How to sleep better.

Six out of 10 people don't get enough sleep.  This has a knock on effect on every single physical, mental and performance metric you could think of.  It will affect your strength, motivation, weight, willpower, recovery between workouts and even how your body process sugar and fat.  What is strange to me is that this area of 'fitness and health' is given far less publicity than food and exercise.  Severe enough sleep deprivation will make hard training either impossible due to being unable to recover in time to see progress or difficult as you are unable to perform at a level even close to your best. It will make following a good diet challenging as you will be riddled with cravings and desperate for a sugary 'pick me up'.

If you were to use Google, Facebook or Instagram to begin finding out what you needed to do to get strong and healthy you would find an overwhelming amount of information regarding different weird and wonderful exercises and workouts. This is simply because looking at sexy people training is easy to market and novelty guarantees likes and shares.

If you were to narrow your search down to more legitimate sources you would start to find information on complete training plans rather than individual workouts and more information on nutrition.  Legitimate fitness authorities spend a lot of time talking about the importance of exercise and about an equal amount of time talking about diet and nutrition.  Some more health focused experts will focus more heavily on how vital good nutrition is and maybe spend some time on other lifestyle factors but it's still food and exercise that take up the bulk of the information.

This heavy focus on exercise and food makes it seem like these two things that need to be focused on to get fit and achieve your goals.  It is true that these two things are incredibly important but the main reason that they are the big focus of the experts attention is that they are the most easily controlled. However hard you find it is sticking to a diet program cannot deny that is your choice what you put in your mouth And however much you hate the gym any able-bodied person is in control of how much or little they move around. 

In contrast, how well or badly a person sleeps is often seen as something they have no control over. If you are very busy and frequently get in late have to get up early this is usually excepted and seen as something you just have to deal with. If you frequently wake up in the night or find it very difficult to get to or remain asleep again this is considered something you just have to deal with.

Sleep is just as important as exercise and nutrition to the success of any improvement you may hope to make. However hard you train you will only see progress if you are able to recover from the workouts and this requires both correct nutrition and adequate sleep.  Inadequate sleep will also make training at your full ability very difficult assuming you can even find the motivation to show up in the first place. Sleep deprivation also affects how your body processes fat and sugar and can set you up for more serious food cravings that will often derail a diet. Hilariously these food choices that are made due to sleep deprivation are also often the same things that cause you to sleep badly in the first place this is doubly so for coffee.  Sleep badly, perk yourself up with donuts and coffee throughout the day until you are so jittery with caffeine and your blood sugar is so out of control that your chance of a good nights sleep is approaching zero.

This can lead to a vicious cycle called adrenal fatigue. Where your adrenal glands are so active during the day producing adrenaline and cortisol that when they switch off at night they have a difficult time switching back on in the morning. This leaves you feeling like a zombie for most of your day and when they do start becoming active again in the later afternoon and evening you feel far more alive and awake which makes falling asleep almost impossible. This leads to even more severe adrenal fatigue the following day.

While I will not argue that sleep can be controlled anything like as closely as food or exercise you should still not feel completely helpless.  There are many many things that you can do directly or indirectly to increase the chances of consistently good sleep.

#1 actually giving yourself enough time to sleep

Depending on the quality of your sleep you will need somewhere between 6 and 9 hours of sleep to feel well rested. While I would obviously suggest working on increasing the quality of your sleep the first thing that should be fixed is allowing yourself enough time to get necessary quantity. For some people this can be difficult and will require larger changes in that lifestyle to make this a priority. I for example often used to train clients at 9pm and then again at 6am the following morning. When you consider that it took me about an hour to get to and from work that only left me 7 hours between stepping off the bus at home at night and stepping onto it again in the morning.  Assuming I actually wanted to eat and a shower this would not leave me very much time.  I put this point first because it is the simplest to fix. I simply blocked off the hours between 9 and 6  in my calendar to allow myself at least to the very minimum quantity of sleep I require.  Being my own boss I did not need to convince anybody else that this is necessary but if you are in a similar situation I highly advise that you speak to somebody and do not do not just accept  unsustainable hours long-term.  The other category of people this applies to is people who do have adequate hours but choose to use them poorly. If you often find yourself reading or binging on Netflix late into the night when you know you have to be up early then this is you.  Most people are very aware of when they have to wake up in the morning.  If you know that you need to be awake at 6 AM then make sure that you are in bed with the lights off trying to sleep at very minimum six hours for that time. If you know that six hours of sleep leaves you feeling terrible then either work on sleep quality or go to sleep an hour or three earlier.

#2 Make sure you are 'ready' to sleep.

The reason that sleep is so important as it is a huge part of the interplay between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is the 'fight or flight' part of you that deals with action and the parasympathetic nervous system is a part of you that deals with food, relaxation, recovery and sleep.  If you try to sleep while the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant you don't find it extremely difficult. This could mean avoiding extremely obvious things such as hard exercise, screaming arguments, and large quantities of stimulants such as caffeine but also less obvious things such as exposure to bright or blue lights. Blue lights such as what you will find in most tablets, cell phones and television screens operate on a very similar wavelength to the light at dawn this pushes your body into its parasympathetic nervous system which will make falling asleep extremely difficult. Simply put you shouldn't try to wind down from a stressful day by sitting in front of an iPad screen binging on YouTube videos. Studies have shown that even checking your Facebook feed on a cell phone for bed can seriously affect your sleep.

#3 ensure good sleep hygiene.

The last point about blue lights and cell phones leads into this one and the introduces the phrase 'sleep hygiene'.  Sleep hygiene is definitely not what it sounds like, it is in fact making sure that while you are asleep there is nothing that is going to disturb you.  Making sure the room you're sleeping in is as dark as possible and is a comfortable temperature slightly on the cool side, that there are no lights such as standby LEDs, alarm clocks or other light sources in the room and that there is nothing nearby to distract you while trying to sleep (Facebook on a phone again). Make sure the displays of any alarm clocks are hidden, make sure you're not going to be tempted to grab a tablet in the middle of the night and check your social media feeds and make sure that any standby LEDs in the room are covered with duct tape. Some people even go as far as to install blackout blinds and to sleep with earplugs.

#4 eat properly.

This circles back around to my first point about why I think that sleep never receives the same attention as food and exercise. Quality sleep is dependent on lots of other lifestyle factors. How are you eat is going to determine how well your body manages blood sugar and how much stress you are under. If you live from sugary pick me up sugary pick me up then the chance of your blood sugar level staying balanced through an entire nights sleep is very low and you will probably find you will wake up in the middle of the night often feeling inexplicably depressed.  Having a protein and fat based meal in the evening or even just throwing back a protein shake  before bed can help a lot.  If you on the other hand eat far too little carbohydrate fat or protein your body will be under a degree of nutritional stress which as mentioned before will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system and make it much harder to relax and sleep. Ensuring that you are eating enough of everything by planning and tracking your diet somehow is essential.  If you, like the vast majority of people are trying to lose weight and you are trying to minimise your daily carbs then making sure that a good piece of your carbohydrate intake is eaten before bed will help encourage your sympathetic nervous system to take over and allow you to sleep more easily.  I know this is different from the advice you have for many places but if sleep is an issue this may make a huge difference.  (If you are much more active and are eating a higher quantity of daily carbohydrate then this should be eaten before and after exercise with less focus on the meal before bed).

#5 don't have any deficiencies.

While technically not eating enough of the three macronutrients could be considered a deficiency for this point I am talking about vitamins and minerals. The absolutely fundamental area to focus on with this is ensuring that you eat lots of vegetables and a nice varied collection of sources of fat and protein. I have noticed that whenever I reduce my intake of red meat or animal products in general my sleep always suffers.  There is obviously something that I need in there somewhere.  Ever since this discovery I always recommend magnesium supplementation to anybody who is having problems sleeping. If a person is willing to splash a little cash I would suggest upgrading this to ZMA instead. This is a blend of zinc, magnesium and some B vitamins and promotes much deeper high-quality sleep. Nearly everybody to start taking this notices an improvement almost straight away.

#6 have something to actually recover from.

Life is all about balance. If you are never actually tired then you are never going to need to sleep to recover and as a result you will never really rest which leave you constantly in a kind of gray haze. Making sure that you are active enough during your day and engaged in some kind of physical exercise is often enough to help people to sleep better. If you spend an entire day cuddled up on the sofa watching television then it is unlikely that you'll gonna find it easy to fall asleep that evening.

#7 learn how to actually relax

If the only moment during the day that you are not distracted and have nothing to do is when you are laying in bed trying to fall asleep then don't be surprised if you find that your brain is barraged with thoughts worries and anxieties from the day. If you're always busy or distracting yourself with television, conversation or electronic devices then it is very possible that you will find it very hard to relax when required.  I know that as soon as I use the word meditation I'm going to put lots of people off as it conjures up images of sitting on Tibetan mountaintops and chanting but all I'm suggesting is that a few times a day you sit quietly for between 4 and 20 minutes and try to empty your mind. At first you will absolutely suck at this and you will feel distracted and even possibly anxious and uncomfortable. Gradually it will feel easier and easier to empty your mind and can actually be extremely peaceful and enjoyable.  There are thousands of guided meditation videos and for some people this is extremely helpful I can also recommend binaural beats. This is an audio track that plays at a particular frequency and helps relax your mind and slows down your brain waves pushing you into a meditative state a little more easily.

This list of points is by no means exhaustive and I'm sure I could write another 10,000 words on other methods of improving sleep. Some people swear by cold showers before bed and some people will take melatonin supplements or hormonal precursors. Other far more common methods might include drinking something warm and milky before bed or herbal teas of some kind. Valerian and chamomile are both quite suitable for this.

The important thing I want to take away from this article is that your sleep quality and quantity isn't something that you are stuck with and just like your diet is important that you stay in control and if your sleep is unacceptable you take the responsibility to fix it. There are a lot of things that have to be tried and tested before you can justifiably say it is out of your control.

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Richard@ForceOfNaturePT.com

07958014100