Why It Should Be Your Number One Self Care Habit
I have three self-care habits so important to me you couldn’t pay me not to do them. Not only are they responsible for my weight management and health recovery, but they have also become the foundation of all my success. My number one self-care habit is sleep. Specifically, 8 full hours of uninterrupted healthy sleep. The other two are regular movement, every 20 minutes, and daily nutrition. If you put me on a desert island, all I would need is a garden, plenty of room to roam, and a comfy pillow.
Sleep. I had no idea how important it was until it nearly cost me my life.
Three years ago, I woke up to a body in distress. I could barely walk. I was light-headed, and my joints were swollen. My gut was in pain, and my kidneys ached. I was a mess, and I had no idea why.
I had just lost my job 6-weeks earlier, so I knew stress was a factor. With no real job prospects, I began to experience serious anxiety and fears of running out of money and possibly losing my home. As a single father of 2 school-age kids, this was not a good time to fall apart.
As my worrying increased, I began to lose sleep and had little appetite for any food. To make matters worse, I had no health insurance. Something had to change, and fast. Without access to a doctor, I had to figure this out on my own.
Biohacking for the WIN
I have always had a keen interest in health and nutrition. So when all of this hit me, I knew there was a nutritional or biochemical answer to my problems. I just needed to assess the symptoms and do a bit of bio-hacking to fix every possible root cause. I came across an article by Arianna Huffington on her experience with sleep deprivation and how it near ended her life. It wasn’t the smoking gun I was looking for, but it was a start. My sleep habits were poor, and I exhibited many of the same symptoms as Arianna. So I decided to dig in and do a little research.
I spent the next several days reading everything I could get my hands on regarding sleep. I also turned my bedroom into a laboratory testing all manner of sleep improving methods. I started off by setting a bedtime alarm instead of a ‘waking up’ alarm to ensure I went to bed early enough to get a full 8+ hours sleep. Next, I picked up a simple eyeshade to wear to block out any possible light. I even sprayed lavender on my pillow to help lower my heart rate and relax my muscles, hoping to lower my stress. All of this had an immediate impact on my ability to fall asleep quickly and sleep more soundly through the night.
After a week of sleeping with my initial bio-hacks, I decided to turn it up a notch. I went full mid-evil and bought a sleep induction mat. If you have never seen a sleep induction mat, it is very much like sleeping on a bed of plastic nails. The mat itself is about 16 inches by 10 inches in length and width, with about an inch of padding. On the surface are about 200 small round disks with petal-like plastic spikes. Altogether there are over 6000 tiny spikes that serve to activate acupressure points across your back. It took me several practice rounds of increasing duration to build up to a 45 minute practice period.
The idea behind the induction mat is that the initial pain puts your body into a stressful fight-or-flight state. After 20 minutes or so, the pain dulls to something similar to a mild sunburn. At this point, the body realizes the pain is not a threat and begins to relax. On rising from the mat, your body switches to a calm, relaxed state, much deeper than before the acupressure experience.
Breathe better to sleep better
My most recent bio-hack was to start wearing a strip of medical tape over my mouth to ensure I breathe through my nose for the entire night. A few inches of 3M medium hold medical tape does the trick. It sounds barbaric, but it works. At least my kids get a kick out of it:)
The first night I tried the tape I thought I would suffocate. I have constant congestion, so eliminating my mouth as a breathing option took a leap of faith. Well, I didn’t die. And actually, my sinuses managed to clear on their own. Your body’s ability to adapt is amazing.
I learned this and several other breath-related tricks by reading Patrick McKeown’s great book “The Oxygen Advantage.” Another great trick is to place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your teeth. This ‘magic spot’ helps open your throat and align your jaw. This method of ‘oral posture’ encourages proper nasal breathing.
Improving my breathing also helped cure my snoring. I no longer wake with the awful taste and pastiness of mucus in my mouth. According to James Nestor in his book ‘Breath’, “No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how skinny or young or strong you are, none of it matters if you’re not breathing properly.” Very few people breathe correctly. I was one of them.
The Science of Sleep
In the last 20 years, doctors and scientists began to understand the purpose of sleep as a biological function. They knew people needed it, but they didn’t know why. As technology improved scientists gained new tools and techniques for measuring brain functions. By collecting valuable biological feedback the science of sleep took a huge leap forward. Finally, scientists could correlate the activities of a sleeping patient with brain wave activity. They could match up brain activity to changes in their biomarkers in their blood samples. The mysteries of why we sleep began to unfold.
Did you know you sleep in cycles? As you sleep, your brain cycles from light sleep to deep sleep or Non-REM sleep, then to REM sleep. Each level provides different therapeutic benefits for your body and mind. You need REM sleep to clean up all of the input your mind absorbs during the day. It is during REM sleep that your brain decides what information to keep, such as the important phone number you received or a client’s name, and what to discard. You probably would not benefit from storing all the useless sounds and images you encounter all day or the color of the tie of a stranger you road in the elevator with. REM sleep sorts it all out and dumps the useless information.
Non-REM, or NREM for short, helps your brain retain routine information. During this sleep stage, your brain moves important procedural information from your right frontal lobe, which stores new or novel information, to the left frontal lobe, which stores procedural information. The information about how to tie your shoes, for example, is stored in your left frontal lobe. Without sufficient NREM sleep, you might struggle with remembering things like how to drive to work. NREM helps you form new habits like going to bed at the same time every night.
In an average 8 hour sleep period, most people experience 3 to 4 full sleep cycles. Poor sleep habits can reduce the number of complete cycles, and decrease the amount of time spent in each sleep stage. So even if you sleep a full 8 hours, you may still struggle with the effects of poor sleep. Your brain needs complete cycles to do all the important house cleaning in the “ol thinkin attic.”
Another huge breakthrough in sleep research was the discovery of a chemical in the brain responsible for making you feel sleepy near the end of the day. The chemical is adenosine. When you wake in the morning, your brain has very little adenosine. But as your day progresses, your adenosine level rises, creating what sleep scientists call Sleep Pressure. As sleep pressure builds, you become drowse. The longer you remain awake, the greater your sleep pressure. Adenosine is the chemical blocked by caffeine, which is what gives coffee and tea their energy boost. Caffeine actually tricks your brain into ignoring the sleep pressure, so you think you have more energy.
Scientists are still discovering how adenosine impacts the body’s functions as it increases. Still, they can already correlate the chemical’s rise with a reduction in reaction time for critical functions like driving. As scientists continue to learn about sleep, they are hopeful that more employers, schools, and doctors will embrace the importance of sleep in keeping people healthier and more productive. They hope to debunk the societal belief that sleep is optional and only lazy people sleep 8 or more hours a night. I thought that way for years. Now, you couldn’t pay me to sleep less.
The Statistics of Poor Sleep
Another sleep-related breakthrough occurred outside the sleep laboratories. Unrelated to the sleeping patients wired up for data collection, statistics were being collected around the country. A new understanding of sleep was arriving in the form of traffic accident statistics. In these studies, an overwhelming amount of data began to show how driving on less than 8 hours of sleep was responsible for more traffic deaths than driving drunk. In fact, the difference was substantial enough to interest universities to fund studies of the impact of sleep deprivation.
Several studies looked at the results of students who cram all night for tests. The results were clear; students who cram for tests perform much worse in tests than those who study during the day and then get a full night’s sleep before the test. In addition to better scores, the students who slept 8 hours before the test retained what they studied for several weeks after the test, unlike the all-nighter students who lost most of their gains within a few days.
Another mind-blowing stat is what happens after the annual changing of the clocks. Every March, on the same night across the country, everyone moves their clocks ahead an hour, resulting in the loss of one hour of sleep. This may seem a small matter. However, the surprising result is a spike in the rate of heart attacks and traffic fatalities. Just one hour of less sleep and you dramatically increase your heart attack risk or a fatal accident. That should get your attention.
Sleep Is Fundamental To Life
Biologists have discovered that literally, every living creature sleeps. Every mammal, sea creature, insect, and bird all sleep. While there are some animals with unique adaptations to sleep, without exception, they all sleep. If Mother Nature went to such great lengths to make sure all creatures sleep, it must be pretty darn important.
Speaking of interesting adaptations, did you know that birds can sleep with one-half of their brain at a time? Birds have evolved with these interesting adaptations to ensure they get sufficient sleep. This is critical for migratory birds who must fly for hours at a time without landing to rest. These birds will put half of their brain in sleep mode for a full recharge during flight, then flip to put the other half to sleep. Amazing!
Equally amazing is the practice of birds sleeping in groups. You may see such birds lined up on a fence or aerial wire. All of the birds are sleeping on both sides of their brains, except for the birds on either end. The birds on the outside put half their brain to sleep. At the midpoint in their sleep, the birds on both ends will turn at the same time to face the other direction, then put the other half of their brain to sleep for the second half of their night’s sleep. This allows the birds on the outside to keep watch for any predators. Wow!
Sleep is another one of those functions in life that seems simple enough–no instructions necessary. The truth is most people fail to get sufficient quality sleep regularly. Like many bad habits, most people have gotten so used to their poor sleep practice that they don’t notice the negative effect it has on their body and quality of life. Getting a good night’s sleep consistently is one of the best ways to improve your overall health. Without it, you will struggle to make progress in any endeavor to improve your mental and physical health.
Here is my list of bio-hacks to ensure I get a good night of sleep every night.
- Keep it strict. Stick to a consistent sleep schedule. Varying your bedtimes can disrupt your sleep cycles, resulting in less deep and REM sleep needed to fully restore your body.
- Keep it dark. Any amount of light can signal the brain to shut off melatonin and start making serotonin. This will make it harder to fall into deep levels of sleep, leaving you feeling groggy in the morning.
- Keep it cool. The ideal sleeping temperature for most people is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Any warmer and your body will raise your heart and metabolic rate, making it difficult to sleep.
- Keep it quiet. I sometimes use earplugs when I travel to keep out the sounds of the hotel activity. It helps allow the mind to wind down and relax into a deeper sleep.
- Keep it open. Wake up without an alarm. This is only possible if you are going to bed at a time that allows for a full night’s sleep to end by the time you need to get up. Waking up without an alarm allows you to wake up naturally at the end of your sleep cycle so that you get the full benefits of your deep and REM sleep periods.
- Keep it light. Do not eat later than 2 hours before you go to bed. Digesting a big meal before bed will keep your heart rate up, preventing a quality night’s sleep.
- Keep it relaxed. Do not exercise later than an hour before you go to bed. Exercise raises your body temperature (see Keep it cool).
- Keep it red. Do not use electronics later than an hour before bed. The blue light from mobile phones, tablets, and laptops disrupt your body’s ability to release melatonin, resulting in up to an hour of restlessness rather than sleep. If you need light, use red lights to calm your brain.
It took close to 6 months to fully recover. I made several other changes in my diet and exercise, but I can honestly say my improved sleep practice made the biggest difference. Even after my recovery, when I don’t get a good night’s sleep, I struggle the next day. It really is that fundamental to feeling and performing my best.
Humans spend one-third of their lives sleeping, or at least they should. So why not make the most of it. Every day you have an opportunity to support your body’s natural ability to heal, energize, rejuvenate, and revitalize all of your biological functions. Imagine the improvement you could make in your health and wellness efforts. Leveraging this simple practice could yield significant improvements in your life, so why not give it a try.