“Sleep your way to the top!” – Arianna Huffington
I run into so many people that tell me that even despite all their best efforts , they can’t get a good night’s sleep (wondering what they mean by best effort though). Whether it’s because they simply don’t get enough sleep (I’m guilty of that one), or if timing isn’t an issue, the sleep that they’re getting isn’t the best quality.
Here is some advice that will definitely help you to get better quality sleep but as far as the timing is concerned, I’ll just tell you what you already know : go to bed earlier!
If you can’t seem to get restorative sleep, here are some tips you can try:
Light is fundamental to help our circadian rhythm determine what time it is and what we should be doing/feeling at any given moment of the day. I’m not talking about the light from your latest Ikea purchase in the lamp section, I’m talking about sunlight! Even if you live in my little home country where the sun literally shines once a year for 30 minutes, you should still go outside and get some natural light.
The more natural light we get during the day, the more Vitamin D we produce, and this is a key element in regulating your sleep/wake cycle .
If you have a standard Monday-Friday desk job, try to get as much sunlight in the morning and at lunch time as you can. And if you’re in Miami and complaining that it is too hot, think about Belgium where, when you do get outside, you need 5 layers of clothes, gloves, a scarf, an umbrella, and a shitload of courage.
Move at the Right Time
Ever heard the saying “wired and tired,” or actually experienced the feeling yourself? It means your cortisol level is completely backwards. Instead of being high in the morning and low at night, it’s the opposite. One of the ways to reset it is to first get some natural light exposure in the morning, as I said before, and also get some type of exercise done in the morning. It doesn’t have to be big, just a few burpees, a few sit ups, a tabata,… The idea is to get some blood flowing and raise your cortisol levels. If your daily exercise routine is already in the morning, then great!
Some people, nerdier on the subject, wanted to know what was the best time to exercise in order to get the best sleep. The study was made on a group of healthy guys, training respectively at 7am, 1pm, or 7pm. The results showed that exercising in the morning is the winner! When we exercise in the morning, we spend more time in the deep anabolic stage of sleep at night, and therefore produce more HGH (Humane Growth Hormone). We go through more sleep cycles, sleep longer, and have a 25% lower blood pressure at night (which proves how the body is winding down by lowering cortisol and allowing melatonin to kick in). Having said that, if you exercise at night and can’t change your schedule, don’t sweat it too much. Just add a few burpees, when you wake up in the morning (because who doesn’t like burpees?) .
Get off IG!
What I mean by that is, get off of digital screens altogether. The blue light coming from digital screens suppresses the production of melatonin. It tells your brain that it’s still daytime and that thinking about going to bed should be the last thing on your mind. I’m very aware that you can put a filter on your phone to turn off the blue light at night (for the IG addicts), but let’s face it: if you’re on your phone at 10pm for one minute, then the next thing you know, it’s now midnight, and all you did was scroll down to see people’s magnificent lives / relationships / happiness / ”MyLifeIsSoFuckingGreat’s feed” and you haven’t left your couch wondering at what point in time you fucked it all up. That’s not going to put you to sleep!
Instead, take this opportunity to connect with your loved ones, whether it’s your partner, your family, your friends, your roommate, your dog, your fish… Put your phone away and actually be with them. It might have been a while since you used words, but I promise you : you still have the ability to talk! I’m sure your partner would like have you fully present, rather than scrolling through people’s fake lives (no offense, but no one posts their failure on IG). And, if you’d rather be on social media than with your partner, you don’t have sleep problems, you have relationships problem!
If you’re alone at your place, there are still plenty of things you can do besides social media. You could reread Harry Potter 🤷♀️! Or, if you’re a Netlfix fan and do have the discipline not to binge a whole season of your favorite show, just get yourself a pair of blue light blocker glasses and you’re good to go!
Sex (and just like that, I got everyone’s attention back)
This is probably another thing that’s going to help you get off screens at night! It is funny how most people throw “fuck” in every sentences, but as soon as sex is mentioned, it becomes that very taboo subject that no one is allowed to talk about (especially not with your partner, that might get you kidnapped by aliens!). And yet, this is absolutely one of the best things that can be done for sleep, and health in general! Having sex releases a bunch of good stuff, and when we orgasm, it’s an atomic bomb of:
These are fancy hormones that you can look up if you’re interested in a deeper understanding. Basically, all of those hormones make us happy, all of them in their own way. They make us more resistant to pain (50 Shades of Grey makes more sense now!), they also (and most importantly for this topic), fight cortisol and get us out of the “Fight or Flight” state. For guys, having an orgasm is actually the equivalent of 2 to 3 doses of valium at once (How To Chill Your Man 101)! No wonder why guys fall asleep before us. Girls, oxytocin remains high in our blood for a longer period, that’s why we get all needy and become cuddle addicts.
I’m pretty sure that if more doctors were telling people to have sex on a regular basis, instead of giving out pills, the world would be a better place (and the divorce rate would probably go down as well)! But not tomorrow, tomorrow people will still blush uncomfortably if you dare approach the subject.
Our brain is always looking for clues to determine what time of day it is, and how we should be feeling, and it will correct it if something is off. One of the ways it does it, is by making associations. Have you ever noticed how a particular smell would bring back childhood memories? How music can remind us of another particular time? Or when we’re associating a place where we were when we heard something? FYI : a very good memory trick is to associate locations with what you’re trying to remember. Completely off topic but worth the mention.
All that to say, it also associates locations with certain moods and feelings. In order to manipulate those neuro-associations and get our brain to wind down, our room should be a place associated with sleep. Limit electronics (completely getting rid of them is a must). When we enter the room, our brain should know: we’re going to sleep! No work, no studying, no TV. Basically nothing that would confuse our brain about what we’re supposed to do. The bedroom should be only for the double S’s : Sleep and Sex!
Embrace the Darkness!
Melatonin is produced by the absence of light and, despite what we may think, just having our eyes closed (even wearing a mask) won’t do the trick! Our skin has light receptors as well, and even a small amount of light from electronics is enough to disturb our sleep! Get yourself some blackout curtains and embrace the darkness!
Diet has such a big impact on sleep, mainly because of the impact the guts have on sleep. Avoiding processed crap is the number one key, and focusing on healthy foods that nourish our gut microbiome is number two.
Try to avoid sugar late at night: spiking insulin right before bed will likely cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during the night, and cause you to wake up. However, and a quick point on this; carbs (healthy carbs!), will help get tryptophan to your brain. In English : Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to melatonin. As you know, when we eat carbs, we raise insulin in the blood and insulin gets rid of all the amino acids except for the winner… Tryptophan. Chillin’ alone in the blood, it’s free to enter the brain, boost our seratonin levels and therefore boost melatonin production (which also explains why sweets are comfort foods, because they release the happy hormone!). Keep in mind that it takes about 2 hours for melatonin to get released in the blood, therefore : early dinner! But hey, careful though! I have the feeling that my whole explanation about carbs will turn into: “it’s okay, I can eat all the cake I want because some girl on a blog about nutrition said sugar was good at night!“. I see this one coming a million miles away 😂!
There is another reason why early dinner is better for your sleep. As previously mentioned, the brain takes its little bath at night, and in order to do that, you need blood flowing in your head, not in your gut!
Dear Coffee (I love you)
Even though a lot of people want to quit coffee, coffee isn’t bad – it’s all about the amount you drink (and the quality). Caffeine stays in our system up to 8 hours. If you’re thinking right now : “Naaah, that’s BS, I can have coffee after dinner and fall asleep just fine”. Well… Maybe you are that exhausted that no amount of coffee will be keep you awake. You might indeed have some higher caffeine tolerance than someone else, but, if you have a closer look at your sleep quality, it won’t be as great. Caffeine will alter sleep, whether you realize it or not. Aim to stop coffee around 2pm, or even by noon, and you’ll most likely see a difference!
Drop it Like it’s Hot!
There is a reason why I moved from Belgium to Miami : I hate the cold! Except when I sleep. I remember chilly winter nights where I’d leave the window open to have a cold bedroom (the waking up part was a b*tch though. Anyone in a cold country can relate!). Here in Miami, the hot weather is an everyday blessing, however, it’s definitely a challenge to keep the bedroom cold at night (I cry over my electricity bill each month).
Cold is very important when it comes to sleep, and research shows that the optimal temperature is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. That might seem really cold, but just remember to turn up the AC a bit more at night (or turn off the heater).
Time to get into your Buddha outfit because meditation improves sleep patterns and decreases cortisol levels. Meditation also has countless other benefits that I’ll describe another time. But one of them will help you deal with the stupidity of people, and Miami traffic (much needed at times)!
Sleep at The Same Time and Get Full-Cycles
This one is definitely a challenge, especially in today’s society when the week is one type of life and weekends are another! But in theory, to get the best sleep possible (and be healthy overall), it’s best to go to bed at the same time each night, and to wake up at the same time each morning (even on weekends!). The more consistent we are, the more accurate our circadian rhythm is.
We often hear people saying that a glass of wine will put them straight to bed. Well… yes and no. Alcohol will definitely help you fall asleep. I guess we’ve all experienced that famous “passing out” feeling after a fun night out (and if you haven’t, well, I’m not sure what to say. Get some friends?!). Even though alcohol will help you fall asleep, the quality of the sleep will be as good as the weather in Belgium. But don’t panic! If you do enjoy the occasional “end-of-a-long-ass-day” glass of wine, just have it about 2 hours before going to bed.
Quick Tips About Naps
Naps are a great way to cope with a lack of sleep, but don’t rely on them too much. They won’t be effective enough that you can pay back your “sleep debt”. However, if taken correctly, they will re-energize you for the day. Keep them short (less than 20 minutes), or do a complete sleep cycle (90 minutes). If you wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle you might be wondering on what planet you’re on.
If you need to take one, take it before 4pm, or else your sleep at night will be affected!
You made it to the end! Be proud, and thank you 🎉 ! I understand that I just rambled a three part article and about 9,000 words, but if you have to remember only one thing from this, here is your takeaway : Sleep is more important than diet, it is more important than exercise, and it is almost as important as your relationships. If you deliberately decide to ignore this need, it will get back to you, one way or another, and that might not be pretty.
I hope this helped you understand a little bit more about how sleep works and why it is so important for both our mental and physical health. Having said that, some people need more or less sleep than others. It’s completely dependent on the individual, but as long as you have an idea of what you need, try to stick to that. Your health is only going to get better, and you’ll be a better person to be around.
Sweet dreams! Bisous, bye bye!
What happens when we sleep:
Why sleep is more important that diet:
Study about all nighters:
Microbiome and sleep
“The Sleep Revolution” Arianne Hunffington
“Sleep Smarter” Shawn Stevenson
More on the glymphatic system :
Associations between sleep loss and increased risk of obesity and diabetes:
Abad V, Sarinas P, Guilleminault C. Sleep Medicine Reviews (2008) 12(3), 211-228 MR, et al. Biological Psychiatry. 2008; 64(6)
Angst J; Gamma A; Ajdacic V; Eich D; Rössler W. SLEEP 2008;
Kryger MH, Roth T, Dement WC, eds. Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2005
Taylor DJ; Mallory LJ; Lichstein KL et al. Comorbidity of chronic insomnia with medical problems. SLEEP 2007