Health and fitness advice tends to centre around nutrition and exercise, but the quality and quantity of your sleeping routine are crucial to your general health. People generally understand that less equals more tiredness, but the reality is that sleep does more than simply eliminate tiredness.
1. Become the early bird
Research has shown that intelligent people tend to be night owls. Conversely however, the early risers are believed to be ‘happier, healthier and more productive‘. There is an obvious logic behind the idiom, ‘the early bird catches the worm’: starting earlier simply gives you a head start on everyone else, distractions are minimised and you work unburdened before the stresses of the day are heaped upon you.
Less obvious are the health benefits. Waking up earlier naturally leads to going to bed earlier, and the old adage ‘Every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after midnight’ appears to have some genuine substance. Most may think that sleep counts the same regardless of the time, but there are two cycles of sleep, REM sleep and non-REM sleep, and REM tends to dominate later hours of the night, regardless of the time one goes to sleep.
While both REM and non-REM sleep have their benefits, it is the non-REM sleep which has the greater restorative properties, and this form of sleep is more prevalent in the earlier part of the night. If you go to bed late, you could miss the majority of this sleep cycle.
2. Let there be light
One way to develop a healthy sleep routine featuring both REM and non-REM cycles of sleep is to make use of natural light. Light is a key driver of your body clock. If you’ve ever woken up shortly before your alarm, you’ll realise that your body is quite capable of keeping track of time without the help of your conscious mind.
Humans and their ancestors have woken up with the sun for hundreds of thousands of years, and modern day life has not changed our relationship with daylight. Light provides a gradual and natural wake up that is more effective than the jarring sound of an alarm clock jingle. And should sunrise not fit in with your schedule, particularly with the time of sunrise varying throughout the year, you could always mimic the effects of sunrise with a sunrise alarm clock.
3. Embrace the darkness
If humans are hard wired to awaken with the light, it makes sense that light would have a detrimental effect on sleep during the night. Total darkness is recommended for the best possible sleeping environment, and while few would have trouble removing the light from their room immediately before bed, many have trouble tearing themselves away from the electronic devices around which modern life revolves.
The blue light from smartphones suppresses the melatonin hormone required for sleep, and tricks the mind in to thinking that it is time to wake up. The habit of checking your smartphone up until lights out for sleep could leave you lying awake in the dark. Unfortunately even a switched off smartphone in the bedroom could be disruptive to sleep according to recent studies, so an ideal sleeping environment would contain no electronic devices whatsoever.
4. Have an early dinner
You may have been told at some point in your life that ‘eating before bed leads to weight gain’. The logic behind this was that the calories were not burned during a resting period. This is generally considered to be a myth, believed to have come about because late night snacks tend not to be very healthy, but that doesn’t mean that eating immediately before bed has become a good idea. Eating within four hours of bedtime gives your body’s digestive system work to do. Doing this work while asleep can disrupt regenerative hormones. This won’t make you fat, but will affect the quality of your bodies recovery. Over-eating at any time of day will also likely disrupt your degenerative hormones, but if you were concerned about gaining weight from eating before bed then you would surely be avoiding over-eating anyway.
If you absolutely have to eat in the hours before bedtime, eat something easy to digest in small quantities, such as fresh fruit or a salad.
5. Sleep flat
Our final tip to improve your sleep concerns your bed itself. Do you really need a pillow? You’ve probably slept with one as long as you can remember, but there’s a reason we were, as babies, able to sleep anywhere without one.
Many researchers now believe that sleeping without a pillow is more beneficial as it places our body in a more neutral position without our head propped up. This straighter body position puts less stress on our spine and neck, minimising the possibility of back and neck pain. Sleeping on your back is also the best position for a good night’s sleep, as it keeps your spine as neutral as possible.
Want to take this idea of sleeping flat even further? Get rid of your bed altogether and sleep with a thin mattress directly on the floor. Removing some padding between your body and the floor creates a stronger sense of the ground and has the added benefit of keeping you from adopting bad positions which a thick mattress make possible. Ancient culture, such as the Japanese, have been doing it for millennia with great results that carry over into fitness and longevity.
Are you ready to take your sleep to the next level? Try out these tips for a few weeks and let us know how you feel. Keep in mind that making lifestyle changes can be challenging during the first 3 weeks, so be patient and tolerant with yourself. If you have any suggestions or additional ideas, please share them below so we can all benefit.