Sleep is probably the biggest thing that gets neglected when it comes to enhancing our performance. More of it isn’t always better. That’s why you would have to improve the quality of your sleep, not the quantity. This meta-post walks you through the different strategies you can do right away.
The Epidemic of the Walking Dead
Sleep is an essential part of our physiology and actually improves the quality of our life. Even when it might seem like we’re doing nothing, our body and brain are conducting numerous repair mechanisms and adaptations.
Sleeping less would allow us to spend more time awake and do what we love, but what kind of a life would that be? There are too many detrimental and scary consequences to lack of sleep, which decrease the quality of our waking hours by a lot.
Work hard, play hard! Hustle! I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Those are slogans of the information age, that keep us wired up 24/7. You might think you’re productive, but actually you’re following the epidemic of the walking dead and turning yourself into a zombie.
If we want to becoming high-performing individuals in everything we do, then it’s important to get adequate amounts of shut-eye.
How Much Sleep Do We Need
The bare minimum would be 7-8 hours. Optimal amount on days of more intense activities would be 9-10.
But it isn’t the quantity of your sleep that matters but the quality of it. Recovery takes place only in the deepest stages which we can enter after about 90 minutes. Sleeping more won’t increase our performance. Doing it smarter will. Optimization is crucial if we want to get the most bang for our buck.
The Circadian Clock Shows It’s Bedtime
Circadian rhythms are biological cycles that cause certain processes inside our body. They’re driven by our inner circadian clock and are adjusted to our environment.
We’re all connected to the daily planetary movements. When the sun is out our mind perceives it as a time to be active. Once darkness falls we are supposed to rest. This happens to us unconsciously.
Our alertness, expression of hormones, and sleep patterns are all linked to this. Cortisol rises the most in the morning, so that we would wake up and become more alert. It’s our built-in wake-your-a*s up mechanism that helps us to start moving and not get eaten.
Adjust to the Circadian Rhythms
This is the most important thing you can do to improve the quality of your sleep. If we want to get the most out of our recovery, then we need to sleep when nature does.
The circadian pattern of sleep is quite detrimental. Human growth hormone (HGH) actually gets released the most during the first few hours of shut-eye. This hormone is essential for burning fat, maintaining and building lean muscle.
- get up early at about 6-8 AM
- go to bed between 9 and 11 PM
Getting exposure to natural sunlight first thing in the morning will help us to adjust to the circadian rhythms and sets the stage for improved sleep at night as well.
Total Sleep Optimization
Having covered that, there are other strategies you can use to improve the quality of your sleep.
- Establish a daily sleep routine. Follow a series of habitual activities prior going to bed letting your unconscious self know that it’s time to go to sleep. This will include certain activities both physical and mental. It can be anything, such as reading, brushing your teeth, stretching or whatever. Just make it a habit so that your mind knows it’s time to rest.
- Sleep in pitch black darkness. This is incredibly important because of the effect circadian rhythms have on us. The brain doesn’t tell the difference between light coming from the Sun or an artificial source. It perceives it as all the same. Even if our body detects a tiny bit of glow on any part of the skin the mind thinks it’s daytime and no sleeping ought to be done. Instead, it sees it as a time to be alert and gather food, run from predators etc. Artificial light creates a situation where our body thinks it’s constantly at the equator. To prevent this from happening don’t use bright lights in the house after sunset.
- Cover all the windows – make no ray penetrate your sleeping cave because that’s what it’s supposed to resemble. To truly optimize it put pieces of duct tape on the blinking red spot on your smoke detector, alarm clock, television.
- When you go to bed use a sleep mask or a scarf to cover your head. When I first tried this I couldn’t believe how rejuvenated I felt the next morning. If there is nothing but darkness in front of your face you won’t have any other option but to doze off. You won’t notice the short occurrences of waking up in the middle of the night either. It all turns into one big continuous slumber of tranquility and make you sleep like a baby, literally.
- Change your lightbulbs. The UV light from ordinary lightbulbs is artificial and emanates blue light which stimulates the body to reduce melotonin and makes us more wakeful. Changing to amber lights will fix that by reducing the spectrum to more red which at night resembles the sunset.
- Use a program on your computer called Flux which changes the bright color of the screen to orange and relaxing.
- Wear special eyewear to block blue light. Less ideally you can use sunglasses as well. All of this needs to be done at least 2 hours before going to bed. Your subconscious mind needs time to wind down and adjust to the change.
Have a Soft-Tissue Massage
Let’s be honest here. Everyone loves a good massage. Kneading different muscles makes them release tension and become more relaxed. Because of the stress we experience throughout the day our body tends to become excessively tight. This can lead to stiffness, lack of mobility and a lot of pain.
If you don’t have access to someone who could rub your back and shoulders, then don’t worry. All of it can be done by using an ordinary tennis ball. Lay on the ground and start to roll on top of it. Push it against your pecks, shoulders, hips, quads, back, neck – everything. This will untie the knots that have built up in the fascia.
Additionally, do some stretching as it will also loosen up your body. Doing this will not only make you more calm but also prepare your joints to being in a single position for a long time.
Stimulate the Vagus Nerve to “Knock Yourself Out”
There’s also a specific type of massage you can do to almost instantly make you more docile and ready for sleep. It involves stimulating the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is located inside our skull, at the back of our head. It’s part of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest aka sleep like a baby) and it connects the brain with the gut, heart, liver – the rest of the body. Circadian signaling is also transmitted by the vagus nerve.
Low vagal tone is the inability of the vagus nerve to activate its functions and promotes fatigue, food insensitivities, anxiety, gut problems, brain fog and depersonalization. Vagal stimulation lowers the risk of heart disease[i], reduces inflammation[ii], and can make your more relaxed.
To stimulate your vagus nerve prior going to sleep, lie down on the floor, place a tennis ball on the back of your neck and softly massage it. You can also roll it on your traps and upper back.
Purchase a small bedding that has little spikes on top of it. This is relatively cheap yet very effective. You can lay down before going to bed for 15 minutes or sleep on it throughout the night. I have used both options.
At first it feels like a lot of thorns are trying to penetrate your skin. After a while the body relaxes and it becomes incredibly soothing. It creates a nice feeling of surging energy in the back.
There is a lot of evidence for the health benefits of this. Traditional acupuncture points can stimulate the vagus nerve[iii], the ear in particular[iv]. In China needle therapy is a key component to traditional medicine. The Yogis of India have also been using beds of nails for centuries.
Acupuncture stimulates the vagus nerve very powerfully. Someone actually died from too low of a heart rate[v]. We don’t have to fall into such extremes but instead simply use it to empower our sleep prior going to bed.
Sleep In a Cool Environment
The perfect temperature is 20 degrees Celsius (65 Fahrenheit). Turn down the heating and cover yourself with only the bed sheets. Extra fluffy blankets are actually counterproductive. It might seem like it’s comfortable but if it’s too warm then we’re jeopardizing our recovery.
During the military the best night’s sleep I ever had happened during the winter when you would have to lie in a fetal position inside the sleeping bag to maintain a safe body temperature. It was difficult at first but once you got used to it you barely even noticed the cold.
Also, exposure to cold a few hours beforehand also stimulates the vagus nerve and puts you into a parasympathetic state. Take a cold shower or have an ice bath. Awesome stuff.
Electro Magnetic Frequencies
Turn off all electronics in your room. Not only are they a possible source of blue light sneaking in but they also radiate Electro Magnetic Frequencies (EMF) which not only decrease testosterone production but also have a negative impact on our overall health including sleep.
Studies in these area are only beginning to take place and it can’t be said that nobody saw this coming. We’re already surrounded by radio waves and other magnetic fields on a daily basis. Wi-fi is included into this. Turn off your router for the night and keep your phone on airplane mode most of the time.
We want to minimize the presence of EMF not only in our bedroom but in our entire life. There are some products online that when attached to your computer can absorb the radiation.
Additionally, some stones, such as quartz, moss agate, amethyst and obsidian are said to have similar properties. Personally, I wear a necklace of rock crystal and shungite all the time. There are other reasons for doing so but they definitely provide us with some protection from these sources.
Because we’re constantly surrounded by EMF and other esoteric radio waves we begin to build up a negative charge. Our body is like any other conductor that attracts these ions in its magnetic field. This not only influences our hormonal profile but also has an effect on our sleep.
Luckily, this can be alleviated thanks to the Earth’s ability to absorb our charge. By walking barefoot on natural ground we’re “earthing” and resetting our magnetic field.
More Strategies to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep
- Unwind your mind. Either meditate or simply dwell on your thoughts. This is the time do destress ourselves. If we are anxious and worrisome then it will impact our recovery in a negative way. The key is to relax and not think about the responsibilities we have the next day. Just loosen up, soften your gaze and become calm. Don’t be angry at anything or anyone. Spend time with your family or follow your bedtime ritual.
- Create a source of white noise in your room. Whether that would be from an audio player switched to airplane mode or something less technical. I would suggest using a simple fan. Not only will the ventilation keep the air moving and cooling the temperature but the noise will contribute to the production of alpha waves while we are sleeping. Ever noticed that when it is raining you sleep especially well? The sound of raindrops falling on top of the roof seem just so soothing and relaxing. We’re designed to rest in an environment with natural sounds in it. White noise promotes a meditative state which will allow us to enter the deepest stages of recovery more easily.
- Dehydrate a few hours prior to bed time. Drinking water is incredibly important for our health. However, if we have to constantly wake up to go to the bathroom at night then we will never establish the deep stages of sleep where all the magic and recovery happens. Waking up once or twice is fine and actually beneficial as it prevents us from getting too stiff. After dinner don’t consume any form of liquid as it will inevitably have to come out. This won’t happen in the morning but somewhere in the middle of the night. Being dehydrated for a few hours won’t do us much harm.
- Binaural beats. While awake our brain is producing mainly beta waves which is an alert state of consciousness that promotes stress and anxiety. This we don’t want to have during our sleep. To enter deeper stages, we have to drop lower to alpha waves. During the day it can happen while we’re daydreaming or meditating. Binaural beats can help us to go from beta to alpha and then progress further into theta and delta, which resembles the natural progression of a healthy cycle.
- Essential oils that emanate different aromas can be used around your bed that will improve the quality of our sleep. For instance, rose oil inhibits sympathetic nervous system activity and decreases adrenaline. Additionally, lavender enhances deep sleep, lowers our stress, blood pressure, heart rate, skin temperature and cortisol levels. Their soothing smells will prime our body and mind for relaxation and augmentation.
Sleep ought to not rejuvenate us but also prevent us from building up tension in our bodies. Spending that much time in one position can seriously degrade our mobility and jeopardize joint integrity.
If our mattress is too soft then our spine will be in a disadvantageous position making us that more prone to injury. The surface on which we lay should be slightly hard and solid.
Do not use a big pillow either because it’s bad for the neck. Instead, use something minimalistic that simply supports the head.
Sleeping on your right side increases heart rate variability and vagal activation. Laying on your back stimulates the vagus nerve the least[vi], but at the same time it’s the safest position for your joints. I usually start off on my right side to get into a more parasympathetic state and then over the course of the night sleep on my back.
What we eat is also extremely important. Of course, filling up your gut right before bed will not only keep your digestive track active but will also keep you awake because of the discomfort.
Eating food later in the day increases protein synthesis and nutrient partitioning but we shouldn’t overdo it. I eat the majority of my calories at dinner and feel great. To feed our hungry brain throughout the night we have to give it a steady supply of energy. Otherwise it will wake us up. Stable blood sugar levels are essential for a constant stream, therefore, high GI carbohydrates are not optimal.
What research has shown is that some protein and fat before bed decreases the amount of times people wake up a night in comparison to high carb diet[vii]. It also improves body composition and enhances muscle recovery by providing more assistance to the repair mechanisms.
To improve the quality of your sleep, have a nice ketogenic dinner with some good protein and fat, such as butter or coconut oil. However, don’t eat too much protein, as it can spike your insulin. This will increase blood glucose and keeps you up at night. Keep it moderate.
There are also some natural supplements we can use. We definitely don’t want to start taking any hard medications that would only relief the symptoms not the actual cause.
- Herbal teas, such as chamomile, peppermint, lavender, valerian and hibiscus reduce bodily inflammation and induce relaxation. They’re also very good for detoxification and improve our immune system. However, don’t fill your bladder up before bedtime.
- GABA is great if we’re serotonin deficient. Called gamma-aminobutyric acid, it’s the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, and regulates the nerve impulses in the human body. Therefore, it is important for both physical and mental performance, as both of them are connected to the nervous system. Also, GABA is to an extent responsible for causing relaxation and calmness. It can be taken at dinner.
- Melotonin is actually a hormone that gets produced by the pineal gland inside the brain. Its central role is regulating sleep cycles and circadian rhythms. In its synthetic form it’s used for sleeping aid and as an antioxidant. Small doses before bedtime will make you produce more melotonin which lets your body know it’s time to sleep. It’s also great for making up lost sleep and jet lag. One thing to rememberer is that by using such additives we’re teaching our brain to depend on them, leading to simply treating the symptoms not the cause. We need to know how to produce those hormones without any aid. Therefore, we need to change our lifestyle by implementing the strategies above first, and using this as a last resort or only in situations when it’s necessary.
The Power of Napping
As children we all used to hate when we had to take a nap in the afternoon. However, for a growing organism it is crucial to get more than adequate rest for optimal growth.
The higher physical and mental demands we pose to our body the more we have to recover from. Doing it more frequently will also have a positive effect on some of the repair mechanisms. Having a short snooze in the middle of the day will recharge our batteries and gives us more energy to last until the evening.
One of the reasons why people fail to recover is that they build up high amounts of stress during the day which the body then starts to deal with during sleep. This prevents any real repair from taking place because of all of the energy is directed towards reducing cortisol. If we were to decrease our stress during the day we will be able make more room for recovery at night. This “powernap” will detoxify our brain pre-emptively, consolidates what we’ve learned in the AM part of the day and enhances muscle repair.
How to Have a Powernap
When I was preparing for the military I used to train judiciously 2 times a day. Once at noon and the second time in the evening. In between those sessions I would also take a 30 minute nap that greatly improved my performance and recovery. It enabled me to continue exercising hard and not get overly exhausted. To be honest, it was unavoidable because of the fatigue I had accumulated. I eagerly hit the sack and dozed off immediately.
Structuring this powernap is also relevant. We don’t want to do it too late in the evening because it will offset our energy for the upcoming night. Doing it in the AM is also too early because of us not being able to take advantage of the wakefulness promoting hormones.
Before you have a nap, you should have been awake for at least 7-8 hours. It would depend on your circadian sleeping pattern. Having a siesta between 2 to 3 PM is common in many countries of the world and the perfect time to do so.
Sleeping on Caffeine
To improve the quality of your sleep, you should devoid from using too much coffee as well. Caffeine has a half-life of 6-8 hours. To not be too alert before bed time we should not consume caffeine after 3-4 PM. It’s best to drink it in the morning or at least not later than the afternoon. Green tea has some caffeine in it but in very small doses.
But coffee can improve the quality of your sleep, or at least naps. Drinking something caffeinated 20 minutes before having a shut-eye can be more effective for preventing daytime drowsiness and fatigue than napping or drinking coffee alone[viii].
How to Have Coffee Naps
Caffeine blocks Adenosine, which is molecule causing drowsiness, from filling the receptors in the brain and gives thus gives you a jolt of energy[ix].
It takes about 20 minutes for caffeine to reach your brain. Before that can happen, you need to clear the Adenosine molecules resting on your brain’s receptors and making you drowsy. The powernap will do so perfectly.
By the time you wake up from your nap, your brain will have blocked Adenosine with both the sleep and caffeine, which gives you a double boost.
To not fall into sleep inertia, which is harder to wake up from, you shouldn’t sleep any longer than 20 minutes. To get this 1-UP, you also need to be awake when that caffeine reaches the brain[x]. This is drinking coffee like a strategic genius, writ large.
The Importance of Sleep Hygiene
A good night’s sleep starts the moment we wake up the day before.
If we’re not in tune with the circadian rhythms and not follow the activities described above, then we are not getting the most out of our down time. These changes yield optimal results and are essential for quality recovery.
Our ritual prior going to bed determines how well we’re going to be resting. Sleep hygiene is very important and we need to prepare for it in advance.
In the evening we should be winding down and relaxing. We need to tame our inner beast and make it dormant. If we’re constantly wired up, we won’t be able to shut down completely. During the day we ought to go hard but also remember to take it easy as well.
When it’s night time you have to behave accordingly. You shouldn’t be running from predators or chasing prey but instead simply take it easy and soothe your mind.
Force Yourself to Relax
When in beast mode, we tend to forget about the principle of balance and keep going. To recover we have to get out of that cycle and completely clear our mind.
We have to enter an anabolic state of mind, which means distancing ourselves from our responsibilities, troubles and worries. Do something enjoyable that would calm you down.
As with getting things done, you have to make relaxation a must. Put it into your schedule. I personally have a specific moment in the evening where I completely shut down and do something mindless. I watch comedy, play videogames, laugh, do stupid stuff and just chill. It’s a short breather where I’m winding down and enjoying my time with the family.
A Wired Up Society
Our modern world is constantly stimulating us and keeping us in the circuit. Social media, TV and working cause more stress and maintain our wakefulness. Not just because of the blue light but also because of seeking social validation.
If we don’t give our body to adjust to the change then we will go to bed all wired up thus impairing our recovery. The sleep ritual should start at least 2 hours before bed time. Start winding down preemptively and incorporate the habitual habits that let your subconscious mind know it’s that time of the day.
It is the principle of balance that we need to keep in mind and respect. Growth happens during rest. The reason why an empowered being is able to perform at such a high level is because he follows the correct pattern of going through a stressful stimulus and proper recollection of resources afterwards. It allows us to push ourselves even further the next time.
Those who say that sleep is for the weak and wicked don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s the most important thing for our recovery.
You used to be alert and full of energy the entire day but fell as a victim to the walking dead epidemic. Be a zombie no longer. Reclaim your enthusiasm for life and get back on your game.