This is a topic near and dear to my heart. Sleep.

Why do we need sleep? How much of it do we need? How do we get the best quality sleep possible? These are all questions that I’ll cover in today’s post. But before I get to those questions, I want to address some common attitudes towards sleep that we have in our society.

I’m sure you’ve often heard phrases like “sleep is for the weak” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”. This is the attitude many people have towards sleep because it seems to be constantly reinforced in our minds that there is always work to be done and sleep can take a back seat to productivity.

In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, I’ve spoken to people that have told me that they function perfectly well on 5 hours of sleep and have no issues with daily productivity. That may very well be true for a very small select few individuals, but I maintain my stance on sleep because I have lived and witnessed the adverse effects of sleep deprivation and the resulting lack of true productivity that often results.

Spending 5 years as an officer in the Navy, I was routinely exposed to inconsistent duty/watch rotations on a ship at sea and in port. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Navy, officer or enlisted, that has a normal sleep schedule. Watch stations must constantly be manned, and with only a limited number of qualified personnel onboard to man these stations, late-night watch rotations must be adhered to for the ship to operate. Unfortunately, that’s the reality of the job, but I sometimes wonder how many ship groundings or collisions could be avoided if sleep schedules were a bit more prioritized.

Things are a bit different in the civilian world, but that doesn’t mean that sleep is any less important. I also wonder how much more productive those people that “thrive” on 5 hours of sleep could be if they normalized their circadian rhythms and hormones through longer quality sleep.

So, why are the phrases “sleep is for the weak” and “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” misguided? Do me a favor, stay up for 24-48 hours straight and tell me how you feel…actually, don’t do that, but you get the idea. Do you think you’ll feel strong or weak at that 24 hour mark? Probably pretty weak, fuzzy-headed, lethargic, and generally incoherent. So, what happens when we have sufficient, good-quality sleep? Your muscles repair themselves, human growth hormone is released to rebuild the body, new neural connections and memories are formed in the brain, stress levels are reduced, you maintain a normal rhythm for vital hormones to be released, and you wake up feeling fresh, strong and rejuvenated to start your day. Does that sound weak to you? Didn’t think so. Check out the book Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson for some more knowledge bombs in regards to sleep.

In general, as we age, we need less sleep than when we were children or teenagers. You should shoot for 7.5-9 hours of good-quality sleep per night. This changes a bit if you train hard at the gym, which I know most of you reading this do. If that applies to you, guess what, you’re breaking down your muscles and body more than the average person, so your body needs to repair itself more frequently and to a greater extent. This happens through sleep. If this applies to you, shoot for the upper end of that range.

I’ll finish up this post by giving you my 5 most important keys to a quality night of sleep:

  1. Limit or eliminate blue light after dark

This is quite possibly the biggest contributor to lack of quality sleep and restless nights. Let me explain something. Blue light is found in the sun as well as our TV screens, cell phones, tablets, etc. It is beneficial when exposed to sunlight because it regulates our sleep/wake cycles (i.e. circadian rhythm), mood, and alertness. However, when we expose ourselves to this light after dark, when our body starts to settle down and release calming hormones such as melatonin, this blue light effectively suppresses the release of melatonin! The moment it hits your eyes, this triggers a signal to be sent to your brain that it’s daytime and you should be up and moving around. This will have a very adverse affect on your sleep quality and your overall circadian rhythm. Do yourself a favor, turn those screens off at least 1 hour before bed, or if you absolutely need to use a screen or the computer, look into a blue light blocking app like f.lux (www.justgetflux.com)

2. Pay attention to sleep cycles

Our sleep cycles last 90 minutes, where we go from light sleep, to deep sleep, and then to rapid eye movement (i.e. REM) sleep. We typically go through 5-6 of these sleep cycles per night before we’re ready to take on the day (hence 7.5-9 hours of sleep). Try to plan your wakeup time at the end of one of these sleep cycles. If you know you’re going to get less than an optimal amount of time to sleep, try to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle vs. in the middle of one. You will most likely feel better than if you woke up in the middle of a cycle

3. Use blackout curtains and cover up ambient light

This is related to the blue light point I made earlier. Believe it or not, your body also has receptors within your skin that are sensitive to light! Believe it. Boom, here’s just one reference: (Skin Light Receptors). If even ambient light shines on your skin at night it can have an adverse effect on sleep quality. Do your best to keep any light from the outside from coming into your room at night and unplug, turn off, or cover up any nightlights or small lights on your electronic devices (which you shouldn’t have in your bedroom anyway)

4. Keep your room a cool temperature

The optimal temperature for us to sleep in is around 67 degrees fahrenheit, give or take a couple degrees. When we begin to unwind and get ready to go to sleep, our body temperature should naturally come down a bit. If it remains too high, breathing and heart rate will become elevated, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay in a good-quality state of sleep the entire night. You’re much better off setting your thermostat to that range and bundling up under your blanket while sticking an arm or leg out for some thermoregulation than you are sweating your ass off without anything on

5. Settle your mind and body before bed

And finally, we all need to learn to calm ourselves down after a long, stressful day of work before we go to bed. If you come home after work, eat a big meal, watch a bunch of TV shows, and try to go straight to bed just minutes after shutting the TV off, you best believe your sleep quality will suffer. Instead, only eat to satiety, turn off the TV at least an hour before bed, and read a good book in dim light or practice 10-15 minutes of light breathing.

Try this technique to settle your heart rate and body temperature down. Sit comfortably on your bed or floor with your back propped up. Inhale through your nose and expand your belly for 3 seconds, then exhale through your nose for 6 seconds and hold your breath at the bottom for 3 seconds. Repeat until you feel calm, relaxed, and ready to retire. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is stimulated when we exhale, which is why the exhale is double the inhale. The PNS settles you down and reduces heart rate.

I hope you found this article helpful. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments! Happy sleeping.