Sleep – Nature’s Performance Enhancing Drug

The benefits of sleep

We all know that sleep is important. The problem is, most of us are unaware of just how important consistent quality sleep really is. The average person may think they’re fine with 5-6 hours of sleep, but chances are they could be far better with a couple more hours, but they just don’t know it.

There are rare genetic exceptions to this rule, but most of us need 7-9 hours of sleep per night in order to optimize our lives. We are not all The Rock, David Goggins or Jocko Willink (who all happen to have the genetically inherited ability to crush life on less sleep). The main issue that holds most people back is that they do not make sleep a priority. We prioritize work, eating, spending time with family, and hopefully exercising regularly, but sadly, sleep often takes a back seat.

Many will make excuses for why they don’t get adequate sleep. Most of them are invalid. The “I don’t have time” excuse is garbage, because if you slept more, you’d get more done during your hours awake. That is not up for debate. The only sleep excuse that is valid is if you’re a parent to a newborn that has no choice but to be awake far more often than any human should be. This is only a tiny percentage of people and only for a short amount of time, however. If you have the life circumstances to sleep through the night, you should take advantage of it. Being well-rested makes people far more productive.

The excuse that you “don’t have time to sleep”, is not taking into account that you get fewer tasks done throughout your day because you’re tired. Getting more and better sleep will enable you to attack your daily tasks with more focus and efficiency. Making sleep a priority can truly change your life. In this post I will provide you with everything you need in your toolbox in order to improve your sleep.

Effects of poor sleep

Sleep is an essential human activity, and without it, we would die. Perhaps not as quickly as we would without drinking water, but eventually, not sleeping will literally cause death. The human body, when severely sleep deprived, will shut down. I’ve been through certain military training courses where sleep deprivation is enforced in order to add high levels of stress to the students.

I’ve seen and experienced personally some absolutely mind-blowing physical can mental effects of sleep deprivation. It is often the equalizer, especially at US Army Ranger school. You can be an absolute savage going into the first week, but after day 5 (when you do a 12 mile ruck march after 3-4 hours of total sleep during the week), everyone is on the same playing field. Lack of sleep can also cause psychosis. Sleep deprivation is commonly used as a torture technique. Keeping a prisoner or detainee awake for days at a time through the use of extremely loud and disturbing music and noises has proven quite successful in getting them to give up information they’ve been withholding.

Fortunately, none of us are in this position, but unfortunately, we still choose to deprive ourselves of the quality and quantity of sleep we could be benefiting from. Lack of adequate sleep causes many unwanted side effects such as irritability, brain fog, lack of motivation and drive, inability to complete simple daily tasks, hormonal issues like low testosterone in men and high cortisol in both sexes.

The sleep deprived individual will also suffer from lackluster workouts, poor recovery between training sessions, and little to no progress in the gym. To make matters worse, the fatigue they experience will likely lead to becoming over-reliant on stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, or in extreme cases, adderall or modafinil. This is a problem that builds on itself and leads to a downward spiral, because caffeine will keep you awake, but will then also interfere with your sleep.

Studies show that chronic inadequate sleep decreases life expectancy across the board, and increases all-cause mortality rates. In a 20+ year sleep study conducted by the American College of Cardiology, participants in the study who slept less than 6 hours per night on average who had high blood pressure or diabetes (likely due in part to their lack of sleep in the first place) had an 83% higher chance of death than those who averaged over 6 hours. When sleep is not prioritized, it can become an ongoing process that will only be resolved by drastic lifestyle changes. More on stimulants below.

What happens to your body while you sleep?

Now that you have a good understanding of all the negative effects that poor sleep has on your life, let’s get into the positives of consistent adequate sleep. While you’re sleeping, there are many processes taking place in the body. Each of these positive adaptations take place during different stages of sleep. Your brain is recovering and regenerating during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

During this stage, what you’ve learned that day becomes cemented into memory. Neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine and serotonin are regenerated, which are responsible for being awake and alert and regulating your mood during the day. REM is also the stage of sleep responsible for regulating your emotions. Because your brain is so active during REM, this is when you’ll experience dreams.

Often people who claim they don’t have dreams are deprived of this important stage of sleep. The average adult spends about 20-25% of their time sleeping in REM. A good night of sleep can lead to more productivity, happiness, motivation, mental acuity, and control of emotions the following day.

Deep sleep is the other vital stage of sleep in which physical recovery and adaptations take place. Spending little time in deep sleep is a huge problem for anyone who has fitness or performance goals. Growth hormone is released into the bloodstream during this phase, and missing out on it will lead to a lack of physical recovery from your day’s activities.

Following the best workout and nutrition program in the world will not get you very far if you don’t prioritize quality sleep. This is why individuals who participate in intense exercises on a regular basis often can benefit from even more sleep than the average person requires. Many elite level athletes strive to obtain upwards of 9 hours per night so they can optimize their physical performance. The immune system also recovers and strengthens during deep sleep and cells in your body regenerate. We all know the importance of a strong immune system.

Ideally, your REM to deep sleep ratio should be about 1:1, and equate to approximately half of your total sleep. For example, during a great night of sleep that lasts 8 hours, REM and Deep sleep should equate to approximately 2 hours each (this is very individual, numbers are hypothetical). The other half will be spent in light sleep (which has 2 different stages). Light sleep is important because it allows the sleep cycle to repeat numerous times per night. Poor sleep can also lead to high cortisol levels.

Cortisol is a stress hormone responsible for your sympathetic nervous system tone, or “fight or flight” response. Cortisol is essential to daily living, but chronically high cortisol leaves the body in a constant state of low-level stress. High cortisol is another example of a compounding effect, as it’s the result of poor sleep but also leads to difficulty falling asleep the next night, especially when coupled with caffeine.

You can see how this process can spiral out of control unless deliberate action is taken. In a hormonally healthy, well rested individual, cortisol is highest in the morning and around workouts, and should decrease as the day progresses. When cortisol is low, melatonin (your body’s sleep hormone) can be released, enabling you to relax and wind down prior to going to sleep. To make matters worse, people who lack sleep also lack hormones that are responsible for appetite control.

Lack of sleep leads to low leptin levels (the hormone that makes you feel full after eating), and high ghrelin levels (the hormone that makes you want to eat). Some people are genetically predisposed to have high ghrelin and low leptin. These people tend to struggle significantly with body fat control. Adding poor sleep to already high levels of ghrelin and low levels of leptin is a recipe for obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Bottom line, if you’re missing out on quality sleep, your physical, cognitive, mental and emotional health will suffer. 

How to improve your sleep

Now that you’re educated on the benefits of sleep, and perhaps even stressed about what happens to people who don’t sleep enough, let’s get into how you can make small changes and develop habits to achieve better sleep. In the big picture, regulation of your body’s circadian rhythm, or sleep/wake cycle. The techniques and tips included in this article all tie back to humans' evolutionary and biological need for sleep.

Evolutionarily speaking, humans are meant to be awake during daylight and asleep during dark hours. You may notice that in the winter when days are shorter, you feel the need for a bit more sleep.

My next sleep tip relates to the circadian rhythm. The absolute simplest and best way to regulate your circadian rhythm (besides sleep/wake time consistency) is to go outside with as much skin exposed as possible each morning and get 10-15 minutes of sunlight (if it’s not sunny, it still works). This should ideally be timed at or around sunrise, but can realistically be any time in the early to mid morning.

Exposing your skin and eyes to the sun as it comes up or soon after will let your body know that it’s daytime and that tonight when it gets dark, it’s time to sleep. Sounds woo woo and very simplistic, but try it out for a week and tell me it doesn't make a difference. An easy way to kill multiple birds with one stone is to take your dog (if you have one) for a morning walk (shirtless if possible, and always without sunglasses). This keeps you active, your dog healthy, sets your circadian rhythm, and provides your body with vitamin D, an essential vitamin that most of us are deficient in (deficiency can also contribute to poor sleep).

Another great hack for sleep is to follow the 10,3,2,1, 0 rule daily. 10 hours before sleep, you’ll cut out caffeine. 3 hours before sleep is your last sip of alcohol (ensure you’re drinking sensibly, or not at all) and your last meal, 2 hours before sleep, your work day is over, and an hour before sleep, all screen time is cut off. The 0 is for how many times you’ll press snooze. You are no longer in highschool, my friend. The snooze button is off limits for a functional adult. No exceptions. Set your alarm for when you need to wake up, and get out of bed as soon as you shut it off.

You’ll likely find that when you begin implementing some or all of these sleep improvement tools that you’ll begin to wake up before your alarm anyway. Also, no more watching your favorite netflix show, surfing IG, or reading on your computer screen until you nod off. Some or all of these habits may be tough for some people. If you don’t currently adhere to any of them, I suggest tackling one at a time.

Once that becomes a habit, move to the next one. For me, the 1 hour of no screen time is still a work in progress, as is the last meal 3 hours prior to bed (I love to eat a big dinner later in the evening) but I’m getting better at it. Up until about a year ago it was the alcohol, I would regularly enjoy a beer or two before and with dinner.

This had no effect on my body fat levels and I was still performing well physically, but it definitely had an effect on my sleep, anxiety, and mental performance. Alcohol increases your resting heart rate and also causes a blood sugar spike later in the night/early morning hours, which is why you’ll often find yourself awake and unable to fall back asleep sometime around 1-3 AM after drinking a few beverages the evening prior.

The caffeine, work, and snooze button are generally not an issue for me, but I understand if they are for you. If you usually have a cup of coffee at 4pm, switch it to 3:30 for a week. Then next week, cut it at 3PM, and so on. Soon you’ll be having your caffeine only in the morning and only when you need it.

In my experience, the sleep improvement hack that has been the biggest game changer (I use that term very sparingly), is going to bed and waking up at the same time daily. Of all the lifestyle changes I’ve made to improve sleep, this one has had the most profound effect . If you do this, I guarantee you’ll notice significant improvements in your sleep, and reap all the benefits that better sleep provides in your daily life.

I know that we all have different life circumstances, and that this is not always possible, especially when it comes to going to bed at the same time. Once you have a wake-up time established, you can back-plan 7-9 hours to establish your bedtime. This ties back to our circadian rhythm. Think about any habit that you have, and how your body has just become accustomed to it. Think about how easy and mindless it is to do it exactly when it needs to be done.

If you turn your sleep and wake times into a habit, your stress levels will decrease, your energy will increase, you’ll get more done, you’ll have better training sessions, and you’ll just be happier overall. This is not just for weekdays, either. Weekends too. If you miss a day, or accidentally sleep in, just get right back on track. If you get a night of poor sleep or were out late, still get up at your normal wake up time. Take a nap that day, or get to sleep even earlier the following night.

For me, I get into bed by 8, and read, chat with my wife, or play with my dog. By 9PM, but usually closer to 8:30 or 8:45, it’s lights out, head on pillow. I have an alarm that goes off between 4:30 and 4:45 AM (it senses when I’m in light sleep and goes off accordingly) and I’m out of bed walking out of the bedroom less than 30 seconds later. No snooze allowed.

The Lazy Man’s Sleep Hacks 

Although I personally use supplements, they wouldn't be of much benefit if I didn't have all my other ducks in a row. Relying on supplements for sleep is not the answer. However, once you’ve established a solid routine of good sleep habits, supplementation can bring you the last 2-3% of the way to optimal sleep.

I personally use magnesium threonate, 500mg, and 4-5 grams of glycine about an hour before bed. Occasionally I’ll pop 3mg of melatonin when I begin reading if I have had a stint of poor sleep or if I've switched time zones recently and I’m in need of a great night of sleep. Do not overuse melatonin, it will lose its effect and you could experience a rebound effect when coming off it, resulting in a few nights of inadequate sleep.

An evening wind-down routine can also go a long way. Following the 10,3,2,1,0 rule can help with this. If you’re wound up, mentally stimulated, watching a stressful show, or working too late, it can be hard to turn off your brain. This is why I recommend finding something relaxing to do for at least 30 minutes, but preferably an hour before bed time.

You can read, write (hand write, no computer!), prepare your food and clothes for the next day, do some low stress chores, chat with your spouse, hang out with your dog, or my personal favorite (I don’t do this often enough), go outside and stare at the stars and take in the silence of the night. Whatever helps you decompress from any stress and anxiety the day has brought you.

The big thing to remember is to try not to stress about falling asleep or not getting enough sleep. The majority of people who suffer from insomnia do not actually have the inability to sleep. What they do have is severe “sleep anxiety” and lack of belief in their own ability to fall asleep. If you have trouble falling asleep sometimes, instead of stressing about it, use this time to get some low key tasks done. Or, lay in bed and let your brain wander. If you have a lot of thoughts giving you anxiety, write them down on a piece of paper. This often helps you stress about them less.

There are also some “hacks'' you can utilize in order to improve your sleep such as ensuring your room is completely dark, turning the thermostat down (62-68 is the ideal range for sleep), or purchasing a cooling mattress pad from a company like Eightsleep or Chilisleep. You can also wear blue light blocking glasses if you just can’t avoid that IG check before bed. Some people find that taking a hot shower before bed can help, because when you get out, your body temperature decreases, which is ideal for sleep and relaxation. 

Wrapping it up

As you can see, there are a plethora of techniques you can try in order to improve your sleep. Yes, it may take some effort and some serious lifestyle changes, depending on what you do now. I hate to break it to you, but living a more disciplined and successful life takes effort. But I can assure you, once you begin to feel the wonderful benefits that consistent quality sleep provides, you’ll wonder why you didn’t take it seriously sooner!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on sleep! What are your favorite benefits of sleep that you’ve noticed in your life? What are your sleep rituals, hacks, and non-negotiables? Leave a comment below!

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