There is nothing more important for your health than your sleep. It directly affects every single process in your body; including brain function, immune system regulation, hormonal balance, muscle repair, metabolism and energy levels. But in today’s fast paced modern world, many of us do not get enough.
Staying fit and healthy has never been more popular. But whilst many of us are super strict with our diet and exercise, why is sleep still looked at as a necessity rather than a priority?
Sure, you might get by on 6 hours of sleep a night. But if you want to be truly healthy, you’re going to need a lot more. 8 is the magic number – and in some people, it’s even higher.
If you’re struggling to lose weight or build muscle, the chances are your sleep has something to do with it. If your hormones are out of whack, you’re irritable, or you can’t concentrate at work, the first place to look is between the sheets.
So how do you go about improving your sleep quality?
8 simple steps to sleep like a baby
#1 – Get into a routine
Our sleep is determined by our circadian rhythm – that is, our internal body clock that tells us when we should be awake and when we should sleep. Our circadian rhythm governs the production of melatonin, the primary sleep hormone; but when our sleep patterns become erratic, our melatonin production is disrupted.
By going to bed at roughly the same time each night, we naturally produce melatonin at the correct times to promote deep, restorative sleep. Going to bed at the same time should also mean you naturally begin to wake at the same time – eliminating that jolt of panic induced by the alarm clock every morning.
#2 – Dim the lights
Our circadian rhythm is influenced by numerous external factors, with one of the most impactful being the presence of light. Bright light tells our body it is day time, whilst low level lighting helps our body transition into ‘night mode.’
For thousands of years, this system worked pretty well – until, of course, the invention of lightbulbs and computer screens. Nowadays, many of us are in a constant state of overstimulation created by unrelenting brightness around the home; and yet we wonder why we struggle to switch our brains off when we lie in bed at night.
To combat this, dim the lighting a couple of hours before bed to allow your body to naturally wind down. Energy saving bulbs, dimmer switches and candles are great ways to transition your body into night mode. Turn off your laptop and smartphone (see step 3), and when it comes to bedtime, use blackout blinds or an eye mask to shut out any potential light disruption.
Conversely, we should aim to take in plenty of bright light during the day time to trigger melatonin production at night – so aim to get outside in full sunlight for at least 15 minutes per day.
#3 – Log off and power down
The blue light emitted by electrical devices interferes with melatonin production by overstimulating the optic nerve, which passes on a message to the brain that it is still day time. Computers, laptops, tablets and smartphones are the main culprits – but television can also have similar effects.
In the first clinical trial of it’s kind, researchers compared the sleep patterns of two groups of subjects; one who read books before bed, and another who read the same content but on a computer screen. Researchers found that the group using the computer screens before bed took longer to fall asleep and experienced disrupted REM sleep patterns throughout the night.
Try and shut down your laptop as early as possible – ideally at least two hours before bed. Put your phone away shortly after, or at the very least, turn the brightness down.
Try to turn off the TV in the last hour before bed in favour of some light reading, chat, or a board game. If you have to watch TV, choose something non-stimulating – the latest Hollywood action blockbuster may not be the wisest choice.
#4 – Eat carbs at night
It may go against conventional wisdom, but saving up the majority of your carbs for your evening meal has been shown to improve sleep quality by increasing baseline melatonin and the plasma concentration of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps promote healthy sleep and relaxation.
In a clinical trial, subjects who ate a higher carb meal at dinner fell asleep faster and experienced deeper sleep patterns than subjects who ate a low carb meal at dinner.
Besides, who doesn’t love chowing down on carbs in the evening!?
#5 – Exercise, but at the right time
In a study by the International Sleep Foundation, researchers found that just 150 minutes of exercise each week saw an average 65% improvement in sleep quality amongst patients. There are numerous theories put forward on why this is the case; increased stimulation to the brain during the day time, increased oxygenation of the blood, or simply increasing energy expenditure and thus increasing our demands for sleep. Whatever the reason, the most important thing is that it works – so if you need any more incentive to exercise, this is it.
However, timing your exercise is important. Exercise stimulates the central nervous system and increases cortisol production, both of which wire your brain to stay awake. Exercise earlier to avoid sleep issues; ideally in the morning, or early afternoon.
Check out this guide to 13 vegan bodybuilders who share their tips on how to bulk up to improve your workout!
#6 – Eat earlier
Eating too soon before bed can make sleeping uncomfortable. Furthermore, deep REM sleep is harder to achieve when you eat before bed, as the body is still expending energy trying to digest the food you just ate. I personally need to leave at least 2.5 – 3 hours before my last meal and going to bed; but experiment, and see what works best for you.
#7 – Lower your body temperature
We need a cool environment to sleep well, so open the windows and allow a steady stream of fresh air to come in throughout the night. In summer, you may also wish to take a cold shower or ice bath an hour before bed to lower your core body temperature and prepare for sleep.
#8 – Supplement Wisely
Finally, the right supplements can make a huge impact on your sleep quality. Here are a few of my recommendations:
Magnesium: Magnesium is a natural muscle relaxant and stress reliever, so can be extremely beneficial in helping you fall asleep – particularly if you have an existing magnesium deficiency. Taking between 250mg and 500mg of magnesium before bed has been shown to improve both sleep quality and duration.
Tryptophan: As we touched on earlier, the amino acid tryptophan promotes healthy sleep and relaxation. Like magnesium, tryptophan has also been studied for it’s abilities to promote healthy sleep, demonstrating very promising results. Take a small amount of supplemental tryptophan half an hour before bed, and see if it makes a difference for you.
Chamomile Tea: The herb chamomile has been used for thousands of years as a natural aid to deep sleep.
Ashwagandha: The ayurvedic herb Ashwagandha helps to relieve stress and anxiety. In India, Ashwagandha is often prescribed to men and women with high pressure jobs. Ashwagandha is not directly used as a sleep aid, rather a mind-relaxer; perfect for those who find it hard to switch off their thoughts at night.
A good night’s sleep is perhaps the most important thing we can do for our health – so let’s start treating it with the priority it deserves.