Our “always-on” modern world has some benefits, like being able to work from anywhere and the ability to communicate easier with coworkers, partners, and customers. But it’s certainly not all sunshine and rainbows. Modern life puts sleep in the backseat and makes it all too easy to forget (and ignore) the fact that our physiology follows innate circadian rhythms. These 24-hour biological cycles produce certain hormones during the day and others at night. When we keep the lights and screens on to work all hours of the night, we interrupt these cycles and risk developing a large number of health problems. Finding effective sleep solutions is critical to maintaining your productivity and ability to successfully navigate your business.
Sleep plays a vital role in supporting healthy brain function and optimal physical health. Getting regular sleep has a positive impact on our productivity during the day, how well we can pay attention, how we make decisions and solve problems, our ability to remember and learn, and how creative we can be. Chronic sleep deprivation on the other hand wreaks havoc on all that, making us unproductive zombies. Routinely missing sleep has also been shown to be a risk factor for a host of chronic diseases—linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
While most of us are aware that getting enough sleep is important, not nearly enough of us actually do it. Over a third of adults in the US, and over 50% of adults worldwide, fail to get enough sleep. And there’s no indication that the next generation is going to be any better, with almost 70% of kids under 18 not getting enough sleep.
Unfortunately, our modern world is perpetuating a misguided (read: downright idiotic) appreciation and adoration for those who forego sleep in order to work relentlessly. Social media is all too eager to slap a “badge of honor” on folks who burn the candle at both ends in the name of “grinding.”
“Let them sleep while you grind. Let them party while you work. The difference will show.”
“Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done”
“They sleep. We grind.”
“Hustlers don’t sleep, they nap.”
With absurd “motivational” quotes like these all over the web and social media, it’s no wonder we assume we can’t possibly be successful if we don’t sacrifice sleep so we can get more done. While maybe it makes for a good social media post, actually believing it is foolish and misplaced. If you truly want to be more productive and successful, you’ve got to prioritize your sleep.
How to sleep well.
So let’s assume you’re going to ignore the “wisdom” of social media and sound bites and emphasize your sleep. If you’re tossing and turning, there can be a number of reasons why your sleep is less than optimal. Exercising too late in the day, having the TV or iPad on too late, and stress can all have a negative impact on your sleep. It’s crucial that you follow a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine every night. Avoid screens, cellphones, and exercise at least two hours before bed; make sure your bedroom is cool and dark; and avoid or at least learn to manage stress.
Here are some suggestions and tips on how you can improve your sleep. I encourage you to try them all to see what helps—what helps me may not help you. Also keep in mind that it can take time to develop new habits, get your system to calm down, and notice an improvement. Don’t expect huge changes in a single night (though that can happen!) and give these techniques a try for at least a week to see if you notice any improvements. It can be helpful to keep a notebook of what you’re trying and how you feel. Devices like the Oura ring can also help quantify your efforts.
Get outside during the day.
If you work in an office or have a job that keeps you in front of your computer all day, it’s important to find excuses to get outside during the day. Direct exposure to daylight, especially in the morning between 8 am and 10 am, has been shown to improve sleep quality. Bright light in the early part of the morning can also help shift your sleep cycle to make you sleepy earlier in the evening and wake up earlier. Taking a short walk every morning may also help improve your sleep.
In general, you should be aiming to take 10-15 minute breaks every hour you work to step away and move, stretch, and focus your eyes on something other than a screen. Bonus points for doing this outside (double bonus points for doing this outside in bare feet in the grass!).
Avoid blue light.
Sunlight is the main source of natural blue light, and exposure to it during the day is beneficial as it helps enhance your focus and mood. Unfortunately, exposure to artificial sources at night—such as screens, compact fluorescent light bulbs, LEDs, and even outdoor and vehicle lighting—can be a health hazard and seriously disrupt our ability to sleep well. Using these sources of blue light at night not only affects your ability to achieve deep sleep but to stay asleep.
Avoid blue light at least two hours before bed. Sleep in a completely dark room, without any screens or light (including nightlights and alarm clocks). If you can’t get your room completely dark, wear a sleep mask. Ideally, wear blue-light-blocking glasses every night once the sun goes down.
Do yoga before bed.
Yoga focuses on building strength, flexibility, and proper breathing to help promote physical and mental health. By incorporating mindfulness, yoga has been shown to increase melatonin levels, calm your fight-or-flight response, and help manage some of the physical manifestations of stress. Research suggests that regularly performing yoga can also help you relax, reduce anxiety, improve oxygen consumption, and enhance sleep quality.
The perfect time to incorporate yoga into your schedule is just before climbing into bed. To start, try just 10 minutes of simple, restorative yoga poses such as Hatha and Nidra. Make sure your room is quiet and dimly lit. If you need some coaching, apps like Down Dog and Yoga For Beginners are excellent and two of my favorites. Just be sure to use blue-light blocking glasses when viewing the app!
In studies, meditation has demonstrated the ability to cause actual, measurable physiological changes—reducing the activity of the system responsible for your fight-or-flight response while increasing the activity of the system that controls relaxation and rest. Using meditation to manipulate these systems can help you relieve stress and anxiety while promoting better sleep. Mindful meditation has shown the ability to not only reduce sleep issues but also lessen carryover complications during the day such as fatigue and depression.
There are numerous ways to add mindful meditation to your daily or pre-bedtime routine. Apps like Calm can make starting meditation easy with guided sessions. Tools like HeartMath can help you focus on your breathing and the present moment. Techniques designed to help improve your focus can also be useful in centering on the present moment.
Lavender has relaxing properties and has been used for over 2,000 years to help with various health concerns including insomnia. In studies, lavender essential oil has been found to decrease salivary cortisol and reduce anxiety in patients awaiting heart surgery. When your cortisol—your “fight-or-flight” stress hormone—levels drop, melatonin rises. This is particularly important at night.
The easiest way to reap the benefits of lavender for sleep is to place a few drops in a diffuser in your bedroom. If you don’t have a diffuser or don’t want to use one at night (a lot of them, like this one, now have lights that you can’t turn off), try placing 2-3 drops of lavender essential oil on a cotton ball on your nightstand.
Keep your bedroom cool and quiet.
Even when you’re sleeping your brain is aware, registering, and processing sounds. Unexpected noises in the night can wake you from either light or deep sleep, send you from a deep-sleep stage back to a light one, and spike your heart rate or blood pressure. To help prevent these interruptions and ensure a good night’s sleep, it’s important that you sleep in a quiet bedroom or wear earplugs.
Never ever, ever, ever fall asleep with the TV on. Invest in heavy, light-blocking curtains. Turn your thermostat down several degrees before you go to bed. Try sleeping with as few clothes on as possible to help regulate your body temperature. If there are some noises that you simply can’t eliminate (if you live in an apartment or the city for example) use a white-noise machine to drown out those sounds.
Magnesium supports almost every process in the human body, including reducing anxiety and helping to optimize sleep. Research has shown that just 500mg a day can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer while boosting melatonin and renin levels. Renin is a protein that’s correlated with non-REM sleep and sleep efficiency. Optimal magnesium levels also support healthy levels of adiponectin, a hormone linked to sleep apnea.
Magnesium supplements are inexpensive and widely available. Keep in mind that there can be side effects and magnesium supplements can interfere with certain medications. If you do opt for a supplement, magnesium glycinate is a highly absorbable form and can be easier on your stomach. If you prefer to get magnesium through your diet, foods such as pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, cashews, and black beans are some of the richest sources.
Melatonin is a hormone that’s involved in various processes in the body, one of which is how you sleep. When your melatonin production is working properly, your levels start to rise when it gets dark, letting your body know it’s time to hit the hay. Then, in the morning, production is suppressed letting your body know it’s time to get up. Melatonin levels naturally decline with age, peaking around puberty. Exposing yourself to blue light at night, not managing your stress or getting enough exposure to natural light during the day, can also negatively affect melatonin production, resulting in trouble falling asleep.
There are several ways you can naturally increase your melatonin levels:
Dim the lights at least two hours before bed, and only turn on those you truly need. Don’t use computers, tablets, or your phone during this time. If you have to be on a device, or you want to watch TV, be sure to wear blue-light blocking glasses. If you really want to reset your internal clock, going camping for the weekend (sans phone) can do wonders.
Eat foods high in naturally occurring melatonin such as tart cherries, goji berries, cucumbers, asparagus, tomatoes, sweet potato, olives, nuts, and seeds.
Eat foods high in tryptophan like garbanzo beans, spirulina, chicken liver, pumpkin seeds, turkey, chicken, watermelon seeds, and almonds. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin and increasing your tryptophan levels has been shown to increase both serotonin and melatonin levels.
Get some direct sun in the morning to help aid serotonin production. Serotonin is known for its ability to brighten your mood and is the precursor to melatonin. The greater your exposure to sunlight, the greater the production of serotonin.
If you can, get up with the sun.
Throughout history, the sun has been the natural alarm clock for most folks. Now, however, we live in perpetual daytime, clicking on the lights as soon as the sun starts to go down. Eventually, this perpetual daytime wreaks havoc on your ability to make decisions and solve problems. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to make your own schedule, aim to adhere to your body’s natural circadian rhythms as much as possible by rising with the sun.
If you need to get up before the sun, use the Phillips Wake-Up Light Alarm, which is programmed to mimic the sunrise in your room (no matter what time you get up). Eventually, you should strive to go to bed at a time that allows you to get 8 hours of sleep and wake up naturally at the same time every morning.
Getting enough sleep is a key component to optimizing your overall health, keeping your mind sharp, and keeping your immune system operating properly. If you’ve been burning the midnight oil, it’s time to shift gears and recognize the value of sleep. By prioritizing shuteye you’ll be more productive, make better decisions, and be healthier and happier.
PS – If you’re unsure of how good or bad your sleep actually is, the Oura ring is an outstanding tool to help you figure that out. The ring, coupled with the corresponding app, shows you your readiness and sleep scores—measuring your resting heart rate, heart rate variability, body temperature, respiratory rate, total sleep time, time in bed, sleep efficiency, time spent in REM and deep sleep, and more. I’ve found the Oura ring to be invaluable when tracking my sleep, as well as giving me early warnings when I’m getting sick!