It’s Official: Sleep Is the Best Thing You Can Do for Your Health

If I asked you where you spend most of your time, my guess is that you’d answer quickly and easily, “work”. And you’d be right – kind of. We spend A LOT of time at our desks, working for the (wo)man. But have you ever thought about where you spend the rest of your time?

It’s a magical, dreamy, comfy place that could make you your healthiest happiest self.

Maybe by now you’ve guessed it – you spend about ⅓ of your life sleeping. While our bodies have naturally and intuitively been using shut eye as a regenerative and healing process since the dawn of time, sleep study and research is relatively young at 70 years. According to sleep scientist & app inventor, Dan Gartenberg, sleep could be the most important thing you do for your health. Yep, even more important than exercise and diet.

Before you say ‘sure’ and hit the red X in the left hand corner of your screen, hear me out.

As someone who has suffered from poor sleep for the past 7 years or so, I listened to Dan’s TED talk about the benefits of deep sleep and was convinced that I needed to figure out how to get more and higher quality zzz’s. I’ve been working on a podcast for the past few months and Dan was nice enough to sit down and chat with me about all things sleep science. The conversation was educational, enlightening, and got me wanting to go to bed at least half an hour earlier.

I know that I should be getting 8 hours of sleep each night, but like most people, I often catch myself laying in bed at night or waking up in the middle of the night running through my to-do list and commitments, wondering how I’m going to fit it all in, or worse, scrolling through Instagram, watching Netflix, swiping on a dating app, or replying to text messages.

 

To put it into perspective, we’re sleeping a full hour less than we were in the 1940’s.

 

Our society and work culture don’t try to persuade us to catch a few more hours, either. In a world where stress is sexy and overworking is a determinant of success, the ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead’ motto can be easy to adopt. To put it into perspective, we’re sleeping a full hour less than we were in the 1940’s.

If you’re looking to drop a few lbs, increase your energy, improve your relationships, prevent chronic disease, and preserve your mental health, you might want to consider rethinking your 5 hours and 10 cups of coffee. But how do we get ourselves motivated to actually turn off the lights 30 minutes early. I think it’s education.

 

Here are some highlights from my conversation with Dan and how you can start getting a better sleep tonight.

 

The Circadian Rhythm & Changing Your Sleep Cycles

Each of us has a circadian rhythm or an internal clock that’s on a 24-hour cycle. A confused circadian rhythm is actually why you find yourself tired mid-afternoon and want to reach for that vending machine treat. It also determines the best time to workout and your blood pressure. While how much sleep time we need can actually be genetic, you can optimize your sleep patterns to match our lifestyle. If you’re looking to shift to an earlier sleep schedule, which is beneficial for us working peeps, Dan suggests moving your bedtime back 20-30 minutes each night until you reach your optimal sleep and wake-up times.

Another hack is sunlight exposure. Sunlight creates a production of a chemical that makes your body feel alert. Try opening up the blinds or getting in a walk first thing in the morning to trigger that alertness.

 

Sleep Inertia

Feel groggy when you wake up? Yeah, you and almost everyone I know! Here’s what happens: we go through three cycles of sleep multiple times per night – light, REM, and deep. When you’re not getting enough hours of or good quality sleep, you might be waking up during your deep sleep cycle which causes you to be groggy. The answer? Get more sleep so you finish your deep sleep before it’s time to get up.

 

Sweet Dreams

Of course, we use sleep as a regenerative process and gain energy for the next day, but what I found really interesting was how we use sleep as a way to process our thoughts and engagements to affect our perceptions of the world. Our dreams are often reflections of what we experienced that day or things that we’re feeling stressed or anxious about. Our experiences during our light sleep or REM are taking those experiences and helping to create our context.

 

‘I only get 6.5 hours and I feel fine’

Dan calls this the fishbowl phenomenon. We’re sleeping so poorly these days that we don’t even know how badly we feel. We push through these stressors and ‘power through’ the day on coffee and junk food to make us feel alert masking the symptoms of fatigue. I’ve definitely experienced this and felt the repercussions through hormonal imbalances – namely adrenal fatigue and thyroid issues.

 

The Power of the Nap

I’m not a great napper, but talking to Dan made me want to be one. Napping can help you improve your performance at work and prevent you from feeling drowsy during the day. The key to having a good nap is to keep it short and under 30 minutes. This is to prevent you from falling into a deep sleep and then waking up in the middle of it, which causes you to feel groggy or sleep inertia. More and more workplaces are integrating sleep pods so employees can hit the reset button mid-day. You can read more napping tips here.

So how do you improve your sleep so you can feel like your best, most energetic, productive self? Here are a few tips:

  • Sleep in a cool room
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a nutrient dense diet avoiding processed foods and sugar
  • Take a cat nap during the day
  • Expose yourself to sunlight upon waking
  • Eat breakfast in the morning to kickstart your circadian rhythm
  • Reserve your bed for sleep & sex
  • 8.5 hours is the new 8
  • Catching up on sleep is a myth, so try to get the sleep you need tonight

I’ve been incorporating some of Dan’s recommendations, but the one thing that’s helped me the most is writing down my to-do’s and 5 points of gratitude at night. This helps me release anxiety and feel calmer as I sleep into my sweetest dreams.

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