not alone. The above example is one of many scenarios people find themselves in, in which sleep deprivation is a normal part of their lives. We all have experienced having to function on minimal sleep. It’s not pleasant. Everything feels like a struggle, it’s harder to concentrate, our memory suffers and the quality of our daily life drops significantly.

Sleep Deprivation is well studied, and the research clearly shows that a lack of sleep causes the following:

  • Up to 65% all-cause mortality risk
  • Poor memory and creativity
  • Increased impulsiveness (reaching for unhealthy snacks)
  • Poorer judgement and decision making
  • Decreased reactions times
  • Sustained stress, supressed immunity and overall infection.
  • Weight gain: 5hrs sleep or less gives you a 50% likelihood of being obese, it increases your ghrelin levels (hunger hormone), which means you’ll naturally seek out foods higher in sugar, processed carbohydrates and fats. It also lowers your leptin levels which controls our appetite and energy balance.
  • Higher risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, mental health conditions, diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s.

The amount of sleep we get in industrialised nations has decreased rapidly in the last 100 years from an average of 7.9hrs to 6.4hrs. Two thirds of adult’s struggle to hit 8 hours sleep, and it’s not just about the quantity but the quality as well; Sleep is essentially your life’s support system. You also can’t catch up on sleep; it’s not a bank where you can accumulate a debt and pay it off at a later date. The greatest paradox is that people who don’t get enough sleep are doing so to try and get more done. However if they’d get enough sleep, even with less waking hours in the day, they would be more productive in those hours.

How do I get more sleep?

Now we know a good sleep makes us feel great and is critical to brain and body function, but how do I give myself the best chance to achieve the right amount and quality of sleep consistently?

Sleep & Wake Times:

Our bodies are designed around regularity, our internal clock (‘circadian rhythm’) is regulated by the hormone melatonin, which takes its cues from the amount light present in your environment. This is why we will naturally feel more awake in the day and tired at night. Ideally, we should go to sleep and wake up at similar times so your body finds its natural rhythm. However, your lifestyle will often control this. So it’s best to work around that; Aim for 8hrs of sleep as often as you can. This should remain constant even on the weekends.

If you are sleep deprived and you want to manage your day better, you can utilise napping. You have to be careful though, taking naps longer than 20mins or later in the afternoon can negatively affect your sleep at night. It also doesn’t mean you can afford to forgo sufficient sleep. Power naps may momentarily increase basic concentration under conditions, as can caffeine up to a certain dose, but neither naps nor caffeine can salvage more complex functions of the brain.

Keep it Cool:

Most people will find it easier to fall asleep in a room that’s too cold versus to hot. The reason why is, our bodies need to decrease its core temperature to initiate sleep and then to stay asleep. Making sure you have the room temperature around 18 degrees is optimal.

Light Exposure:

The invasion of technology has been a real enemy of sleep, but of course we must work with technology as it’s not going anywhere. Phones, tablets, laptops and TV’s all emit blue light, which signals to our brains to stay awake. We want to try and remove all technology ideally 45-60mins before going to bed.

Try using a candle or a nightlight instead of the bathroom light before going to bed. If you wake up in the night, use low light in bedroom/bathroom. Blackout curtains are a big help and covering any TV red lights etc. can be very effective in creating a dark environment. You can always try using a sleep mask.

Address the Stress:

We’ve all experienced lying awake with our minds racing unable to sleep. This can be detrimental on the hours we sleep. It’s very frustrating when you’ve gotten into bed with a possibility of 7hrs of sleep and end up with only five or six hours of real sleep. Here’s a simple strategy for identifying what is stressing you out. An hour before bed grab a notebook and write down all the things on your mind, be it work, relationships, family or finance. It acts like an emotional catharsis for your sleep and well-being.

Meditation can also be very useful and will shift you from a sympathetic to parasympathetic state, meaning your mind and body will begin to quieten and become sleepy.

If you are trying to fall asleep but can’t, do not stay in bed; the brain learns the association with staying awake and the bed environment. Simply go into another room, read or do a relaxing task and wait to get sleepy. Just like you’d never sit at the dinner table waiting to get hungry why would you lie in bed waiting to get sleepy.

Avoid Alcohol & Caffeine:

And the most unpopular opinion of the blog is here. Hear me out though…

Caffeine is a stimulant and it has a long duration of action on your brain and body. It has a half-life of six hours and a quarter life of twelve hours. This means if you have a cup of coffee at noon you still have a ¼ cup of coffee in your system come 12 at night. So do your best to cut it off 12-14hrs before going to sleep. Even if you’re one of those people who can have caffeine and go to sleep perfectly fine, the quality of your deep sleep decreases by around 20%. Also, if you think caffeine keeps you stay alert and wakeful throughout the day try being more physically active; some simple movements, some fresh air, a hot drink (herbal teas etc.) all are good alternatives to keeping you alert and won’t disrupt your sleep later on.

Alcohol seems to be the most misunderstood of all ‘sleep aids’. It is a sedative, but sedation is not sleep. You’re essentially knocking out your cortex and this does not induce natural sleep. Alcohol fragments sleep and as a result you don’t wake up feeling refreshed. Unfortunately, most of these night-time awakenings go unnoticed by the sleeper since they don’t remember them. Alcohol also blocks your dream sleep or ‘REM sleep’ (the ‘rapid eye movement part of sleep helps consolidate memories, learning and mood).

Noise & Getting Comfortable:

Your mattress, pillows, pyjamas and your overall bedroom environment should be comfortable and if you struggle with surrounding noises try some ear plugs or even try some quiet background noise or white noise to help.

Take Home Tips:

  • Regularity
  • Darkness
  • Cool Temperature
  • Don’t stay in bed if you can’t fall asleep.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

Embrace the importance sleep. Treat it like any other area of your health, like choosing a healthy, balanced diet; not missing a PT session or your own workouts; Avoiding bad habits like eating junk food and smoking.

We don’t sleep because it’s fun, we sleep to have a more productive, time efficient and higher quality day, but this is reciprocal; if we have a better day we’re more likely to have a better night’s sleep, like a reinforcing cycle.

To finish I want you to pause and think of applying some of these methods and tips into your life. You know by this point it sure as hell is worth it.

Yours in good health,