Sleep Environment Changes
Turn your clock around. Watching the minutes tick by only makes it harder to fall asleep. Either put your clock somewhere out of sight or just turn it facing away from you.
Use a blue light filter on your device. The blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets can be a powerful sleep disruptor. It suppresses your body’s production of melatonin and throws your circadian rhythm off, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. Luckily, many smartphones these days have a “night shift” feature that adjusts the screen from cool (blue) to warm (yellow) light, which is less likely to keep you up past your bedtime. Likewise, there are apps you can run on your laptop or tablet that reduce blue light. Some popular ones are f.lux and Twilight.
Adjust the thermostat. If you’re too hot or too cold at bedtime, sleep isn’t going to come easy. While there’s no ideal temperature for everyone, most people sleep comfortably when the bedroom is between 60 and 67 degrees. As you start to feel drowsy, your body temperature drops, which in turn helps you drift off to sleep. A cooler bedroom facilitates that. Don’t cool it off too much, though — shivering in bed isn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep.
Wear socks to bed. While a cooler core body temperature helps you fall asleep faster and get more restful sleep, cold extremities (hands and feet) can have the opposite effect. If you tend to have cold feet at bedtime, put on a pair of cozy socks, rest your feet on a heating pad, or pile an extra blanket on the foot of your bed. If none of those appeal to you, try wearing a pair of warm slippers in the evening so that your feet will be toasty when you climb in bed for the night.
Invest in really comfy bedding. This is just common sense — if it feels really good to climb in bed at night, you’ll look forward to it. A quality mattress that suits your sleeping style, along with supportive pillows and soft, breathable bed linens, can mean the difference between tossing and turning and drifting off as soon as your head hits the pillow.
Everyone has trouble falling asleep from time to time, but instituting some healthy bedtime habits — and making a few bedroom changes — can help ensure those nights are few and far between. If sleepless nights are becoming a regular problem and lifestyle changes aren’t helping, it may be time to talk to your doctor about other options.
Additional Tuck Resources
- Tuck’s Guide to Sleeping Better
- Sleep Hygiene
- Prevention of Insomnia
Forcing the mind and body to regulate the breath
This is really the key point explaining why the 4-7-8 breathing technique is so powerful.
Holding the breath brings our bodies into a deep state of relaxation. It gives the body time to replenish its oxygen, giving your organs and tissues a much-needed oxygen boost.
Relaxation techniques like this one help bring the body back into balance, regulating our fight-or-flight response system.
It’s a way to combat the usually stressful experiencing of lying awake at night, fighting to get back to sleep.
The 4-7-8 technique forces the mind and body to focus on regulating the breath, rather than worrying about not sleeping. Weil describes it as a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”
According to Healthline, the overall concept of 4-7-8 breathing can be compared to practices such as:
- Alternate nostril breathing involves breathing in and out of one nostril at a time while holding the other nostril closed.
- Mindfulness meditation encourages focused breathing while guiding your attention to the present moment.
- Visualization focuses your mind on the path and pattern of your natural breathing.
- Guided imagery encourages you to focus on a happy memory or story that will take your mind off your worries as you breathe.
It’s a simple technique, but you can see that it incorporates a number of very powerful elements. Often the best ideas are the simplest ones.
The Theory of Cumulative Stress
Imagine that your health and energy are a bucket of water. In your day-to-day life, there are things that fill your bucket up. Sleep is one of the main inputs. These are also things like nutrition, meditation, stretching, laughter, and other forms of recovery.
There are also forces that drain the water from your bucket. These are outputs like lifting weights or running, stress from work or school, relationship problems, or other forms of stress and anxiety. 5
The forces that drain your bucket aren't all negative, of course. To live a productive life, it can be important to have some of those things flowing out of your bucket. Working hard in the gym, at school, or at the office allows you to produce something of value. But even positive outputs are still outputs and they drain your energy accordingly.
These outputs are cumulative. Even a little leak can result in significant water loss over time.
Keeping Your Bucket Full
If you want to keep your bucket full, you have two options.
- Refill your bucket on a regular basis. That means making time for sleep and recovery.
- Let the stressors in your life accumulate and drain your bucket. Once you hit empty, your body will force you to rest through injury and illness.
Recovery is not negotiable. You can either make time to rest and rejuvenate now or make time to be sick and injured later. Keep your bucket full.6
The Sleep-Wake Cycle
The quality of your sleep is determined by a process called the sleep-wake cycle.
There are two important parts of the sleep-wake cycle:
- Slow wave sleep (also known as deep sleep)
- REM sleep (REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement)
During slow wave sleep the body relaxes, breathing becomes more regular, blood pressure falls, and the brain becomes less responsive to external stimuli, which makes it more difficult to wake up. This phase is critical for renewal and repair of the body. During slow wave sleep, the pituitary gland releases growth hormone, which stimulates tissue growth and muscle repair. Researchers also believe that the body's immune system is repaired during this stage. Slow wave sleep is particularly critical if you're an athlete. You'll often hear about professional athletes like Roger Federer or LeBron James sleeping 11 or 12 hours per night. 8
As one example of the impact of sleep on physical performance, consider a study researchers conducted on the Stanford basketball players. During this study, the players slept for at least ten hours per night (compared to their typical eight hours). During five weeks of extended sleep, the researchers measured the basketball players accuracy and speed compared to their previous levels. Free throw shooting percentage increased by 9 percent. Three point shooting percentage increased by 9.2 percent. And the players were 0.6 seconds faster when sprinting 80 meters. If you place heavy physical demands on your body, slow wave sleep is what helps you recover. 9
REM sleep is to the mind what slow wave sleep is to the body. The brain is relatively quiet during most sleep phases, but during REM your brain comes to life. REM sleep is when your brain dreams and re-organizes information. During this phase your brain clears out irrelevant information, boosts your memory by connecting the experiences of the last 24 hours to your previous experiences, and facilitates learning and neural growth. Your body temperature rises, your blood pressure increases, and your heart rate speeds up. Despite all of this activity, your body hardly moves. Typically, the REM phase occurs in short bursts about 3 to 5 times per night.
Without the slow wave sleep and REM sleep phases, the body literally starts to die. If you starve yourself of sleep, you can't recover physically, your immune system weakens, and your brain becomes foggy. Or, as the researchers put it, sleep deprived individuals experience increased risk of viral infections, weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, mental illness, and mortality.
To summarize: slow wave sleep helps you recover physically while REM sleep helps you recover mentally. The amount of time you spend in these phases tends to decrease with age, which means the quality of your sleep and your body's ability to recover also decrease with age.
Age-Related Sleep Changes
According to Harvard Medical School researchers, “As people age, it takes longer to fall asleep, a phenomenon called increased sleep latency. And sleep efficiency – the percentage of time spent asleep while in bed – decreases as well.”
Based on my calculations of the above data, the average 80-year-old gets a whopping 62 percent less slow wave sleep than the average 20-year-old (20 percent of the average sleep cycle versus 7.5 percent). There are many factors that impact the aging of body tissues and cells, but it stands to reason that if your body gets less slow wave sleep to restore itself each night, then the aging process will accelerate as a result.
In other words, it seems reasonable to say that getting good sleep is one of your best defenses against aging quickly.
The Circadian Rhythm
What is your sleep-wake cycle dictated by?
Answer: the circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm is a biological cycle of different processes that happen over a time span of about 24 hours.
Here are some key points in the typical 24-hour cycle:
- 6 A.M. Cortisol levels increase to wake your brain and body
- 7 A.M. Melatonin production stops
- 9 A.M. Sex hormone production peaks
- 10 A.M. Mental alertness levels peak
- 2:30 P.M. Best motor coordination
- 3:30 P.M. Fastest reaction time
- 5 P.M. Greatest cardiovascular efficiency and muscle strength
- 7 P.M. Highest blood pressure and body temperature
- 9 P.M. Melatonin production begins to prepare the body for sleep
- 10 P.M. Bowel movements suppressed as the body quiets down
- 2 A.M. Deepest sleep
- 4 A.M. Lowest body temperature
Obviously, these times are not exact and merely display the general pattern of the circadian rhythm. The exact times of your circadian rhythm will vary based on daylight, your habits, and other factors we will discuss later in this guide.
The circadian rhythm is impacted by three main factors: light, time, and melatonin.
Light. Light is probably the most significant pace setter of the circadian rhythm. Staring into a bright light for 30 minutes or so can often reset your circadian rhythm regardless of what time of day it is. More commonly, the rising of the sun and light striking your eyes triggers the transition to a new cycle.
Time. The time of day, your daily schedule, and the order in which you perform tasks can all impact your sleep-wake cycle.
Melatonin. This is the hormone that causes drowsiness and controls body temperature. Melatonin is produced in a predictable daily rhythm, increasing after dark and decreasing before dawn. Researchers believe that the melatonin production cycle helps keep the sleep-wake cycle on track.
How to Improve Sleep Quality and Duration
If you want to know how to sleep better and boost your performance there are 3 levers you can “pull” to give yourself a boost.
Intensity refers to how well you sleep. The percentage of sleeping time you spend in slow wave sleep and REM sleep largely determine the quality of your sleep each night. 11
Timing refers to when you go to sleep. What time do you go to bed? This factor is important for two reasons. First, if you get in bed around the same time each night, it is easier for your body to develop good sleep habits. Second, the time you go to sleep should be in accordance with your circadian rhythm.
Duration refers to how long you sleep. This one is simple: how much time do you spend sleeping each night?12
How can you use these 3 levers to sleep better?
When it comes to intensity, the truth is that there isn’t much you can do. Your body largely manages the intensity of your sleep cycle (how much time you spend in slow wave sleep and REM sleep) for you. It adjusts automatically based on what you need and how much time you are spending asleep. Exercising consistently, being smart about light habits, and getting proper nutrition will help, but these actions only indirectly improve sleep intensity. 13
This is actually good news because it simplifies things for you. Because your body manages the quality of your sleep on its own, you only need to focus on two factors: timing (when you go to bed) and duration (how long you're in bed).
If we make another assumption, then we can simplify the situation even further. That assumption is this: You wake up at approximately the same time each day.
If you wake up at about the same time each day, then your sleep duration is basically determined by when you go to bed. Generally speaking, if you get into bed earlier, then you'll end up sleeping more. Improve the timing and you'll improve the duration as well.
And that brings us to this practical punchline…
From a practical application standpoint, timing is perhaps the most important of the 3 levers of sleep. The intensity of your sleep is managed automatically by your body. The duration of your sleep is largely dependent on when you get into bed (assuming you wake up around the same time each morning). And that means getting to bed at an earlier, more consistent time is critical for improving the quality and duration of your sleep.14