Something we all need more of, but never seem to get. (If only we had more time, right?)
If you told me a year ago that I would be getting my work done during the daytime hours and getting plenty of sleep, waking up early without feeling like grumplestiltskin, and actually being uber-productive before noon, I would have called you an idiot.
Sorry for calling you an idiot.
I finally feel like I have a grip on my life thanks to an improved sleep strategy and today we’re going to cover how you can do the same. Don’t worry, I won’t go too deeply into the science behind why getting enough sleep is important; you’re probably well aware that you function much better when you are well rested.
However, as we’ve learned from Morpheus in The Matrix: “Sooner or later you’re going to realize, just as I did, that there’s a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”
Let’s take a trip to Dreamland, shall we?
Why sleep is awesome
Sleep is freaking important, and you should get more of it!
Article over, I’m going on break!
Before we cover why sleep is important, let’s talk about what happens when you don’t get enough.
For example: If you manage to only get four hours of sleep, a sleep deprived body can actually act similarly to an intoxicated body.
Getting less sleep than average regularly? This is correlated with increased bodyfat percentage, more issues with insulin sensitivity, and even a disproportionate decrease in lean muscle mass when eating a caloric deficit.
We all know missing sleep can make us grouchy, miserable, unfocused, and unproductive.
I know I’m going to have a crappy day in the gym when I don’t get enough sleep the night before. I know not sleeping enough AFTER a workout day can further hinder the muscle building process. So, what else happens when you don’t get enough sleep?
As so eloquently pointed out by Mark Sisson:
“One study found that skipped sleep led to a shrinking brain. Bye, bye gray matter! The heart and kidneys also take a beating as does your blood pressure. You, in fact, put yourself at continually increased risk for a whole host of lifestyle diseases, including obesity and diabetes. The logical extension of this pattern? Numerous studies link partial sleep deprivation/disruption and increased mortality risk!”
Conversely, let’s talk about the awesomeness that is sleep. Here are the benefits associated with getting enough shut eye:
- Sleep will enhance your memory performance and creative problem solving skills. You know, those things that make you smart.
- Sleep can boost your athletic performance. And we all know appearance is a consequence of fitness.
- Sleep triggers the release of human growth hormone (HGH), which plays a huge role in muscle and cellular regeneration.
- Sleep cuts your risk for the common cold and other basic illnesses. Less sick days at work = more productivity, more awesome, more leveling up.
- Sleep makes you more resilient to daily stress..aka more willpower!
Moral of the story: Sleep is awesome. Yes, some adults can function perfectly on only five hours of sleep, while others need 9-10 hours of sleep to thrive. Most people will fall in that 7-9 range for sleeping needs.
So let’s get to the root of the problem for most: “I know I need to sleep more, but my day is too busy and I just can’t get to bed sooner or wake up earlier.”
First and foremost, you’re not alone. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a third of all working Americans get six hours or fewer of sleep a night.
Does any of this sound like you?
- I am always freaking tired, and I need five cups of coffee to get through the day.
- Even on days when I get enough sleep, I wake up groggy.
- I get to ‘bed’ but I toss and turn and it takes me forever to fall asleep.
- I hit snooze half a dozen times before miserably crawling out of bed.
Let’s see if we can fix these issues.
A perfect night of sleep
Let’s imagine a perfect night: You go to bed at a time that you’re happy with. You’re not stressed out because you didn’t just watch The Walking Dead, you’re reading a good fiction book in bed that’s putting you closer to sleep rather than checking your smart phone or screwing around on the internet (damn you Twitch.tv). You sleep uninterrupted through the night. You have kickass dreams. When you wake up, either naturally or with an alarm…you immediately get out of bed, without a single snooze, and you feel damn good. You then crush your morning routine and dominate your day.
If you’re looking at your screen and laughing right now, you’re not alone. I’d guess this is a pipe dream for a huge majority of our society because they’re not sure how sleep actually works, and thus have NOT made sleep a priority.
It’s time to start looking at sleep as one of your most important tasks.
What are types of sleep?
Like the Indiana Jones movies, sleep can vary in quality.
Some types of sleep can be great, while some sleep can be crappy (and potentially involve aliens). Let’s take a quick look at the different stages of sleep first.
We have Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep, and Non-Rapid Eye Movement Sleep:
- Non-REM Sleep Stage 1: Where you’re kind of asleep…but not really…but working on it. This lasts about 5-10 minutes.
- Non-REM Sleep Stage 2: Your heart rate slows, your body temperature decreases, and you start to drop further into slumber…this can last about 20 minutes or so.
- Non-REM Sleep Stage 3 and 4: also called “slow wave sleep,” and each can last up to 30 minutes.
- REM Sleep: This is the deepest form of sleep out there, and the most important for mentally functioning the next day. It takes about 90 minutes to get to REM sleep.
Focus on the two big steps: non-REM sleep and REM sleep.
As WebMD points out, “during the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and appears to strengthen the immune system.” The body can go from Stage 2 to 3 to 4, back to 2 and to 3, and then finally onto REM.
When your body kicks into REM sleep, this is when your brain has increased activity and leads to dreaming, while your body is the most ‘paralyzed’ and knocked out. Some studies say that REM is most important for restoring brain functions.
What’s crazy is that your entire morning can be dictated by what stage of sleep you were in before waking up. If you’ve ever only slept a few hours and woke up feeling great, or conversely slept plenty of hours but woke up groggy, this could explain it!
Don’t worry, I’ll explain exactly how to stop this from happening below.
How to get better sleep
We have a circadian rhythm (a daily biological clock) that ebbs and flows throughout the day.
Our body uses outside stimuli and our own activity to produce certain hormones at certain times to make our body more prepared for the required functions at that time (alertness vs restfulness).
Look at it from an evolutionary perspective – way back in the day (which was a Wednesday):
- When the sun rose, our bodies are signaled “the day has begun! get cracking!” We reduce the hormones that make us sleepy, and produce more hormones that allow us to do the things that need to get done.
- As the sun went down, our body starts to produce more melatonin, which produces that sleepy feeling and encourages us to rest/recover. Our only option for light back then was a candle or campfire. If that went out, we’d have moonlight and nothing else.
- While sleeping, our bodies knew to cut back on urine production, decrease body temperature, decrease heart rate, and muscle activity. Our brains are still highly active during our sleeping.
Unfortunately, these days, our bodies aren’t tied to the rise and fall of that giant ball of gas above us. Instead, we can use electricity, alarm clocks, computer screens, smart phone screens, and all other sorts of outside stimuli to adjust our natural sleeping schedule.
This means that our bodies often have no effin’ clue what time it is!
Here’s how we can get back to our roots (not to be confused with THE Roots):
Trying to get to bed sooner or fall asleep sooner? Limit your exposure to the blue glow of your computer screens, TV screens, and phones later in the evening. Our bodies look at blue light and think “Sun is up! Sky is blue! Energy! WEEE!”
Conversely, lights with a red/orange hue are more reminiscent of a campfire or candle. If you are somebody who has to spend time on your computer at night, consider installing a program like F.lux – it syncs with the sunrise and sunset in your time zone, gradually shifting your screens hue from Blue and bright to red and dim. I’ve been using the app for over a week now and have quickly adjusted to it.
Purchase old-man blue blocker glasses which limits the colors your eyes are exposed to after the sun has gone done. +2 Charisma for style too.
Consider getting black-out curtains for your bedroom windows, especially if you live in a city. Living in downtown Nashville, there’s always something bright and shiny happening outside my window – it wasn’t until I purchased super dark curtains to cover up my windows that I noticed an improvement in my ‘fall-asleep time.’
No TV in bed. This might be incredibly difficult for you if you’ve been falling asleep to TV for years. Instead of falling asleep with the blue glow of a TV at the foot of your bed, read a book – trust me, it will put you right to sleep.
Get in the habit of reading fiction. Reading puts me to sleep within a few minutes most night, though only if I’m reading fiction. When reading non-fiction, my mind starts to race with all of the new ideas and things I could be working on. Either read real books or read on a Kindle, no iPads!
Buy the right TYPE of Mattress for you: I slept on a soft mattress with two mattress pads for a few months years ago and wondered why I woke up with lower back pain every day. Turns out, my back was jacked up, and the soft mattress made things even worse. Since switching to a firm mattress, I wake up without back pain. Lesson learned here: I’m not smart.
A lot of this can depend on HOW you sleep!Are you a side sleeper? Back sleeper? Stomach sleeper? Turns out there’s some evolutionary reasonswhy some styles work better than others! Personally, I use the “half-military crawl position” outlined by Tim Ferriss.
Have allergies? Try a hypoallergenic pillowcase! Your allergies could be affecting you while you sleep, and having the proper pillowcase can make a world of a difference.
How to get more sleep
So we’ve covered how to get BETTER sleep, what if you also need to get more of it?
In order to start getting more sleep, sleep must become more of a priority. If you constantly stay up too late because things need to get done, evaluate how your time is spent after work. Seriously, think about it!
- Are you doing the important tasks first? Or are you messing around on the internet and not starting your tasks until late in the evening.
- Are you watching late night shows long after they’ve become enjoyable, simply because your DVR records them?
- Are you checking your smart phone while in bed, watching Vine videos, or using your laptop to watch more shows you don’t really care about on Netflix?
Yes, I understand we have parents who read Nerd Fitness and have to stay awake and function on minimal sleep (I commend you, and wish you luck!). However, for many of us, less sleep is often a result of disorganized priorities and poor use of our time.
Here are the best practical tips for giving you the greatest chance at getting into bed earlier:
- Don’t drink caffeine after lunch if possible. Caffeine can have an effect up to 6 hours after consumption. We love caffeine for many reasons (in moderation); however, you want to make sure its not consumed too late or your body will revolt.
- Turn off the electronics sooner. I have to enforce a “laptops closed by 11PM” or a “TV off after 10PM” rule on many nights or I never get to bed. I get lost in internetland far too easily. Putting in actual barriers really helps. If you find yourself checking Facebook and Twitter and other sites incessantly, BLOCK YOURSELF from those sites after a certain time.
- Stop watching crap TV shows! DVRs can be helpful, but it’s so easy to record shows without second thought…and then we end up spending WAY too much time watching TV. I recently cut out 3/4ths of the shows I was recording on my DVR. Now, when I go to it, there are only the shows I actually enjoy (Parks and Rec, The League, The Walking Dead), and my TV watching time has dropped significantly.
- Shift things by 15 minutes every week. If you want to get to bed sooner, don’t just try to get to bed an hour earlier than normal. You’ll probably lie in bed for that whole hour wondering why you can’t fall asleep, stressing yourself out and making things worse. I shifted my pattern by waking up 15 minutes earlier and getting to bed 15 minutes sooner. Then I repeated that process over a series of weeks. Eventually, you can shift your bedtime by an hour or two, but do it gradually!
How to wake up better
Is there any more annoying sound in the world than the “beep beep beep” of an alarm clock? Well, maybe this.
But you get the point.
So here you are, dreaming about riding a dragon with Daenerys Targaryen, doing improv with Liam Neeson, and playing poker with Iron Man and Spock…and that damn alarm clock wakes you up. You are now incredibly groggy and miserable.
Here’s what’s happening: Remember earlier how we talked about different sleep cycles? Depending on which cycle you were woken up during, your body can struggle to move from “asleep” to “wide awake.”
(If you thought we were going to make it through this section without a Katy Perry reference, you don’t know me well enough.)
Wake up in the right phase and you can feel energized and ready to go. Wake up in the wrong phase and you will feel lethargic and sleepy.
Because we’re often waking up at times when we’re not ready to wake up, we need to use technology to our advantage.
This is why snoozing is a horrible idea! Instead of snoozing, set your alarm for 30 minutes later and SKIP snoozing entirely. If this is an issue for you, put your alarm across the room so you need to physically get out of bed to turn it off!
I’ve been using the Sleep Cycle App to wake up and it’s been really interesting. You simply put the time in which you want to wake up, put your phone on your bed, and it will wake you up slowly and quietly in at the best point in a 30 minute window. Because it also tracks your sleep incredibly accurately, it’s probably the best 99 cents I’ve ever spent on an app (other than our PALEO CENTRAL APP! HEYO! Ahem.)
Try a dawn-simulator alarm clock. I’ve yet to use one (though will be picking one up for testing purposes), but the concept makes complete sense to me. If you’ve used one, would love to hear from you in the comments with your experiences. Rather than waking yourself up in the pitch black with a disgusting beeping noise, why not gradually rise as if there was an natural sunrise in your room?
Feel free to sing the first line of “Circle of Life” at this point. I just did.
Still feeling groggy? Go for a walk first thing. A mile every morning, if you can. Heck, do it while walking to Mordor! Walking outside and seeing that blue sky can trigger your body to release the hormones that encourage you to feel more awake and alive.
Consider blue light therapy. Tim Ferriss swears by it, and the reviews are overwhelmingly positive, so I’ll be testing one out during the winter months to see if my mornings are marked by increased energy. If you’ve used one and had positive/negative experiences, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
Am I night owl or lark?
According to studies, about 1 in 10 people are true morning people (“larks”), while 2 in ten are considered “night owls.” The rest fit somewhere in the middle as “hummingbirds.”
What this means: Some of us are more alert at certain times of the day and naturally want to rise earlier or stay up later. Here’s a great article breaking down the differences between the two, along with a quiz you can take if you’re interested in getting “proof” about your biological clock.
Now, the difference between the two extremes isn’t as DRASTIC as we’ve made it out to be. Humans can never be truly naturally nocturnal – we don’t have night vision (yet…). We’re not programmed to operate during the middle of the night. But, we CAN use our natural tendencies to help us be more efficient and productive during certain parts of the day.
We can change and adapt. Just like those who successfully work a night shift job (tips on that here), many who consider themselves a night owl may find they can become a morning person if they set themselves up for success.
I used the excuse for years of being a “night owl” to screw around all day and work from midnight to 4 AM each night, when it really just required a shifting of my priorities and productivity hacks.
What this all means: Identify your biological clock and try to adjust around it if possible. However, if your job requires you to get up early or stay up later, most of us can make an adjustment. Don’t let your poor habits blame “being a night owl” like I used to.
What about naps?
Although generally not part of a day here in the states, we’re actually programmed to desire a quick nap in the early afternoon.
In other countries, naps are more socially acceptable (Siesta? Si, por favor!). If you feel bad that you get tired in the early afternoon, it’s not because you’re lazy. It’s because you’re naturally wired for naptime. Now, you might still be lazy, but it’s not related to your nap schedule.
So, behold the power of the power nap:
Didn’t get enough sleep last night? Only have 20-30 minutes for a quick break? Try the caffeine-fueled power nap.
Fun fact: If you’ve slept less than normal, taking a 90 minute nap the following day could lead to an increased amount of REM sleep in that nap.
What about second sleep?
Biphasic Sleep is sleeping in two distinct periods.
We’re gonna go back in the day again: during winter months, night time could last 12-14 hours.
With our bodies production of melatonin (the “sleepy time” hormone) kicking into high gear when that sun drops, people had nothing else to do (no TV, PS4, or iPads)and would fall asleep early. Then they would wake up for an hour or two in the middle of the night to read, pray, or think, and then fall back asleep for another 4-5 hours before waking up for the day.
If you’ve ever gone to bed at a normal hour, and then woke up in the middle of the night without being able to fall back asleep for an hour or so, you know what I’m talking about.
Here’s the thing: this is actually quite natural! Rather than freaking the heck out and lying in bed wondering why you can’t fall asleep…consider it something that is more common than our current sleep schedule. Don’t be afraid to turn on the light and read a book or use the time for meditation until you can fall back asleep.
This one ‘mental shift’ alone can keep your stress levels down and let you get back to sleep faster and provide you with BETTER sleep.
Sleep hacking tips and tricks
Clear your mind, Neo. I often spend my nights in bed thinking and worrying about all of the things I need to do the next day. Instead of stressing out about it, take a minute and write down the things you need to do the next day, and then set it aside. A notebook, a post-it note, an Evernote file, whatever. Do a brain-dump and clear your head so you can focus on reading A Game of Thrones without thinking about the next day’s tasks.
Want to control your dreams? It’s called “Lucid Dreaming,” it’s possible, but requires work. I’ve only been able to do it once, but haven’t given up hope that it can become a more common occurrence! Ultimately, this allows you to live out a real life version of Inception.
Sleep apnea? Keep reading Nerd Fitness and lose weight! Being overweight is a big cause of sleep apnea for many. Luckily, you’re reading the right site 🙂 On top of that, try a different sleeping position (like the aforementioned half-military crawl position to keep your passages open).
Have way too much time on your hands and not constricted by societal norms? Try Polyphasic sleep or the Uberman sleep schedule, and then tell me how it goes 🙂 It didn’t work for Kramer, but it might work for you!
Stop sucking, start documenting!
Like, anything, that which gets measured gets improved.
Now, if you’re somebody that isn’t really detail oriented, just start by picking ONE or two changes above, and focus on building that Hard Hat Habit. However, if you like to nerd out about certain details, why not nerd out about your sleep?
Starting tomorrow morning, when you wake up, recap the previous day with a journal entry:
- What time did you wake up, and what time did you actually get out of bed?
- How many times did you hit snooze?
- After work, how much television did you watch? After you finished watching, did you go right to bed? Did you fall asleep with the TV on?
- How long did you lie in bed before actually falling asleep (obviously this will be tough to tell, but you can estimate).
A quick recap on what to do: Change one or two things about your current strategy. Turn off the computer 15 minutes earlier. Stop watching TV in bed. Read fiction. Limit the amount of blue light at night. No more snoozing. Set the alarm clock across the room. Go for a walk in the morning outside.
I’d love to hear from you:
- What questions do you have about sleeping?
- How have you learned to be better at it?
- What are you still struggling with?
- Have you tried sunrise alarm clocks or blue-light devices?
- What are your favorite sleep aids or sleep hacks?
Let’s hear it!