An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on the fundamental role of sleep on our cognition and overall well-being. Sleep enriches our ability to focus, learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It is critical for everyone at all stages of life. A lack of sleep affects our overall health and leads to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, increased inflammation, and a weakened immune system. All of these conditions are bidirectional and also impact brain health. Indeed, restorative sleep is so vital that it would be very difficult to implement our entire protocol without this bedrock in place.
While much of the biological necessity of sleep remains a mystery, some exciting new research reveals that our brain engages in critical restoration work as we sleep. The recently discovered glymphatic system, comprised of glial cells that act as a waste disposal system for the brain, plays an essential role in beta-amyloid clearance. Research reveals that our glymphatic systems function most effectively during deep sleep, demonstrating a ten- to twentyfold increased clearance rate. During deep sleep, glial cells shrink as much as 60 percent, allowing a thorough cleansing and removal of toxic debris.
Too many people mistakenly assume that you can just lie down and you’ll fall asleep. That’s sadly not true for many of us, and this issue tends to become more bothersome as we grow older. You need to put some effort and preparation into your nightly sleep hygiene. The great news is that we can work to optimize sleep.
Applying the strategies below will help improve both the quality and the quantity of your sleep.
- Identify your unique circadian rhythm. Each of us has a unique, inherent sleep-wake pattern that will dynamically change over the decades. Accommodating this cycle is a powerful way to promote restorative sleep, optimal cognition, and productivity.
- Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule. This is not always possible because of family or work demands, but do your best to have a regular bedtime and time to wake up. Ideally, we should begin to wind down as the sun is setting.
- Make seven to eight hours of sleep your goal. Research shows that adults getting less than six hours and more than nine hours are negatively impacted. The idea that older adults need less sleep is a myth.
- No caffeine (or other stimulating beverages or supplements) past noon. Work to identify which supplements are stimulating and be sure to include them in your morning stack.
- Eat your last meal of the day at least three hours before bed. This promotes autophagy, which cleans out cellular waste products. It’s also much easier to sleep on an empty stomach.
- Rethink a nightcap. The seductive effect of alcohol may lead you to think that it’s helping with sleep, but research shows that it powerfully disrupts our REM sleep cycle, impairing memory integration.
- Don’t exercise within three hours of bedtime. Exercise ramps up adrenaline and prevents sleep.
- Reduce nighttime potty breaks. Take your supplements about an hour before bed with as little water as possible. While it’s important to hydrate during the day, you don’t want to have to wake up for a bathroom run.
- Wind down. Refrain from stimulating activities or conversations several hours before you plan to sleep.
- Your bedroom is for sleep. Make your bedroom your sanctuary. Keep it clean and uncluttered, free from work and any other projects.
- Minimize EMF exposure. Make sure any electronic device in your room is turned off, placed as far from the bed as possible, or placed on airplane mode when you go to sleep.
- Enjoy a bedtime story. Consider using either an eBook or a tablet that lights up (set to the dimmest setting on airplane mode), with an automatic shutoff feature so that you don’t have to turn off the lamp as you drift off to sleep.
- Sleep clean. Make sure your bed is as toxin-free as possible. Many mattresses, other bedding (mattress pads, pillows, sheets, blankets, etc.), and even pajamas are treated with harmful chemicals such as flame retardants. Exposure to these toxins can lead to serious health consequences, including neurological damage. Look for organic or green products when it’s time to replace bedding.
- Consider aromatherapy. Lavender essential oils have proven helpful in slowing heartbeat, relaxing muscles, and promoting slow-wave sleep. Put a few drops on a cotton ball near your bed to see how it affects you.
If you wake up in the middle of night with stress or anxiety—mulling over a negative event in the past or feeling stressed about a future event—try a sensory mindfulness technique. Begin by simply focusing on the gentle natural rhythm of your breathing. Slowly breathe in and out. Gradually transition to focus on each of your five senses simultaneously. Feel the soft blankets against your skin, smell the lavender, listen to the sound of your breath, look at the subtle images behind your closed eyes, and taste the clean residue from your brushed teeth. By being fully present—not thinking about the past or future—you can relax and feel safe. With practice, you will find this very relaxing, and it will help you drift off to sleep. Regular daily meditation can also be very helpful in optimizing sleep.
Despite your best efforts, what if you simply can’t fall asleep?
Don’t lie in bed, stressing about it. The last thing we want is for you to associate your bedroom with the stress of not sleeping, which can become a subconscious response pattern. Get up and go to another room; there engage in a quiet activity such as reading in low light with your blue blockers. Return to your bedroom only when you begin to feel drowsy.