If you struggle with getting a good sleep you are not alone. I have had my ups and downs with not just getting the recommended duration of sleep but the deep quality sleep that we all need. When I was 13-15 I never gave a crap for sleep health or what is now called sleep hygiene. The bad thing was that I had a rough time shutting down getting into la-la-land. It would take me 30-90+ minutes to fall asleep. I tried counting sheep, I tried music at low volume, I did push ups and other exercise to "tire myself out" but I didn't have much success.
Around the time I turned 17 going into grade 12 I started to notice I was sleeping better and longer with less time to fall asleep. Looking back I still don't notice much that changed in that time other than natural development. My activity remained high as an athlete playing some type of sport during and after school, my food was relatively the same. So what changed? Honestly I still struggle to figure out what changed and over the course of 4 years, it's nearly impossible to pinpoint what factors played into it. Either way, something changed. I went from sleeping maybe 8 or 9 hours and feeling ragged in the morning at age 14 to waking up ready to kick ass at 17.
I read in biology class about the circadian rhythm and the natural cycle from awake to REM(Rapid Eye Movement) to deep sleep. I'm giving you the abbreviated version but the typical sleep cycle lasts 90 minutes going through all the stages. The idea is that if you are able to wake up in the morning at the end of a sleep cycle that you will feel better than waking up in the middle of one. This explained those times that even though I got 9 hours of sleep, I would still wake up feeling like a bag of hot garbage. If you have ever been woken up by the alarm that goes off when you are dead to the world you know what I'm talking about.
I started doing some quick maths and wondered if I could optimize my sleep patterns around this mystical 90 min window. If I went to bed around 10pm (usually) that meant that I could wake up at 7am getting 9 whole hours of sleep but also waking up at the end of a 90 min cycle. BOOM !! Unicorns began to arrive at my beck and call. I could slow time with my mind. I suddenly had all the girls' attention. Teachers wouldn't give me exams because I already aced them. Ok Ok … none of that actually happened, but it felt like I found something amazing. I told my mom about it some years later when she said she was struggling with her sleep and she now swears by the 90 min cycle. I have used this technique off and on over the years to great success when I focus on it. Even to the point where I can go from being a 9 hour sleeper to now I can get pretty close to the same benefit with 7.5 hours or in a time crunch, 6 hours.
Granted that over the last few years, being in university, drinking coffee, and having a social life I haven't always been successful with it but when I come back to it it works great for me. There is a caveat however. Drinking caffeine obviously affects sleep in many ways because it is a stimulant, the main idea of caffeine is to increase alertness, so drinking caffeine within 8 hours of trying to sleep is no good. That is my personal experience anyways. Also drinking alcohol disturbs the restfulness of sleep. Sure it might help get you to sleep, but typically it will mess with the duration of sleep. Again this is my personal experience and research I have done, I'm not telling you how to live your life.
"Hey ! Coach Danny. You said there were tips to help me sleep better, instead you gave me a biology class lesson, what the heck man!?" Ok. I want to preface these with "I have found some success with using these techniques and I hope they work for you. BUT they won't work for everyone in every situation. Here we go!
- Try out the 90 min cycle technique I mentioned above. Give yourself a small amount of time to actually fall asleep and base your wake up time by that.
- Reduce caffeine intake within 8 hours of going to bed. Yes even you coffee-loving people that can drink a cup 20 min before bed and fall right asleep. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
- Reduce/limit the amount of evening time alcohol consumption especially as you get closer to bedtime.
- Have a protein shake/snack before bed. This doubles with not going to bed on a full or an empty stomach. The protein will digest throughout the night and help you from waking up and wanting to eat the entire kitchen(I'm guilty of this one big time).
- Reduce/limit the amount of screen time before bed. I'm still figuring out how to make this one work best for me but I find reading a book helps me fall asleep and keeps the screen light out of my eyes.
- Stretch before bed. This has helped me go from being super "tight" and in a frantic mind to feeling relaxed and peaceful in a matter of 10 minutes. Foam rolling counts as well.
- Train hard. If you exercise with great intensity, you may find yourself looking forward to bedtime and sleeping like a rock.
- Journal or write with a pen on paper. I know we are in 2017, but this one compounds on itself. Writing the day's events or thoughts helps your brain consolidate and categorize what happened which is important for memory. This will also help you relax and "get out of your own head."
- Make your room your sleeping kingdom. Make it dark, cool, and friggin' comfy. The less light and sound that comes in through windows the better, especially if you are a light sleeper. If you have a TV in the room, I would seriously suggest you reconsider.
- Use the "Do Not Disturb" function on your phone, or even better, turn it off at the same time every night before bed. If alerts keep you up or disturb your sleep, stop letting it interfere with your ZZ's and turn it off.
BONUS PRO TIP !
- Shower before bed. Hot showers can help promote relaxation. My personal favorite is a combo of hot and cold. I'll start with as cold as I can handle for as long as I can, then slowly(key point here) turn the hot water on and finish warm. Towel off and pass right out. In the summers, cold showers are my figurative chill pill and help me relax to the max.
I know that some of these you may be already doing or know how to do and just need to put them to good use again. They may seem like "duh" but actually tracking it may show some useful insight into your sleep habits. If you don't know where to begin here is my start point. Pick 3 consecutive nights and write down what you did from the time you got home from work(or play) to the time you went to bed. Make note of screen times, what you ate/drank, and other activities. Then when you wake up rate your sleep on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being a terrible sleep and 5 being a phenomenal sleep. If you aren't sure what all that information is telling you, bring it into the gym or send it my way and I can help you look into how we can improve your sleep habits.
Why is this important anyways? Why do we need 7-9 hours of sleep a night ? What happens when you are chronically sleep deprived is your body's ability to function properly decreases. Mood sucks, hunger usually rises because you feel tired, making good decisions about your life/training/food habits goes out the window, stress rises which further exacerbates the lack of sleep with anxiety, which typically results in less than stellar life choices. Long term this is no good because if you have any desire of making progress or results in your training or nutrition habits, the stress hormones in your body stay high continuing the cycle over and over until dealt with. Our body's are amazing organisms because we adapt to this new "norm" and can get away with sleeping less by compromising elsewhere. Meaning to keep you alive, the body will reduce energy expenditure in any way it can. You feel lethargic(hint), foggy(hint), and you may feel hungrier(hint). These are your body's signs that something needs to be attended to i.e. SLEEP!
This is an area that lots of people struggle with in today's society. Being connected to everything all the time with alerts, buzzes, and tasks calling our name for every waking moment has taken its toll on our sleep health. There is hope however. With a little bit of tracking and work you can achieve a better sleep. Sleep influences so many things in our body from hormones, to brain health, to how well we recover from training and stress. If getting less sleep negatively impacts our life, then we should pay more attention and put more effort into improving it. The positive changes I have experienced using the above tips have had a profound influence on how I view sleep in addition to what a good night sleep enables me to do.
Hopefully with the use of the strategies I have provided above, you may limit or break the cascade of events that is happening and get a good night's rest. If you don't struggle with this, fantastic, you are among a small few. Please share this with those of your friends that do struggle with it. Awareness that something may be wrong is a huge step towards breaking the cycle and fixing what needs to be. If you want to be more productive, have better recovery from whatever stressors be that training/work/life, and generally feel better, you now know where you can start. Best of luck and rest well.