A 21 Day Journey Into Restorative Sleep

Quality sleep has remained one of the most elusive components of my wellness. The following experiment is one I keep coming back to when I feel my zzz's slipping away again. We're living in some weird times and an even weirder western culture. Forgoing sleep often starts in college when some curriculums demand all-night study sessions. In today's corporate and start-up culture, people wear sleep deprivation like a badge of honor to show how hard they're working. "You should invest in my company because I only sleep two hours a night!" This attitude is quickly becoming one of the the nation's new silent killers.

Ex-Navy Seal turned physician, Dr. Kirk Parsley, calls this sleep deficit "America's Biggest Problem" in his TED Talk. In Arianna Huffington's book Thrive, she attributes getting more sleep as the keystone habit that did the most to improve everything else in her entire life. I recently took an overseas business trip and needed to quickly recalibrate my sleep clock. Friend and wellness advisor Tanner Martty recommended many of the following tips. Others are from various things I've tried over the years through bouts of insomnia. Here are some fun sleep facts to start: 

  • One week of sleeping only 4-5 hours a night is he equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. It’s essentially like doing everything drunk. Like driving, taking care of your kids or working totally shitfaced.  It’s estimated that 20% of all car accidents are caused by lack of sleep. Imagine what a few weeks let alone months of sleep deprivation do.
  •  Lack of sleep kills all higher-processing functions in the brain. The first ones to go? Creativity, problem-solving skills and memory.
  • After only 24 hours of sleep deprivation, there’s an overall 6% loss of glucose to the brain. But since that’s not evenly distributed, the prefrontal cortex (responsible for critical thinking) looses 12-14%. This in turn spikes cravings for shitty, sugary foods. Mmmm...donuts.
  • Attention dudes: The most common cause of low testosterone (the magic stuff that builds muscle, burns fat, gives you a sex drive and puts you in a good mood)? Lack of sleep. Getting only five hours of sleep will decrease it 10-15%.

The 21 Day Sleep Challenge

For the next three weeks, incorporate the following sleep tips and note how you feel. 

1. Where the Magic Happens. This should be obvious, but invest in a good mattress, nice sheets, comfortable bedding, etc. We spend about 35% of our lives in bed but rarely invest in the best materials to be snoozing on. Drop the temperature if possible. 60F degrees is ideal and anything about 65F can negatively affect the quality of your sleep. Now that you have your room dialed, don't do anything else in there but sleep or have sex. Make it a sacred space as opposed to an extended office or video game arcade. 

2. Light: Some Heavy Stuff. Your Circadian Rhythm is what informs your internal 24-hour cycle of biochemical, behavioral and physiological processes. It's a cycle that's millions of years in the making, so let's just roll with it at this point. An enormous part of the cues for this cycle come from light. Exposure to bright blue light (as in the color of a sunny sky) will directly affect our melatonin production and how alert we become. Red and orange light, like that cast by a fire, won’t trigger your brain the same way. Here are some tips to leverage this: 

  • After the sun goes down, or starting 3 hours before you go to bed, get rid of all blue light, meaning any screens. If you have to use the computer, install f.lux to automatically adjust your screen colors based on the time of day. 
  • Try using candlelight instead of incandescent lighting.
  • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible - kill any LEDs and make sure you don’t have light pouring in from outside.
  • If you work in a cave during daylight hours (aka a corporate cube), you can trick your brain into thinking it's getting appropriately-timed sun a few time during the day to reinforce your circadian clock. Check out the very portable Phillips go-LITE. Even better, take some breaks and get some sun. 
  • Try and get your sleep/wake times to line up with sunrise/sunset. That doesn’t mean you have to go to bed by 6pm, but 2am really screws everything up. As a rule of thumb, try and move your bedtime up as early as you can to start aligning with you primal internal clock.

3. Go Long, Go Deep. There are a lot of studies that argue the absolute best length of time to sleep. There are even recent articles surfacing that show how only a few hundred years ago, most people slept for four hours, got up for a couple hours and slept four more (bi-phasic sleeping). The general consensus still lands between 7 and 9 hours although there are many cases to get more (such as teenagers and strength athletes). However, nobody can dispute that the quality of your sleep should be as sound as possible. Here are some tips to make that happen: 

  • Never put a TV in the bedroom and try to get at least three hours of screen-free time before bed (including computers, tablets and phones). 
  • Try and get in the habit of waking up naturally. You'll only achieve this by getting to bed earlier, but it's very possible to reach the point of not needing an alarm clock at all. 
  • Commit some time to worry about things. Think of it as an anti-meditation. Pick a time, sit, and worry about all the shit that you think might keep you up at night.
  • But also try some real meditation. I know, it sounds scary but these guys at Headspace have taken all the mystery out of it. The first 10 days of 10-minute guided meditations are free. 
  • Get to bed. This is much harder than it seems and requires some real discipline. Pick a bedtime that gives you either hours free and clear before you need to get up in the morning.  
  • Leave your phone out of the bedroom or at least make sure it’s in airplane mode. The electromagnetic radiation going to and from that device all night can wreak havoc on your serotonin production. 
  • Create your own little sensory deprivation helmet with earplugs and an eye mask. You can experiment with foam earplugs vs wax ones. For eye masks, I've had the best luck with a formed, plush one like this, although they get a bit warm. 

4. Incorporate Bedtime Rituals. For example, drinking a relaxing tea like chamomile, doing some journaling or meditation. After some consistent use of rituals that works for you, the routine will serve as a cue for your brain that it's time to sleep. 

5. Full Tummy, Empty Bladder. Don't drink a bunch of water in the late evening hours, but by all means drink as much as possible during the day. Have a handful of nuts before turning in. This will mitigate any lingering hunger that might wake you up and the magnesium and tryptophan right before bed can help you get to sleep faster. Go for the unsalted variety since we opted out of bedtime water. You can also experiment with poppyseed extract, melatonin and HTP-5 which are available on Amazon, at Whole Foods or your local Co-Op/natural food store.

-Elijah Szasz