An actionable and free plan for better sleep
Consistency is more important than length: a sleep story
My first question with my clients as a holistic lifestyle coach is, how did you sleep? I ask so I can know what to expect of you today. Early in my training, I focused mostly on how many hours my clients spent sleeping. Now I know the greater importance of consistent sleep patterns than the length of time spent sleeping.
Let’s begin with the premise that sleep, like diet, is very individual. There are seasons of our life where we need more or less of the ‘macros’ of sleep. For instance, I’ve never been a great napper. Naps would interrupt my night cycles and actually leave me grumpy for the rest of the day. That is, until I was busy growing another human! During pregnancy, if my husband left the room to make me an afternoon cup of tea, he would find me lights out on the couch five minutes later. Same was true during my ultra marathon training cycles. ‘Let me put my feet up,’ became a little 20 minute cat nap after my 20 miles.
We can agree there are seasons of greater and lesser need. So what is the evidence based information that can have us focusing our valuable time toward the correct metric? Let’s first paint a picture of sleep inconsistency, better known as social jet lag. Social jet lag is the 9–5 all week with additional after work commitments and then the Saturday and Sunday late night out and late sleep in. When we are living in this model, we aren’t going to bed at roughly the same time everyday. Nor are we waking up at about the same time everyday. Maybe five out of seven days look similar and then the weekend throws it all off. This pattern makes Mondays and even Tuesdays jet lag days; we are recovering from our weekend choices and opportunities. To understand why this is disruptive, we need a quick overview of what happens while we are asleep.
When we fall asleep, we begin our first altradian 90 minute cycle. Early in the sleep we have more slow wave sleep. During our slow wave sleep we are flooded with the hormone serotonin making us content and relaxed. Motor learning happens during this phase of sleep. If you are learning how to play the piano or serve a tennis ball, the motor mapping happens while you sleep after your physical repetitions. As I say to my clients, set it and forget it: your brain will map it tonight. This also drives home another favorite saying of mine: last one, best one. Make sure you are executing high quality repetitions of your physical pattern. Let’s map something with detail and the best execution. Perfect practice makes perfect. The second learning priority during this phase of sleep is details and specificity. A quick reminder to all the students about why pulling an all-nighter doesn’t work: all the details you are trying to learn actually get ‘uploaded’ during our slow wave sleep.
As the night of sleep continues, we begin to give more priority to REM sleep. So that toward the end of our sleep event, we are mostly cycling through REM. During the rapid eye movement sleep phase we are very low in our serotonin, the relaxing and comforting hormone but also notably have almost no norepinephrine. With almost no norepinephrine floating around, we do not feel fear nor anxiety. We are at liberty to uncouple our emotional responses to the events of our daily life. REM sleep is for organizing our emotional responses to the world. This is important because during REM sleep we are paralyzed so we can process our emotional responses to what we have experienced. The paralysis keeps us safely exploring the emotional ups and downs without flailing dangerously around in bed. As this happens at the tail of our sleep event, many of us will remember our dreams when we awaken. It is also common for us to occasionally awaken and still be momentarily paralyzed.
Sleep consistency is the key to better performance. If you need to be cognitively alert and agile or physically ready, it would seem that going to bed at the same time everyday and awakening (ideally without an alarm clock) at the same time everyday will give you the edge. You will have time to process both the important detail and motor skills early in the sleep event and the emotional mapping of the second half of the night. Evidence points to an improved ability for our body to plan for what it needs when it knows it will have a fixed time. Also our consistency keeps us in tune with the greater circadian cycles of nature.
What actions can you take to improve your sleep consistency? A good night’s sleep actually begins in the morning. Getting outside to invite low angle light into your eye before 10am in your time zone turns on the internal countdown to sleep. Even just 10 minutes outside (leave your blue light blockers at home!) will flip the start switch to naturally increase our growing sense of fatigue (and increase of the hormone melatonin) by night fall.
Ensure you limit your caffeine intake later in the day. Caffeine blocks our natural build of tiredness through the day. It has a half life of six hours for most of us. So a cup of coffee at noon means you still have half a cup of coffee blocking your natural sense of tiredness at 6pm. If you plan to be in bed by 10 pm, your last cup of caffeine should safely be at 2pm.
Low angle light at sundown is also a great, free and natural indicator to our bodies. It is time for melatonin levels to rise so we can grow sleepy and get to bed. After you enjoy the setting sun, put on your blue blocking glasses (ensure they block more than just 3% of the blue light!) if you still need to or want to be on a screen. What I really recommend is transitioning to a paper book and a low lamp after dinner. Candle light or fire light is wonderful, too.
We have spent thousands of years in tune with nature and the seasons. If you are struggling with sleep and performance, consider aligning yourself with Mother Earth again. She knows the way home.