SLEEP: Behavioral Optimization
OPTIMIZATION OF SLEEP
The causes of sleep disruption are myriad: genetic, hormonal, chemicals/compounds, social, environmental, disease states, etc. While the work up and treatment of sleep disturbances is beyond the scope of this blog we will review certain lifestyle interventions and supplements that can aid in improving sleep in general.
The first part of this article will focus on improving sleep hygiene through behavioral modification. Sleep hygiene refers to the practices and habits necessary to obtain a good night’s sleep that result in an alert individual the next day. The second part of the article will focus on safe and healthy supplements to aid in the quest to improve sleep length, depth and quality.
Optimally one would sleep and wake with the setting and rising of the sun to leverage evolutionary internal hormonal diurnal and nocturnal clocks, specifically cortisol and melatonin. While this may be difficult from a social perspective, attempting to recreate this schedule by adjusting your personal sleep hygiene can be very helpful. Leveraging millions of years of evolution in your favor for precious, healthy sleep is easier than you may realize.
Utilize proper materials to appropriately reduce total light exposure prior to sleeping.
Especially consider minimizing exposure to blue light. This light corresponds to a wavelength range of 450 - 490 nm. This wavelength of light preferentially stimulates production of cortisol and decreases production of melatonin. Electronic screens (i.e. TV monitors, cell phones, electronic pads, etc.) emit large quantities of this wavelength of light. Consequently, making it a point to avoid exposure to these electronics during the evening at least one to two hours before retiring can be helpful in reducing exposure. Tip: many newer hand-held electronics have a blue light reducing option that can be programmed into the device for the evening. Look for this option in Settings.
Cover, tape, turn off and hide diode lights from in-room electronics, clocks, chargers, etc. It is amazing how much ambient light these LED’s produce, especially in a darkened room and especially when present in multiple numbers.
Blue Light Glasses
Consider purchasing blue light blocking glasses and wear one to two hours before retiring. These glasses are made of an amber-yellow plastic that specifically block the frequencies of blue light at the upper end of the visible spectrum described above.
Black Out Curtains
Consider purchasing black out curtains for the bedroom. While not an especially fashionable interior design statement they can be very effective in reducing ambient light from the street, moon, etc. At minimum consider purchasing darker cloth curtains that are opaque and are effective in reducing light transmission.
If black out curtains are not an option consider a high-quality sleeping mask. This device can make a significant difference in sleep quality by reducing the amount of ambient light that makes its way through your eyelids to your retinas. Low intensity light has a great effect on how your retinas perceive the environment through your closed eyes, even while sleeping. Again, such an environmental stimulus will translate into a biological one by altering cortisol and melatonin production, subsequently altering your sleep pattern.
Consider placing faders switches on all lights in your house and reduce these one to two hours before bed. Candles can also be an option however it is mandatory they are all blown out prior to retiring.
Consider setting intention to go to bed and to arise at specific regular times, utilizing an alarm clock initially to accomplish this (both in the evening and in the morning). As stated, matching this schedule as much as possible to the rise and fall of the sun is optimal. Doing this in a regular fashion will help to establish a routine so that one will do it automatically without the need of a device.
While sleep requirements may differ slightly for everyone most people need about seven to eight hours of quality sleep to maintain health. Make this a conscientious goal and a priority.
Optimize your bed and bedding. You spend a third of your life in bed; don’t compromise on this point and invest well. Consider purchasing a good mattress and box spring that supports optimally your body type and does not create noises when you adjust your position in the bed.
Wash and change bedding frequently. Clean sheets remove human skin dander that house mites feed on thus reducing potential household allergies (i.e. nasal congestion, watery eyes, itching, etc.) that interfere with sleep. In addition, utilize hypoallergenic pillows and replace these regularly due to the concept that they can be a sink for dust mites. (Factoid: some sources state that 10% of the weight of a one to two-year-old pillow may be comprised of dead skin, dust mites and their droppings!)
Ear plugs do wonders to block ambient sound. Once a regular sleep pattern is established it is not difficult to hear the alarm in the morning through your ear plugs. Indeed, you will begin to awaken without the alarm.
Aural applications that can be played through headphones from a cell phone are another way to induce sleep. Some of these applications utilize software to create sound designed to induce alpha waves consistent with a meditative state and subsequently sleep. Brain.fm is one company that, for a monthly or yearly subscription, will provide you with access to their software to use on your hand-held device.
Optimizing this aspect of sleep cannot be overemphasized. Cooling the temperature of one’s bedroom is extremely critical to providing an environment that improves quality and quantity of sleep. Even a few degrees can make a significant difference. Consider purchasing a relatively inexpensive small, portable air conditioning unit which can be vented out a bedroom window. Certain devices can be louder than others so shop around and read reviews to find one that is quieter and more efficient.
Another alternative is a cooling pad that is put over the mattress. These can be found as passive heat dissipaters in the form of a gel memory foam mattress topper or more active, electrically powered devices that alter the temperature of the bed through cool forced air. Another option is the ChiliPad Cube that circulates cooled water through the micro tubes of its mattress cover unit.
Exercise has a multitude of benefits besides the ability to improve the quality and duration of sleep. Apart from inducing physical exhaustion, exercise modulates cortisol and testosterone. In addition, it increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which stimulates neurogenesis of the brain, especially at the hippocampus (thus reducing an overactive amygdala).
Regular meditation helps to balance the autonomic nervous system (ANS), reducing sympathetic nervous system dominance and improving the parasympathetic response. Thus, in doing so, for example, resting heart rate (RHR) decreases and heart rate variability improves (HRV). Meditation also has been shown scientifically to increase the size and influence of the hippocampus in the brain. A balanced ANS is critical for adequate quality and length of sleep as is a brain that maintains an appropriate balance between expression of the amygdala and the hippocampus.
Used together and with intention these tips can greatly improve the sleep experience on a regular basis. The importance of quality sleep cannot be overemphasized in the quest to obtain optimum health. Alertness, vitality, presence, awareness and long-term health are critically dependent upon quality sleep. Even when compared to optimized nutrition and exercise we all know that if we don’t sleep well the next day is typically not an engaged one nor is it productive. Actively prioritize your sleep - your future self with thank you for it!