Using Science To Sleep Like a Baby Every Night

David Liira

1 in 3 adults struggle with this, but you don’t have to.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

According to the CDC, more than a third of Americans struggle with falling asleep on a nightly basis. This is extremely disconcerting, due to sleep influencing every corner of our lives, from cardiovascular health to weight gain. Nevertheless, it is often left to the wayside, with over 90 million people acquiring less than seven hours of shut-eye per night.

Why are we struggling to respect sleep and achieve its bare minimum requirements?

The twenty-first century rewards those who overwork themselves. There is a glorification of sleep deprivation and an elevation of squeezing activity into every hour of the day (and night). Add this to the 24-hour access to stimulation through our LED devices, and you have a recipe for constant distraction. Due to the non-stop pulse of our everyday, sleep hygiene has been left in the dust, becoming a luxury for those who have ‘nothing better to do’.

What’s interesting is that there’s no shortage of people seeking solutions to this issue. In 2015, an estimated $41 billion were spent on sleep aids. This industry is expected to grow to $52 billion by the end of 2020. Unfortunately, the efficacy of these popular interventions is seriously lacking.

We’re desperately searching for ways to improve our sleep, but we’re looking in all the wrong places.

Due to the high prevalence of sleep deprivation, many individuals will blame their struggles on genetic disorders. Although conditions such as insomnia are very real, less than 10% of the population struggles with them.

What we don’t often realize, is that we’re very much in control of our sleep (and it doesn’t have to take the form of pill-popping). By making subtle changes in our routines, we can restore the physiological processes of our bodies that have so kindly supported a natural sleep-wake cycle for millennia.

Here are five solutions to falling asleep faster, and achieving a full night of shut-eye.

5 strategies for tonight, and the rest of your life.

1) Dim the lights.

“One hundred years post-Edison, we now understand the biological mechanisms by which the electric lightbulbs managed to veto our natural timing and quality of sleep.” — Matthew Walker, PhD

Our bodies were never designed for artificial light. In a ‘natural’ world, the loss of daylight informs our brain centers that nighttime is now in session, leading to the release of melatonin. This acts as a powerful signal to the body that darkness has arrived and it’s time for bed.

All so abruptly, electric light has put an end to this innate order of things.

The bright, artificial nature of our indoor world puts brakes on the forward progress of biological time, causing sleep to be a challenge. By exposing yourself to light, you can be pushing your biological clock by up to three hours. That’s like time traveling from New York City to San Francisco.

Even the dimmest of bedside lamps can interrupt one’s physiology.

“Despite being just 1 to 2 percent of the strength of daylight, this ambient level of incandescent home lighting can have 50 percent of the melatonin-suppressing influence within your brain”. -Matthew Walker, PhD

Now it’s completely unreasonable to live in the dark. It may be time, however, to invest in some dimmer lights. As for the maintenance of sleep, blackout curtains can go a long way.

As dusk emerges, do everything in your power to keep your inside world on the same trajectory.

2) Put the tech away.

In 1997, the invention of LED lights made our artificial light situation a whole lot worse. Nearly 90% of individuals will use some sort of device within 60 minutes of sleep, despite it having twice the harm of yellow light.

In one study, the use of electronic devices lead to…

  1. A significant loss in REM sleep (the final stage of sleep critical for consolidating information and boosting creativity).
  2. An elevated perception of sleepiness throughout the following day.
  3. A 90 minute lag in melatonin levels for several days after the initial use of the device. This has been framed as the digital hangover effect.

If at all possible, put the phone down at least 60 minutes before bedtime. If your job or lifestyle does not permit this behavior, consider downloading software to help your cause. There are many applications out there to lower the blue light on your screen, supporting an increase in melatonin release before bedtime.

3) Hide the wine bottle.

Although alcohol can make you feel sleepy, it’s just sedating you out of wakefulness, and not inducing natural sleep. Furthermore, drinking tends to fragment sleep, therefore it is not continuous and, as a result, not restorative.

What’s worse, alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep. It has been cited that the metabolism byproducts of alcohol will block the brain’s ability to generate the pulsating beat of brainwaves that otherwise power ‘dream sleep’.

People consuming even a moderate amount of alcohol are depriving themselves of a critical stage of sleep.

It may be completely unrealistic for you to practice abstinence, and that’s ok. Just know that the smaller your alcohol intake, the better your sleep quality.

Moderation is key.

4) Ditch the evening espresso.

An important component of falling asleep is sleep pressure. Simply put, it’s the buildup of a chemical called adenosine that influences your perception of sleepiness. What coffee-lovers may not love to hear, is that you artificially mute this critical sleep signal through caffeine. Essentially, you’re hijacking the natural onset of drowsiness that comes with the day’s end and replacing it with feelings of alertness.

This is no easy interruption to avoid either. Caffeine has a half-life of approximately 5 hours (it will depend on the individual), meaning that 50% of it is still active in your circulation well after consuming the beverage. To keep things safe, abstain from caffeine consumption after approximately 2 pm.

As we age, this effect is particularly potent. This is because the older we are, the longer it takes for the brain and body to remove caffeine.

Although decaf is a clever fix to this issue, it is not perfect. Most decaffeinated options still contain 15–30% caffeine. The best option is to halt your consumption of any caffeine by the early afternoon.

5) Take a bath, and lower your thermostat.

According to Why We Sleep, your core temperature must drop 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit in order to fall asleep. This is why you’ll always find it easier to sleep in a cool room rather than a hot one.

Your nocturnal levels are not only controlled by loss of daylight, but also by a drop in temperature that coincides with the setting sun. — Matthew Walker, PhD

There are two options to support a decrease in body temperature near bedtime. First and most simply, lower your thermostat. A bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for most populations.

Secondly, consider having a warm bath before bed. This will invite blood to surface to the skin, allowing the body to quickly radiate out inner heat once you’re out of the water.

But what about melatonin?

Americans spent 408 million on melatonin in 2017. Although there are some benefits to this synthetic supplement, they are limited. “Usually the people that get more benefit are the elderly” states Alcibiades Rodriguez, MD.

Other populations that could seek melatonin include extreme ‘night owls’, those working night shifts, and individuals with circadian disorders related to blindness. For the average joe, however, there is little evidence for lasting benefits to taking melatonin. If you are uncertain about this medication, speak to your doctor.

If the pros outweigh the cons for you, keep these three things in mind.

Start small and don’t overdo it: Many stores sell supplements that are packed with far more melatonin than the body will ever need.

Make sure it won’t interact dangerously with other drugs: Melatonin may alter the effects of blood pressure and diabetes medications. Get clearance from your doctor before taking the jump.

Be cautious about long-term use: There is little evidence that chronic use is efficacious, or even safe. Try to reserve taking melatonin for when you’re in desperate need of an external sleep aid.

Above all else…

The number one key to maximizing your sleep is setting consistent sleep and wake times, at least on weekdays. This may do more for healthy, rested living than the rest of the tips combined. Although it can be overwhelming at first, give this behavior change some time, and it will gradually start to feel natural.

Consistency. Is. Key.

Sweet Dreams.

Millions of people struggle with sleep every night, but you don’t have to. We have direct control over our sleep hygiene, it’s just a matter of prioritizing it over the seductive lure of Netflix binges and bar crawls. Due to its effects on many facets of our wellness, sleep merits a place on the same cultural ‘health pedestal’ as diet and exercise.

In summary,

  1. Dim the lights.
  2. Drop the device.
  3. Abstain from evening alcohol.
  4. Lower caffeine consumption.
  5. Set a cool, but comfortable sleeping environment.

Bonus: commit to a consistent sleep-wake schedule.

If you can gradually implement these techniques into your routine, you’ll be well on your way to a great night of sleep, and a healthier lifestyle as a whole.

“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together”. — Thomas Dekker.

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Kinesiologist & Blogger. 15k+ followers. Dedicated to writing relevant, up-to-date pieces on health and the human condition. My job (and joy) is to save you time and money by delivering the tools you need to take control of your own wellbeing. https://www.davidliira.com/

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