Last time we looked at the importance of sleep to overall health and touched on three pre-lunch strategies to help your body prepare for the coming night’s sleep.
Today we’ll be taking about after-lunch strategies to improve sleep quality. If you incorporate these things during the day, it will improve your sleep quality at night. First, we have to acknowledge that preparing for sleep several hours prior to going to bed does not come naturally to many people, let alone preparing for bed as soon as you get up. Many people simply cannot think this way, particularly when the strategies they would need to put in place during the day to ensure a good sleep at night put them into conflict with many other aspects of their day – such as work, family, social occasions, and so on. As a general rule, most of us will think and act in the here and now for many of the key decisions in our daily life rather than for something down the track.
Life, however, is full of compromise. So while some of these strategies might be difficult to do if they conflict with other areas of your life, you may need to ask what is more important in the grand scheme of things. Poor sleep, and the negative health consequences that travel with it, are so pervasive and damaging that those sleep-improvement strategies might just be worth it. And nobody ever complained of feeling fully-rested, energised and not chronically feeling under-slept.
Our morning strategies were largely focused on waking the body up properly and using the light and the composition of your breakfast to send all the right wake-up signals to your body, setting the stage for a circadian rhythm that is properly calibrated to the natural light-dark cycle. Doing so has the effect of synchronising your body clock with light and dark cycles so that you get tired and sleepy at the right time of the day (night-time) and that you have the correct precursors there in place to help your body produce enough of the hormone which will induce sleep for you (melatonin).
Having set up these important processes in the morning, the key to the afternoon then, is not to do anything to disturb and disrupt all that good work.
1. Kill the Caffeine
One of caffeine’s effects on our body, and indeed the very reason it helps to wake us up and make us feel alert, is its ability to boost our cortisol levels. In very simple terms, cortisol has a couple of key functions;
- It is the hormone responsible for waking us up in the morning, mobilizing energy and helping our brain fire on all cylinders.
- It is one of our key stress hormones.
If anyone knows anything about sleep, you will know that feeling stressed, even at a low level, makes sleep difficult to come by. Caffeine consumed in the morning is generally okay as the cortisol it stimulates is only minor given the amount which is already in circulation as part of our body waking up. But as we hit the afternoon and our natural cortisol levels are starting to drop, the last thing we need to do is to spike them back up with caffeine.
Caffeine has a half-life of approximately 6 hours (though this varies significantly person-to-person), meaning that it takes this long for your body to metabolise half of the amount of caffeine you have consumed down to half the dose. So if you drink a cup of coffee containing 100mg of caffeine, it will take approximately 6 hours to get it down to 50mg in your bloodstream.
If you are constantly drinking coffee all day, particularly late in the day, you will be increasing your caffeine levels (and thus sleep-destroying cortisol) faster than you can get it out of your system. Drink too much caffeine throughout the day and there is a good chance that you will be going to bed with the equivalent of a shot of espresso still in your system.
There is also considerable variation in how efficiently caffeine is metabolised, with some people carrying a specific genetic variant being able to break down caffeine more rapidly. But don’t get all excited – the majority of people are “slow metabolisers” of caffeine, and thus these guidelines are more likely to apply to you than not.
I have had people assure me that they can still fall asleep even after having a coffee late in the day. However, there is a big difference, qualitatively, between being able to fall asleep and going through all the natural deep sleep cycles you need to throughout the night.
This qualitative distinction is also a reason that alcohol is absolutely not your friend if sleep matters to you, since any significant amount of alcohol within a couple hours of sleep negatively affects the type of sleep you get, resulting in abnormal sleep patterns throughout the night. Being asleep is not the same as being in a deep sleep – something caffeine is very good at stopping you from entering, and alcohol is good at stopping you from maintaining. Red Bull and vodka? The worst idea ever.
To minimise the effect caffeine might be having on your sleep, it is a good idea to quit all sources of caffeine about 6-8 hours out prior to bed. In practical terms, this means you might be able to get away with an early afternoon coffee, but make that your last for the day. If you have any sleep or fatigue issues, we also recommend a Caffeine Holiday a couple times a year, too.
2. Blackout the Bluelight
From the Morning Edition, you will recall that I talked about how light is a key stimulus required to wake you up in the morning (hence why it is easier to wake up in the middle of summer compared to the middle of winter). When we talk about natural light being a stimulus to wake you up, what is specifically meant is the blue light spectrum of natural light. Rather inconveniently (but not by chance), all of our new modern techno toys – computer screens, tablets, smartphones, etc., emit light in almost exactly the right wavelength to stimulate the same process.
In other words, the blue light streaming into your eyes from your smartphone that you are holding right up to your face at 9 o’clock at night as you tell the world, via your InstaTwitFace account, that tonight is going to be the night that you finally get a good sleep, is actually sending a signal to your body that the sun is up and it is time to wake up. Research shows us that blue light (even when very dim) has a significant alerting effect – similar to caffeine!
Research in this area has shown that even just a small amount of use of these gadgets at night can delay your melatonin pulse (the hormone which will put you to sleep) by up to 2 hours. So if you are leaving it until 11pm at night to settle into bed, but you have been using your gadgets all night, it could be well after 12-1am before you really fully fall asleep.
Melatonin, in the normal run of things, starts pulsing at around 7pm and really winds up about 9pm. So, ideally, you would want to avoid overdoing the blue light toys around that time. Yeah, right. If you think asking someone to give up sugar is hard, try asking them to give up their iPhone and MySpaceFace account in the evening. It generally ain’t happening for anyone under the age of 30.
Your ‘hack’, should you find it completely impossible to unplug at night, is to wear glasses with orange lenses (similar to what cyclists wear for low light riding), as these glasses filter the sleep-killing blue light.
3. Improve Your Bedroom Environment
Next on our countdown to bedtime, is a check of your sleeping environment. Specifically, we want to look at the bed, the temperature, and the light. You are going to spend at least one-third of your life in bed, so a comfortable bed and pillows are going to be a good investment. For the bed at least, this isn’t perhaps a quick fix if it isn’t the most comfortable of sleepers, but certainly put it on your long list if you just can’t get comfortable.
Of more immediate concern, however, is the temperature of your room. Humans tend to sleep best in a room a bit on the cooler side, but not too cold. Around 16 degrees C (61-62 degrees F) seems to be optimal. This may necessitate cooling the room in summer or heating the room/bed in winter. Being too hot or too cold is a potent disruptor of sleep.
Try to also kill any artificial light sources – all the LEDs from alarm clocks, flashing notification lights on phones, or light from outdoor sources such as the streetlamps. Alarm clocks should be covered or put under the bed, phones and their notification systems should be off (airplane mode works great for this, too). Use the room layout and/or blackout curtains to ensure external light sources like street lamps aren’t seeping in. It’s also a good idea to avoid watching TV or movies in bed. Ideally, your bed is for sleeping and sex, not reading or watching TV or browsing Amazon on your iPad.
If you live in an area where sound pollution is an issue, a white noise machine is a great tool to help reduce how much sound pollution impacts your sleep. There are also mobile phone apps that work well, too.
4. Create a Bedtime Routine
A bedtime routine is a great way to tell your brain that it’s time to start winding down. For those of you with children, you’ll know that a consistent bedtime and routines help with sleep — this is true for adults as well. Dimming the lights, reading a (paper) book, or drinking a cup of herbal tea are good ways to set the tone for slipping easily into Dreamland. Massage, a warm shower or bath, and sex are all great soporifics. (A soporific is the sleep equivalent of aphrodisiac, and I know you know what that means.) Apply accordingly.
Some people find that gentle exercise such as a walk or a restorative yoga class help with sleep, but I will caution you against very intense or prolonged training within a couple hours of bedtime, as the cortisol response from your 10K run near lactate threshold or your 45 minute circuit training class will likely delay the onset of deep sleep.
That being said, evening exercise is better than no exercise at all, so if you are confined to the late evening hours for training, moderating your intensity and allowing more recovery between sets/intervals may help offset the unnatural schedule of modern life.
5. Reduce Emotional Commotion
One of the most potent simulators of the stress response is interpersonal conflict. Schedule all fights with your spouse before noon, and don’t read work-related emails right before bed. Nothing like that note from your boss to get you all wound up. Action movies or psychological thrillers can really get your heart pounding and make it tough to wind down right afterward, too. Episodes of Game of Thrones are hardly a good evening entertainment choice. Even really rousing books (especially engaging works of fiction) can get your cognitive engines whirring, which may or may not be a good thing right before bed.
As you can see, there is a lot involved with getting a good night’s sleep. When someone complains of not being a good sleeper, rarely have they ticked ALL of the boxes outlined in this before lunch and after lunch sleep strategy series and given them a chance to work. There are other sleep disruptors, yes, but these are the basics which everyone should apply first.
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