Yeah, yeah. We all know sleep is pretty important. But there’s a pretty big disconnect between our understanding that sleep is important and the actual practice of sleeping well.
In fact, lack of sleep is an epidemic. The CDC estimates that one-third of Americans — over 100 million people — don’t get enough sleep. That’s a problem; having adequate and quality sleep is paramount to overall health (and ability to function).
I mean think about it…
How many times this week have you yawned your way through a work meeting or class?
Or suffered your way through a workout, feeling groggy and low on energy?
We suck at sleep, and it’s affecting our health.
Sleeping fewer than seven hours a day is linked with a higher risk for developing heart disease and plenty of other health issues that plague our nation. Not to mention, sleep is critical for athletic recovery, proper metabolism, and overall mood.
Clearly we need to change something. But how?
Why Sleep is so Important
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society, which are two of the primary authorities on the topic of sleep health, recommend adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night according to the best available evidence.
But as you know, with busy schedules, workout routines, kids crying out for a snuggle, and much-needed personal time, locking in seven-plus hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep isn’t easy.
So what happens when we don’t get that?
One major way lack of sleep affects our health is by disrupting our circadian rhythm.
Like most mammals, we have a cyclical sleep-wake cycle. Our bodies function differently depending on the time of the day. If we constantly disrupt our body’s homeostasis by changing our natural pattern, problems arise.
During sleep is also when we physiologically “clean house” by killing off damaged cells, resetting our metabolism, and stimulating the immune system. Neglecting this can compromise our short- and long-term health.
So you can see, restful sleep at the end of a long day allows your body to get ready for tomorrow. But — if your long day included a long run or tough workout, sleep plays an even bigger role.
How Sleep Affects Your Athletic Performance
High-quality sleep factors into athletic performance in a variety of ways:
- Recovery from training and competing (during sleep is when the body really expends energy on the repair process).
- More energy and focus/enhanced cognition.
- Reduced prevalence of sickness and inflammation.
Impaired sleep leads to a vicious cycle in athletes: insufficient sleep undermines recovery and affects cognition and hormone production, which can lead to overtraining. Overtraining leads to low-quality sleep, and down and down…
and down we go.
So if sleep is so critical for our health and athletic performance, why we do suck at it?
The Real Reasons You Can’t Sleep
There are two big issues that keep us from catching our 40 winks (and I bet you’re doing them both right now):
1. The Endless Scroll (and Too Much Light)
Light exposure, such as sunlight or fluorescent light, inhibits the production of melatonin, a neurohormone that helps us fall asleep. For the vast majority of our evolution, we didn’t have access to electricity or artificial lighting, so we had a much more natural sleep cycle.
Today, we live in a culture and world constantly exposed to light, which throws off our circadian rhythm. We know that light is a key modulator of inducing sleep, and spending our evening hours scrolling our Facebook or Instagram feeds is definitely not helping our brains switch into sleep mode.
2. Too Much Sitting
Another main reason for our sleep epidemic is inactivity. Most of us spend our day sedentary at a desk, which has been shown to affect sleep quality and duration. Evolutionarily, we’re animals designed to be moving all day, so inactivity (which is also associated with obesity) affects our sleep.
It’s another example of a vicious cycle: Sitting all day makes us sleepy and lethargic, which obstructs our ability to move.
But, on the flip side, we have to be careful to not overdo it. Too much exercise increases the release of stress hormones, which can actually reduce sleep quality.
How much is too much? There’s no easy answer. Listen to your body, and make sure you’re getting the high quality sleep you need to recover well.
Sleeping better may sound simple, but when you’re lying in bed at midnight wide awake, it feels impossible.
Fear not, I have a plan to help you get started…
5 Steps to Solving Your Sleep Problem
I’ve come up with five simple, practical, and effective strategies to incorporate into your day (and night) to help improve your sleep:
- Move your body. Even 30 minutes a day of aerobic activity, such as running, yoga, or even an evening walk, is linked with improved sleep. You’ll feel the effects almost immediately.
- Enact a digital sunset routine. Set a time each night when you shut off your devices and artificial lights to prepare your brain for sleeping. (Bonus points: if you absolutely must use your devices at night, wear blue-light-blocking glasses, turn on the “Night Shift” mode on your iPhone, or use a computer program like f.lux to limit exposure to blue light, a wavelength more associated with melatonin inhibition.)
- Eat a plant-based diet. Research has shown that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables not only improves sleep quality but also improves your mood and reduces fatigue. There’s also good data that shows eating a meal high in easier-to-digest carbohydrates and protein before bed (with at least an hour to digest) improves sleep. Bonus: it allows the body to focus its nighttime energy on athletic recovery rather than digestion.
- Sleep in a colder environment. Some interesting studies have been done on the temperature of the bedroom. Experts suggest around 60-67F (15-19C) is optimal for the body to feel most comfortable and to prevent insomnia.
- Meditate. Meditation is linked with being calmer and getting higher quality sleep. Even five minutes of deep, focused breathing before bed can bring your heart rate down and help ease wandering thoughts that keep you awake.
All this sleep talk might have you wondering: what about napping? The research is mixed. Some swear by their afternoon naps for better productivity and better sleep, but a nap may also make it harder to fall asleep come nighttime. Experiment to see what works best for you!
A Sample Nighttime Routine
While I don’t have any myself, part of what I know about teaching young kids to sleep is to get them into a regular bedtime routine. From the bath to the toothbrush, then into bed with books and lullabies, many of my friends have set bedtime routines they do with their kids every single night (sometimes even down to the exact books and songs).
That process is what gets the little rascals from full-on playtime mode to slumberland in no time.
So why is it that we, as adults, no longer follow a nighttime routine? (And I don’t mean one that involves a late-night snack, hours on the couch in front of the TV, and a nightcap… Not healthy sleep aids.)
Developing a consistent — healthy — nightly routine for yourself can be profound for syncing up the body clock and promoting restful sleep. Here’s one way to incorporate some of the tips, but don’t be afraid to modify it based on your circumstances (because, life and kids). The important part is getting the body used to winding down and waking up around the same time.
4 hours before bed: Finish last meal, rich in nutrient-dense plant foods and higher in carbohydrates and protein.
2 hours before bed: Turn off digital devices/limit artificial light.
1 hour before bed: Engage in 15 minutes of light stretching and meditation. Focus on the breath and bringing the heart rate down.
30 minutes before bed: Wind down with a book and cold-environment bedroom. (And maybe enjoy a natural sleep aid like Som — see below for Matt Frazier’s note.)
When It Comes to Sleep, Simple Lifestyle Changes Go a Long Way
Picture a world where the afternoon crash is a thing of the past.
Where each morning you wake up feeling rested, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the day.
Sounds ideal, right? And maybe out of reach… if sleeping in every day is a thing of the past.
But thankfully, better sleep isn’t just about sleeping more. It’s also about sleeping more intentionally and effectively.
Incorporating simple steps and habit changes can drastically improve your sleep in the short-term and your life in the long-term, and in turn improve not just the quality of your sleep, but your life and athletic performance.
And it could all start by simply flipping off this screen.
Note from Matt Frazier: To wrap up this post about sleep, I want to point you in the direction of a new sleep product I’ve experimented with, and that (much to my surprise) I actually really like.
My occasional sleep troubles are well-told on NMA Radio, and I’ve found this product (called Som) to be really helpful on nights when my mind is racing and I can’t fall asleep, or when I need to acclimate to a new time zone. It’s been particularly helpful before the two trips to Europe I’ve taken in the past few months. (And just so you know, I don’t have any financial or affiliate relationship with Som, but the company’s CEO John Shegerian is an acquaintance, he sent me a few cans to try out, and I want to help spread the word around their launch this week.)
Som is designed to be drunk a half hour before you get in bed, to help you fall asleep. I’m normally suspicious of any sort of sleep aid, but Som is drug-free; its active ingredients are naturally produced in your body or found in a healthy diet (magnesium, vitamin B6, l-theanine, GABA, and melatonin), and of course it’s vegan. And for what it’s worth, it tastes really good; I actually think of it as a treat on the occasional nights when I drink one before bed.
If you’re interested, check out Som here.