It is not the time you spend in bed it is how you spend it so you can have a productive tomorrow with energy and purpose.
It is not necessarily always about sleeping more. It is about sleeping better. It’s about getting smarter, more rest-ful-er sleep so you can kick ass tomorrow. How do you know you are sleeping better and smarter? It has a lot to do with checking all the boxes for your stages of sleep.
Sleep stages are light sleep, deep sleep, dream sleep, wake up. These stages occur every 90 minutes. The goal is to maximize each part of your sleep so that you get the most out of the time in bed so that your nervous system and the system that regulates lots of your hormones (endocrine system) are all online and working at their peak performance. If you have a terrible night of sleep, you will not feel rested and have problems like putting on extra weight because your hormones are not being produced like normal.
A great night of sleep starts when you wake up in the morning. What you do specifically in those early morning hours sets the template for your circadian rhythm and cortisol rhythm, both of which affect how you are going to sleep that night. Neuroscientists found that when you get 10-20 minutes of sun exposure in the early morning between 6 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., your cortisol rates drop lower in the evening.
Like how I dropped the hormone cortisol in the last paragraph without any background on what it is or why you should give a flying shut the front door about it? Well, that is because I am doing it now, so sit back and soak up some profound knowledge.
Not many people realize cortisol’s impact on sleep. People like me two weeks ago, for instance. I have always heard you should not have your cup of coffee until one hour after waking because of interfering with cortisol levels. This information came from intelligent people I trust, so I followed their advice blindly. However, this is the week I decided to get woke on cortisol and how it keeps you, me, and all of us awake.
What’s cortisol have to do with it?
If you ever find yourself having difficulty falling asleep and sleeping through the night, there’s a chance your body is too wound up with the hormone cortisol. We need cortisol for our day-to-day functioning. Aside from activating our fight-or-flight response, this hormone is crucial for waking us up in the morning and lowering inflammation in our body (when cortisol is present in normal amounts).
Cortisol is highest in the morning to help you feel alert and beat back sleep inertia before dwindling throughout the day. Smart people called scientists refer to this phenomenon as the ‘cortisol awakening response’ (10 points if you can use this term in a conversation today). This cortisol awakening response is why you want to allow your body one hour after waking for cortisol levels to peak before adding caffeine to the mix.
The rise and fall of cortisol is crucial for helping you fall asleep by your target bedtime, stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up in the morning feeling like a spunky teenager. Just kidding because teenagers are not spunky when they wake up, but you won’t feel like rubbish in the morning, so that is a win.
Cortisol only interferes with sleep if you have high levels when you shouldn’t. There are reasons your cortisol levels can be increased, most of them being too stressed or anxious. Changing stress levels and decreasing anxiety can be done with exercise and meditation, which can be an important part of your sleep hygiene routine.
Sleep Hygiene: What gets and keeps you asleep
Like I said earlier, your great night of sleep starts in the morning and ends with your bedtime preparations, also known as your sleep hygiene. The term sleep hygiene refers to the process of controlling your environment and pre-bedtime behavior to have the best sleep possible.
Sleep hygiene starts with making your bedroom a sanctuary for sleep and sex. Your brain is ALWAYS looking for patterns, so if your bedroom has been where you go and watch TV, your neurons will start firing, expecting you to watch TV. They will fire for gazing at a screen, EVEN if you try and go to bed without checking out what is on Netflix. Creating a sleep sanctuary is about making your bedroom a place where your brain is setting itself up to sleep, so your body can calm down for sleep. Your sanctuary is best cool, dark, and not smelling like someone’s socked were recently rubbed in a decaying animal.
The great temperature for sleep is around 62-68 degrees. Your body naturally drops your core body temperature every night to facilitate sleep. If your body has to fight to cool itself down because the environment is too hot, you will have difficulty falling and staying asleep. Likewise, it is easier to stay asleep if your environment is dark without any lights shining into the room from the street or inside your home. Light is what tells our body to get all the way up at the end of the 90-minute sleep cycle, so get those black-out curtains and put the nightlight in the hallway, not shining in your eyes obnoxiously. Making your room a calm environment or just clean is also helpful for allowing you to drift off easily into dreamland.
What Keeps Us Awake
Often people keep a TV in their room to help them unwind after a long day. The thing is, screens don’t and can’t help you relax. There is this university you might have heard of named Harvard. If you haven’t, it is a big deal, and it costs more than all the possessions I own to attend it. However, researchers who work there found that for every hour of exposure to blue light, you suppress your melatonin release by 30 minutes. You need to get your TV and phone out of your bedroom because it is just too tempting to use them and decreases your ability to get to sleep.
Alcohol does help some people to relax, and it does make it easier to fall asleep if you drink lightly and several hours before bed. Alcohol can reduce dream sleep (REM sleep) and cause sleep disruptions if you have it close to your bedtime. People who drink right before bed often experience difficulty falling asleep or getting back to sleep and feel excessively sleepy the following day. This can lead them into a vicious cycle of self-medicating with alcohol to get into a relaxed, sleepy state before bed but then wake up and feel like a hot mess.
Ninety percent of Americans use caffeine regularly, and I am definitely in that crowd. Caffeine on its own isn’t unhealthy, but it can be terrible for our sleep if you use it wrong. Trust me. I am not trying to take away your caffeine, just help you to dose it intelligently.
Caffeine can be beneficial for reducing the risk of certain types of cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes. But there is a catch. Caffeine can also rob us of our deep sleep because it blocks a fancy chemical called adenosine. Adenosine is what causes people to feel sleepy. Too much caffeine and you won’t feel as tired as you usually would, affecting how quickly you can fall asleep.
Once you do fall asleep, too much caffeine in your system disrupts your deep sleep. Deep sleep is when you move memories from short-term to long-term storage and do any repair work on your body. Caffeine sticks around in your system for a long time, so you need to stop drinking caffeine at least 10 hours before bed to allow for normal adenosine levels at bedtime. If you can’t make it through your afternoon without caffeine, well then, my friend, you are not getting enough sleep, and you need to check out your sleep hygiene. I have been there, and I can say it takes a bit to give up the things that make you need afternoon caffeine, but it is worth it for how your body feels on the other side.
You are living intentionally or unintentionally with your nightly habits. You can set up and own your bedtime routine, or your nightly routine can own you. If you are used to watching TV until 10:00 p.m. and then heading to bed with thoughts swirling through your head like Baby Shark playing in the background, it is no wonder you might have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Check out this week’s DIG Deep for how to implement tactics for sleep so you can slay tomorrow’s tasks with a clear head.
DIG (Get Deliberate, Get Inspired, Get Going) Deep Action Steps:
Get Deliberate: Get yourself started on some sleep hygiene techniques to get to sleep. The 10, 3, 2, 1, 0 Good Sleep Guide is a repeat from the last post but take some time to implement the parts you haven’t done yet.
Follow the 10, 3, 2, 1, 0 Good Sleep Guide
- 10 hours before sleep, stop caffeine
- 3 hours before you go to sleep, have your last meal of the day
- 2 hours before you sleep, stop all work and destress
- 1 hour before you go to sleep, stop your blue-screen devices
- 0 is the number of times you hit the snooze button in the morning. If you are hitting the snooze, you are sleep deprived and should have gone to bed earlier.
Get Inspired: Write down why you are excited to get more or better sleep. Grab a couple of sticky notes and put your why statement on them. Post those notes on surfaces you see all the time to help you know why you want to go to bed instead of watching Top Gun again.
Get Going: Find a sleep meditation or breathwork app by trying them for a few nights to decrease stress before bedtime. I have used several apps such as Peloton, Centr, Headspace, Abide, Breathwork, and 10 Percent Happier. A few of these have free portions of the app, but all of them will try to get you to sign up for a year. I have been able to try all of them and only purchase a couple that I felt were worth the money for a year. I try to use one a few times a week on days when I know I am rolling into bedtime with anxiety about tomorrow or today.