“I slept LIKE A BABY last night!”
Why do we say this? Babies sleep like garbage.
They wake up every few hours to eat, and it’s rare for them to wake up in a great mood. (Parents, how often did you wake up at 2 a.m. to a laughing infant as opposed to a wailing one? I rest my case).
In the 21st century, those of us who are trying to “be the change” or “carpe diem” can’t afford to sleep like babies. We need uninterrupted, deep, restorative, fast-acting and consistent sleep.
We need to sleep Like. A. Boss.
It’s easier said than done, I know….
Let me clarify. This article is not about why sleep is important—for literally every reason imaginable. I mean this to be a fast, practical guide to getting the best quality sleep you can in our mostly sleep-deprived world.
The 5 S’s
When it comes to sleep, my pro tips come in 5 S’s: Same, Supplements, Sugar, Shade and Shiver. Get these down, and you’ll be sleeping way better than babies in no time.
Same (as in Same Time)
Few points are as clear as this: the system that regulates our sleep, our circadian rhythm, is consistent. As a result—for optimum functioning—we need to keep the SAME schedule each day.
We are diurnal mammals, which means our cortisol waking response is highest when the sun first comes up and lowest when it goes down. A cortisol spike in the morning wakes us up, steadily declines through the activities of our day, then tapers at night so we can rest peacefully when it’s dark. This is true for every dog, bear, gorilla and human.
Think of your circadian rhythm as a slow, but powerfully moving train. It moves in one direction. Although you can change it, it takes great effort, and the brakes take a long time to go into effect.
If you want to establish quality sleep and start feeling better, observe Step 1: Go to bed at the SAME time every night, and wake up at the SAME time every morning.
It hurts me to hear this observation as often as I do: “I sleep a lot on the weekends, but I still feel like crap Monday morning.”
That’s because your subjective feeling has a lot to do with your cortisol response. If over the weekend you slept in, then you conditioned your body to wake up at 10 a.m. Come Monday, you then wake up at 6 a.m.—4 hours before your cortisol will spike to wake you up! No wonder you’re not “with it” until midmorning.
“But, Alex, what if I like to stay up on Friday and Saturday?”
After I ask you to check your priorities, I advise still waking early but planning for a nap later in the day if you need it.
As a diurnal mammal, waking at the SAME time is too important to mess up.
“Can I take anything to help me sleep?”
Yes. But what you should take depends on what obstacle you’re trying to overcome.
Please note that I would prefer your body do this “natural” process on its own, but if you’re struggling, here are some tips.
Several studies suggest that melatonin supplementation can help us sleep better and more deeply; however, please note a very important caveat.[i]
Melatonin supplementation doesn’t help you go to sleep or stay asleep if cortisol is in your blood stream. Cortisol acts like Pac-Man eating melatonin ghosts. If your problem is stress-related, melatonin won’t help. More on that later.
For now, consider taking melatonin to help you sleep more deeply.
L-Theanine is an antioxidant found in green tea that appears to lower anxiety.[ii] For many, falling asleep is difficult because of a “racing mind.” If L-Theanine supplementation seems to help quiet the mind of schizophrenic patients, imagine how peaceful yours could be and how much easier you could sleep when your brain stops going a mile a minute.
If your mind runs like an engine at night, consider taking L-Theanine to lower your pre-bed anxiety.
GABA is a neurotransmitter consistently found in large quantities in spinal fluid of “good sleepers” as opposed to insomniacs in whom these levels tend to be abysmal. A leading expert in natural medicine, Dr. Michael T. Murray, recently observed the following:
“PharmaGABA has been shown to produce relaxation as evidenced by changes in brain wave patterns, diameter of the pupil, and heart rate as well as reduce markers of stress including salivary cortisol and chromagranin A levels. In a head-to-head double blind trial with PharmaGABA, the synthetic GABA was not shown to produce these effects.7 It is possible that synthetic GABA, unlike natural forms of GABA, is not able to bind to GABA receptors. Once ingested, it appears that the PharmaGABA is absorbed easily and binds to GABA receptors in the peripheral nervous system leading to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This arm of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for producing what is referred to as the “relaxation response,” a physiological response that is in direct contrast to the stress or “fight or flight” response. This activation of the parasympathetic nervous system by PharmaGABA is measurable within 5 to 30 minutes after ingestion.”[iii]
Consider taking PharmaGABA to help you wind down and relax.
Sugar (as in Blood Sugar)
When your blood sugar gets too low, cortisol is released into the bloodstream to break down glycogen stores in the muscles and liver. This is an important function because your body needs your blood sugar to remain relatively stable in order for your organs and brain to function properly.
However, this cortisol has a relevant side-effect. In short, it wakes you up.
In other words, mal-regulated blood sugar can interfere with the continuity of your sleep.
Do you wake up a lot during the night? Balance your final food intake of the day with a protein-, fat-, and fiber-rich dinner that includes limited simple carbohydrates. Additionally, abstain (the hardest part) from sweets or alcohol before bed.
My father-in-law says ice cream “fills in the cracks” after a good meal. Though we love you, Dad, I’m going to ask you not to fill in the cracks within a few hours of bedtime. The spike, then subsequent crash in blood sugar will all too likely wake you up a few hours after falling asleep.
It’s perhaps the second most important “S” (next to SAME), but this one is likely more difficult to abide by. SHADE is about limiting your light exposure in the evening so your body’s natural hormonal processes can run their course.
Remember, you’re a diurnal mammal, which means your circadian rhythm evolved over millions of years during which the only significant source of light was the sun by day and moon by night.
Yes, then Prometheus brought down fire from heaven. Franklin discovered electricity. Edison invented the light bulb. Jobs put a smart phone in everyone’s hand, and Zuckerberg got us all addicted to social media. BAM.
In less than 0.1% of the time it took for our species to evolve a daily rhythm, we suddenly control light exposure and are virtual slaves to the brightness emitted by our environment and devices 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Unfortunately, our inner machinery hasn’t changed with the times, however. If you want to wind down and sleep well, you have to SHADE yourself from all the artificial light exposure.
Turn off your electronics early in the evening. Read instead of watch yourself into a NETFLIXED stupor. Turn down the lights in the house, and make sure your sleeping quarters are effectively light-proof. The dimly lit environs will trigger melatonin production and halt cortisol.
No, I’m not a Neanderthal. I love the innovative light of our world on both a practical and philosophical level. And, yes, I struggle with this tip, too, at times.
That said, I know its importance first-hand. I strongly suggest you SHADE yourself within an hour (ideally more) of going to bed.
Last, but not least, is your body temperature. SHIVER is the effective “dumping” of your body’s heat in order to drift into a peaceful slumber. If you’re too hot, you won’t sleep well.
Your body will need to drop nearly 2 whole degrees for optimum sleepiness.
The good news is you don’t need to actually SHIVER. It turns out that being too cold will mess up your sleep as well.
Tips to get near the optimum SHIVER point? Researchers suggest setting your thermostat to 68 degrees. Still too hot? Take a shower or bath before bed, and let the evaporating water do the work. Too cold? Wear the appropriate amount of clothing, or have the right bedding for your body’s needs.[iv]
Can you imagine the incredible health, weight loss and performance opportunities that can come when you’re optimally rested each and every night? I can.
Because I’m sleeping Like. A. Boss.
You should, too.
Do you have more questions about the 5 S’s? Connect with one of our registered dietitians for personalized support.
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[ii] Ritsner MS1, Miodownik C, Ratner Y, Shleifer T, Mar M, Pintov L, Lerner V. L-theanine relieves positive, activation, and anxiety symptoms in patients with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder: an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, 2-center study. J Clin Psychiatry. 2011 Jan;72(1):34-42. doi: 10.4088/JCP.09m05324gre. Epub 2010 Nov 30.
[iii] Michael T. Murray, ND, Member, Scientific Advisory Board PharmaGABA: Natural Support for Stress, Anxiety and Insomnia . Bioclinic Naturals.
[iv] Patricia Murphy and Scott Campbell. Nightime drop in body temerature: a physiological trigger for sleep onset? Sleep, 1997; 20 (6):505-511.