Healthy Sleep, Happy Body
As part of my “Making the Changes That Matter” project, the theme of March is “Trigger States.” Many of my clients feel that they are “out of control” with certain foods – that they just can’t stop once they start eating sugar, or carbs, or whatever their “trigger food” is. However, I often try to redirect these clients to focusing on “trigger states,” rather than “trigger foods,” because sometimes the situation is an overwhelming trigger, not the food itself.
In the next several blog posts, I am going to explore the two most common triggers that we all experience:
- Lack of sleep
- Elevated stress
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore the consequences of compromised sleep and elevated stress; take a deep dive into techniques, tips, and strategies for a more mindful and intentional lifestyle; and explore the hormonal dynamics between sleep, stress, weight gain, mood, immunity, performance, health, and more.
Remember: it’s impossible to completely separate body, mind, and spirit. What you do for your physical health is good for your mental health, and vice versa. For example, when you create better boundaries around work, you have the opportunity to improve your sleep, which improves your perspective. When your perspective is better, it’s even easier to improve your relationship with work and stress. See how it’s a positive cycle? Our goal this month is to use a few strategies to get this cascade effect started.
And we’re going to start with sleep.
Sleep: The Fourth Macro
I have heard sleep wittily referred to as the “fourth macro,” because in addition to fat, carbs, and protein, sleep is something that your body needs as a building block for ideal health. You could have an ideal workout routine and an impeccable diet, but if you’re not sleeping regularly and adequately, you’re not going to see the results you want. Sleep is the magic ingredient that helps everything else work better, from cognitive performance to losing fat.
Why is sleep so incredibly important?
The problem with the inherent machismo of our work culture (in which an all-nighter is a badge of honor) is that sleep restriction affects us more than we realize. Even shortening our sleep to a regular 5-6 hours per night (far from all-nighters) results in steeply impaired life performance.
In one study, researchers found that “sleepiness ratings suggest that subjects were largely unaware of these increasing cognitive deficits, which may explain why the impact of chronic sleep restriction on waking cognitive functions is often assumed to be benign.” In other words, the subjects were doing very poorly, but not realizing it.
In another study, subjects whose sleep was restricted by 33% reported significant cognitive and mood problems.
To break down one important and troubling common denominator of these studies, I want to point out that the subjects in these experiments were not kept awake all night. They were simply restricted to six hours or less. I find this scary, because (1) that is not a dramatic restriction, and (2) I think this is probably fairly average for American adults.
The good news? The strategies for improving sleep are extremely simple and inexpensive, and you can begin to enjoy the positive effects of better sleep fairly quickly. In fact, one study showed that just two nights of full sleep helped subjects begin to recover from chronic sleep restriction.
We’re going to start by exploring the odd phrase, “sleep hygiene.”
Sleep hygiene is simply an extension of the auto-pilot routines that I discussed in February.
What is sleep hygiene? It is simply the act of implementing evening (and perhaps morning) rituals that help to “cue” sleep. A “cue” is an external, environmental trigger. Just like Pavlov’s dog would salivate when a bell was rung, you can make yourself sleepy by building specific associations with habits or activities.
Think about the cues for overeating (like seeing/smelling delicious food). When the tray of doughnuts is out on the break room table, it is difficult not to have one (or two, or three). Similarly, when you train yourself to respond to nighttime cues like a book, a specific piece of music, or a certain aromatherapy oil, you will find yourself automatically getting sleepy.
All you have to do is begin to cement certain routines to sleep, and familiar actions and environmental cues – paired consistently – will begin to elicit sleepiness all on their own.
Remember – two nights of sound sleep can help you feel significantly better, but it may take 3-6 weeks of consistent practice to experience the full “training” benefits of sleep hygiene.
- Sleeping the same amount of time every night will help you re-set your circadian rhythm. I suggest eight hours for adults as a starting point. But remember – six hours is not enough!
- Sleeping at the same times every night will also prompt your circadian clock to settle into a healthy, consistent rhythm. This will be individual to your lifestyle!
- Decreasing screen usage at night and not sleeping with your phone or computer in the bed with you will help your circadian clock respond naturally to daylight and darkness. If you wake up in the middle of the night, try to read a book and keep lights low, and avoid getting back on your phone or computer, which will make it more difficult to reach sleep again.
- Using a real alarm clock and placing it across the room from you will help you to avoid electronics use in bed (and will help you to get out of bed in the morning without hitting snooze)
- Using environmental sleep-enhancers like a fan, a sound machine, and a colder temperature will allow your body to naturally sleep more soundly.
- Giving yourself more time for your sleep “launch sequence” will allow your mind and body time to relax and prepare for sleep. For example, if you’re going to bed at 11, try to start relaxing at 9 or 9:30. In other words, don’t work on a project until 10:59.
- Use this protected “launch sequence” time for chosen sleep cues that are repeated every night, like:
- reading a (peaceful, unstimulating) book
- listening to a specific (peaceful, unstimulating) song or album
- using a specific aromatherapy like lavender essential oil
- washing your face and brushing your teeth
- taking nightly vitamins
- changing into “real” pajamas (as opposed to falling asleep in athleisure or work clothes)
- doing gentle stretches or a restorative yoga routine
- anything that makes nighttime and sleep a special, set-apart activity – an event and an end unto itself
- Avoid demonizing “un-perfect” nighttime routines like watching your favorite show or having a nighttime snack. A TV show (especially one that is not too stimulating) can be a fun and relaxing part of the sleep runway. Similarly, nighttime eating does not contribute to weight gain if it is a planned snack and is not overeating. Many people (myself included) find it difficult to fall asleep on an empty stomach.
Finally, remember that what you do during the day can affect sleep.
- Get sunlight by spending time outside, especially in the morning. Getting sufficient bright light during the early part of the day helps to sync your circadian rhythm with “correct” daytime and nighttime patterns.
- Get exercise. Exercise positively affects many aspects of well-being, and improved sleep is just one of them.
Later this month, we’re going to talk about the hormonal, psychological, and behavioral dynamics that connect sleep to weight gain and health. But first… we’re going to explore stress. Check in next week for the next installment of “Trigger States!”
Follow-Up Questions from Last Week
If you want to jump into this free healthy living project, all you have to do is start today by shooting me an e-mail to let me know you’re “in!” Each week, I e-mail strategies to my mailing list on Monday. If you would like to be on this list, please scroll down and sign up!
Last week in “Hinge Habits: Cheap Buys for Big Results,” we talked about how a few small purchases can help support important routines.
- Do you own any of the items that I discussed?
- Did you buy, or are you planning to buy, any items that you do not own?
- If you already own some of the items, or bought them last week, what difference do you think they make in your lifestyle?
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