Whenever your body experiences any kind of stress, it goes through a series of hormonal and physiological processes that allow each part to adapt in a way that makes it better prepared to meet that stressor the next time it appears.
This recovery process is the same whether the body is stressed by lifting a heavy weight or if it’s the stress you receive while sitting in rush hour traffic.
For those of you involved in any kind of highly rigorous fitness program, you’re usually keenly aware that in order to be successful you must be able to recover well from the stress of your last workout session.
You know that while your body will initiate recovery after being stressed, there are things you must do to support it.
You know that you must sleep properly, follow a nutritious diet, and allow adequate rest time between workouts (ie. allow stress to be removed from the body).
If these things are ignored, then good gains are difficult, and the odds of over-training and injury rise dramatically. Therefore, a successful training program means not only training to be fit but also training to recover well.
What the successful athlete does in order to recover from the stress of training applies to all types of stress in general.
Recovery from any kind of stress requires sleeping well, eating well, and removing the stressor. If this is not done, then exhaustion, burnout or worse is possible. See here.
While it’s necessary to do all of the above to recover well from stress the easiest one to accomplish immediately is getting better sleep.
Removing a stressor can be difficult. Changing your diet is not so easy. Cultivating better sleep should be easier. After all, you have 8 hours a day to practice.
In this post, I’ll show you how to get a better night’s sleep, specifically by optimizing your sleep cycles.
I will also share with you 6 specific sleep hacks I use that can take your sleep quality to the next level.
Americans Aren’t Sleeping Well
The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults 18 – 64 years old get at least 7 – 9 hours of sleep while adults aged over 65 or over get at least 7 – 8 hours of sleep.
However, it’s been reported that 40% of Americans get less (6.8 hours) than the recommended amount of sleep per night (7 – 9 hours). I suspect that number doesn’t shock many of you.
But consider this statistic. The National Sleep Foundation found that of the 60% of Americans who supposedly get enough sleep, 35% report their sleep quality as “poor” or “only fair”.
That means that even though you’re getting 8 hours of sleep per night, the quality of that sleep may not be sufficient for good recovery from stress.
Sleep is restorative, and if it’s going to restore, it must be done well.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in order to get better sleep is understanding the role of sleep cycles in the recovery process.
Understanding The Importance of Sleep Cycles
Not only is getting the right number of hours of sleep important, the right type of sleep is important as well.
When you go to sleep at night, you go through what is called a sleep cycle. This cycle consists of 4 stages of sleep which last about 90 – 110 minutes for healthy adults.
The first three stages make up non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and the fourth stage is when rapid eye movement (REM) sleep occurs.
Each stage of the cycle is important for distinct physiological and neurological functions which appear to be necessary for the recovery of the body and mind.
Researchers recommend we get at least 5 – 6 of these cycles a night.
Here is what happens in each stage:
NREM Stages (75% of cycle)
Stage 1 (NREM) (5%)
This is a period between being awake and falling asleep. It’s also called light sleep.
Stage 2 (NREM) (45%)
Sleep begins in stage 2. Muscle activity decreases and conscious awareness of the outside world begins to decrease completely. Breathing and heart rate remain regular and body temperature drops. Sleeping in a cool room helps to not disrupt this stage. There are periods of muscle tone mixed with periods of muscle relaxation. In this stage, it is also suggested that new information is integrated into existing knowledge.
Stages 3 (NREM) (Some researchers split this stage into two stages) (25%)
This is the deepest and most restorative stage of sleep. Breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure are all at their lowest levels. Muscles are relaxed, but they retain their ability to function. It’s difficult to be awakened during this stage.
Blood supply to your muscles increase and tissue growth and repair occurs. Growth hormone which is essential for growth, development, and muscle building is released. If you’re an athlete or someone in training, it’s important that this stage should not be interrupted. If it is, your recovery may be retarded.
Stage 4 (REM) (25%)
In this stage, your eyes dart back and forth. Hence the term rapid eye movement. The brain dreams. Memory consolidation takes place which allows for the integration of newly encoded memories into a long-term store. This facilitates learning. Your body temperature rises, your blood pressure increases, and your heart rate speeds up. However, your limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed.
Each stage of sleep is, therefore, important for a distinct physiological and neurological function and appears to be necessary for the recovery of the body and mind.
These 90-minute cycles will continue throughout the night. However, as sleep proceeds through the night, time spent in REM sleep will increase in the last 2 – 3 cycles and NREM sleep will decrease.
Therefore, people tend to experience more NREM sleep in the earlier hours of the night (e.g., 11p – 3a) and more REM sleep in the later hours of the night (e.g., 3a – 7 a). The amount of time you spend in each cycle is determined by age. As we age, we’ll spend less time in each stage.
Missing or interrupting any stage for any reason such as from stress, alcohol intake, a partner’s snoring, a baby’s crying, or an overly hot room can leave you feeling tired or groggy the following day. Moms with infants and young children know full well what happens when those sleep cycles are disrupted.
What Time Should You Go To Sleep?
Dr. Matt Walker, head of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley suggests that there is,
… a window of several hours—roughly between 8 PM and 12 AM—during which your brain and body have the opportunity to get all the non-REM and REM shuteye they need to function optimally.
This makes sense as melatonin, a chemical that induces sleep, is released by the body and the stress hormone cortisol decreases.
However, Dr. Allison Siebern, associate director of the Insomnia & Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Stanford University, adds,
And, believe it or not, your genetic makeup dictates whether you’re more comfortable going to bed earlier or later within that rough 8-to-midnight window.
Siebern explains that some people are by nature either night owls or “morning larks”. She also suggests that people should not fight their sleep nature.
Some Tips On How To Get A Good Sleep
I think most of these tips are fairly obvious.
- Go to the bathroom before you go to sleep.
- Use a comfortable mattress and pillow.
- Create a bedtime habit such as reading or writing.
- Find an activity that helps you wind down.
- Make sure your bedroom is completely dark at night, but remember you need light in the morning to wake you up.
- Try to get regular exposure to outdoor light during the day.
- Stick to a sleep schedule even on weekends.
- Exercise daily but not 6 hours before bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening.
- If you sleep with your electronic devices near, put them on airplane mode.
6 Hacks I Use That Could Bring Your Sleep Routine To A New Level
There are some specific things I do use that always get me a better night sleep.
1. Avoid Blue Light Close to Bedtime
Researchers have proven that the blue light emitted by electronic screens may confuse circadian rhythms and trigger awakening rather than sleeping processes. See here. If you can’t avoid using your electronics, then use amber tinted blue light blocker glasses.
I’ve used these glasses for over a year, and they’ve worked great.
There are also apps for the computer that you can use that make your screen adapt to the time of day. See here. I haven’t used them, but some readers say they’ve had success with them.
I believe the iPhone also has a similar feature.
See my post here for a closer look at the dangers of electronics blue light at night.
2. Keep Your Bedroom Temperature At 60 – 65 Degrees
Remember that during stage 2 of the sleep cycle your body temperature decreases. If your room is above 65 degrees, it may disrupt this cycle. I definitely try not to let my bedroom get too hot. Some people like to use a cooling mattress pad on their bed. Some love them and others say they don’t work. Since I haven’t used them I can’t recommend them one way or the other.
3. Wake Up In A Completed Cycle
Even if you get 8 hours of sleep at night, you may wake up before a cycle is completed or midway through the cycle. If so, you may lose the benefit of the cycle.
To make sure I complete 5 – 6 good cycles, I use this calculator. It will calculate a wake-up time for you based on the time you go to sleep to ensure that you get those 5 – 6 cycles.
4. Don’t Hit The Snooze Button
When you wake up in the morning don’t be tempted to hit the snooze button on your alarm for those extra ten minutes of sleep. If you fall back into a deep sleep, you may feel more tired when the alarm goes off again. That short ten-minute snooze can cause your body and brain to be out of sync causing you to feel groggy for hours after waking. See here.
Also, you should try to wake up the same time every day. This sets your internal clock. Snoozing after waking will disrupt this clock.
5. Wake Up With The Right Alarm
I never understood why wake-up alarms sound as if a prison break is in progress. Okay, they wake you up. But do you think it’s good to wake up in a panic? That’s not good for your adrenal glands.
I much prefer waking up in a more natural way. I like to wake up to birds chirping. I use this app.
6. Use Deep Breathing Techniques To Fall Asleep
Every night, I use a deep breathing (diaphragmatic) technique. See here. I usually fall asleep in 10 minutes or less almost every time.
I believe it balances my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Okay, that’s it. Do you have any favorite sleep hacks? The iPhone has a new Bedtime app in the clock section, I haven’t tried it yet. Have you? Let us know.
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