June 24, 2020
We have the practice of diet as the core tool of our nutritional needs, exercise as the crux of our fitness needs, & therapy as the model for our mental health needs. And yet, counter-intuitively, we have no equivalent structural process for how we sleep. Given the volumes of literature detailing evidence that sleep is incontrovertibly critical to our well-being, it’s bewildering to observe the lack of guidelines.
Healthy sleep is the core, the foundation, of both physical & mental health — it’s the driver that fuels our energy, productivity & overall quality of life. Physically, it’s confirmed that healthy sleep is strongly correlated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity & Alzheimer’s. Mentally, it’s confidently correlated with reducing anxiety, depression & a plethora of similar diagnoses.
Like clocks have intertwined gears & computers have adjacent chips, we too possess an internal process that helps regulate our sleep; in fact, it’s highly likely that you’ve already heard of it: our circadian rhythm. There are infinite, deeply, well-researched publications that cover the biology behind the circadian rhythm in its entirety. For now, we’ll summarize it as a: biochemical process, controlled by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, that regulates the sleep-wake cycle & repeats roughly every 24 hours.
This circadian rhythm is universal; it’s why the biggest dip in energy happens in the middle of the night & just after lunchtime (around 1:00pm to 3:00pm, the guilty post-lunch nap). We all have a circadian rhythm, however, we each have a uniquely-tailored circadian rhythm; this is why some people are naturally a night owl or a morning person.
The key(s) to optimizing your daily sleep is covered by an overarching two-step process anchored in this internal process:
We can’t improve what we can’t measure, & we can’t measure when we haven’t defined a control; in order to purposefully, accurately improve our sleep, we first need to identify how we sleep.
The intricacy of maintaining our circadian rhythm stems from the unfortunate fact that while it’s primarily driven by internal processes, it’s very easily influenced by external stimuli. For example, when it’s dark at night, your eyes send a signal to the hypothalamus that it’s time to feel tired; your brain, in turn, sends a signal to your body to release melatonin, which physically prepares your body for sleep. As a result, purposefully or accidentally countering the darkness of natural night with artificial lights (fixtures, cell phones, laptops, TVs) causes this mechanism to deviate from its norm, disturbing your circadian rhythm.
Sleep hygiene, therefore, is the planned habits & products we use to guard & maintain our circadian rhythm — it’s all the tools we used to protect our optimal rest routine once we’ve discovered it.
The term average loses its significance when dealing with 7.5 billion people: there is no one size fits all sleep solution because no two people sleep alike. It’s an individual expression of our genes that’s deeply affected by the external environment. To optimize your sleep, you first have to take the time to observe & analyze how you sleep. There are multiple apps & wearables that offer well-researched ways to study & report on your sleep; the biology behind these varying methods (from oxygen levels to movement tracking) is in-arguably worth a read-over, however, it’s a bit out of our scope (again).
Adding clarity to the intangible “discover your circadian rhythm,” I mean, specifically answer at the least the following three questions:
The first question requires a healthy but uncomfortable look in the mirror. Reality, not theoretical or performative — how much sleep does your body require? No one can answer that honestly but you. And comparing how much you need to sleep versus someone else is useless at best. It’s been proven multiple times the long-term high-performance correlates with healthy sleep; the compounding returns that amass from a consistent, customized routine far outweigh the benefits of attempting to power through on less sleep. The hardest part here might not be discovery, but rather acceptance.
The best way to test this out is to (temporarily) lengthen your allotted sleep time, by either going to bed earlier or waking up later, & observing how long you naturally rest. For optimal results, simply stop using any type of wake up alarm; understandably, not everybody has the luxury of testing this out immediately, but suspending morning alarms is likely the fastest way of surveying the organic sleep pattern that emerges. The second & third questions are tangential to the first question; they’re the equivalent of asking am I an early bird or a night owl?
Deviating from your circadian rhythm builds up sleep debt; therefore, unfortunately, the more sleep deprived you are, the longer the required time allotted to discovering your true length of required sleep. Lastly, it’s worth reiterating that these three questions are the bare minimum, not the ideal data points for pinpointing your ideal routine.
With our sleep routine identified, it’s time to adapt & augment. Maintaining & optimizing our newly-discovered sleep routine is where sleep hygiene resides. Similar to other venues of health & wellness, James Clear’s Atomic Habits says it best:
You Do Not Rise To The Level Of Your Goals, You Fall To The Level Of Your Systems
There are two higher-level, overlapping modules under the umbrella of sleep hygiene: creating a routine & creating a purposeful environment. Again, these are abstract definitions as multiple habits & products fall within an intersecting Venn-diagram of both principles.
As noted above, consistency is key; not because it’s self-discipline but because it mathematically compounds your quality of sleep. The more iterations through a routine, the more your body adapts, which, in turn, increases your quality of sleep. To give a concrete example, a study in 2005 found that shifting from irregular to regular sleep patterns cut down sleep latency from an average of ~45 mins to a diminutive ~9 mins.
Following the same set of activities each night, in the 30 to 60 minutes before bed, psychologically trains your brain to recognize it’s time for bed when it’s bedtime. The goal is to wind your mind & body down for sleep — your bedtime routine should be relaxing. There are numerous categories of possible activities to incorporate, below is an example of just two:
The single most important key here is to sleep at the same time throughout the week — even on weekends (unfortunately, this is of course where most people falter). Otherwise, at worst, you’ll find yourself experiencing a serious uncomfortable rebound effect come Monday; at best, a serious setback in progress gained from a consistent routine. Not entirely separate from creating a routine, curating a purposeful environment for optimizing sleep is equally important to optimizing your sleep hygiene effort.
Physical locations are most effective when optimized for a single activity — much like a home office, your bedroom must be an environment of function maximized for sleep. There are many basics here such as:
Unfortunately enough, two of these three variables are measurably disturbed by city-living; both light & noise pollution are worthy concerns that might require active countering with blackout shades or sound machines. Your bedroom should be a sanctuary for sleep and romantic time with your partner only; ideally, you don’t even use it for work or entertainment.
Sleep is a major 🔑 for our health & well-being; it very rightly deserves the same attention to detail & follow-through that we assign to other modules of health (diet, fitness, mental health, spirituality, etc…). Like each topic, the journey starts with the conscious decision to change, with the follow-up action to learn. Read up & take the time to discover your circadian rhythm; then, afterwards, build a consistent, comfortable routine that supports it. Sleep hygiene is the diet or workout routine of sleep — make an equivalent effort to guard your best rest.