Sleep resets, rebuilds and repairs every facet of our body from our muscles to our gut to our brains. Most people realise the importance of getting a good night sleep just by how you feel if you don’t. Why is it then that so many people complain of non-restorative sleep or difficulty sleeping?
There are numerous reasons why our modern world can inhibit our sleep from stress to nutrition to light exposure. Thankfully if we are aware of these variables we can take steps to build habits that have our sleep align with physiology.
Please note - this guide has not been referenced, because it was created as an internal document to share among team members. However, people have found this valuable - so we have decided to release it as a free guide for the public. All the information was created by specialised nutritional practitioners who are trained in evolutionary science and functional medicine.
There is a wide variance in duration of ideal sleep from 4 hours to 10 hours.
The vast majority of adults fall around 7-8 hours. It is likely that you will know if you are an outlier.
A healthy night’s sleep consists of 3 phases known as ‘deep’, ‘light’ and REM.
Deep sleep is restorative for the body and is usually done in the first 2-3 hours of sleep.
Light sleep is a transitionary phase of sleep taking you from sleep to wake or between sleep phases. Usually about 1-2 hours of total sleep is light.
REM sleep is restorative of the brain by establishing and repairing neural links from things we’ve learnt in the day. REM stands for rapid eye movement. If you watch someone in REM sleep you will see their pupils moving rapidly beneath their eyelids. This is when you dream and is commonly the last 1-2 hours of sleep before waking.
Waking in the night is a perfectly healthy part of normal sleep.
You won’t even know most wake ups and you may even roll over or have a sip of water without remembering it before slipping into your next sleep phase.
Commonly the biggest wake up most people remember is after their deep sleep. This is when you may go to the toilet or you may just remember waking up. This isn’t a problem unless it takes a substantial amount of time to fall back to sleep.
Many people obsess over time slept. However, this is not really what counts. Quality is far more important than quantity. In other words 9 hours of light sleep is not as good as 6 hours of deep restorative sleep.
In fact hunter gatherers who have been studied for sleep patterns have shown that they only sleep on average 5-6 hours in the night often with a 30min-1hour nap in the day. It could be hypothesized they need less sleep than us due to their lifestyles, or maybe they just have very high sleep quality – likely also due to their lifestyle.
How long you sleep is largely genetic. You will know if your sleep quality is sufficient or insufficient with the following simple test: After a normal night’s sleep, once you have fully woken up do you i) feel refreshed and ready to go or ii) feel like you need more sleep.
If the answer is ii) – your sleep quality could be improved. This guide aims to give you the answers
This is the single most important concept to understand when considering sleep.
Circadian rhythm refers to how our physiology changes throughout the day through different hormone or nervous system processes. The hormones we have that wake us up in the morning and keep us going and very different to the ones that allow us to go to sleep. Many people have experience what it is like to have a circadian rhythm that is not appropriate for the day through ‘jet lag’.
It is likely that if your sleep is suboptimal you may be in a form of modern lifestyle created low level chronic form of ‘jet lag’.
For this reason ensuring that your circadian rhythm fits the day you are living in is necessary if we are going to maximise sleep.
Our circadian rhythm has evolved around exposure to light from the sun. It tells us when to get up on rising and when to go to bed when setting.
This elegant control over our sleep wake cycle is greatly disrupted by two major variables; i) being indoors and ii) artificial light.
Being indoors means we never really get the full wakeful signalling of the sun when it is in the sky and artificial light results in poor sleep time signalling at night. This is a toxic combination when it comes to circadian rhythm and sleep optimisation.
Most people have had nights where their thoughts have stopped them from drifting off or have woken them up and stopped them going back to sleep. Racing thoughts at night may be normal on occasion but can be a sign of something else if regular.
They can actually be a sign of poor circadian biology as if your wakeful hormones are higher at night than they should be this will cause your mind to race.
This can also be led by your mind. For example if you are stressed it is more likely to perpetuate poor circadian biology resulting in sub-par sleep from racing thoughts.
Any of inflammatory process in the body can interrupt sleep.
This could manifest as pain, gut issues or even anxiety and racing thoughts can be a result of some sort of inflammatory process in the body. Inflammation can also disrupt your circadian biology.
Decide what time you need to get up (according to your schedule and lifestyle) and stick to it – religiously.
No ifs, no buts. The alarm goes off at the agreed time and you’re up and out of bed. This is whether you’ve had a good 8 hours or a terrible 2 hours.
Doing this daily sends a very strong signal to your circadian biology and sets you up for better sleep.
For most people 0530hrs–0730hrs are optimal times to get up.
This is as important as darkness at night.
Try to get outside and have the sun on your face first thing in the morning or as soon as possible (as the sun rises late in winter and early in summer). This light on your eyes tells your body it’s time to go and sets your hormones up for the day.
Not only can this help you sleep better but also it can give you better energy through the day.
As with first light – it is important our bodies know it's day time.
Getting outside if even just for 5 mins, allows our eyes to see light further re-enforcing circadian rhythm. This is a great opportunity to also get away from whatever you’re doing and get some steps.
If you go for a daily walk (which you should) ensure it is not on a treadmill but outside where you can see the sun.
Clearly this mostly applies to those working inside.
If you have time or opportunity taking an a post lunch nap can improve your afternoon energy and even improve evening sleep by balancing wakeful hormones.
For those where this is possible find a quiet spot after lunch and see how long you can stare at the backs of your eyelids. You’ll be surprised how quickly you drift off.
Usually your body will wake you after 20 mins, if you are prone to sleeping longer consider setting an alarm for 30 mins. Longer than this and the nap could be counter-productive.
Ideally eating is for daylight hours.
Digestion is another signal to our bodies that its daylight and not to go to sleep.
With our culture we tend to have the largest meal in the evening relatively close to bed time.
If you want to maximise sleep we’d suggest saving the late dinners for where they are rare and appropriate i.e. going out to see friends.
In an ideal world we want our last meal to be 3 hours prior to sleeping. That means if you are in bed at 10 your last meal should be before 7.
If you are a late eater this alone could dramatically change your sleep.
Now that you’re eating 3 hours before bed – what are you going to do with that time – the answer is wind down.
Morning routines are very popular to ‘wind up’ for the day but we’d argue the wind down is more important as it sets you up for the next day.
One of the biggest complaints we get when suggesting the early dinner is that this is when people catch up with their wives, husbands, roommates and partners. We would agree this catching up is extremely important and that is why it should now be part of your wind down.
Be mindful to keep conversation about calming topics. Allow your other half or friend to download their day to you and vice versa being sure to listen as much a talk. This download of information is like taking a load off your brain making it less likely for repetitive thought later.
Once you have finished your last meal of the day and started to wind down, start dimming or turning off the lights in your home one by one.
This doesn’t have to be planned but there should be a concerted effort to make the house darker as the day ends.
Candles or Himalayan salt lamps work here if you have them. The calming low lights start stimulating sleep hormones making you ready for sleep.
This should start ideally with the wind down.
Screens from your television, computer and phone emit blue light. This tells your brain it’s time to be awake.
If you want to maximise your sleep find a way of not looking at them at all for the 3 hours before bed. You might even find that you have some really good conversations!!
If this cannot be avoided – buy a pair of blue blocker glasses. These mitigate the effect of blue light. However, remember that televisions, computers and particularly phones are stimulating. Even with blue light blocked they will have a stimulating effect on the mind.
You know those people who wake up in the middle of the night and check their phones?
They sleep like s**t – don’t do it.
Ideally the phone will be on airplane mode in another room entirely.
At this time you should have shut up the house, done mundane activities preparing you for the next day, and had some good calm conversation with no screen time.
The last hour is really just about preparing for bed knowing that everything is set up for the next day.
This is when you brush your teeth, have a warm bath or shower and read a book.
Some people may find it useful to meditate for 10 mins or so.
The ideal room temperature for sleeping is 16-18 degrees centigrade.
Keep the windows open for natural air and use a fan if hot.
Even though it’s tempting to keep the heat on during the winter be sure not to overdo it.
Your body needs to cool down and stay cool for sleep.
You want your room as dark as possible when all the lights go out.
Even red LED standby lights – turn them off.
Light is stimulation.
Like with getting up – decide on a time and stick to it within 20-30 mins either side.
For most people this will be somewhere between 2130hrs-2330hrs – we wouldn’t recommend earlier or later than this. Do what fits your schedule and according to your wake up time and how long you sleep.
Remember, when you get into bed you aren’t meant to fall straight to sleep 15-30 mins of being awake as you lie there is normal so factor this in.
This is always important and worthy of its own guide.
Poor sleep leads to stress and stress lead to poor sleep. Notably anxiety can contribute to racing thoughts and the inability to drift off as your mind creates imaginary threats. Even the threat of a bad night’s sleep itself can perpetuate a cycle of finding it difficult to sleep.
Meditation, gratitude, journaling, having fun, exercise and purpose are all means of stress management. Which is right for you is highly individual and depends what you will be consistent with.
In general, acknowledge your thoughts for what they are – just thoughts. Accept them and accept your bad sleep. Stay in bed and let nature do its work. If you are consistent with everything else and practice acceptance – your sleep will emerge naturally.
This is in case there is an ‘inflammatory process’ keeping you from good sleep.
All inflammatory processes have different root causes. This is where you would work with a trained professional to find out what yours is.
Once you have the root cause you can start to correct the issue and look forward to good nights sleep ahead.
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