Do you get up most mornings feeling energetic and revitalized after having gotten a long, deep night’s sleep? If the answer is no, then you’re not alone. A lot of people these days experience poor and/or insufficient sleep on a regular basis, which doesn’t come as a surprise when we consider the fact that our modern lives are filled with sleep-disrupting stimuli. The combination of a hectic work schedule, artificial lighting, blue-light emitting cellphones and computers, and sugary foods is the perfect recipe for chronic sleep deprivation and insomnia, conditions that have a wide range of deleterious effects on the human body.
This modern milieu is very different from the natural, ancestral environment we – including our sleep needs, dietary requirements, and so forth – evolved in for millions of years. To get back to a healthy sleeping pattern and achieve better sleep we have to take steps to ancestralize our health condition and remove as many sleep-disrupting factors from our life as we can. The 10 steps outlined in this post can help you do just that!
Is the quality of your sleep as good as you think it is?
Before we jump in with the 10 steps, I wanted to include a little about my own experience with sleep. For most of my life, I was under the impression that the quality of my sleep had always been very good; largely because I have never had an actual sleeping disorder or needed any sort of medication to be able to fall asleep at night.
However, when I started doing some research on sleep and began tinkering with my lifestyle in an attempt to sleep even better, I was up for a rude awakening. Up until that time, the quality of my sleep had been far from optimal. I had typically slept for 7-9 hours every night – but it often took me a while to fall asleep, and I rarely woke up feeling revitalized after a perfect night of deep sleep. The only reason I was under the belief that I had always slept well, was that the kind of sleep I was getting was the only kind of sleep I had ever experienced.
This comes back to something I talk a lot about here on the blog, which is that a lot of people have a flawed understanding of what could be considered the norm for our species. For example, just because overweight, acne vulgaris, myopia, and many other chronic health disorders and diseases are extremely prevalent in our society today, doesn’t mean that these conditions are a natural part of the human existence.
When I began tweaking my diet and lifestyle in an attempt to improve my sleep, I realised that I had been missing out. When I stuck with the new plan, it took me less time to fall asleep at night, I fell into a much deeper sleep, and I woke up with more energy and a better feeling than before.
That’s not to say that I have never gotten a poor night’s sleep ever since or woken up during the night without being able to fall asleep again. However, there’s no doubt that if I compare the quality of my sleep prior to and after this “intervention”, there’s a distinct difference.
I think a lot of people are in the same boat as I was before I started putting more emphasis on improving my sleep. They believe the quality of their sleep is okay or even very good; not because it actually is, but because they have never experienced what truly great sleep feels like. If you think you’re one of these people, then you should definitely consider giving the 10 steps below a try…
1. Reduce or eliminate your exposure to artificial lighting the last couple of hours before bed
The biological clock, which helps determine when we feel the need to wake up or go to sleep, is set by external signals such as light and darkness. Artificial lighting affects a person’s circadian rhythm and interferes with the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that plays an essential role in regulating sleep and wake cycles.
Blue light – light with wavelengths in the 500nm to 381nm range – has an especially potent effect on the suppression of melatonin (1). This type of light is emitted by most of the electronics that are found in people’s homes, such as computer monitors and various electronic gadgets.
If your goal is to get a good night’s sleep, scrolling the Facebook news feed on your phone right before bed is definitely not the way to go. By doing so you’re not only exposing yourself to artificial light that messes with your melatonin production, but you’re also providing a signal to your brain that it should stay awake and alert.
As for lamps and other sources of artificial lighting found in modern homes, candle lights are an excellent substitution that can be brought out late at night.
2. Exercise during the day (but not right before going to sleep)
Avoid prolonged, high-intensity aerobic training (“chronic cardio”) or strength training that is characterized by a very high volume and a very high intensity. Rather, opt for light-moderate intensity aerobic training, such as walking and swimming, and/or relatively brief sessions of high-intensity exercise such as sprinting, high-intensity interval training, or strength training that focuses on multi-joint movements such as the squat, deadlift, push-up, chin-up, and press.
Regular physical activity will help you build a lean and strong physique, increase your protection against chronic disease, and improve your metabolic and hormonal health. Also, of particular importance to this article, there’s solid evidence to show that exercise can help reduce pre-sleep anxiety and improve sleep quality (2, 3, 4).
3. Sleep in a completely dark room
This is standard advice that doesn’t require much explanation. Having lamps and other sources of artificial lighting on during the night is obviously not a good idea if you want to keep your internal biological clock ticking correctly. Candles or other sources of “natural” lighting are a much better option if you need some light during the night.
4. Take a cold shower before going to sleep
Yes, I know, this tip may sound counterintuitive. Also, it’s likely different from what you’ve read other places, as the standard advice is to take a hot bath or shower before going to bed in order to relax and reduce stress. However, I’m here to tell you that you should forget all of that – and instead opt for a cold shower, either shortly before going to bed or a couple of hours prior to hitting the sack.
If you’re not used to taking cold showers, chances are you’re going to find them uncomfortable the first couple of times. However, when your body adjusts and your cold tolerance improves, it will become much easier, and after a while, you may feel like you never want to take a hot shower ever again.
Among other things, cold showers may help relieve depressive symptoms, strengthen immunity, promote healthy hormone levels, and increase fat loss (5). Also, a cold shower toughens you up and can provide you with the feeling that your body and mind have been “reset”.
As for the impact cold showers have on sleep, a 1994 study found that “subjects fell asleep faster and had a better overall quality of sleep following behaviors that cooled the body, such as taking a cold shower right before bed” (6, 7). Furthermore, a more recent study found that people with primary insomnia fell asleep faster and slept better when they wore a cap that cools the brain (8). A cold shower may have some of the same effects.
5. Open a window to let in some fresh air, and add some houseplants to your bedroom
Indoor air quality is a topic that deserves a lot more attention than it’s currently getting within the ancestral health community – and in the health & fitness community at large for that matter.
We didn’t evolve to live or sleep in closed buildings. Rather, we evolved to live in nature.
By opening your windows you not only improve the indoor air circulation of your home, but you also get an injection of microbial biodiversity into your house. That being said, if you live in a highly polluted area, having your windows open all night may not be the best idea. As for houseplants, several studies have shown that plants can help remove toxicants from the air, improve indoor air quality, and make interior breathing spaces healthier (9, 10).
6. Install f.lux or another similar program on your computer
f.lux makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day. The best option is of course to completely avoid using electronic gadgets the last couple of hours before going to bed. However, that’s clearly not an option for everyone. If you “have to” spend late nights in front of the computer working, then it’s particularly important to install a program like f.lux.
7. Dial in your diet
Your diet has a profound impact on how well you sleep. Some of the key things to keep in mind are:
- Don’t eat right before going to bed. Consume your last meal no later than 1 hour before hitting the sack; preferably no later than 1,5-2 hours before.
- Don’t consume a lot of coffee, chocolate (including dark varieties), alcoholic beverages, and other foods that have a stimulant-like effect on the brain, particularly during the last couple of hours before going to bed.
- Stay away from wheat, milk, and other non-Paleo foods that contain peptides with opioid activities, particularly during the last couple of hours before going to sleep.
- Don’t drink a lot of fluids the last couple of hours before going to bed.
- Eat plenty of high-quality animal source food, vegetables, and whole foods rich in healthy fats.
- Don’t go to bed feeling hungry.
8. Develop a pre-bed routine, and go to bed at roughly the same time every day
Just like step 3, this is standard advice that probably doesn’t require much explanation. However, just because this recommendation is mentioned in many, if not most, articles that talk about ways to get better sleep, doesn’t mean it’s advice that everyone follows.
A lot of people go to sleep at different times every day and have never developed a pre-bed routine. Typically, these people have more trouble falling asleep and get fewer hours of high-quality sleep every night than those who have a pre-bed routine dialed in.
9. Sleep on non-toxic bedding
Many of the bed sheets, blankets, and mattresses people use today contain chemicals of questionable safety (11, 12). A good general rule is that “natural” materials such as cotton, feathers, and wool are superior to materials such as polyurethane foam plastic and polyester.
When it comes to bed sheets, cotton flannel, linen, untreated 100-percent cotton, and knit cotton jersey are better options than polyester-cotton bed linens and “no-iron” cotton bed linens, which are often treated with formaldehyde-based solutions. The levels of formaldehyde diminish over time as the sheets are used and washed, but residues may remain and cause various health problems such as headaches and skin rashes.
10. Expose yourself to a lot of bright light during the day
For millions of years, our ancestors lived outdoors and slept in accordance with the natural fluctuations in light and dark. This is in stark contrast to how things are like today. The majority of people now spend 90%+ of their time indoors,rarely getting out in the sun. This is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which being that the sun helps “set” our internal biological clock.
Besides limiting your exposure to artificial lighting at night, getting out in the sun early in the morning and spending more time outdoors during the day may be the most important thing you can do to normalize the production of hormones that are involved in the sleep-wake cycle (13, 14).
While there’s no doubt that paying attention to the things mentioned in this article is important if you want to be as healthy and happy as possible, becoming obsessive about sticking to a strict sleep schedule may not be the way to go. We have to make compromises and find a balance between doing what is optimal in terms of getting high-quality sleep and what we find enjoyable/practical. While saying no to every dinner party invitation and never going out during the weekends just to get to bed in time may help you sleep better, it may not improve your quality of life…
Note: A previous version of this article of mine appeared in Paleo Magazine, the first, and only print magazine dedicated to the Paleo lifestyle and ancestral health. You can subscribe to Paleo Magazine here!