Sleep is a fascinating thing, isn’t it?
When you think about it, we just randomly lose consciousness for 6-8 hours every night and if you didn’t look closely enough, appear to be dead (or at least, dead to the world).
Every living organism on planet Earth sleeps. From human beings, to household pets like dogs, cats & rabbits, all the way through the humble earthworm (yep, worms sleep too!).
So what is it about sleep? Why do we need our regular 8 hours of slumber every night – and more importantly, how can we improve our sleep duration, quality & efficiency?
Why We Sleep
When we think about why human beings need to sleep, the answer appears obvious. To replenish energy for the next day, right? Well, yes. But sleep goes far deeper than simply allowing us to feel more awake afterwards.
Good quality sleep is responsible for a plethora of different functions in the body, not least improving both short & long term memory, clearing out free radicals in the body and reducing inflammation throughout the body, helping us recovery from both physical and mental stress.
If your sleep is sub-par and you’re trying to push things hard in the gym, you’ll run into problems pretty quickly when trying to recover from workouts. Muscles will be sorer for longer, you won’t be able to get back in the gym as frequently and stimulate muscle more often – meaning your lack of sleep is literally preventing you from building muscle and as a result, lose fat. This is no exaggeration.
And it’s not just your fitness goals that are being negatively impacted by your lack of sleep. A lack of sleep, both in quality and duration, could literally be shortening your life. The research we currently have available shows that a lack of good quality sleep at night can be associated with higher risks of heart disease, cancer & poor cognitive performance. Ever notice how you can’t figure something out in the evening but once you “sleep on it” the answer suddenly becomes clear? That’s the power of sleep.
In honesty, all the different reasons why humans sleep aren’t yet clear to the people far smarter than me researching this stuff, so I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers. One thing is abundantly clear though – we need good quality sleep for health, performance & fitness goals.
The Insomniacs Handbook
We’ve covered the obvious – that we need to sleep. No shit, right? But if you’re reading this article, I’m going to make the assumption that to some degree, you’re not the best sleeper. Either you struggle falling asleep, staying asleep or feeling sleepy when it’s time to go to bed. Sound accurate?
If that’s you, then for the remainder of this article you’re going to want to pay close attention – because we’re going to give you some key tips to get you sleeping again. Not only that, but we’re going to give you a blueprint to getting a full night’s rest and waking up feeling energised and refreshed without having to tank 3 coffees before your first human interaction of the day.
It Starts When You Wake Up
If you want to fix your night’s sleep, you need to start by looking at your day’s activity. This starts from the second you open your eyes in the morning. Are you starting your days right? Or are you cementing your dysfunctional health patterns and further ensuring you’re going to struggle sleeping and be dependent on caffeine for the rest of your life?
Light exposure in the mornings is vital to improving our circadian rhythm
To understand how we should be starting our days we first need to understand our circadian rhythm. Coming from the words “circa” (meaning “around”) and “dia” (meaning “day”), our circadian rhythm is our body’s way of regulating our internal sleep/wake cycles. Studies have shown our natural rhythm without any daylight is between 24-28 hours, but we have always regulated our sleep/wake cycles around the movements of the sun (obviously 24 hours).
There’s a really small part of our brains known as the “suprachiasmatic nucleus” which is like the internal pacemaker for our entire body. This little powerhouse takes in the light from the outside world and determines whether we should be awake or asleep. Naturally, our circadian rhythm peaks in wakefulness early morning and drops to it’s lowest after the sun has set.
The extent this peak and dip in our natural circadian rhythm is prevalent depends on our behaviour. If we wake up and keep the curtains drawn, only look at pulsating, artificial blue light sources (like the mobile phone you’re reading this article on now) you’ll likely struggle to properly stimulate that circadian rhythm and really feel awake and energised for the day. This means you’re going to be more likely to rely on caffeine & create a dependency cycle on your morning coffee, instead of your hardwired biology, to wake you up in the mornings.
Instead, when you wake up in the morning, make your first priority of the day getting some sunlight exposure. Getting outside in the sunshine (even if it’s cloudy, you’ll still get daylight exposure) is the best thing you can do early morning to bring your circadian rhythm into step. This is essentially “programming” your suprachiasmatic nucleus to tell the rest of your brain and body that it’s time to wake up and attack the day. If you can get this daylight exposure while you’re outside, breathing fresh air and getting vitamin D into your body through sunlight that will be even better for waking you up, blowing the cobwebs away and getting you ready for the day ahead.
Breaking The Caffeine Dependency
Some people can drink a double espresso and fall asleep 10 minutes later for the night. Good for them. If you’re reading this article, then that probably isn’t you. You’re like me, you have a far greater sensitivity to caffeine than those people that could fall asleep if the sky was falling and the world was imploding.
For us, the rule of caffeine’s half-life applies in full force. Caffeine has a “half-life” of 5-7 hours, meaning that it stays in our system for at least 5-7 hours. This makes sleep a much more elusive beast when we over consume on caffeine.
There’s nothing wrong with a cup of coffee, but if you rely on it to wake up in a morning you’re probably in a bad spot
Caffeine works by blocking the receptors for something called “adenosine” in the brain. Adenosine is the molecule that causes us to feel sleepy. Caffeine doesn’t block this molecule, but it blocks the molecule’s receptor. That means that all the adenosine that you would have experienced in a “drip fed” fashion over the course of the morning & afternoon can’t settle in its rightful place, which causes a build-up. Once the caffeine wears off and the adenosine rushes in, we get hit with a wave of sleepiness. This provides us with a clear explanation for that infamous “mid-afternoon crash” we’ve all experienced at work that makes us feel sleepy and unable to focus.
That’s why I’m going to tell you to cut down your caffeine! The occasional coffee is fine but medicating your tired body with an excess of coffee, energy drinks or other “pick-me-ups” might be a short term fix but it’s doing you a great deal of damage in the long run. Not only is it making your waking hours worse by zapping your energy levels, but it’s also keeping you up at night! Most of us medicate our way through that “mid-afternoon crash” period by cracking open another can of Red Bull or Monster – that’s a sure-fire way to make sure you don’t fall asleep on time in the evening. Cut it out!
This may seem like an obvious point to make, but normally the obvious things are the places we should start. If you intend on getting a good and full night of recovery, give your body something to recover from!
Many of us work in offices (or at the moment, are sat at home watching Netflix all day) and are generally inactive for most of the day. If you job involves being sat down for most of the day this is fair enough, but there are absolutely opportunities for every single one of us to be more active than we currently are.
As a personal trainer, of course my first suggestion will be joining the gym. But your activity doesn’t have to be limited to a gym environment. Get your overall activity up by taking more steps every day, walking more, standing up when you’re on the phone or writing emails or even just taking the stairs rather than the lift. We can all do more, and if we want to improve our sleep we should work on depleting our physical energy throughout the day a little more than we have been.
Preparing For Sleep
You can’t consciously command your body to sleep, in the same way you do with movements blinking, walking or breathing, for example. You can’t send a mental cue from your brain to the rest of your body to instantaneously shut down for 8 hours like a computer would. But our behaviours can influence the body’s natural ability to go to sleep once our head hits the pillow and our eyelids close for the night. This is the process I like to call preparing for sleep.
Remember our old friend from earlier, the suprachiasmatic nucleus? He’s the chap in our brain that keeps the time in our body & is responsible for our circadian rhythm. Well, when the sun sets and the evening is upon us, our suprachiasmatic nucleus naturally instructs the body to start winding down and producing melatonin, the hormone responsible for helping us fall asleep. Or, this is what should happen, and what happened to our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years – until technology happened.
Today, once the sun sets and natural light fades, our towns, cities and even our homes come alive. Artificial blue light from room lights, TV screens, PCs, laptops and mobile phones glare into our eyeballs and stimulate the brain. This blue light mimics daylight, spiking our circadian rhythm, supressing melatonin production and jolting our suprachiasmatic nucleus into action. Although our bodies may feel tired from the hard day we’ve had at the office, our brains are a hive of activity thanks to the blue light we’ve been staring at & surrounded by all evening. This is going to make it a lot harder to fall asleep and stay asleep, meaning we’ll be more tired the next day, have to rely on caffeine to wake us up, have a mid-afternoon crash… See how the dependency cycle works?
Block The Blue Light
If you value your sleep, you’ll make eliminating your exposure to blue light a priority in the evenings. The easiest way you can do this is just to cut down your
If you can’t get rid of screens completely, wear some blue light blocking glasses before bed
screen time before bed. Culturally in this country we get home from work and eat in front of the TV before bed. In more recent years, when we’re not glued to the TV we’re flicking through social media on our phones. This is not only bad news for us mentally, but by not focusing on our meals we’re losing appreciation for food, losing our digestive efficiency & massively losing out on sleep.
Instead of getting home from work and flitting between watching TV and scrolling through Facebook or Instagram for the duration of the evening, try turning the TV off, putting the phone on airplane mode and reading a book. Not only will this give you a much needed detox from the world of online bullshit, but it will also allow you to limit your exposure to stimulating, sleep thieving blue light that keeps you up at night.
If screen time isn’t an option for you because you watch TV with the family or often have to work late on your laptop, all is not lost. You can still limit and to a large extent, completely block the blue light that you’re exposed to by protecting yourself. Just like we apply suncream to protect us from damaging our skin, we should consider wearing blue light blocking glasses to protect us from damaging our sleep. Although these glasses tend to look a bit strange (think about Arnie in the terminator or Edgar Davids threading one through midfield) – they do a fine job of protecting our eyes from blue light exposure and helping us fall asleep much more easily at night.
Clearing The Mind
Ever noticed when you get in a big fight with a loved one or you’re under a ton of pressure at work you struggle to sleep until the issue is resolved? That’s because you’re unable to relax & unwind, and your physiology is locked in a “fight or flight” state, rather than the “rest & digest” state that is so essential for sleep. That’s why clearing the mind of any built-up charges is such a big deal when it comes to helping us fall asleep. There’s a few ways we can do this, but my personal favourite – purely because of its simplicity – is journaling. Journaling is quite simply the act of recounting the events of the day with a pen and paper and writing how they made you feel. You can think of it as a “brain dump” of sorts, to get all the bullshit out of your head that’s been building up over the course of the day. Once it’s out of your head and down on paper you can see it for what it really is, not for what you’ve been building it up to be. This is often enough to help you realise it isn’t that much of a big deal and you can stop worrying about it so much.
Journaling is a really useful tool but it may not always work. In situations where it doesn’t cut the mustard, you may need to look deeper at what’s troubling you and use more sophisticated techniques, such as “The Work” by Byron Katie or some of the reframing exercises we teach at the Bodies By Moose Academy.
Your Breathing Sets The Tone
Breath is something that is far too often overlooked, especially with regards to sleep. The way you breathe, the speed, depth and duration of each breath has a massive impact on how relaxed or stressed your entire body is. Breathing quickly, shallow, through the mouth & upper chest is a sure-fire way to increase our stress levels and make it harder to fall asleep. Not only this, but our sleep quality and efficiency will be poorer. Sleeping with the mouth open increases the risk of the tongue dropping back in the throat, blocking the airways. This is known as “sleep apnea”, when you stop breathing during sleep. Mostly this is harmless in the short-term, as you wake yourself up just enough to start breathing again, but not enough to remember waking up. So by the time you get up the following day you think you’ve had a full night’s sleep, but you feel incredibly groggy because you never allowed yourself to get into the deeply restorative phases of sleep due to constant waking through the night.
It’s for this reason that I’ve recently started “mouth taping” during sleep. Now I know this sounds psychopathic but hear me out. Buying some specially formulated tape that doesn’t damage the skin (like micropore tape) and popping a strip over the mouth helps us keep the mouth closed overnight, breathing through the nose. This, in theory should stop sleep apnea and help us get a full and complete night’s sleep. I was sceptical of this, but I’m open minded enough to give promising things a try. So I bought some micropore tape (it was literally £3 on Amazon) and gave it a try. What a difference! I went from needing 8-10 hours of sleep and feeling groggy for the first few hours of the day to only needing 6-7 hours of sleep and waking up feeling on top of the absolute world – like I’d already had a double espresso!
My experience may be anecdotal and I’m sure you may still have some doubts – but do your research. Nasal breathing – both in waking and sleeping hours is a well kept secret when it comes to improving our health and sleep efficiency.
Try That For Starters
Now, I know this article may have seemed a little in-depth at times but this barely scratches the surface of things you can do to help improve your sleep. If you struggle to get good quality sleep and wake up feeling refreshed every morning, or even if you’re just interested in improving the quality of your sleep, I strongly recommend starting with the tips I’ve laid out in this article.
Please feel free to reach out to me to let me know how you found the tips, what worked, what didn’t, or if you have any other questions – just contact me on Instagram @andyclements01 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for reading and happy sleeping
PS – If you enjoyed this article, we’ve got a whole sub-section on sleep over in the Bodies By Moose Academy. We’re not ready to launch yet, but if you hit the button below you can reserve your spot on our waiting list: