How to Get to Sleep Better
Exercise regularly. Studies show that moderate exercise has us waking up feeling more refreshed, improves our mood and vitality, and improves our sleep quality. Exercise is the most inexpensive and simple way of improving our sleep, and the risk of negative side effects is very small (study, study).
Lifting weights is great for this because muscle is so incredibly healthy (article), it’s fun and rewarding to build strength, it can be great cardiovascular exercise, and more muscle will make you look better—all while helping you get to sleep.
Doing things that raise your heart rate is healthy too. Swimming, biking, walking uphill, playing some casual sports, etc. If you aren’t getting enough cardio from your weightlifting routine (or you aren’t lifting weights) you might want to do some other types of cardio, too.
Be conscious of light brightness & hue. You probably already know that the sun can improve your health by getting your vitamin D production going, but it also helps us program our biological clock. We use the bright “blue” light from the sun to signal to us that it’s daytime—awake time. This kickstarts our biological clock and gets those alerting signals firing, boosting serotonin/melatonin levels (article).
Serotonin in our body is affected by exposure to daylight (among other things, like exercise). Moderately high levels of serotonin help put you in a positive mood, so it’s often called the “happiness hormone” (alongside endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin). It will help you feel energized and amazing in general.
Generations ago, most people worldwide were farmers. One melatonin researcher found that light levels outside on a summer day can be 1000x brighter than typical indoor lighting (article). We’re not just talking about tropical farming either. Even on a cloudy day during in the middle of a cold winter, a farmer would have been exposed to more than 1000 lux—far brighter than indoor lighting.
In a recent study analyzing how much sunlight people were exposed to at the latitude of 45° N*, researchers found that people were only exposed to 1000+ lux for 30 minutes a day during the winter, and 90 minutes in the summer. These were regular people getting out of the house and working at least 30 hours a week. Even the amount of light they got during the summer was considerably less than what our great grandparents would have gotten in the winter (article).
We’re starting to finally understand that we’re living in a “light deprived society” and we’re feeling the consequences. Some clever entrepreneurs have used this as a business opportunity, and are opening up shops to address the problem, like the “light cafe” in Sweden (link).
*Some examples of cities at 45°N-50°N are Montreal, Ottawa, Portland, Lyon, Paris, Milan, Venice, Vienna, Munich, etc.
Bright light matters. When you’re exposed to very bright light during the day, our melatonin production starts sooner, which means we enter into sleep more easily at night. Getting bright morning light is helpful against insomnia and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
If you work inside all day or you live in a high latitude country, you should consider making an effort to get some more bright light during the day (and ask your doctor if you’re getting enough vitamin D).
Blue light. Aside from brightness, the colour temperature (the hue) from the sun also helps signal to our body that it’s daytime. During the day sunlight has a blue hue. Because we’re used to seeing things outside, blue coloured light gives us the most accurate colour depiction. This is why all of our computer screens, TVs and iPads are emitting blue light. This is wonderful during the day, but troublesome at night. Exposure to this type of light when it isn’t daytime throws off our biological clock and keeps us awake at night.
You can see how this is a problem. Let’s say you do some late night texting, TV watching or computer using. Then you remember, even though you’re not that tired, that you need to wake up early. You head to bed, but you have trouble falling asleep. So maybe you whip out your iPad in bed to occupy yourself instead of just lying there waiting. One study found that just reading on your iPad before bed, because of the light, can delay your sleep by as much as an hour and cause you to feel sleepier in the morning (study)!
Amber, yellow & dim light. Just like blue “sunlight” tells our bodies that it’s daytime, dim amber or yellow coloured light—sunsets, fires, candles—tell us that the day is over. This stops the alerting signals from your biological clock and allows your body to start preparing to fall asleep.
So if you need to use your laptop at night, you can switch the colour that it emits. F.lux is a free app that will slowly change the colour of your screen to coincide with the sunset outside (based on your timezone). If you read until you fall asleep, either read a paper book or use a lightless e-ink reader with a very dim amber/yellow table lamp. If you watch TV at night to help gear into bed, things get trickier. You still have some options, but they’re a bit weird…
Since you can’t install colour temperature software on your TV (yet), you can use amber/yellow tinted glasses (e.g. Gunnar glasses), cut and place a yellow acetate sheet to fit on your TV. If you don’t want to turn your TV into an arts and crafts project, you might also have some luck adjusting the picture settings to give your TV a more yellowish hue and a dimmer backlight. … or promise yourself that you’ll only watch darkly lit low key crime scene shows.
As you near your bedtime, start turning off or dimming your lights. When you brush your teeth and wash your face, use a dim or amber tinted nightlight instead of turning on your regular bright bathroom lights. If you’ve got (quite) a few bucks to spare, you could even outfit your place with Philips Hue lightbulbs, which can be controlled by your phone and programmed to dim and change colour temperature at night.
So basically you just want to get a lot of bright blue light (preferably sunlight) to fully wake you up during the day, and then gear down after sunset with dimmer and more yellow-y lights. Obviously we can’t totally control what light we’re exposed to, but every little bit counts.
How to Wake Up Energized
Get to bed early enough to fully reset your sleep drive. This one will require some serious self-control. In Willpower, co-written by the famous researcher Roy Baumeister, they wrote that we only get a small amount of willpower each day, and if we want to truly capitalize on it, then the best thing we can do is to use that willpower to carve out enough time to sleep. Netflix isn’t watching out for how many hours of sleep you get each night.
Set your thermostat to warm up your bedroom between 3–7 a.m. One studyfound increasing the temperature 3 C between 3–7 a.m. helped the sleepers wake up feeling fresh (study). Heat promotes wakefulness and gets us out of deep sleep (REM and slow wave sleep), easing us into waking up.
Use bright light to cue your body to wake up. After you wake up, you’ll want to be exposed to bright lights and get moving as soon as possible. One of the best ways to do this is go for a quick walk outside in the morning. The light outdoors will always be much stronger than indoors and will let your body know that it’s daytime, causing it to send out wakefulness signals, and the movement will help too.
It’s really helpful to be exposed to bright light as you’re waking up to remove that groggy feeling. Assuming you’ve done your best to black out your room, you’ve got a few options. If you’ve got money to spend, you could look into timer-controlled curtains or blinds that open automatically. But for now, unless your money is burning a hole in your pocket or you’re a DIY programmer, you might need to use a regular ol’ alarm clock, groggily open your blinds (before hitting the snooze button), and immediately go for a walk outside.
If you have a bit of money to invest into making your morning a little cheerier but don’t want to go full out with the automatic blinds (or perish the thought, you need to wake up before the sun does), the Philips Wake Up Light will gradually turn from amber to blue while getting brighter to wake you up softly. You can also buy timersthat you can plug an ordinary lamp into.
And that looks like a good place to end part 2 of our sleep series, hopefully its not putting you to sleep, unless you’re reading this at night in which case, sweet dreams until next time.
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