We all know that sleeping is one of the most essential things we need to do as humans (as animals). But if you’re anything like me, it can be hard to go to sleep sometimes. And other times I just really don’t feel like sleeping cuz I’d much rather watch House of Cards til 5 am.
For some people, though, once they know that they have to wake up early the next day, they simply go to bed earlier. It’s that simple. But for others, going to sleep isn’t really a thing. It’s more like waiting helplessly to fall asleep. And, in another respect, there are those who don’t necessarily have trouble falling asleep but, for some reason are addicted to sleep deprivations. But this really isn’t ideal because sleep is not only important, it also enhances our lives and enables us to grow.
And since we’re all about growth, here’s some great info to help us realize just how important sleep is and how to increase the quality of our sleep.
Why You Need Better Sleep
There’s no denying that sleep is extremely important. I’d say, after food and water, sleep is the most important thing that humans need. However, I’ve noticed that some people (whether they’re super ambitious or just to party all night) tend to intentionally get very little sleep. With phrases like “I can sleep when I’m dead”, it’s clear that there is a culture of neglecting sleep. Some people really don’t think sleep is that important or just hate the idea that they are wasting a whole third of their day doing absolutely nothing.
But sleep isn’t actually “wasted time”. Far from it. Sleep is actually one of the most productive activities that you will ever engage in. From keeping you healthy to helping you learn, the utility of sleep is limitless. Here are some of the ways in which sleep helps us:
1. Improved memory and learning
As explained in the video, sleep is crucial in the learning and memorization process. So neglecting sleep in order to study, memorize or practice something may actually be counterproductive. It is during sleep that the brain does most of it’s moving of short term memory to long term memory and creation of new neural pathways for skill we learn. So getting more sleep means you will learn and remember better and faster.
2. Improved Immunity and Physical Health
The lack of seep has been linked to many health problems, including those caused by reduced immune system function, like the common cold. Sleep deprivation reduces our number of T-cells, which are crucial for immunity. This increases our risk of getting ill. In addition, studies show that too little and too much sleep are both correlated with increased levels of inflammatory proteins in the blood. This increases risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. So getting the right amount of sleep (7-8 hours) improves one’s immune system and physical health.
3. Fat Loss and Muscle Building
Sleep deprivation causes cortisol levels to rise. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases our appetite, particularly for carbohydrate-rich and sugary foods. So sleeping more reduces our craving for such foods. Additionally, during sleep, our metabolism is regulated, increasing our ability to regulate blood sugar levels and absorb energy from foods. The body also releases the biggest surge of growth hormone during sleep. This allows new cells to replace aged ones and muscle and tissues to be repaired. So if you’re trying to build muscle or regulate your fat, then sleeping is the way.
4. Increased Brain Plasticity
Not only does sleep cement what we have learned in our brains, it also increases our brain’s ability to learn! Recent studies show that sleep is highly correlated with brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change in ways such as strengthening neural connections or increase in grey matter. So if you want to be able to learn more and be smarter, sleeping is the way.
5. More Energy
Adenosine is a chemical that our brains produce continuously while we are awake. When we sleep, adenosine is cleared from our bodies. The thing is, high levels of adenosine make us less alert, less focused and drowsy. So if we lack sleep, our adenosine levels will be high which means our energy levels will be low. So to increase energy and productivity during the day, we need to sleep more.
6. Increased Happiness and Reduced Risk of Depression
The emotional centre of our brain is called the amygdala. The amygdala triggers responses like stress, fear and anger. The medial prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that regulates the amygdala. However, when we don’t get enough sleep, the connection between these two parts of the brain is restricted and so the amygdala is less regulated and we are more likely to have mood swings and volatile responses. If this persists, it increases risk of depression and anxiety. So to reduce that risk, we need to get better sleep to strengthen the connection between our amygdala and prefrontal cortex so that our emotions can be regulated, promoting healthy emotional responses to situations.
So I hope that by now it is clear how important and productive sleep actually is. Now that’s all well and good. But how do I actually get better sleep?
How to Sleep Better
Here are some tips and insights for feeling more sleepy at night and increasing the quality of your sleep.
1. Use the Proper Pillow
Most people don’t realize that, depending on your sleeping position, you will need a different type of pillow. The size and firmness of the pillow you use will determine the positions of and amount of strain on your spine, which affects the quality of your sleep (and health of your back). This article provides some insight into which pillows are best. In summary:
- Back Sleepers need thinner pillows than side sleepers and it is best to also put a pillow beneath the knees to flatten the arch in your back (called the lumbar curve). This position is the best for your back.
- Side Sleepers need thicker pillows that support the head and neck so that the spine stays horizontal. It is also best to bend the knees and place a firmer pillow inbetween the knees so as not to distort the natural line of the spine, allowing the back to heal better.
- Stomach sleepers need flat pillows or non at all and a flat pillow should also be placed under the abdomen to keep the spine in it’s natural alignment. Stomach sleeping is actually the worst for your spine so you should avoid it if possible.
- Combination sleepers should look into pillows with different shapes in different sections.
So try either getting a pillow to match your sleeping position or changing your sleeping position to match the pillows you already have.
2. Create a Wind Down Routine
Have you ever heard the saying, “neurons that fire together, wire together”? Well it’s true. It is an axiom in neuropsychology that speaks to associative learning. What it means is that basically if we always experience one action in a pair with another action, our neurons will wire in such a way that our brain always associates that one action with the other. So, in this context, if we always do a specific sequence of actions before we sleep, our brains will begin to associate that sequence of actions with sleep and so we will begin to feel sleepy after we do them. Therefore, creating a wind down ritual that you do every night before bed will eventually make it easier to fall asleep because you will tend to feel sleepy after the ritual. In addition, the wind down ritual should not be energizing. It makes no sense for you to do 10 pullups every night before bed. It should actually relax you. This brings me to the next point.
3. Exercise Earlier
Both words in this subheading are crucial.
Exercise – Exercising uses energy and creates small tears in our muscles. During sleep our energy is replenished and our muscles are repaired. And it turns out that the more energy we use in the day, the more repairs our body needs and so the more sleep we will need, making us more tired that night and increasing the quality of our sleep.
Earlier – It also turns out that the earlier we exercise during the day, the more tired we will be at night. This is because during exercise, our energy levels rise and stay risen for a while after until it decreases gradually. So if we exercise late, our energy levels won’t have a chance to drop enough and it will be more difficult for us to fall asleep or maintain quality sleep.
4. Eliminate Blue Light at Night
Melatonin is a hormone in our body that helps control our sleep-wake cycle. In the morning, melatonin levels drop, causing us to feel more awake. In the night, the pineal gland secretes melatonin which helps us to fall asleep. How it works is that light (specifically blue light) impedes the secretion of melatonin, which is why when the sun sets, melatonin is allowed to be secreted. However, due to technology and artificial lighting, we are exposed to light way after the sun has set from our devices, and lights in our homes and on the street. So to get better sleep, we need to reduce the light we are exposed to at night to allow melatonin to be secreted so we can sleep. Suggestions:
- Turn off Devices – Our phones, tablets, computers, etc. produce a lot of blue light which stops us from producing melatonin. So the best solution is to remove the devices altogether about 2 hours before bedtime.
- There’s an app for that – If you are reluctant to get rid of your devices at night, you can download software that reduces the blue light emitted by your devices. For computers, there’s a program called f.lux. For Android devices, there’s an app called Twilight. For iPhones, there’s a built in setting called Night Shift.
- Increase Darkness – The closer to pitch black that you can get, the more melatonin you will produce and the sleepier you will be. So try to eliminate street lights from coming in or lights from other rooms in your house. For example you can use black curtains to block light from windows.
5. Eat These Foods at Night
According to this article by sleep.org, melatonin produced by our bodies isn’t the only source of melatonin. We can also get it from certain foods. The following foods contain melatonin and when our body absorbs it, we feel sleepier:
- Cow’s Milk
6. Exhaust Yourself
This is the same idea expressed in the earlier point about exercise. But I want to emphasize this because it really is important to realze that the more repairs our body needs, the more we will need sleep. So if you spend the day racking up those repairs, you will be exhausted by the night time. This exhaustion should be both mental and physical; work out both your mind and your body.
Simply putting 100% into everything you do will, for one, make you extremely productive and push you to grow. But, in addition to that, it will make you sleep like a baby:
Fatigue is the best pillow.
– Benjamin Franklin
Follow these tips and you’ll have the best sleep of your life!
I discovered many of these tips from this video by Thomas Frank, who has actually been a valuable resource on my journey of growth:
I hope this post gave you or reminded you of some insight into why sleep is so important and how to get better sleep. The tips that work the best for me are the wind down ritual and exhausting myself during the day. I haven’t done a very good job at eliminating blue light. I’m still working on it haha
Let me know which tips work best for you!
May you have an amazing sleep 🙂