Avoiding a Sleep Crisis: Habits for Sleeping Better

Sleep is super important. We spend more than a third of our lives asleep, and there’s a lot of solid research pointing to the health benefits of sleep.

When I sleep well, everything is easy. I like it when things are easy. I feel smarter, clearer, happier, healthier, and sexier when I’m well-slept. When I’m under-slept, the opposites are true. I feel mildly depressed, anxious, clouded, reactive and generally unconscious. Yet in spite of this, I rarely commit to a consistent, healthy sleep schedule.

It dawned on me that, I ever wanted to get better at sleeping, I would need to really look at sleep under a microscope. So that’s what this post aims to do: address my own psychological shortcomings in the realm of sleep hygiene.

Why sleep is so important

The main benefit of sleep is that it helps us learn and remember things. This is a two-fold process. First, when we’re sleep deprived, it’s very difficult to focus and thus pick up relevant information. Second, when we’re asleep, the brain actively consolidates memories, allowing for more efficient memory recall later.

To fully understand how sleep and memory are connected, it’s helpful to know how we actually learn and remember new information.

The combined process of learning and memory consists of three distinct phases:

  1. Acquisition – when we receive some kind of sensory data (see, hear, touch, smell).
  2. Consolidation – our brains organize this new information in a way that makes it easy to find later.
  3. Recall – accessing the stored information at some later point in time.

To properly learn and remember new information, all three steps are absolutely essential.Without all of them, we won’t be able to remember what happens in our lives. Whereas acquisition and memory recall happen while we’re awake, consolidation only happens when we’re asleep.

In other words, failure to get enough sleep means that you won’t remember what happened in the previous day, which is a startling concept.

Let’s say I stay awake for 19 hours studying for an exam, then sleep 5. How much of that 19 is actually retained? If I study for 16 hours then sleep 8, I can rest assured knowing that my memory consolidation is working optimally. What seems like cramming actually backfires if those 19 hours of learning don’t actually get stored properly.

What happens when we don’t get enough sleep

Being under-slept really sucks. I feel stupid, slow, judgmental of others, and a whole long list of negative emotions seem to control my behavior.

A bad mood isn’t fun for anyone, but what’s actually happening to my mind and body?

Sleep deprivation is a common term we use to describe the process of building sleep debt. In a nutshell, sleep debt is the accumulation of certain molecules in the brain. One of these – adenosine – makes us feel sleepy as it builds up. It usually gets broken down and flushed out when we sleep.

But when we don’t get enough sleep, adenosine levels aren’t able to reset and slowly pile up night after night. After days or weeks of this accumulation, we reach a state of sleep deprivation. It’s this prolonged state that has seriously bad effects on our health and well-being.

Research about the prolonged effects of sleep debt reveals a list of health consequences:

  • Increased stress
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased inflammation
  • Hypertension and heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune system and increased likelihood of infections
  • More likely to abuse alcohol

…to name a few.

In spite of the great feelings I get when I’m well-slept, and in spite of all this sleep research pointing to the horrible effects of sleep debt, I rarely get enough sleep. As it turns out, I’m not alone.

According to the CDC, insufficient sleep is a public health epidemicAbout 1/20 people in the US will fall sleep while driving every month. Notwithstanding the link between sleep deprivation and chronic disease risk, this means that there are lots people on the road operating fast-moving metal machinery while unconscious.

man is sleeping and driving, a dangerous combination

Don’t be this guy.

Given the positive health benefits of sleep and the long list of negative effects of going without sleep, why is it that so many people don’t get more sleep?

Why people think they can get by on low sleep

One of my favorite apps at the gym is 8tracks. I love 8tracks because it’s free and always has the right playlist to fit the day, my mood and whatever activity I’m doing.

When lifting, the right playlist is usually some combination of intense workout music and motivational speeches.

While the speeches are a great way to get the blood pumping, they often overshoot with statements about sacrificing sleep to get ahead.

A couple of my favorites:

Most of you say you want to be successful, but you don’t want it bad – you just kind of want it. Most of you don’t want success as much as you want to sleep. Some of you love sleep more than you love success. If you’re going to be successful, you have to be willing to give up sleep. You have to be willing to go to work on 3 hours – 2 hours – if you want to be successful, some days you’re gonna have to stay up 3 days in a row. – Eric Thomas

I’ve always figured out that there 24 hours a day. You sleep six hours and have 18 hours left. Now, I know there are some of you out there that say well, wait a minute, I sleep eight hours or nine hours. Well, then, just sleep faster, I would recommend. Because you only need to sleep six hours and then you have 18 hours left, and there are a lot of things you can accomplish. – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Legendary inventor Thomas Edison claimed to sleep only four to five hours a night, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gets an average of six hours of sleep in each night.

The myth of powerful short-sleepers

It’s easy to hear these kind of stories – influential businessmen, CEOs, politicians, and musicians functioning on low sleep – and think, “hey that’s great, I’ll do it too!”It’s no wonder that myself and others view sleep as a non-priority.

The truth is, most of these people are chronically sleep deprived, but don’t know how sleepy they are. There’s a big difference between just getting by on low sleep and functioning at your optimal level.

Not surprisingly, the importance of sleep is starting to dawn on the field of competitive sport. In the arena where optimal performance is essential, myths of sleeping less are quickly swept aside. There is even a “sleep” guru for athletes, who consults players and teams on how to get the perfect night’s sleep before, during, and after football matches.

What can I do to sleep better? By looking closely at his sleep coaching methods, I’m able to translate those into some actionable takeaways for my own life.

The healthiest ways to sleep

Nodding off is a straightforward, simple process – right? Just turn off the lights, climb in bed and, tada! you’re asleep. Wrong.

There are lots of things that need to happen in order to get a good night’s rest. To truly understand how to sleep better, it’s important to optimize each of the following:

  • Pre-sleep activities
  • What clothes to wear
  • Pillow and mattress
  • Room temperature
  • Light exposure
  • Noise and sounds
  • Should we eat before bed?

Before bed

Our brains are stimulated throughout the day by our diets, TV, iPhones, computers and general city noise of cars, busses, and trains. All this puts us in a state of hyper-alertness, which is a terrible place to be when it comes time to sleep. The solution to sleeping better at night starts earlier in the day.

I’m not a big caffeine drinker, but still have the occasional cup of coffee or tea in the morning. Some of my friends and colleagues, on the other hand, drink many cups of coffee every day, and often do so late at night. This is terrible for sleep.

Avoiding caffeine (or at least, drinking it in the morning only) is one solution to easily winding down at night. Another important pre-sleep habit to develop is  turning off the TV, computer and any backlit screens (iPhone, iPad, etc) hours before bed. I admit, this one is tough for me. I typically work late and am checking my phone not long before bed.

However, when I cut off screens early in the night (9 or 10pm), I noticeably sleep better and feel much more refreshed the following morning. The blue light from these devices throws off our melatonin cycle, not to mention sends our minds racing about whatever information of images we see.

Lastly, take a warm bath or shower before bed. Our bodies naturally drop in temperature when we sleep, and the same thing happens when we get out of a warm bath: our body temperature goes from hot to cold. According to a sleep research study at Cornell, this shift helps trigger sleepiness.

I personally like to read before bed, keeping a book on hand. The activity or reading is a nice way to unwind my mind and transition to sleep.

Which is better: sleeping naked or clothed?

Short answer: sleep naked. Maintaining a cool body temperature is essential for good sleep. Sleep research shows that sleeping in the nude is an effective way to regulate your body temperature at night.

Further, two of the important hormones that get released during sleep – melatonin and growth hormone – function optimally when the body is cooled. As someone who is constantly in and out of the gym, I want my growth hormone to be working properly at night!

Choosing a quality pillow and mattress

I travel a lot, rarely sleeping in the same bed for more than a month or two at a time. As such, finding a quality pillow and mattress is a tough-y. For a mattress, I typically use whatever’s available in my AirBnB or hotel. Sleep scientists recommend investing in a high quality mattress, and this makes sense. We spend such a long time on our mattress, it’s probably one of the most important (if not the most) products we’ll ever buy for our health and well-being.

Though I’m limited in mattress choices, pillows are a little easier. Studies show that the optimal angle of your neck should be about 10-15 degrees above horizontal. This means that skinny pillows that leave the neck flat on the bed are out, as are thick pillows that angle the neck too sharply.

I’ve learned that, especially in Europe and Asia, most AirBnB apartments and budget hotels have cheap, skinny pillows. These can be tiered and stacked together to create the optimal angle.

Best room temperature for sleeping

As mentioned, our body cools down when we go to sleep, and when cooled has a range of physiological benefits. The ideal room temperature for sleep is cooler than room temp, but not too cool: around 65 to 67 degrees.

Our body will naturally tries to reach that temperature on its own. If our room is too hot or too cold, it takes energy and work to maintain that temperature range, thus disturbing our sleep.

I personally prefer setting the thermostat to 65 degrees. This helps me relax, cool off from a long day, and typically balances out any external heat from my apartment and outside.

The effects of room temperature on sleep extend to REM sleep, too. When we’re more comfortable (in that ideal 65-67 range), we have better quality REM sleep.

How light affects sleep

I mentioned the importance of turning off screens before bed, but how important is it to eliminate light while sleeping? Very.

Humans evolved with just two types of light: the sun during the day, and the moon and stars at night. A starry night was just the right amount of light for us to sleep soundly for millions of years.

How do city lights, phones and TV screens compare to a starry night? Street lights, like the ones just outside my window, are anywhere from 2-3 million times stronger than the light of a star-filled sky. Even if only a fraction of that light is getting into my room, it’s still disruptive. Long term exposure to that low light can lead to anxiety, depression, a weakened immune system, and even cancer.

For this reason, a blacked out room is crucial for sleeping better. I’ve tried a handful of sleep masks in the past, and while they help in certain situations (planes, trains, and buses), they aren’t effective for achieving total darkness.

A better solution is something like blackout currents. Or, if you’re budget conscious, buying some black trash bags and tape from a local department store. These will quickly and easily block out all external light to a room. Just make sure to let any visitors know about your blacked out windows beforehand, lest they think you’re some kind of serial killer.

Sleeping with sound

Whereas pitch black is the ideal for light, total quiet is not necessarily the ideal when it comes to sound and sleep.

Growing up, I always kept a small fan text to my bed. For the longest time, I could not get to sleep unless I had that fan with me. Maybe you or someone you know has had a similar experience.

Why does our brain prefer this “white noise”? The reason being, our brains prefer a constant background noise. When we’re asleep and wake up to some particular noise (soft or loud), it’s not the noise itself that wakes us up – rather, it’s how much louder that noise is compared to our the base level of noise. White noise is effective for sleep because it creates a soft, background noise that blocks out small noises that otherwise could wake us up. Further, it “softens” those loud train sounds and car alarms.

It’s important to point out that noise is not good for everyone. Some people do, in fact, sleep better in total quiet. When setting up an ideal sleep environment, it’s important to track how each of these variables affects your sleep quality.

Should we eat before bed?

When it comes to eating and drinking before bed, the best approach can be summed up in one word: moderation. A small meal and small glass of water before bed ensures that you don’t wake up in the middle of the night hungry or thirsty. Alternatively, eating a big meal and drinking too much will both disrupt your circadian rhythm and lead to a restless night of sleep.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but alcohol is not an effective means of getting ton sleep. Rather, it’s just a sedative and can actually get in the way of the brain’s natural processes that take place as we sleep.

What is more important: sleep quality or quantity?

In preparation for this blog post, I read 40 or so articles and journals about the optimal amount of sleep in a night. All this research led me to one conclusion: the right amount of sleep is 7 to 9 hours per night. This number is higher if you’ve accumulated lots of sleep debt.

However, this isn’t true 100% of the time. There were thousands of anecdotes of people who prefer 6.5 hours or 9.5 hours. The only thing I learned for sure is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Everyone has different genetics and lifestyles, so it’s crucial to sleep health to figure out exactly what works for you and then apply that. This requires a bit of work, thought, and observation, but is well worth it. Once you know your own biological clock, then you can rest assured that you are getting the sleep you need each night to function optimally throughout the day.

What to do now

Let’s recap:

  1. Sleep is super important.
  2. Sleep (paradoxically) helps you live longer.
  3. Sleep makes you happier and smarter.
  4. Turn off the f**king screens, before bed AND after you wake up.
  5. Sleep in the dark. As dark as possible.
  6. Sleep in a slightly cool environment.

Lastly, rather than ask “how many hours should I sleep?”, a better question would be, “what’s the right number of hours to sleep for me.” Doing so removes the conflict between the lab-coats at Harvard and guys like the ET the Hip Hop Preacher.

Some people work better on less sleep, plain and simple. A few weeks of testing is all you need to figure out what works best for your mind and body.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, connect with me @_danfries