Improving sleep quality can improve energy, focus and motivation.
We spend around a third of our lives sleeping, you’d think we’d be pretty good at it, right? Unfortunately not all of us are. To put into context how important sleep is, you can go weeks without food, but most people will be dead within 8 to 10 days of no sleep (and just a couple days without water, so there’s your order of importance if ever you have to choose).
We’re all about making life easier, so these hacks for improving your sleep are things you can just work into your life and get the benefits from without too much effort.
Arguably the biggest blessing and curse of our time is the advancement of technology. A few hundred years ago when the sun went down the world got dark, or was dimly lit with the soft red and yellow light of flames. This signalled to our brain to produce melatonin and help us sleep. The bright blue light contained in daily
sunshine told us it was time to be awake and stop producing melatonin. Screens and fluoro lights have completely messed with this signalling pattern. We shine blue light into our eyes right up until bedtime then wonder why we find it difficult to sleep. If possible, turn screens off a couple of hours before bedtime. We’re realistic here, and for most people, it’s not possible, or desirable to turn off all screens that early in the evening, so the trick is to minimise the blue light that hits your eyes.
On computers, download F.Lux, a free program that you can link to your time zone that changes the colour of your screen in the evenings. It takes a little getting used to, but basically towards the end of the day the screen slowly moves through sunset colours and whites appear pinkish. Apple have helped us out here too with a feature on iPhones called Night Shift. It’s in the display settings and it’s definitely worth switching on. While you’re there, turn the brightness down as much as you can handle. Your eyes will adjust and actually don’t need such a bright screen.
If watching TV at night is your thing, it would be worth trying out some blue-light blocking glasses. The good news here is that you can get an ugly pair at most hardware stores for around $20. They’re the plastic looking, yellow wrap around safety glasses. (You can also purchase specific blue light blocking glasses with yellow lenses that look more attractive than the tradie ones, but you might as well try out the cheaper ones first.) To make sure your glasses are actually blocking blue light, just look at something blue on your screen and make sure the colours are distorted more than other colours, or check out the graphic here.
Blue light and the impact it has on melatonin is a fairly big biological blocker to your good sleep, so it’s a really good idea to get that under control. Another biological issue you might be inadvertently impacting is caffeine intake. We all know that coffee is supposed to keep you awake, but some studies have shown that the half-life of caffeine can be up to eight hours. That means, that you should have your last cup of coffee no later than eight hours before you want to go to sleep, for most people, that means ditching the 4pm pick-me-up. As soon as people hear this, the first thing we get back is something like, “Oh no, coffee doesn’t keep me awake.” Maybe not, but there is decent evidence that it can impact the quality of your sleep, so why not just give it a go for a few weeks and give yourself that eight-hour window? Also remember that some types of tea, including green tea, contain caffeine, so they need to be considered in this too.
The next thing to talk about with sleep hygiene is comfort. Your bed, pillow, sheets and pyjamas all need to be things you like that can help relax you. If you’ve had a long-term sleeping problem and are committed to fixing it, invest in some luxurious sheets and pyjamas (or just a pillow case if you’re on a budget). A new pillow suited to your needs or a mattress topper (far cheaper than a new mattress) can all help creating a “new” sleep environment for you that your mind can distinguish from the “old” sleeping environment where your sleep was rubbish.
Our bodies are designed to cool down a bit when we sleep, so if your room is too warm it will most likely impact your sleep. Turn the thermostat down, get a lighter doona or wear summer pyjamas. Experiment with what works for you and pay attention so you know what the best setup for your life is. Everyone is a little different as to what temperature works for them, but a room cooler than you thought might be the optimal sleeping temperature for you.
You know how we talked about screens impacting your sleep because they screw with melatonin production? A similar thing happens if you have lights in your room. Studies have shown that even the tiniest of LEDs have an impact on sleep, so invest in some black electrical tape and cover every little light that you can see in your bedroom. This includes things like smoke detectors, power boards, wireless routers and alarm clocks. You also need to block out street light that might be coming in from windows, so get the best blinds you can afford and make sure they sit flush to the wall (Blu Tac can help here). Interestingly, you can’t get around this just by wearing a sleeping mask, we have light receptors in our skin that also appear to be impacted by light when we try to sleep (more research is needed in this area).
Once you’ve sorted out your sleeping environment, blue light issues and afternoon caffeine intake, the other most likely issue with sleep are psychological, in particular, stress. This is a really big thing, and many of the hacks in the Six Week Wake Up are included to reduce stress so we won’t cover everything here. However, the reality is that under stress your body releases cortisol and adrenalin, so you can run away from that tiger that is (not really) chasing you. Your body knows this is not a time to sleep so has primed you to stay awake. This is very helpful when there is a tiger after you, not so when you’ve already been in bed for a few hours and have to get up in a few more.
Over the next few weeks we will delve deeper into things that can improve sleep, including diet, supplements and meditation. If you know this is one of your biggest poisons, you can jump ahead and research these things yourself. GABA is a neurotransmitter involved in reducing stress, and can be taken as an over-the-counter supplement to help with sleep (without any groggy side effects the next day).
Another thing to be aware of that we’ll learn more about in later weeks is the impact blood sugar changes can have on your sleep. The simple hack here is to include some fat with your evening meal to keep you more stable through the night. A tell-tale sign of a blood sugar issue is waking up between 2am and 5am almost every day for no reason. Around this time your blood sugar may have dropped so low that your body overreacts and gives you a shot of cortisol so you don’t die… and this wakes you up.
The final thing to note is that one or two bad nights of sleep won’t kill you. I know we opened with the fact that sleep deprivation can be deadly, we’re talking about extreme deprivation there. Stressing about a lack of sleep is sometimes worse than the lack of sleep itself, so go easy on yourself. Having said that, sleep is vital for optimal performance, so it’s worth making the effort to get it right.
Little Changes This Week
- Install F.lux on computers, Night Shift on iPhones
- No caffeine within 8 hours of bedtime
- Limit screen time in the evenings
- Turn the thermostat down or use a lighter doona
Big Changes This Week
- Get new bedding and sleepwear
- Cover all lights in the bedroom
- No screens after sunset or within two hours of bed without some form of blue-light blocking in place
- Supplement with GABA