By Max Lowery
It's hard to overstate just how important sleep is in terms of our health. I know, because I learned the hard way.
My first job was as a stockbroker, which meant making at 5am, starting work at 7am, and then often staying out in the evenings to entertain clients. I can't count the amount of times my alarm rang after two or three hours of sleep and I pulled my body onto that early morning commuter train.
I always intended to make up for lost time over the weekends, of course. But I normally just spent them out partying.
I had the benefit of youth on my side, but it took its toll. After a few years I was feeling constantly terrible. It got so years I jacked in the finance career and set myself on a trajectory for a healthier lifestyle as a personal trainer.
Today, I understand that sleep is simply the most important factor in our health and wellbeing - even before diet and exercise. You can exercise all you want, or eat as squeaky clean as can be, but the brutal truth is that if you don't sleep enough, and you don't sleep well enough, all your hard work will basically go wasted.
Lack of sleep catches up with everyone, however much you can bench press, or whatever your personal best is on the rowing machine.
Towards the end of my time working in the City, I discovered a sleep tracking app called “Sleep Cycle” which allowed me to create a log of my sleeping habits. I was curious about the patterns I saw, and dived into the literature to deepen my understanding. Harnessing what I learned made a huge difference to the quality of my sleep and my overall wellbeing.
As many of you may know, the average person needs to go through five sleep cycles a night. Each cycle lasts roughly 90 minutes and is made up of four stages:
Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Stage 1: You have just turned the lights out and you are beginning to drift in and out of consciousness. You may experience a falling or jerking sensation from time to time.
NREM Stage 2: Your heart rate slows and your body temperature drops. You can still be easily woken in this stage, and this is where most of your sleep time is spent.
NREM Stage 3 - Deep Sleep: You will be very difficult to wake up, and will experience “sleep inertia” – that confused, groggy, irritable feeling you get after being woken up by something – if your slumber is broken.
REM Sleep: “REM” stands for Rapid Eye Movement. In this stage, your heart rate and breathing quickens, and you dream. Your body is paralysed and your brain is highly active.
Each stage is just as important as the next; you need to spend adequate time in each one to get a good night’s sleep.
It’s best to wake during the lightest sleep phases (stages 1 or 2) if you want to feel refreshed and ready for the day. One of the most powerful insights I gleaned from my research is that more sleep doesn’t necessarily mean better sleep: the quality and efficiency of your rest is more important.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR CIRCADIAN RHYTHM (BODY CLOCK)
A circadian rhythm is a roughly 24-hour cycle in the physiological processes of living beings, including plants, animals, and fungi. Circadian rhythms are important in determining the sleeping and feeding patterns of all animals, including human beings. They are the product of millions of years of evolution and should be understood and respected by everyone.
The body clock is controlled by an area of the brain that responds to light, which is why humans are most alert while the sun is shining and are ready to sleep when it’s dark outside. Everyone’s rhythm is unique - hence why some people are “night owls” and others “morning larks”. Fighting your natural urges to sleep messes with your circadian rhythm, and will ultimately diminish the quality of your sleep.
The single most important factor in keeping your circadian rhythm in balance is routine; going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time is incredibly important.
HOW THE MODERN LIFESTYLE AFFECTS OUR CIRCADIAN RHYTHM
Smart phones, tablets, TV screens and even electric lights are a very new phenomenon in the history of the human species. For thousands of years our daily habits and routines were determined by the sun. As the sun goes down the light changes, becoming more and more orange. The dimming of the light initiates melatonin secretion (the sleep hormone) in the brain. Early Man took this as his cue to eat whatever had been caught that day and start preparing for sleep. The only light source after sunset was the amber glow of the fire.
Today, the light that comes off our smartphones and tablets mimics the light of full daylight, messing with the secretion of melatonin and ultimately affecting our sleep patterns. Sugar, caffeine and nicotine can all also degrade the quality of our sleep.
HOW TO OPTIMISE YOUR SLEEP, IN FOUR EASY STEPS
- PICK A CONSTANT WAKING TIME
This is rule number one; your circadian rhythm is governed by routine. Consistency optimises the quality and efficiency of your sleep. You need to be waking up at the same time every single morning - and yes, that includes weekends!
- PICK A CONSTANT BED TIME
Once you have chosen your waking time, work back in cycles to figure out when you need to go to bed. This ensures that you will be in the lightest sleep phase when you wake up, meaning you will start the day feeling refreshed. Remember: one cycle lasts 90 minutes and the average person needs five cycles per night, so you should be aiming for roughly 7 hours and 30 minutes sleep.
- OPTIMISE YOUR SLEEPING ENVIRONMENT
In an ideal world your bedroom should be a place dedicated to rest and relaxation. This means that your brain will automatically start to switch off whenever you step through the door.
Here's how to start ...
Empty your room. TV’s and other gadgets are sources of mental stimulation and distraction, they make it much harder to wind down in the evening.
Black-out blinds are essential. You don’t want your melatonin schedule to be affected by fluorescent lights outside. (An eye mask is a viable alternative if this isn’t an option for you.)
Your bedroom should be cooler than the rest of the house, with circulating fresh air. Studies suggest that the ideal bedroom temperature is 18-20C.
Use earplugs. I swear by them!
- CONSIDER SUPPLEMENTS
These are not sleeping pills! They are natural supplements that can assist in regulating sleep hormones.
Research into the below - and seek advice from a doctor before trying anything new.
Magnesium with L-threonate: Studies suggest that the L-threonate increases magnesium absorbsion. I have been using this for a few months now and have found it quite effective. I am naturally more of an early riser and tend to be a light sleeper; this product has helped reduce the number of times I wake up during the night.
Valerian: A herb that's often recommended to reduce the amount of time it takes to nod off.
5HTP: This molecule acts as a precursor to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter essential for a good night’s sleep.
Melatonin: This hormone can be used in supplement form as an occasional sleep aid, and is especially effective against jet lag