Sleep is monumentally important in achieving any health goal, and yet it’s one of the least talked about topics.
Talking about sleep isn’t as sexy as doing squats to get those #bootygains, probably because most people realize they don’t prioritize their sleep as much as they should.
If you’re working hard in the gym and not seeing the scale budge in the direction you want it to, it could be your sleep that’s the problem, especially if you know you already locked down your nutrition.
Not only does bad sleep keep you from gaining muscle, but it can also make you fat (this article from RFS explains it well).
Life gets in the way: school assignments keeping you up late, health issues of you or a loved one, work that you need to finish so you decide to stay up all night…
However, for a lot of people, it’s not just one-off problems that keep them from sleep.
After awhile, getting bad sleep turns into a habit.
There’s conflicting science on whether you can “catch up” on sleep during the weekends, but whether or not it’s true, we all know it’s better for your daily productivity and happiness to get quality, consistent sleep every day.
Let’s break down the causes of bad sleep and then we’ll go over some ways you can fix it.
We don’t sleep like we were designed to
There’s conflicting studies on how our ancestors used to sleep, but for the most part, we don’t sleep like other mammals. If you have a pet or you’ve ever been around other animals (except for cats, they are all wild throughout the incredibly early hours of the morning), you know that they start to wind down when the sun sets.
Most of the animal kingdom goes to sleep when the sun does and rises with it in the morning.
Humans do the opposite. We’re neurotic messes that stay up far too late binging the latest Netflix show or go out to the bar until the early hours of the morning. Then we wake up to a screaming alarm clock and have to drink so much coffee just to survive until the traditional afternoon crash where we complain how tired we are and add more coffee into our bodies.
Look, I’m all for having fun nights out. They’re a part of balance. I don’t even want to add up how many nights I went out. They’re priceless memories that are worth it every time.
That doesn’t excuse the other 6 days of bad sleep, though.
Insomnia is not found in cultures that live closer to how our ancestors did. They get quality sleep unlike a lot of Westerners.
That’s a huge factor, especially considering between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. We might claim it’s natural, but it’s obviously not. We’ve created this.
It’s not so much about the specific length of sleep, but the quality of it.
Technology and sleep issues
We’ve all heard the rants and raves about technology, so I’ll just link to articles that dive into this better than I can.
This article dives into blue lights and why it’s so detrimental to our health.
If you don’t want to read that much, the biggest takeaway is that our bodies are cued by light. From the article, “All it takes is one night of artificial light throwing off your sleep to alter CLOCK genes and, in turn, affect gene expression.”
Low-quality snacks before bed
If you’re someone who suffers from indigestion or heartburn, you know the struggle of having heartburn keep you up.
Most people also have desert with dinner and there’s a lot of studies that show how much sugar can impact someone’s sleep. It’s the same for refined carbs, eating fast food for dinner, or anything else unhealthy before sleeping (including alcohol).
Sleep is generally the sum of our entire lifestyle. If we’re stressed, we get bad sleep. If we eat bad food, bad sleep. If we don’t exercise, bad sleep.
My whole life, I’ve been one of those people who never got enough sleep. Ever.
Throughout high school, I’d stay up on my computer until far too late then get in bed and listen to music for hours. I just never got tired at night. Then on weekends I’d sleep in until about 4 PM. I’d constantly be pulling all-nighters for either school or fun.
Then in college, it didn’t get much better. I’d stay up all night on my computer or out partying.
I didn’t actually start getting quality sleep until I started exercising consistently and making it a priority. That’s why I’m so big on helping people fix this. When I think of all the bad grades I had, getting on academic probation in college after my first year due to sleeping through classes, how much my work suffered through the years due to my lack of creative energy… I realize how different those could have been if I just had made sleep a priority.
The more and more people I talk to, the more I realize how many people have this issue, too.
Why it matters
Imagine a life where you’re well-rested.
You have time for the gym every day.
Your work gets your full, creative energy.
You’re able to spend quality, focused time with your family or significant other.
You’re actually able to start chipping away at those big goals you have.
See, lack of sleep becomes a good excuse. Just notice how many people around you are always saying how tired they are. Everyone’s always tired, busy, stressed, and overwhelmed.
But not you. You’re someone who wants energy back in their life so you can live a life you love. It’s cheesy-sounding, but it’s true. Having the energy to do the things you want to do extends outside just your gym gains, it bleeds into your whole life.
How to fix your bad sleep:
The most important part of this article is actually applying these things. It’s nice to say you’re going to do them, but if you even committed to one of them it would help. So many people read articles like this but don’t change a damn thing in their lives.
If you even applied one of these to your life, you would be surprised at how you feel every day.
Yes, there are some factors such as getting a better quality mattress, buying black out curtains, and so on, but I wanted to focus on factors you could do right now without having to buy anything. I’m also going to stay away from the obvious factors like starting to cut out caffeine in the afternoons. The general rule is to stop drinking it 10 hours before you plan to go to sleep.
Start saying no
If fitness is a priority for you right now, it’s time to start saying no to things.
I have a ton of friends who want to lose that “extra 10 lbs” but they never say no to a night out. They go out every night on the weekend and even once or twice during the week. They never, ever say no even though every day they say they are tired and that they need to quit drinking.
Get up earlier
Yes, earlier. In that sleep study article I linked to above about our ancestors’ slept, there was one common thread amongst tribes and how they sleep across the world: they’re up before the sun.
Get quality time outside and get natural light in the morning
Yes, you should sit outside when possible. We weren’t designed to sit in offices under horrible lighting all day.
On top of that, actually spend quality time outside. Go camping. Actually, did you know camping can help reset your bad sleep cycles? Seriously. When a researcher sent people out camping to see how spending time outside would reset their internal clocks, he saw that it only took a few days to get it back to normal.
The researcher said he set his own internal clock by “hiking in the morning and by waking up and sleeping at the same time every day”. I’m sure your brain is already thinking of excuses, “Oh, that’s nice but I don’t live around mountains to hike.” Okay, well take a stroll around your neighborhood for 5 minutes.
Install blue-light reducing software
As a fellow technology addict, I understand how hard it is to go cold-turkey and just quit your technology completely at night.
Sure, it’s the best idea, but it’s not always realistic.
Thankfully, most new iPhones have the blue-light reducing feature built-in and Flux can be installed on computers to reduce it at a certain time in the day.
Read at night, leave your phone out of your room, and get a real alarm clock
A book?! What is that archaic thing?
I know, I know. It sounds impossible to just read when there’s so many fun apps to play with, Tweets to retweet, and blogs to read… But you’d be amazed at how fast you might be able to fall asleep with reading.
When I play on my phone at night (even with turning on the blue-light reducing software), I stay up an extra two hours every single time. If I read, it’s about 30 minutes before I fall asleep.
Shut down your phone and leave it away from your bed. That way, you don’t feel a pull to use it at night.
Use something else besides your phone for an alarm clock. Get a real one. That will remove the temptation of browsing all night. If you have a technology addiction, the first few days are the hardest, but it needs to be done.
Along this line, also avoid TV at night. Too many TV and Netflix shows are so good and addictive, you’ll stay up all night watching when you should be sleeping.
Create a shut-down ritual
Technology is a problem, but so are our own brains.
I’m a big fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done system (also called GTD), especially his emphasis on doing a daily brain dump to get out all those to-do’s rattling around in your head.
Every time I meet other people, I’m shocked at how seldom they write things down. HOW DO YOU REMEMBER ANYTHING?
If you’re a person that stays up late thinking about all the things they need to do the next day, you need a shut-down ritual at the end of your day.
Basically, when you decide you’re done with work (which should be at a set time every day), you sit down with a blank sheet of paper and get everything that’s been bugging you off your mind. Sometimes these are to-do’s, sometimes you just need to rant about something, sometimes it’s goals you know you need to put more effort into… Whatever it is, get it out and get it on paper.
If it’s something that’s really, really bugging you, create a plan on how you’re going to tackle it.
I know this sounds simple, but it’s one of the best things I started doing.
Instead of tossing and turning all night where my mind keeps me up trying to solve problems, I now get it out of my brain before I get in bed.
Also, SERIOUSLY stop checking your emails and messages into the night. Unless you’re on some kind of last-minute work crunch, stay away. I’ve spent too many nights dealing with heavy emotional texts or messages from my boss with to-do’s and it wrecks my sleep every time.
Create a night time routine
With children, most parents create a night time routine. For example, brushing teeth, reading, and turning on a night light.
Yet as adults we’re just expected to be able to lie down and go right to sleep? Nope.
I’ve found that by starting a night time routine, I am able to actually get ready to sleep. It’s telling my body that it’s bedtime.
Everyone is different, but if you’re looking for a plan, mine is: shut down electronics. Get out a good book. Make some relaxing tea. Take my ZMA supplement. Put on my lavender moisturizer. Brush teeth. Get in bed and read until I fall sleep.
JACKIE DID YOU JUST SUGGEST PEOPLE QUIT THEIR JOBS IF THEIR BOSS IS UNREASONABLE AND DEMANDING AND EXPECTING TO HEAR FROM YOU AT MIDNIGHT?! Uh, yes. Yes I did. If your job seriously is taking that big of a toll on you, it’s time to think about an entire lifestyle change.
Recently, I went out to San Francisco and got a taste of that life for two weeks. I stayed up until about 9 pm working and was in the office every morning at 7 am. I haven’t been that much of a sleep-deprived and emotional mess in a long time. It was to the point where even a family member said I looked like death when I got home.
Sure, that kind of work could transform my entire life, get me to network with powerful people, and obviously could fill my bank account, but it simply wasn’t worth it.
My priority is my health. Yours might be different.
I had too many family members and friends suffer from not taking care of their health and some paid the ultimate price for it.
This got a little heavier than I intended when I started to write this, but the work you do every day plays one of the biggest roles in your overall happiness and health.
A lot of sleep problems come from having a lack of purpose in life, too. We use technology to distract ourselves from our overwhelming lack of purpose or feeling a daunting feeling about not pursuing our deeper goals. That’s another post for another time.
(Also, if you have a spouse that won’t support you quitting your job so you can regain some sanity, it’s time for therapy and then divorce. Okay, rant done.)
Sleep is the by-product of your entire life.
When you feel at peace, it’s much easier to sleep. When you don’t, it’s hard to sleep.
Take care of yourself first, and watch it start to fall into place.