Who hasn’t already heard that productivity, mood and even longevity are all negatively affected when we don’t get enough sleep? To make things even worse, evidence is mounting that skimping on sleep may also lead to rapid fat gain . Simply put, people who experience lack of sleep tend to overeat and have less willpower to make good food choices. Eeesh!
I used to consider myself a night owl – the person whose productivity mode switches on when everyone else turns their lights off. I also used to be slightly overweight too. Today I am neither a night owl nor am I carrying extra weight. Coincidence?
What changed is that I now prioritise getting quality sleep no matter the circumstances. I also do believe that as people we have certain predispositions, and I let myself be guided by my drive to simply be better. Adhering to these principles I landed in the world of the early bird (pun intended).
However, this article isn’t about redesigning your habits or tweaking your productivity levels.
No… in this article my intention is to show you how you can become anyone you want to be. There is just one catch: you have to get enough quality sleep. It’s the sleep that makes you wake up fresh, ready to seize the day. It’s also the sleep that stops you packing on unnecessary pounds. You have my word on this.
By the end of this article you’ll be able to sleep like a baby. With the added bonus of also having the beachbody (if you do everything else right).
To start with, you’ll need to consider the following ways to improve your sleep quality.
Click to jump to a specific section that interests you or scroll down and discover all of them:
- Optimise Your Nutrition and Supplements
- Hack Your Environment Into a Sleep Oasis
- Calm Your Racing Thoughts
- Build Better Habits
- BONUS: 3 Other (Unusual) Tools to Help You Out
Optimise Your Nutrition and Supplements
Anti-sleep products to avoid and the optimal dinner choice.
Say NO to:
Alcohol. The shortcut to a restless night. That red glass of wine mightmake your body and mind feel calm in the moment, but it’s been proven that alcohol causes poor quality sleep so you spend less time in deep sleep and wake up earlier than you would have woken up otherwise.
Heavy and spicy meals. Much like alcohol, eating too much or too spicy late in the day can cause you to experience frequent nighttime awakenings, nightmares, and the general discomfort that also leads to reductions in deep sleep time.
Artificial sweeteners, zero-fat and other dieting products. Well this one must be a bummer to some of you. Unfortunately most of these products will literally ferment in your stomach while you sleep causing a lot of gastric distress. Think you can just deal with this? Consider the now proven gut to brain axis (the way gut communicates with the brain) and you’ll understand how stomach distress quickly turns into a night of crappy sleep.
Sleeping pills and melatonin supplements. This is never a solution. The golden rule of using supplements is: whatever your body can produce naturally should be substituted very carefully, otherwise the body might stop producing it or the production cycles can become disturbed. This is especially true for hormones and our sleep and wakefulness cycles are indeed stimulated by hormones. Sleep-promoting hormone melatonin can be supplemented with melatonin pills but only in small dosages (3mg) to fight an acute problem like jet lag. They should never be taken more than a couple of days at a time.
Caffeinated and decaf products. The former is an obvious one, however the latter is a trap many fall for. Decaf doesn’t equate caffeine-free. Decaffeination reduces the caffeine amount 10-20 times, but caffeine is still present in traces.
Say YES to:
Magnesium supplements. Just before nodding off you should take a magnesium supplement. It will allow for much deeper sleep, muscle relaxation, it’ll aid sports recovery and help you fall asleep 10x faster (really). Whether or not you already get good sleep on most nights, you should look into magnesium supplements because the majority of people are actually deficient in this precious mineral. I personally take a combo of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 called ZMA.
Hydration. You probably feel peckish after dinner and spend hours snacking or craving other foods. Then just before heading to bed you might feel slightly too full to get to sleep right away. One of the best ways to avoid this is to start hydrating right after your dinner.
Water of course is not a magical substance, and it might wake you up at night for a bathroom break. However, water also helps you feel satiated and prepares your body for extensive processes of recovery, rejuvenation and other vital functions. If you still fear drinking water late in the evening, have just one glass before sleep with a magnesium supplement.
Homeopathic remedies and teas. Valerian root, peppermint, chamomile, lavender teas are all rockstars at making you sleep-ready. Although actual research on these old-wives remedies is lacking, many cultures have relied on these herbs for centuries to nod off more easily.
Hack Your Environment Into a Sleep Oasis
Once you’re done optimising your nutrition, it’s time to examine your (sleep) environment.
Everything you do during the day will affect your sleep to some extent. The biggest offenders you need to fix are:
Enforce a no-screen policy in your bedroom. Did you know that your body has photoreceptors capable of fluctuating your energy levels and affecting a variety of bodily processes based on their exposure to (natural and artificial) light? So those 20 minutes you spend on your phone before getting to sleep might reduce the quality of your sleep. You see, the screens of your devices emit copious amounts of blue light which stimulates wakefulness – the last thing you want to experiencing when it’s time to get into bed.
Use blue light-blocking glasses. To avoid the worst of damage done by artificial light, you can wear blue light blocking pair of glasses. Some of these can look very dorky or like orange safety glasses for that mad scientist look. Others, like Swannies are much more fashionable.
The pair of these have been my companions for weeks now:
Sleeping Mask + Earbuds. The obvious pick to make your sleep restful. However not every sleeping mask is equally helpful. I personally use Sleepmaster since it covers a sizeable part of your head and doesn’t have a strap that would feel tight or irritate the skin. As for earplugs, they won’t only reduce noise, but also block the photoreceptors you have in your ear from reacting to any light (note that even a tiny LED light on your standby mode TV can disrupt your sleep!)
Use a sunrise simulator lamp to expose yourself to artificial sunlight. The opposite of blue light blocking is exposing your body to a sunrise simulated by a specialised lamp. Especially during the gloomy months of the year, using such a lamp can help you transition from sleep to wakefulness more easily. I haven’t personally tested a sunrise lamp, but this hack works for many, helping them wake up fresh.
Good mattress and sleeping position. A firm mattress that doesn’t bend your spine and disrupts the natural body mechanics is a worthy investment. The best way to pick out a mattress is to try them out at the store: just lay down and spend a few minutes on it. If you feel like you could just fall asleep right there, that’s the mattress you want to take home with you. As for the best sleep position: aim to sleep on one side, preferably the opposite of your main hand. Sleeping on your stomach is going to compress the spine too much, while sleeping on your back will curve the shoulders forward and it might also make you snore.
Colder room temperature. This is undoubtedly the single most effective hack to put you right to sleep. Your bedroom should be colder than the rest of your house by at least a couple of degrees. Aim for 65 degrees F or 18 degrees C. This is more chilly than many of us are used to but it’s the ideal temperature for inducing sleep. Reducing your body’s temperature leads to lethargy and people tend to get sleepy more quickly in such conditions as well as sleep more deeply overall. Just consider how often you find yourself yawning when it gets cold outside…
Take a steaming hot bath or shower before sleep. Just like the cold room hack, reducing your body heat from very high to sudden low will lead to sleepiness.
Calm Your Racing Thoughts
I bet you’ve experienced that late-night feeling of your thoughts just rushing in your head as you lie in bed trying to fall asleep. The more you try to fight the thoughts coming up, the more frustrated you become and therefore less likely to actually fall asleep.
Be it your high-performer lifestyle, work affairs, worries about the future or other thoughts that are coming up, they all lead to a pillow-punching sleepless night. It’s ok to experience a night like this from time to time–we’re all human–however when it becomes a nightly occurrence you’re in for trouble. The racing thoughts become like a habit you can’t control, your sleep cycle goes off the rails and you get dragged into a vicious cycle of not sleeping well night after night.
There’s a few shortcuts to help you get past this inner mess. Every person has to find their own way to reaching inner calm, but here’s a few ideas you can try out:
Go for a walk outside for at least 10 minutes. How much time do you spend in front of a TV, phone or computer screen before going to sleep? All these stimuli crowd your mind; they keep you too alert to fall asleep. Sometimes all that’s needed is some fresh air to help you clear your mind. Even a 10 minute walk just before going to sleep can do a world of difference when it comes to preparing your body for sleep.
Journal your mind off. Those thoughts that bug you with no end in sight? Write them down, every single one. That way you’ll transfer your frustration to paper and almost capture the ideas so they don’t return later in the night to ‘haunt’ you. When I can’t sleep and it feels like I have a million ideas swirling in my head, I write them out feeling almost like a ghostbuster capturing errant ghosts one by one… until I’m empty, tired and ready to sleep.
Use apps. Technology can be useful if it’s used right. Apps like Sleepio (sleep optimisation, help for insomnia and chronic sleep problems), Headspace and Calm (guided meditation) could be the answer you’ve been looking for.
Still can’t get to sleep? Accept it. This will sound counterintuitive, but accepting that you can’t fall asleep and being fine with it is exactly how you are going to fall asleep. This has been one of the biggest revelation in the health and sleep industry. People tend to overthink and–as a result–overstress about getting to sleep. Just think of that time you had to wake up in 4 hours and there was a big party hosted at your neighbours. Even though the party ended, you still couldn’t fall asleep. Not even counting sheep would help you. Your best out is to calm down and accept that “hey, maybe today is not the day I’m going to get the sleep I need to feel fresh tomorrow… and that’s totally fine..”. By doing this you passively force yourself to sleep, rather than fighting it.
Your bedroom is for sleep and love-making only. Do you find yourself in the bedroom with your laptop working on some spreadsheets? This can condition your mind to associate bed with work and wakefulness to the point that you can no longer fall asleep in your bed at all. This is a simple conditioning trick, first discovered by prof. Pavlov who conducted the famous conditioning experiment with dogs. The professor would ring a bell every time a dog was about to be fed. After a while every time the bell rang the dog would start salivating. This same model of conditioning behaviour applies to you as well. If you condition your body to work in the bedroom, where does your natural sleep response go?
Build Better Habits
By now you have a long list o actions to get started with from today. However, beyond just single actions, what really matters is establishing the right patterns to supercharge your sleep. Good and consistent patterns will form habits, which will then define your lifestyle and how well you perform, how good you look and so forth.
To help you out I wrote some items that will help you form the right habits:
Wake up and go to sleep at the same time. Do you sleep in on the weekend? It’s time to change that. Weekend lie-ins are one of the main reasons high performers tend to not have healthy sleeping patterns. Their sleeping schedule just varies too much from day to day. Your body can’t adapt that fast and the hormones regulating sleep and wakefulness go through the roof at random times and guess what happens next – you gain weight and underperform. Here’s a challenge: for the next 20 days go to sleep at the same hour – meaning all the lights are shut off, your eyes are closed, there are no phones around you or other devices that can disturb your sleep. Every day (including the weekends) wake up at the same time. In both instances, be it 8AM, 9PM, 12PM – it doesn’t matter – I don’t care. Your body though cares a lot. And this will transform the way you sleep.
Aim for quality, not quantity. On average a high performer should sleep 7-8 hours. Based on the law of diminishing returns, more sleep may not necessarily mean better sleep. What really matters is quality. Meaning you might feel more fresh after 6 hours of sleep than after 8 hours. You sleep in cycles, and how fresh you feel at waking, depends what sleep cycle you wake up during. If it’s a cycle of deep sleep, you might feel more groggy. So the smartest thing you can do is find out your optimal sleep length.
You might already be waking up before your alarm, in which case don’t stay in bed snoozing past that time. Jump out of bed and kick off your day even if it’s 40 minutes too early. You see those extra minutes spent snoozing confuse the production of wakefulness-regulating hormones that your body begins to pump into your bloodstream as you get closer to wake-up time. This can also cause grogginess.
Exercise at least 2-3 things from the topics listed above. Don’t take a stab at all of the advice here right away as that’s not the right approach to building long-lasting, sustainable habits. Start small and build momentum. Pick just a few items you can do today with no effort, then add more things as you get better at them.
Get your partner on board. I see too many clients failing to achieve their goals or improve their lives because they anchor their behaviour to their partners. You don’t want to alienate your partner, understandably, but it’s also essential to communicate to them the importance of this lifestyle change. I know, not every spouse will agree to the ‘no screen zone’ bedroom policies. But that’s your job – practice the persuasive sales side and who knows – maybe after trying it just once, this transforms their sleep quality as well. Remember to employ the arguments of weight gain and crippled mental performance – you’d have to be insane to still sacrifice sleep being aware of those consequences.
3 Other (Unusual) Tools to Help You Out
Ok, these won’t be for everyone, however they might just be up your alley:
- Pavlok sleep alarm to zap you out of bed (literally). Behaviour conditioning comes with negative ‘rewards’ too, and not just dogfood. This device allows you to lightly electrocute yourself to stimulate building better habits. Sounds like a good hack for those who tend to sleep in.
- Earthing bed sheets. The concept of earthing will sound woo-woo to some, but I find it really helps me. Earthing (or grounding myself) helps me sleep like a baby by reducing EMF and exposure to the positive ions that cause us to feel poorly, via a sheet that plugs into a socket. I’ve been using a generic earthing sheet with silver thread and it helps me lots, also aiding recovery after extensive training.
- Light bulbs that filter blue light. A little something to upgrade your bedroom lights. Just like the artificial light blocking glasses these bulbs come with a filter blocking blue light – the same light that keeps you alert even when you should be getting ready for sleep.
Want to hear about weight loss, weight management and sleep hacks that work? Get latest updates with proven lifestyle advice to help you be your best self:
- Short sleep duration and weight gain: a systematic review -http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2723045/
- Association between Reduced Sleep and Weight Gain in Women – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3496783/
- The Association Between Sleep Duration and Weight Gain in Adults: A 6-Year
Prospective Study from the Quebec Family Study – http://www.journalsleep.org/Articles/310411.pdf