By Roland Pankewich
Welcome to the 2nd installment in the fitness factor series for our 2023 focus. I hope you enjoyed last month’s deep dive into diet and ALL the nuances that can be involved with deciding upon how you want to relate to and construct your diet. You might be thinking that sleep doesn’t require the same approach and nuance as diet? On the surface, I could simply say; “Make sure you sleep well, and life will be good!” The end. That idea of “sleeping well” says so much more than what is obvious because sure we know that poor sleep and little sleep both make you feel awful. However, what does it truly mean to sleep well? How do we know we are doing so and how can we ensure that we will in a consistent manner? Now my friends, we can dive into the nuance of sleep. Just don’t put your blackout blindfolds on yet, I still have a lot to write!
Sleep is the health and wellness king in my opinion. Nothing will have more of a deleterious effect on your body when you lack it, and nothing will make you feel more restored when you do it well. No dietary change, specialized supplements, or biohacking gadget will have a better impact on your overall wellness than consistent sleep. While all of this is true and I don’t think many would argue with me, why is it we as a society are sleeping less and in a more compromised manner than we ever have? The national average sleep duration in the US is about 7hr and 19min per night as of 2022 which JUST skirts into the minimum requirement for what is considered a good night’s sleep. The range suggested is between 7 and 9 hours per night with many people (children and young adults included) getting less than this. A very brilliant scientist named Dr. Matthew Walker who happens to be one of the world’s foremost experts on sleep has stated that sleep-loss and associated issues related to poor sleep comprise the biggest epidemic of the 21st century and will place a large challenge on public health systems as a result of the downstream consequences to the development of chronic illness.
The issue with sleep for most people is we don’t understand sleep very well as individuals and even more, sleep research has only recently gained a lot of notoriety and popularity within the mainstream. Although encouraging, we need to be more responsible for our own health knowledge and more accountable for executing the behaviors that align us with staying healthy. Let’s examine what constitutes healthy sleep. Sleep is categorized into two major categories; REM and non-REM sleep. REM stands for Rapid Eye Movement and is an interesting phenomenon where the eyes move in various horizontal patterns while sleeping with the eyelids closed. REM sleep is also where the brain is most highly active and in the process the body is paralyzed so the body does not “act out” anything the sleeper may be experiencing during REM sleep due to its tie to dreaming. Interestingly, the failure to be paralyzed and the acting out of our dreams has been connected to the development of cognitive decline and health issues as an early warning sign. These 2 categories are then split into cycles where non-REM sleep has 4 stages of gradually deepening intensity which we cycle through in various time frames. After the deepest stage of this cycle, we experience a pulse of REM sleep and thus you have a complete sleep cycle which is approx. 90min long. Each stage of sleep also has specific brainwaves associated with it to show that even while we sleep, our brains are hard at work directing traffic for our physical, emotional, and psychological recovery and overall health. Taking roll call thus far, we know that we need to sleep and that we should sleep adhering to these sleep cycles BUT, we have not discussed HOW to sleep to ensure we are making all this work in our favor.
The last aspect we must discuss is how to sleep and no, this is not just about lying down and closing your eyes. A good night’s sleep starts with how you wake up. What governs when the body should be active and when it should be resting is the circadian rhythm. This sleep/wake rhythm is controlled by how we relate to the emittance of light from the sun and how the sun moves through the sky as the day dawns until it closes. The specific light frequencies from the sun are actually absorbed via our eyes and travel to our brain where a specialized receptor maintains the appropriate time in our body clock. If we live in accordance with the rhythms of the day in an optimal fashion, we would:
- get morning sun in our eyes upon waking
- be outside or near a window during the middle of the day at some point to have peak light exposure
- gradually experience increasing darkness as the sun set
- go to sleep shortly after it was fully dark
This would be wonderful but also very idealistic because modern humans do anything but this. Most of us:
- wake up and check our phones immediately
- rush in the morning and hopefully get sunlight on the way to work OR look at a computer screen in the morning
- spend most of the day inside under artificial lighting
- experience artificial “perpetual daytime” by turning lights on after the sun goes down (high efficiency bulbs)
- go to sleep in front of the tv or being on our phone at night in bed
What message this sends to the body is that the natural circadian rhythm is not needed and that we must stay awake and rely upon stress hormones and stimulants to replace the natural energy we would have from quality sleep. Layer in late-day caffeine consumption, alcohol use (even 1 drink will compromise sleep), eating right before bed, lack of darkness in the room, improper temperature, and an old mattress and one could create the perfect storm in the evening for an awful sleep! The truth is many do this daily and wonder why they don’t feel rested in the morning or well in general! I told you it was far more complex than simply lying down and closing your eyes. The single best tool I could suggest anyone uses to maintain their natural lifestyle but still improve their sleep experience is to buy a good pair of blue-light blocking glasses. Not a cheap pair off amazon which likely don’t work, a true pair that cuts through ALL blue and some green light spectrum. Master Supplements has an affiliation with Hedron, and their glasses are amazing, and ALL my clients must own a pair as part of our working together because I believe they are that valuable.
From a health perspective, sleep controls ALL the regenerative aspects of our bodies and especially our brains! Our brains need to regularly detoxify themselves from daily use, and this only happens in the deeper stages of sleep which are the ones that are most compromised when we neglect our circadian rhythm and allow our sleep cycles to get out of whack. Looking at other aspects of health tied to sleep will show you just how irreplaceable it is:
- all aspects of proper hormone release are tied to sleep
- the balance of our autonomic nervous system requires sleep
- emotional and psychological stability is tied to healthy sleep patterns
- metabolic function, immune system activity, and cellular recovery require sleep
I could go on, but I think you get the picture. So, what can we do to help improve our sleep in a world that wants to keep us awake? If we make sleep our priority and honor it with all that was mentioned above, we are on the right track. I help clients construct a bedtime routine but also believe that the occasional night out, evening glass of wine, or late night is part of living and enjoying life. We shouldn’t get too caught up in perfect execution without allowance for compromise because that’s part of life. I truly hope you all found this personally valuable because there is SO much to consider when it comes to sleep but if we start with:
- consistent sleep/wake times
- blocking blue light in the evening (blue blocking glasses & appropriate lighting)
- darkness in the room
- temperature control
- quality sleep tools (mattress, pillows)
- management of caffeine, alcohol, and eating schedule
- appropriate supplementation to aid relaxation when needed
- ways to relax and manage the nervous system (meditation, deep breathing, music)
We have a solid game plan that can be tweaked as needed or as desired to make it truly personalized to you and your own needs. Thank you as always and see you next month for respiratory fitness. You can start your breathing practice now and oh yeah, blackout blindfolds can go on now!