It’s our second week of tips for a ‘Full Year of Resolutions,’ and we’re going with one of the most important things we can do for our health. And, like last week, it’s one that is easy to talk about, but significantly harder to do. Tip number two is to get better sleep.
Sleep: The Foundation of Optimal Health
Carla and I used to think that sleep was a pillar of health; that sleep was one of a core list of important things we needed to do, such as exercise, eat healthy, and drink enough water. We’ve changed our minds about that, however.
After reading Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, we now realize that sleep is actually the foundation of our health. You can’t out-exercise or eat well enough to overcome a poor night’s sleep. Everything else rests on getting restorative, healthy sleep. It’s critical we learn how we can consistently get a good night’s sleep.
In my early years as a college student and then as a young serial entrepreneur, sleep was simply not a priority for me. And I did okay. I got by. Because our bodies are typically strong and can survive some abuse in our 20s and 30s. But then in my 40s, I started to have some significant health challenges. I started to snore and tossed and turned in my sleep. My health continued to deteriorate, culminating in my battle with cancer. Meanwhile, my sleep was so bad, I’d wake up choking at night and kept Carla awake with my snoring.
A Sleep Study Test Might Help
In the midst of my cancer battle I finally did a sleep study test. Turns out I had two forms of sleep apnea. One, called obstructive sleep apnea, affects my throat. The other is a brain condition called central sleep apnea, in which the brain does not tell the lungs to inflate. I immediately started using a BiPAP machine to help me breathe, and as I started sleeping through the night, my health also began to improve.
Over the next few years I worked hard to improve my health in other ways as well. I lost weight and my body ‘right-sized,’ and eventually I no longer need the BiPAP. Now, I still carefully track my sleep. Using some cool technology (check it out here), each morning I can see my heart rate throughout the previous night, when I was restless, how much deep sleep and REM sleep I had, etc. A snore app is also very helpful. All of this information allows me to continually make necessary tweaks so I can get really good sleep. Today I am consistently able to get healthy sleep without snoring, and I am able to do it naturally.
This has made a big difference for my wife Carla as well. Now that I sleep better, she sleeps better. (Most couples know how much it affects both of them if one of them is struggling to sleep!)
Our Brains and Sleep
In the book Why We Sleep, Walker explains why sleep is so crucial. Our brains don’t have a lymphatic system. When we sleep, our brains actually physically shrink a little bit so the built-up toxins can be removed. There are multiple studies about how much this affects our ability to perform. Sleep affects everything, including our immune system. It also particularly affects our ability to learn, retain, and remember information. And even one night of poor sleep negatively impacts all these areas.
So how can we actually get better sleep? Here are some tips we’ve learned over the years that have worked for us.
Tips for Getting Better Sleep
Better Mattress = Better Sleep
First, get the right mattress. This is one of the most important investments you can make for yourself. Think about how much time we spend here! A third of our life is spent in sleep. By the time you’re 50, the average person has spent 18 years asleep. That self deserves a good mattress to sleep on!
Carla and I made the investment to get an adjustable bed. This was a great choice for us. I did a lot of research and study and learned that sleeping at zero gravity is good for the heart. I have back and neck issues, and my doctor said I could stop all the pain if I’d sleep on my back. Sleeping in zero gravity puts your knees up and back up a bit and you can’t roll, so it trains you to sleep on your back. I’d always been a side sleeper., but this worked very well for me.
With a split mattress, we could also each get the right softness that we need. I sleep on a super soft mattress, but Carla likes it more firm. It’s taken us some time to figure all of this out, but it works so well for each of us, and this investment has been more than worth it.
Keep Your Room Dark
Another tip is to get your room really dark. We purchased blackout shades for our room, so we don’t get woken up by the natural light. This makes a big difference, as light gives your brain the signal that it’s time to wake up. Darkness tells your body that it’s time to go to sleep.
Put Down the Device
This brings me to a really big sleep distraction: our electronic devices. The light our phones and tablets emit is very confusing to our brains. The light and noise from these devices disturb and interrupt the amount of REM sleep we are able to get.
Carla and I put our phones in the bathroom and close the door. We can still hear the alarm in the morning, but we can’t hear anything else, and our sleep isn’t disturbed by our phones.
Also, the blue light our phones emit makes it hard to fall asleep. If you must be on a device before bed, it’s recommended you wear blue light glasses. If you look at a screen during the last couple of hours of the day (phone, TV, or tablet), blue light glasses will keep out that light that makes it so hard for our brains to shut off and sleep.
Have a Routine
Anyone who’s had little children knows we work very hard to get them to sleep. We have a whole routine every night, as we read to them, bathe them, and sing to them, all in hopes they will sleep well. Adults need a similar routine to let our brains know it’s time for bed.
Carla and I try to start to wind down for bed around 8:00 each night. We try to be in bed by 9:45 so that we can be asleep by 10:00. We’ve discovered if we do this, we consistently wake up around 5:45 or 6:00, feeling refreshed and ready for the day. When we do this consistently, our body gets used to the routine.
Sleep research says you need to figure out what your optimal bedtime is, and then go to bed and get up at the same time every day, no matter what. We know this can be very hard to do! Especially on weekends. But research says to keep your routine the same all the time. And, if you do, you’ll be rewarded. We’ve definitely seen that in our lives.
Limit Food and Beverages at Night
It’s really helped Carla and me to not eat after 7:00 pm. This means that by bedtime, our stomachs are done processing our dinner. We also try to drink our water for the day before 7:00 pm, so that our night isn’t interrupted by multiple bathroom trips. We don’t do caffeine after 4:00, so there are no stimulants in the body at bedtime. When I hit the bed, I really go out fast – like within 30-40 seconds fast.
Of course there are exceptions to this. When there is a crisis in our family, for example, it makes it much harder to fall asleep. Or, like last week, when I was sick and the coughing made it hard for me to fall asleep. When that happens, I take some extra ‘sleep steps.’ After years of studying how to train the brain, I created a series of CDs. One of them is called Deep Sleep.
When it’s harder for me to fall asleep, I turn that on, follow the routine, do the visualization, and fall asleep quite quickly. If you struggle to fall asleep, I highly recommend doing something like this every night. It will get to the point where you just have to turn it on and your brain immediately recognizes, “Oh, it’s time to go to sleep now.” My Deep Sleep Brain Training CD is available through our More Than Healthy app for both iPhone and Android.
What Works for You
We recognize that our situation is likely different than yours. We’re older, and we’re not in the thick of raising kids anymore. There aren’t as many late night commitments, and we have flexibility with running our own business, etc. But we’ve been there, and we get it. We know that setting (and keeping) a sleep routine can be difficult. But we also now know how vital it is, and that it is worth it to work harder at it. Perhaps your routine is 11:00-7:00, or 12:00-8:00. Try to find what works best for you and then prioritize it so you can get a full night’s sleep.
Healthy Sleep Makes All the Difference!
Just three years ago I was a very different person. I was so miserable and sick. Additionally, I was fighting the depression that often accompanies chronic pain and illness. And, very frightening for both me and my wife, was the severe brain fog that I also constantly battled.
Fast forward to today…wow, what a difference! I have energy and vitality! I feel great! And I can remember things! My brain fog has disappeared. It’s all just amazing to me!
If you’re able to prioritize sleep, you will feel better in every way. After a good night’s sleep, you’re more productive. You’re happier. You feel better. You’ll have more energy and increased ability to commit to other important changes that will affect your health. It’s critical to your physical and your psychological health. Everything is tied to sleep.
How well did you sleep last night? This year, you get to be the scientist and make the changes you need for optimal health in your life. Here at More Than Healthy, we hope that 2022 is filled with lots of healthy, restorative sleep!
Learn more about how to improve your sleep in our book Eating to Live: Unlocking the Leaky Gut Code, available now. Please feel free to leave any comments or ask any questions below. We’d love to hear what’s worked for you.