1 April 2016

Improving your Sleep - Part Two - Optimisation

Welcome back. In part one, I went over the biological mechanics of sleep and the systems that we need to optimise. For part two I'll explore how we can achieve that and fight the pressures of modern life that strain to destroy a deep and recuperating sleep.

We are missing something here however. Starting this process without a clear goal will make things much harder. Taking advice from my goal setting article, I'll specify my Big Picture Goal now and work in the short term and action goals later in this article.

In this case I have three parts to my big picture goal:
  1. Increase my daily energy levels
  2. Ensure the amount of time I sleep is optimal
  3. Improve my sleep quality
I could have written this as a single goal of improving sleep quality, but that is a bit too vague. The above are clear goals that can break down into something measurable, and are easier to tackle in small chunks over time. Before I get to the short term goals I want to provide more detail on problems modern life presents to proper sleep.

As mentioned in part one, sunlight exposure impacts our body temperature and the production of melatonin. High intensity light increases body temp, delays our natural temperature drop and rapidly decreases melatonin levels.

Conversely, a lack of sunlight raises melatonin levels, and drops temperature making us feeling tired. Driving to work in an office building is bad enough, but add in sunglasses to block bright natural light and we really mess with our sleep systems.

Sunglasses block anywhere from 20% to 90% of the sunlight entering our eyes, depending on the model. The main function is to reduce the harmful UV light from reaching our eyes. UV radiation is highest at noon and lowest at sunrise and sunset. Restricting sunglasses to only when you need it around noon will greatly assist your sleep.

I've mentioned more sunlight is required, but not how much is enough. To prevent melatonin secretion we need light somewhere between 50 and 1000 luxes. So let's put that in perspective.
One lux is roughly how much light enters your eyes when sealed in a dark room with a single candle.
At sunrise the light intensity is around 10,000 luxes. At noon it is about 100,000. In an office using fluorescent lights, the intensity is between 200 and 500 luxes.

This may seem like the office lights could suffice, but this intensity reading is taken when looking directly at the light source. I doubt you are looking at the roof all day in the office. The light needs to be strong enough to fill the area, but the light is shared with the entire space. So the amount that hits your eyes is generally less than 5 luxes indoors. This is indistinguishable from complete darkness when it comes to stopping melatonin production.

Another issue is the fact we are never truly without light any more. Many of us watch TV in bed, read eBooks on our tablets or catch up on social media via our phones all before sleep. The light from these devices messes with our internal systems reducing the quality of sleep.

So what can we do to prevent this? The first and most obvious thing is to get more time outside. Leaving the office to eat lunch outside for 30 minutes is a good start but it won't address everything. Thankfully we have technology to help us. There are plenty of artificial-light boxes that pump out 10,000 luxes that easily sit on your desk. Go on eBay and search for "Caribbean Sun light box" or "Philips GoLITE BLU". These are generally used to battle winter depression, which the lack of light is a major cause. They are a good alternative to help get the light your body craves.

While not consuming entertainment at night would be the ultimate method I don't see that as realistic for many people. Instead we can go back to eBay and search for "Uvex S1933X". This is a pair of blue-light blocking glasses to wear a few hours before sleep. Natural light is primarily blue light, which means that blocking it out before bed will simulate darkness while still enjoying TV and eBooks. Again it isn't ideal, but it is a good alternative to help us attain quality sleep.

For computers you can download a free program called f.lux that alters the screen colour and brightness settings based on your location and time. You can get it here for Windows, Mac and Linux. An Android version is coming so it can help on all your devices.

For clocks that remain on all night it's best for them to use red light as it has the least impact on your melatonin production.

Goals for getting more Sunlight
So let's figure out some short term goals for this aspect. My first one would be: Spend the next 2 months changing my habits for obtaining quality light.
For the action goals we simply look above and set them correctly. Here are some suggestions:
  • Eat lunch outside everyday this week.
  • Spend at least 30 minutes outside every day this month.
  • This week don't use sunglasses when driving to and from work.
  • Obtain a 10,000 lux light box this week and set up on my work desk. Ensure it is turned on everyday for at least 30 minutes or as the operating instructions suggest.
  • Spend the next two weeks configuring the house for optimal light. This includes installing and enabling f.lux on all PCs, utilising blue-light blocking glasses for at least two hours prior to sleep every day, and changing any clocks and bedside lamps to red-light bulbs. Raise window blinds every morning to let in natural light.
There are more we can add here but the above is a great start. Ensure you track your progress as you go.

Many of you reading this blog are already getting exercise from martial arts. If not then now is the time to start. Apart of the multitude of health benefits, exercise greatly helps our sleep. It raises your body temperature quickly, and sets a higher peak. Doing this makes for a longer lasting and deeper drop in temperature at the right time so you can sleep peacefully. Exercise also reduces stress, which is another sleep killer.

My job entails dealing with people of various levels of computer literacy. As an expert in that field it can be quite maddening when repeating common and simple instructions to dozens of people that I think should know better. I also have a mean streak and when I get angry I want to break something. I have often gone to training wanting to rip someone's head off with my teeth, but after 20 minutes of exercise those thoughts evaporate. By the end I'm completely calm. Martial arts has a major impact on my life in areas I couldn't fathom before starting it. I can't promote it enough. If you haven't already, get into it ASAP.

For the purposes of better sleep the best time to exercise is in the morning when your body temperature is climbing. Exercise will make this happen quicker and get you more awake and energised for the day. Often this means getting up before 6am so you can get to work on time, but if you are spending less time sleeping and getting quality sleep, this shouldn't be an issue. Even 5 minutes of skipping each morning will make a difference.

It may take a few months to get to that point however. So the next best time is in the early evening when you are at your highest temp. This is generally around 7pm. Just ensure you avoid exercise three hours prior to going to sleep, otherwise your temp will still be rising and sleep will be elusive.

If you still feel like you want to skip exercise, ask yourself this question: Assuming you increase your sleep quality and gain more energy, what is the point if you are not utilising it?

Goals for Exercising
This is fairly simple for a short term goal. Increase my activity levels over the next month.
The beauty of exercise action goals is they are highly measurable and should almost write themselves. A few examples are:
  • Use the skipping rope for 5 minutes every morning before going to work every day this week.
  • Do a set of 10 burpees and 20 crunches at least four times this week.
  • Spend 10 minutes after every class this week working on footwork drills.
  • Complete a beep test up to level 5 twice this week.
These are limited only by your current fitness levels and skill, both of which can be improved.

Other considerations
I mentioned in part one that the body has a natural temperature slump in the afternoon. That is the perfect time for a nap. We need to be careful here however. It takes about 45 minutes to reach deep sleep so keeping the nap under that keeps you in stage 2. Even 10 minutes will help recharge the batteries. You should be able to convince your manager to nap for 10 to 15 minutes so you can improve afternoon productivity.

The weekend is where a lot of people go wrong. You can never "catch up" on sleep as only the first three or four hours comprise of deep sleep. After that you will mainly be in REM sleep which doesn't rejuvenate you. Keep to the same routine as during the week, otherwise you won't get a smooth cycle and will remain sleep deprived.

We want to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, ideally during the REM stage. Remember that REM sleep is the closest brain wave activity as when we are awake. If you feel groggy or tied when you wake, try going to bed 20 to 40 minutes earlier or later. This will take some trial and error to pinpoint the sweet spot. We might not control when we need to wake for work, but we can control when we go to bed.

Ensure our rising and sleeping times are regular. If your sweet spot is to sleep at midnight and wake at 6am then do that every single day forever. There may be times you can't do this such as if you celebrate New Years Day, but we need a normal pattern to keep the correct circadian rhythm.

Drugs are baaad. MMkay.
Avoid caffeine, smoking and alcohol. The first two are for very similar reasons. They both increase your heart and breathing rates. Caffeine increases blood pressure. Smoking produces faster brain waves and a slew of other health issues. Alcohol is the worst offender however as it suppresses the deep and REM sleep stages. Reduced REM sleep generally leads to a REM rebound in the form of intense dreaming or nightmares that weaken your sleep system for days. Alcohol also dehydrates you. While caffeine does have some health benefits it should be taken in moderation and nowhere near bedtime. It takes roughly 6 hours to remove half the caffeine from your system so its best to avoid it at least 8 hours before bed. Alcohol is again OK in moderation. You should quit smoking if you want to improve your sleep and your overall health.

Which brings me to water. By simply existing your body uses about 12 cups of water a day to operate organs. Without sufficient water, your blood clumps and can't carry oxygen to your entire body. This is important during sleep as blood travels from our organs to our muscles; with sluggish clumpy blood that process is impacted. Hydration is key to controlling your body temperature rhythm, which as discussed is the main mechanism in determining how we sleep. To ensure you get enough follow these action goals:

  • Place a large glass of water (about a pint) on your bedside table ready to drink as soon as you wake every day.
  • Drink a litre of water by lunch time, and another litre by dinner. If you have a 1 litre water bottle with you, tracking this is easy as it should be empty by lunch which is a perfect time to refill.
  • Bring a water bottle to every training session and sip it whenever you feel thirsty or have a dry mouth.
Eating "heavy foods", such as ones high in carbs and saturated fats, late at night will negatively impact your sleep. The digestive system slows overnight and if it's full, the energy required to replenish our systems during deep sleep is diverted into digestion reducing the sleep quality. Ideally foods that have calcium, magnesium, vitamin B especially folic acid (B9) will benefit the sleep process, just don't eat too much. Quinoa is a good choice here.

Stress kills
Sleep posture is also a concern if you sleep on your stomach. This position places strain on your organs such as liver and intestines, as well as your neck and back. Sleeping on your side or back is far better, though sleeping on your back can increase snoring.

Stress increases alertness, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and brain waves. All of this is detrimental to sleep and can cause insomnia. Without going into detail of stress relief, simple daily relaxation techniques will be a huge boon. Stress is also a massive health risk so if you are highly stressed seek professional help.

Summary (tl;dr)
The main points for improving your sleep are:
  • Get more sunlight
  • Get more exercise
  • When possible take an afternoon nap of under 45 minutes
  • Keep the same sleep routine everyday
  • Avoid caffeine, smoking and alcohol
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Avoid heavy foods in the evening
  • Don't sleep on your stomach
  • Reduce stress
The final point to make is to evaluate your sleeping habits and use a journal to record what happens when you make changes. This is especially important in the beginning while you are tweaking the system. My next post will provide further details, however the above goals are a great start.

Please hit the comments with any questions.

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