In this technological age full of smartphones and televisions becoming more a part of our life, there has been an unprecedented inverse relationship with quality sleep. As we stare at a screen all day while we work, go home and stare at another, and stare at a little screen before we go to bed, all this unnatural light is having a huge effect on our body and natural sleep clock. We’ve all read the articles and been told by doctors, “reduce screen time an hour before bed”. But as we become more dependent on our technology this is becoming increasingly difficult to. I’m not proud to say most nights my phone is the last thing I’m checking right before I go light out, and of course this isn’t ideal, but as I will explain there are ways to help you get to bed faster and sleep better. And as you’ll find out in this article, some ways should become a nightly routine, while others should be used sparingly.
When you were a baby, more specifically when you were about three months old your body started to develop something called a circadian rhythm. Known colloquially as your body’s internal clock, this function in your body regulates the production of certain hormones that influence sleep. The most important hormone you produce to help regulate your day/night cycles is known as melatonin.
In our infancy natural levels of melatonin is increased from midnight to 8:00 in the morning. As you get older melatonin production slowly decreases which is why compared to a ten year old, a six month old baby sleeps much more on a consistent basis (because the six month old needs the extra sleep to help their brain develop). Once a child moves into their teenage years and enters puberty, their production of melatonin is delayed for various hormonal reasons causing them to stay up later and sleep in longer than they did during their childhood. Once we grow into adulthood, melatonin levels start to level out with our hormones and stay more consistent.
Natural vs Artificial Light Exposure
The most widely accepted theory behind our circadian rhythm being what it is today involves our ancestors. Over 50,000 years ago humans would hunt and forage during the daylight, waking up right around sunrise and going to sleep an hour or two after sunset. This was the case for every civilization up until the rise of technology when we would (and still do) extend our exposure to light long after sunset with unnatural light sources. By doing this we are throwing off our circadian rhythm and making it think the sun hasn’t set and consequently limits the amount of melatonin our body produces, leading to everything from occasional restless nights to full on sleep disorders. And I shouldn’t have to tell you how important a good eight hours of sleep is for recovery and mental health.
This is why professionals recommend to limit unnatural light exposure from things like television to your smartphone after sunset. This might be an acceptable solution for some, but for most of us it is becoming increasingly more difficult to put the electronics down and do something as simple as reading a book by candle light. And can you blame us? With so much knowledge and entertainment at our fingertips, it is a much more attractive to be on our phones late into the night, and for some of us we don’t have a choice, spawning from jobs that force us to check emails and work on a computer throughout the day and into the night.
How to Get Better Sleep
Now that we’ve established what our internal clock is and how melatonin works, most of you reading this are probably asking, “Are there ways to fall asleep faster and stay asleep?” To which I’d answer, yes! There are quite a few temporary and permanent tricks you can utilize the get your best sleep and also how to wake up quicker in the morning.
When it comes to sleeping pills and supplemental melatonin, these can work wonders when you have jet lag or work the night shift, but they shouldn’t be used excessively. Many supplements such as pure melatonin, ZMA, and various over the counter sleep aids are all effective, but when they become a crutch to fall asleep every night, they have the ability to negatively affect your health. Just like the lifter who needs pre-workout to be able to go to the gym and perform, the restless sleeper who needs to keep upping their dosage of sleep pills to fall asleep will cost you more in the long run and cause you serious problems when you either don’t have access to them or are taking enough to be hazardous to your health. The best thing you can do is keep a sleep aid for when you know you’re going to need it, but otherwise take the effort to be able to fall asleep without unnatural supplementation. Those temporary solutions can be used for up to a week at a time if needed and like I said, discontinued until needed again.
Some things you can do every night to help you sleep better is naturally increasing your melatonin levels, of course this involves limiting unnatural light as the sun goes down, but recently researchers have determined blue tinted light has more of a strain on your eyes and suppresses the release of melatonin, prompting Apple to release a feature called “Night Shift” which limits the blue light on your screen after the sun goes down. Another way to naturally increase melatonin is to eat foods high the hormone. Cherries, nuts, and oats are all high in natural melatonin and also magnesium, which has been proven to relax your muscles and can help you wind down late at night. Conversely, some foods to stay away from include anything spicy, products that have soy, and chocolate (due to its stimulant content), which leads me into my next point.
To help avoid a cloudy mind and tossing and turning avoid caffeine 10 hours before bed. While it various from person to person, if you need a few cups throughout the day to keep yourself going try to cut yourself off at noon. Better yet, most people (myself included) believe that caffeine isn’t the best thing to help you wake up in the morning. Simply turning on all your lights and/or opening all your shades as soon as you wake up will switch your brain into its “wake up” phase and will stop producing melatonin. This will also help you start to produce melatonin earlier in the night because we can’t forget about that circadian rhythm which knows it should be producing melatonin for eight hours at least. Put into simple terms: wake your body up earlier like our ancestors did with sunlight and it will pay off that night when your body knows you’ve been up since sunrise. This also has the added benefit of making you less groggy in the morning because even with caffeine, your body produces melatonin for a while after you wake up if you don’t subject yourself to natural light.
Quality sleep is probably the most important daily activity we do, from healing our muscles to connecting neurons and making memories, it’s something that is becoming harder and harder to get on a regular basis. Its importance is outranked by any supplement for building muscle (besides maybe steroids), any food to give you lasting energy, and any nootropic for increasing your mental capacity.
Don’t fall into the endless trap of sleeping pills at night and a half dozen cups of coffee during the day, which will lead to poor sleep quality and will cause you to become reliant on them, making you a slave to your own body clock. If that is you now, don’t fret! Follow the tips in this article, wean yourself off the supplementation gradually and don’t be afraid to do more research because I was barely able to scratch the surface on the do’s and don’ts of tips to sleep better and longer.