You can think about sleep as the Swiss Army Knife of health, but it’s often not one of the first things people try to correct when things go awry. As a couple, Jason and I are both drawn to long-term solutions that help to reduce negative consequences to the environment, our home, our health, etc. This philosophy and these core values inspired us to start Dorai and helped shape the brand. The same solution-oriented thinking brought me down a year-long health exploration, eventually resulting in a happier mindset than I’ve felt in years. At the center of this shift was sleep.
What happens when you don’t get quality sleep?
- Your productivity and ability to retain information go down: in one study, participants who pulled an all-nighter decreased their learning capacity by 40 percent.
- Long-term memory is inhibited: during sleep, we shift memories from the hippocampus, the brain’s short-term storage reservoir, and we move them out to the cortex, the brain’s long-term storage site.
- Poor sleep increases sickness rates, impairs glucose metabolism, and even decreases testosterone levels.
- Your immune system’s ability to fight off viruses is hindered: people averaging less than six hours of sleep at night are four times more likely to become ill after being exposed to the flu virus.
- Your emotions feel much more intense: the amygdala or the emotional epicenter of the brain is 60% more reactive under conditions of lack of sleep.
- You eat more and have increased cravings: people who sleep poorly tend to eat 200 to 300 calories more per sitting than those who sleep well and overall have more desire for caloric rich food. It also disrupts your gut microbiome.
- Your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease increases: losing just one night of sleep led to an increase in beta-amyloid, a protein in the brain associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease.
- You are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.
About 18 months ago I started to notice a decline in performance, both physically and cognitively. I was getting sick too frequently and experiencing adverse reactions to familiar foods. I’m a data nerd, so I closely track many health statistics. These stats, along with my subjective assessment of mood and perceived well-being, told me something wasn’t right. I felt ‘off’, things felt grayer and I was exceptionally fatigued.
Like 45% of Americans, I wasn’t getting adequate sleep each night, which is defined as 7+ hours. In fact, I was lucky if I was getting 6 hours, and I still never woke up feeling rested or refreshed. I recall talking to friends and feeling that this much fatigue was ‘normalized’, it was a sign that you were working hard. They shared in the exhaustion sentiment, and I was amazed by how many people chronically struggled with sleep.
Why are we sleeping less today than ever before?
Getting 8+ hours of sleep sounds idealistic and when you’re stuck in a cycle of insomnia it can be really difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Personally, I had to do a hard reset on many ingrained habits. I had to make sleep my top priority and put other areas of life on the back burner for a few weeks. I’m aware this is a privilege, and it’s not possible for many new parents or individuals who have less influence on their work schedule, however, there are accessible, science-backed tactics people can implement that I’ve found to be helpful.
How do you improve your quality and duration of sleep? 3 Science-backed ways to naturally improve your sleep:
1. Stress management & anxiety reduction
“We have not been able to discover a single psychiatric condition in which sleep is normal.” Mathew Walker, professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley and expert on sleep. Sleep scientists share that anxiety is the principal trigger of insomnia. Research with high-anxious and low-anxious individuals shows those with high anxiety are most vulnerable to the impact of the lack of sleep. Those who experience frequent difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep, such as me, have to put in more work to combat an amplified fight-or-flight mechanism. Sleep becomes more elusive during times of high-stress, not to mention the environmental stressors we’re exposed to on a daily basis. So how can you combat this?
- Meditation: meditation helps us shift from sympathetic into the parasympathetic system which has lasting effects beyond the 10-minute session. I use Headspace religiously before bed and sometimes in the mornings if I’m feeling more mentally scattered or anxious.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: I did CBT specifically for sleep through an online course that focuses on shifting underlying beliefs around sleep and insomnia.
- Building ‘downtime’ into your schedule. You can’t expect your brain to go from highly stimulated to silent within a few minutes. To reduce my daily stress levels, I schedule in both work and free time. I found when I create more distance from high stimulus activities, such as working, socializing or working out, in the hours leading up to bedtime, I get a better quality of sleep and wake up fewer times in the night. This means leaving gatherings early or passing on evening workout classes but it’s worth it to wake up feeling healthy, positive and refreshed in the mornings.
- Cutting out caffeine or cutting off caffeine at a certain time. Like many others, I love coffee and cherish my morning cup. The unfortunate reality is that not everyone metabolizes caffeine the same. It’s so easy to get caught up in the cycle of stimulants and sedatives to ‘survive’ the challenges of modern life. It’s worth taking out caffeine or finding your cutoff point if you’re struggling with sleep. Similarly, alcohol can have an initial sedative effect but tends to fragment sleep and suppresses the body’s ability to get adequate REM sleep. During my ‘reset’ I took a break from alcohol and reduced my caffeine intake to 1 cup a day before 11 am, I found both to be very beneficial.
2. Using bright and dim lights to reset your circadian rhythm
We have the luxury of bright light 24/7, unfortunately, it’s typically artificial light and it’s being deployed at the wrong time of day. Our bodies have a natural spike in cortisol in the mornings that tapers off throughout the day. Research shows getting 1+ hours of natural light in the morning and dimming your indoor light by 50% in the evenings (not to mention tapering off screens at least 1-hour before bed) can help you sleep longer and deeper. A recent study showed that participants who were removed from indoor lighting and immersed in nature to reset their internal biological clocks slept 1-2 additional hours each night, despite thinking they were previously getting enough sleep! Circadian regulation of sleep leads to better health outcomes and it’s something we can control. This has been shown across age groups from newborns in the NICU to seniors in assisted living. Focus on getting bright, outdoor light in the morning, dim lights in the evening and eliminate all lights in the bedroom in the evening.
- Increase melatonin: Dim the lights in the evenings and try taking between 3-5 mg of melatonin that coincides with this ‘wind-down time’.
- Eliminate screens: Don’t look at screens in the 1-2 hours before going to sleep.
- Kickstart your internal clock: Get outside in the mornings to take in natural light (even on cloudy days you’re getting more lumens than you would be indoors). Natural light is most effective in resetting our internal clock when absorbed through our retinal passages (crazy, right) so it’s best not to wear sunglasses in the morning, but to use them when outdoors in the evenings.
- Complete darkness: Blackout curtains are a must, even the smallest amount of light can prevent your body from getting into specific stages of sleep.
- Commit to going to bed earlier: the same study that followed healthy participants into the outdoors found they naturally shifted up their bedtimes when they had less artificial light exposure, which improved their overall quality of sleep. Research finds sleeping from 10:00 pm - 6:00 am is more restorative to the body than sleeping from 12:00 am to 8:00 am.
3. Create a Temperature Change
When the sun goes down so does the temperature, which helps signal to our body that it’s time to sleep. But in the comfort of our climate-controlled home, this slight temperature fluctuation doesn’t happen and can contribute to insomnia. Fortunately, there are some ways to create temperature changes in the evenings.
- Turn it down: Program your thermostat to reach 65-67 degrees by 8 pm. This along with the dimming of lights and time winding-down away from screens really helps your brain to turn off.
- Warm-up to cool down: Take a shower or bath, this causes a short increase but the cooling drop after is sufficient to get the sleepy effect. I make a nighttime shower with lavender body wash a part of my routine.
- Breathable bedding: Invest in bedding that doesn’t trap heat. The downfall to many of today’s popular memory foam mattresses is that they trap in your body’s heat. I tend to get very warm at night, so a quality pillow top mattress and breathable sheets have been a worthwhile investment.
If you’re still struggling after reducing your everyday stress and optimizing your sleep environment it may be worth investing in a sleep study. I did so and found that I had underlying sleep apnea, which when untreated can lead to a shortened lifespan. The prevalence of sleep apnea is on the rise, which may be correlated with many of the environmental factors in modern life. Fortunately, treatment is available and can be lifesaving.
Diving deep into correcting my sleep in 2019 was time-consuming but 100% worth it. The outcome of these interventions has been greater than I would have imagined. I am happier on a day-to-day basis, have less anxiety, and am recovering enough between workouts to have run my fastest marathon to date this past December. In stressing less and sleeping more, I’ve seen an increase in my productivity and attitude towards work. The combination of the aforementioned tactics and treatment for apnea helped me get out of a deep sleep deprivation hole and feeling much more energized as we enter 2020. When you’re chronically sleep-deprived, just getting through the day can seem like a monumental task, but it’s worth investing in long term solutions for your mental and physical wellbeing.