Updated: Jan 29
If you would like to live longer, be physically and mentally healthy, and operate more effectively you cannot focus on anything as important as improving your sleep. With improvement of your sleep, you will be less stressed and happier.
There is a huge amount to say on the subject of sleep. I plan in this post to offer a highly practical set of areas to change in your daily lives. I will explain the basis for them, motivate you to act on them and give you the chance to increase your focus and interest in this fundamental area for your health.
I am going to focus on the lessons I have learnt in material from Andrew Huberman and Matthew Walker.
Big thanks to them both for the highly researched and scientifically based guidance. This summary draws on the critical considerations and ideas of these authors and experts. I have distilled it down so that it is short, clear and practical for you.
There are a number of key elements to our sleep length depth rhythm and these include managing three core mechanisms. These mechanisms are Cortisol regulation, Circadian rhythm, Adenosine regulation. A key understanding here is the concept of a daily rhythm and metabolism. The notion that if we do the right things at the right time of day in the right way it will set up our body for sleep as opposed to disrupting the natural cycle.
The mechanisms are controlled by a series of simple levers. These can be remembered by a sleep coaching model I created called SELECTED. I really want you to have SELECTED to sleep better for yourself. This is a focus and a decision you have the power to make. If you decide to have selected to sleep better by implementing these tools and focusing on these improvements it will work.
This applies whatever your circumstances with young children, shift work, or poor historic sleeping patterns this focus and these tools will help you profoundly. Selected stands for Supplements, Eating and drinking habits, Light, Exercise, Caffeine, Temperature, Exposure to cold water, Dark.
I will approach these not so much in the order of the word selected but more in the order of the average day.
LIGHT In the morning when we wake, we need to get natural light photons from the sun into our retinas as soon as possible. Ideally in the first 20 minutes certainly in the first hour. This sets of a neurological and biological set of mechanisms in the brain and body. It sets our cortisol and to a higher level which is where it needs to be first thing in the morning It also neutralises the effect of our bodily produced melatonin in the system. In short it helps us wake up fully. Also, it effectively starts a timer for you to more easily fall sleep 16 hours later.
CAFFEINE via a receptor mechanism increases the amount of adenosine in the body. It also causes the pituitary gland to influence the adrenal gland to produce adrenalin. This increases the level of alertness and attention. If we aim to consume caffeine at just the right time, we can use it to our advantage. This earliest timing is ideally around 10am such that the half life does not run out while we are still in mid pm work mode. The risk here is that we reach for another cup for a boost. If we are able to drink coffee for example between 10am and 3pm only. We should not dysregulate our sleep cycle.
EXPOSURE TO COLD WATER also increases our adrenalin and wakes us up. Starting our ‘wide awake cycle’ early in the day with this practise (while it takes some courage and practise) carries further additional health benefits. Research shows that cold water immersion deepens sleep, may reduce depression, improves circulation, reduce pain and inflammation and boost immune system. Some studies have also set about proving that it helps with weight loss. So, the guidance is to get in cold water shortly after you wake up around the same time you are building natural light into your schedule. Personally, I bought a brand-new wheelie bin for the purpose which sits outside the back door in the garden welcoming me for a morning plunge of courage:)
While all of these benefits are valuable the cold-water benefits that interest us most here are the adrenalin and one other which is...
TEMPERATURE. Converse to what you might think while in the short term (assuming you just expose yourself to cold water for the recommended 1 to 3 minutes) the body is cooled, afterwards the cooling effect actually causes the body to increase its internal temperature. Increasing our temperature wakes us up better too. Like birds as human mammals we are endothermic homeotherms, this means we regulate our body temperature by both behavioural and autonomic mechanisms. This is particularly important at night to sustain sleep. We need for the body to drop by a degree or so at night in order to stay asleep, perhaps this rings true if when unwell and experiencing sensations of hot and cold it is associated with restlessness and wakefulness.
So, the advice here includes warming up the body in the morning (ironically this includes warming the internal system by getting into cold water) and cooling the body slightly at night.
EXERCISE might be another way we choose to warm the body first thing in the morning, perhaps during or after our sun exposure and before our cold-water immersion and caffeine! Increasing our core temperature signals to the body it is time to wake up. Exercise also releases endorphins which signals to the body and brain that it is time to wake up. There is some debate over the negative impact on exercise late in the day. Ideally to avoid any negative wakefulness this may cause we may choose to exercise first thing, mid-morning or early to mid-afternoon reduces the potential counter effect on sleep.
EATING According to Huberman the type of food and drink, time we consume it and amount we consume all have an impact on our sleep length quality and rhythm. High protein foods such as meat take a long time to break down and might disrupt sleep if consumed to late in the day. Eating spicey or acidic foods in the evening can disrupt sleep through heart burn, and increase the body temperature (the opposite of our low temperature goal at bedtime).
Conversely complex carbohydrates such as whole grains (if you tolerate gluten which many don’t) or oats before bed promotes the sleep hormone serotonin. Also aged or processed cheese and meats may contain tyramine, which triggers the release of norepinephrine and wakes us up. If like myself you are an advocate of higher fat lower carb diets you may find your body struggles to produce enough of certain hormones such as the brain chemical orexin, which helps regulate the body’s sleep clock. There is a supplement idea I will share on this later to counteract it.
Insufficient sleep or poor-quality sleep is associated with increased snacking. When this affects us and we eat fewer vegetables and choose high-sugar foods. the food is, the more tempting it is to a sleep-deprived brain. Research shows that less nutritious foods may reduce sleep quality whereas a Mediterranean diet with more mixed coloured vegetables and fish can improve sleep quality.
Foods high in Tryptophan help us sleep, these in order of amount included are chicken, pork, tofu, salmon, turkey (you probably knew that based on feeling sleepy at xmas) also at lesser levels edamame, tuna, milk and pumpkin seeds.
Also called L-tryptophan, it is one of the nine essential amino acids we need to get it from food. Inside we convert tryptophan to vitamin B3 that we use for a regular metabolism, Tryptophan helps make the brain chemicals serotonin and melatonin. Melatonin regulates the circadian rhythm (or the sleep-wake cycle), and serotonin helps stabilise sleep.
Sadly, while alcohol may initially help us fall asleep it will almost certainly have a very significant negative impact on the quality and length of our sleep. This is the science much as we might not want to hear it. This disrupts the pattern and rhythm of our sleep.
Unfortunately, not only is tea or coffee out but chocolate too, not only for the sugar but also the cocoa. Ultimately drinking too much of any liquid before bed makes us get up to go to the toilet and disturbs our sleep, not least as in my case for the 20 minutes where we lie their debating with ourselves if we need the loo.
This sounds obvious perhaps but light/dark has a powerful effect on the circadian clock and alertness. Our circadian rhythm responds to light, as a message to be wakeful, then dark, as a key message to go to sleep. So, in the same way we kick off the day which more natural sun photons to be wide awake we can set about darken our room at night to sleep better. Even more key is how little light can actually impact our rhythm in the evening. Such that keeping the lights dim and overhead lights off its definitely worthwhile. Our circadian rhythm is most sensitive to light 2 hours before typical bedtime, through the night and 1 hour after we wake-up.
In the same way being in a darker room the 2 hours before bed sets the body ready for sleep. Looking at phone blue light or even the tv directly before we sleep is less helpful to us. We should avoid looking at the phone if we get up for the loo in the night too, or if possible, switching on the light. In response to darkness the pineal gland produces the natural sleep hormone melatonin.
The main supplements used for sleep aids are as follows. You may however need none of them if you follow the guidance above. Furthermore, you should also seek professional advice before taking anything at all.
Melatonin is an extremely popular choice particularly in the US. To be fair it works great but (prescription only in U.K. but not in many other countries generally accessible by US mail order under the radar). This naturally occurring hormone is part of the bodies chemistry to help us fall asleep. The issue with supplementing it is it is in much higher quantities than our bodies creates. As melatonin has a relationship with other hormones it is inadvisable to take it regularly. From personal experience having developed a bit of a dependency on melatonin previously I would guide you against anything but occasional use (and or when recovering from time changes between countries or after travel).
The three main ones to consider are 150mg Magnesium Threonate, 50mg Apigenin and 200mg Theanine. The other supplement to research and consider is Inositol. Certain people benefit from the use of all of the 3 main ones but it makes no sense to buy and take them all straight away sense to try one at a time. Probably in the order I have above. Partly I would leave Theanine until last as it can for some cause overly vivid dreams which can cause you to wake up. They would each be taken 30-60 minutes before bedtime.
I hope that this short post serves a useful guide to how to optimise a regular sleep and wake cycle.
There is no doubt that a positive sleep hygiene routine is key to improvements. Following a pattern which respects our body biology is likely to help even without even limited supplementation. It has certainly worked for me.
Thanks to Stephen Pemberton for the inspiration for this post
Let me know how you get on!