By Sarah Loogman
It seems too easy that better, restful sleep can lead to better physical and mental performance, improved physical health and mental well being, and prevent or cure chronic disease of pain. But it’s said that if a thing is simple, it’s more likely to be true. Despite our human tendency to overcomplicate fitness in seeking the “magic pill,” there are no substitutes to good nutrition, physical activity, adequate hydration and restful sleep to improved human performance of any nature. What happens to your body while you sleep, or when you don’t, can have tremendous impact on your physical and mental wellbeing.
Although our mind and bodies are resilient and will adapt to negative stimulus in incredible ways, mindful practice and ongoing learning in these ABC-level basics is the true nature of health. Much of our modern day society has drawn away from these simple practices and thus developed a chronic, cultural unwellness that features fast food, video games, sugary beverages and sleep deprivation all through a sedentary lifestyle. Our race for increasingly rapid modes of gratification has biologically transformed the general population to obesity and chronic disease at history-breaking rates. A 2016 study by the CDC National Center for Health Statistics resulted than more than 1 of 3 adults in the United States would be considered obese with implications of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer as being directly related to obesity. Simply put, we’re killing ourselves, and the “magic pill” lies deep behind our cultural layers and back to our most basic, physiological human needs.
The Science of Sleep
Sleep is categorized into two types – non-rapid eye-movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye-movement (REM) sleep. NREM is further divided into four stages that represent relative levels of depth in sleep patterns. Each of these different phases of sleep are unique in variant brain wave patterns, eye movement and even muscle tone. Normal sleep begins through a progression of the four NREM stages then into a short period of REM to complete a sleep cycle and start over again. Even a single night of disrupted REM sleep can offset the natural circadian rhythm, or “inner clock,” and disruptions or inconsistent patterns through these cycles are often associated with grogginess, lack of concentration and underperformance.
Experiencing REM sleep is important because it is the restorative and regenerative part of the sleep cycle. Although REM sleep is not fully understood, what we do know is that the body and brain are energized during this phase of sleep and is believed to be in the processes of memory storage, learning and mood balance.
The endocrine system also has an important, though complex, response to sleep. The endocrine system is responsible to secreting hormones into the body and sleep activates those hormones that help regenerate our bodies, such as growth hormone, while inhibiting those that can be damaging, such as cortisol.
Knowing the importance of sleep, then, how do we practice better habits to enhance our cognitive and physical abilities and optimize human performance? Here are some simple, proven tips to enhance the quality of your sleep and establish better habits surrounding your bed time:
Keep a regular schedule
Eliminating distractions to maintain a regular schedule to your sleep takes top priority on this list. Individuals will have some variance on sleep needs, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours for adults between the ages of 18-64. The more regimented you can set your sleep schedule, the more balanced our natural rhythms will become.
Create a relaxing bed time routine
In our busy culture, it may seem counter intuitive to build in yet another routine or responsibility to your day, but creating a simple nightly routine can have significant impact on the quality of sleep experienced. This may be different for many people but practices such as meditation, box breathing, journaling, reading, or writing for even 5-10 minutes before tucking in may make a noticeable difference over time. Start with just taking a few moments before you close your eyes to deliberately list the positive aspects of your day!
The presence of light surpasses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. The darker your room can be, the better! Blackout curtains are a great investment to improve the quality of your sleep. But beyond your bedside lamp, the light behind our TV, tablet, cell phone and laptop screens has an especially negative impact and inhibits the production of melatonin more than any other wavelength. This means that your use of technology can actually change your natural circadian rhythm and have negative impacts on your health! If you use your phone for your waking alarm, practice setting your clock and putting away the phone at least 30 minutes before bed time. Apps are also available to reduce the blue light of your screen and may help.
Turn down the thermostat
Science says that sleeping in cooler temperatures is better for your immediate sleep and long term health. Many sleep experts will agree that 65 degrees Farenheit is within optimal range.
Research agrees that sleeping on your back is the optimal position for better health by supporting the spine and neck in a neutral position. In a perfect world, lying on the back without a pillow or with a thin pillow would be even better!
Whether you’re an athlete or CEO, improved sleep will increase your productivity and performance in ways that even exercise or nutrition (even caffeine) cannot. There’s no replacement for a good night of rest and the science is clear that well-practiced sleep can lead to better health and happiness!