There’s one thing I continually see clients trying to ignore in their health routine: consistent high-quality sleep.
Besides eating whole foods and moving your body, getting enough sleep is the most important thing you can do for your health. It’s when our brains detoxify and formulate memories, our nervous systems rest, and our bodies repair. Without regular deep sleep, we are on track to get hormonal imbalances, weight gain, mood swings, brain fog, and so many other frustrating but preventable symptoms.
We Can’t Skimp on Sleep
So many of us are victims of a culture that prides itself on productivity, where sleep is simply a nuisance that gets in the way of your work, family, exercise routine, TV shows, and that final email to send. We make up for this lack of sleep by filling our tanks with caffeine, sugar, refined carbs, and other stimulants that we hope will give us more energy. But if we just prioritized a good night’s rest every single night, we would have all the energy we need to take on our obligations and do the things that we are passionate about, without relying on stimulants, supplements, and foods that rob our health.
I’ve seen inadequate sleep’s repercussions play out numerous times among clients. One struggled with his weight for many years. He was probably 30 to 40 pounds overweight and often felt extremely tired throughout the day—even admittedly taking regular naps in his car during lunch. During our training sessions, I could see he was giving all of his effort and attention but it was almost like he wasn't working with a full tank of gas. He was always proactive during our nutrition coaching calls and actively working on improving his food quality but struggled with cravings and binge eating. He was frustrated, confused, and wasn't making the progress that he wanted. It wasn't until he prioritized his morning and nighttime routines that he started to lose weight and feel more energized.
Don’t get me wrong, nutrition and exercise are important! But, for many, the key to their weight loss and body composition goals is high-quality sleep and stress management.
Your body has a finely tuned appetite control system that is governed by hormones that are largely affected by sleep.
One group of researchers has found that depriving healthy individuals of sleep leads to increases in ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry, and decreases in leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. That means you stay hungry and start craving high-calorie, high-carbohydrate foods often. Other studies show poor sleep contributes to cardiovascular disease, mood disorders, poor immune function, and lower life expectancy.
So, how can we change that?
As a coach, I understand how stress and sleep can become an issue. I juggle what feels like about 5 jobs—training clients and teams very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, administering nutrition coaching video calls, and commuting in good old Los Angeles traffic.
I realized that lack of sleep adversely impacts my health. I know I have to make sleep a priority or else I will be absolutely useless, so I give myself a goal to get seven or eight hours of sleep every night. By experimenting, I've figured out that when I get eight hours of good sleep, I feel much more alert and focused. Additionally, I've dug into the research and self-administered specific strategies that are linked to achieving a better quality night's sleep:
1. Get on a regular schedule.
Going to sleep and waking at the same time each day creates a rhythm for your body. We evolved along with the rhythms of day and night. They signal a whole cascade of hormonal and neurochemical reactions that keep us healthy by repairing our DNA, governing our metabolism, building tissues and muscle, and regulating weight and mood chemicals
Our biological rhythms keep us healthy and produce cyclic pulses of healing and repair hormones, including melatonin and growth hormone. When those rhythms are disturbed by inadequate or insufficient sleep, disease and breakdown get the upper hand (not to mention having to fight an uphill battle toward our fitness goals).
2. Get natural sunlight.
A good, quality night's sleep starts with what you do in the morning. Aim for at least 30 minutes of sunshine every day, preferably in the morning, which triggers your brain to release the chemicals that regulate sleep cycles. Additionally, by incorporating movement in the morning (along with sunshine) a big surge of energy-filled cortisol will be released. Cortisol and melatonin are inversely related so if cortisol spikes first thing in the morning melatonin will be encouraged to do it's job in the afternoon nudging your body into getting ready for sleep. Try to establish a morning routine that includes both sunshine and light movement (it doesn't have to be intense) like a morning stroll around the block or mobility practice/yoga.
Avoid computers, smart phones, tablets and television one or two hours before bed. Studies show the artificial, bright light can disrupt brain activity and alter sleep hormones like melatonin mentioned in the first tip. You might also try low blue light exposure for about three hours before bed. Low blue spectrum light helps your brain reset for sleep and increase melatonin.
3. Create an environment that encourages sleep.
Dimming the lights about an hour before bed will help regulate your body and tell your brain it's time to shift into sleep mode. At home, use room darkening shades and curtains to keep it dark at night and while you sleep. Consider using eyeshades and earplugs.
Your room should make you relaxed and peaceful, so choose wall colors and decorations that you love. It's also important to keep your room clean, uncluttered, and distraction free. This includes making your bed in the morning. And, only use your bed for sleep or romance.
A cool room, typically between 60 and 67 degrees, makes for the best sleep. Experiment with your rooms exact temperature to find what makes you comfortable.
Reduce noises in your house, and outside of it, with a sound conditioner or fan that creates a consistent and soothing backdrop throughout the night. I enjoy listening to white noise or ambient sounds.
Keep the TV off while you sleep, as changing tones and volumes can interrupt sleep.
4. Flip the switch.
Find and actively practice an activity that stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system before bed—the part of the nervous system which creates deep relaxation, rest, healing, and digestion.
Use relaxation practices like guided imagery, meditation or deep breathing to calm your mind and help you drift into sleep. Try calming essential oils such as lavender, Roman chamomile or ylang ylang.
Try an acupressure mat and lay on it for about 30 minutes before bed.
Perform light stretching, foam rolling, or yoga before bed. Research shows daily yoga can improve sleep significantly.
Take a hot salt/soda aromatherapy bath. Raising your body temperature before bed helps to induce sleep. A hot bath also relaxes your muscles and reduces tension physically and psychically and helps to flip the switch to a parasympathetic state. By adding one-and-a-half to one cup of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) and one-and-a-half to one cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to your bath, you will gain the benefits of magnesium absorbed through your skin and the alkaline-balancing effects of the baking soda, both of which help with sleep.
5. Clear your mind.
Everyone knows how something resonating on your mind can hinder sleep. Turning your mind off can become a challenge. Keep a journal or notebook by your bed and write down your to-do list or ruminations before you go to sleep so you can close your eyes and make it less likely for your mind to spin.
6. Find a natural herbal therapy that works for you.
There are many natural herbal therapies and supplements—including passionflower, valerian root extract, magnesium citrate or glycinate, GABA, and melatonin—that have all been studied and recommended by leading professionals in the field like Dr. Mark Hyman.
A controlled dose of 100 to 160 mg high quality CBD tincture also shows promising sleep benefits. Make sure it is a high-quality product that is organic and 3rd party tested. Studies show that CBD not only helped with the quality of sleep but, users also report falling to sleep quicker and feeling more refreshed upon waking (even if you have insomnia).
As always, have a conversation with your doctor before trying any new supplements and herbal therapies. If you are still having trouble sleeping, you should be evaluated by your doctor for other problems that can interfere with sleep and also consider getting tested for a sleep disorder.
I’ve found these six strategies in particular have helped me get a better night’s sleep; and I encourage you to give them a try. It may take weeks or months, but using these tools in a coordinated way will eventually reset your biological rhythms leading to better quality and quantity sleep. Prioritizing your morning and nighttime routine can be just the missing link that you have been needing to optimize your health, productivity, fitness goals, and energy levels.