Go To SLEEP!!! (Guide To Getting The Perfect Night’s Sleep)

If you are a parent, you have likely yelled out those words at least a few times after hearing your child slowly patter down the stairs because…….they are thirrrssttyy…. Or hunnngggrrryyyyy….or cannnn’t sleeeeeeeeeep…

Or perhaps those words remind you of your own parents telling you to “Go to sleep!” for the umpteenth time when you were a kid.

And yes, while our parents may have simply wanted more time to themselves or just a little peace and quiet (and you are using that same parental strategy with your own kids), the truth is, you needed to go to bed at a decent time and your kids need to get to bed because…it is good for them.

You do everything you can as a parent to make sure your child is healthy—you never let them leave the house without breakfast. You prepare a balanced lunch for them to take to school. You make sure they at least trrryyy their vegetables at dinner so that they will develop a taste for them. You keep them hydrated with their reusable water bottles and you yell at them to “Get to sleep!!” because it’s critically important to their overall health to get proper rest.

But sleep is not just for our growing kids. We all need our sleep.

You know what it’s like dealing with a nap-deprived toddler. It is a special kind of hell. And yet, if adults were allowed to show our emotions the way a toddler does, we’d all be lying on the grocery store floor pounding our fists and screaming, “But I wannnnntttt the canddddyyy….”

 Matthew Walker photographed in his sleep lab. Photograph: Saroyan Humphrey for the Observer

Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on our health and it shows up in myriad ways. Lost productivity. Prone to anger. Weight gain. Impaired cognitive ability. And this only scratches the surface. Matthew Walker is a sleep expert in the UK and his new book "Why We Sleep" just might be what you need to read if you still hold onto the belief that sleep is overrated. Or that it is sloth. Or that you'll "sleep when you're dead". Because the truth is, you won't sleep when you're dead. Because you'll just be dead instead...and Walker's research shows that adults aged 45 years or older who sleep fewer than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime.

Two Hundred Percent!!

If that isn't a compelling enough argument for getting our butts to bed, I don't know what is.

In this article, we can really begin to understand the dangers of sleep deprivation. It's far more important than we may have even realized, and yet so many of us are still avoiding our bedrooms until it's too late to get enough sleep. We're barely getting by, and the research shows that it's not only dangerous for our own health, but we are literally putting other people at risk. When we don't sleep, we are angrier and more prone to violence. We are at higher risk of car accidents. "If you drive a car when you have had less than five hours’ sleep, you are 4.3 times more likely to be involved in a crash. If you drive having had four hours, you are 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident", according to Walker.

To quote the article, "Why, exactly, are we so sleep-deprived? What has happened over the course of the last 75 years? In 1942, less than 8% of the population was trying to survive on six hours or less sleep a night; in 2017, almost one in two people is. The reasons are seemingly obvious. “First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Light is a profound degrader of our sleep. Second, there is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society. Alcohol and caffeine are more widely available. All these are the enemies of sleep.”

But Walker believes, too, that in the developed world, sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame. “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour." 

He goes on to say, "We chastise people for sleeping what are, after all, only sufficient amounts. We think of them as slothful. No one would look at an infant baby asleep, and say ‘What a lazy baby!’ We know sleeping is non-negotiable for a baby. But that notion is quickly abandoned [as we grow up]. Humans are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent reason. In case you’re wondering, the number of people who can survive on five hours of sleep or less without any impairment, expressed as a percent of the population and rounded to a whole number, is zero."

We Can't THRIVE Without Sleep

In her book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington shared her very personal story of suffering burnout. She had hit a rock bottom and she realized that she had no choice but to rearrange her priorities in order to place herself at the top of the list.

We all belong at the top of our priorities lists. And while we might think we have to work late into the night in order to get ahead, we are forgetting that without our health--mental, physical and emotional--nothing else matters.

We may believe that we are "treating ourselves" by staying up late and watching TV or socializing with friends.

But we aren't.

We are hurting ourselves. We are hurting our health. And we are perpetuating the myth that humans should rely on as little sleep as possible, especially if they want to be perceived as successful. I so respect the work of Arianna and others on raising our awareness about what's really going on. In this article, she shares how collapsing from burnout was the best thing that could have happened to her, and you will see how other leaders, like LinkedIn's Chief Human Resource Officer, Pat Wadors, sees lack of sleep not as a badge of honour but as a hindrance on performance. "When you brag about that, you are telling me that it’s ok for you to harm your health and not perform your best at work or at home. Is that something to brag about?”

After reading some of Walker's work and understanding this core principle --sleep less, die sooner-- I am more determined than ever to prioritize my own sleep. It is certainly not always easy, but it's worth it.

So, here are my top tips for better "Sleep Hygiene" that I will be following. I hope you might join me:

Guide To The Perfect Night's Sleep

  1. Decide that sleep is a priority. Understand that sleep is a non-negotiable. Just do it.
  2. Select the time that will offer you 8+ hours of sleep every night and decide to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. This one strategy has proven to be one of the best ways to ensure quality sleep.
  3. Follow Walker's advice and set an alarm that will indicate 30 minutes until bedtime. And don't hit "snooze"! Hear the alarm and head to bed.
  4. Create a shut-down ritual. You may choose to take a hot shower or bath, read a chapter or two of a book, do a guided meditation (like this one), prepare your lunch for the next day, lay out your gym clothes or work clothes, etc. Do whatever you choose to signal your brain that you are preparing for sleep.
  5. Stay off all screens for an hour before bed. This will help you avoid blue light that can affect your natural circadian rhythm.
  6. Avoid liquids. Try to get most of your drinking done before it gets too late in the day if you are prone to waking up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night.
  7. Use natural sleep aids. If you have a very hard time getting to sleep, you may do well with a natural sleep aid. Speak with your naturopath or health food store owner to find out what would work best for you. Consider taking a melatonin supplement, liquid magnesium supplement (1-2 tablespoons 1 hour before bed), epsom salt bath (epsom salt is magnesium sulfate and is absorbed through the skin in a bath. Dissolve 1 cups in hot bath water, then fill the tub to nice and warm--not boiling--water as you don't want to be sweating), valerian root tea or chamomile tea. I use 1 teaspoon of Ashwagandha powder in my morning smoothie to keep me calm and relaxed and to help me sleep better at night.
  8. Avoid alcohol. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol doesn't help you get a good night's sleep and in fact, it can cause some drinkers to be wide awake at 3 a.m. Try avoiding alcohol at least until you get into a good sleep schedule.
  9. Limit caffeine. If you drink tea or coffee, be sure to switch to decaf after noon. Caffeine needs time to clear itself from your system, and having a dark roast after dinner affects your sleep, even if you don't "feel it". If you have to have coffee or tea after noon, switch to decaf coffee or herbal tea. Try cutting caffeinated soda or energy drinks completely from your diet. Wean off of them with sparkling water and citrus to make a "healthy 7 UP").
  10. Avoid spicy foods. Sometimes, spicy foods can give people indigestion, which can keep them up at night. Try avoiding spicy foods if heartburn is an issue for you.
  11. Eat your carbs at night. There is a lot of research to support the benefit of eating more protein earlier in the day (to energize you) and more complex carbohydrates later in the day (to make you sleepy). Enjoy quinoa, brown rice or a small sweet potato at dinner time and see if it helps you get a better night's sleep.
  12. Sleep in a cool room. There is a lot of research to support that the quality of our sleep is improved when we are cooler (especially our heads) and scientists tend to agree that 18 degrees celsius (65 fahrenheit)  is a good temperature to keep you cool enough to get a proper sleep. In summer, take a cold shower before bed and use air conditioning or fans. In winter, lower the thermostat, but make sure you aren't shivering, as this would cause a fitful sleep.
  13. Use 100% cotton sheets. Synthetic fibers trap in heat and can make you sweat. Swap to 100% cotton and you'll be cooler and more comfortable sleeping.
  14. Use blackout blinds. The darker you can make your room, the better. Even a small amount of light from outside--the moon, streetlights etc., and the morning sun--all affect how much sleep you'll get. Remove all blue light from your bedroom--TVs, computers etc.--and cover your alarm clock before bed.
  15. Remove your screens from your bedroom altogether. Along with the blue light that they emit, we are tempted to check our phones or iPads when we wake a little in the night, rather than trying to get back to sleep. Leave them in the living room and you won't be pulled out of sleep and into Instagram.
  16. Exercise: Move your body in a way that feels good every day. I like to take the stairs as often as I can, park away from the doors, work out at the gym, and ride my bike. I also dance around my living room a fair bit, but that's just a bonus. 😉 When we exercise during the first half of the day, we tend to sleep better at night.
  17. Feel NO Guilt. Years ago, I tuned in as Oprah interviewed Dr. Christiane Northrup. During the interview, Northrup reminded us of sleep's importance, and how we should view it as the health tool that it is. She proposed that we treat ourselves, from time to time, by spending up to 17 hours in bed, as a wonderful way to recharge. While most of us may not be able to spend quite that long, the point is, we should take time--guilt-free-- to sleep for as long as we can. It is what's going to keep us living longer and feeling better than those who undervalue its importance. I like this short clip from another Oprah interview, where Dr. Northrup talks about health being contagious--meaning, the more we spread our health stories, the more others are inspired to make positive changes, as well. So, share your new routine with others and let's reduce the stigma and change the conversation around sleep. Brag about how MUCH you got!
  18. Keep a sleep journal. Track how many hours you get and how you feel. Take note of your mood, your energy levels, food cravings, feelings of stress & anger, and your desire to exercise as indicators about how you feel relative to the amount of sleep you got the night before. Awareness is always the first step to making any change, and when we can see the benefits--in black and white--it helps reaffirm our decision and encourages us to keep making it.
  19. Be gentle on yourself. It's hard to get into a new routine, so if you don't get 8 hours right away, don't give up. Keep prioritizing sleep and remember that it isn't lazy to sleep...it's life-extending!

Sleep & Cravings

This post wouldn't be complete without talking about sleep's effect on our food cravings. As I have shared before, when we lack sleep, we crave carbohydrates. So, when we're tired, all we want to eat is sugar--in copious amounts--because, since we can't go back to bed, our bodies are seeking the fastest source of energy in order to stay awake. All of that unnecessary sugar is being stored in our fat cells and we become more drained, our weight increases and we experience brain fog. We also crave even more sugar to lift us back up when we begin to crash, and the cycle continues.

Our sleep also affects two hormones, ghrelin and leptin, that are regulated by sleep and involved in appetite. Ghrelin is what makes us feel hungry and leptin is what tells us we are full. Both are compromised when we get a poor night's sleep, which is why I find myself standing in front of the refrigerator every 15 minutes when I'm tired and why, no matter how much I eat, I can never, ever seem to satisfy my cravings. Maybe you can relate, and studies done at Stanford showed that people who slept 5 hours or less per night had 14.9 percent more ghrelin and 15.5 percent lower leptin than those of people who got 8 hours. No wonder we can't satisfy our cravings!

Lack of sleep also causes the body to secrete more cortisol, the stress hormone, which can cause us to gain weight, especially around our tummies. If you have been struggling to lose weight or are frustrated by excess belly fat, see if you can change those measurements by improving your sleep hygiene.

The Bottom Line

I hope this post has inspired you to prioritize your sleep if you've been less than vigilant about it in the past. It is one of the main tenets of health and yet it often gets brushed aside by a society who views it as sloth. Yes, eating well and exercising, reducing stress, practicing mindfulness and drinking lots of water--among other things--are all vital to living well, but sleep is one element of health that can not be overemphasized.

So, please, allow me to remind you to..."Go the f*ck to SLEEP!!!!"

Because I want you to love your life one bite at a time.

For those of you--especially parents--who aren't offended by profanity, please enjoy this lovely children's book narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. 😉


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