Golden Slumbers: Sleep Hacks & Nocturnal Insights Pt 2.
Further to the last post’s epic introduction to all things sleep, which set out the basics, I’d now like to take you on a deeper dive into the importance of rhythm and timing.
Not only is rhythm important for the full expression of your virility, it’s also important for the full expression of your humanity. Without good sleep rhythms, you will feel like your life is always something of an uphill battle.
Consistency is so important, because that’s how your body regulates all of its other functions each day. It has to prepare itself for when to wake, when to switch on the hunger hormones and its digestive juices, when to activate organ systems and protocols, when to adjust hormone levels, and of course when to go to sleep. Once asleep, it dictates when to begin essential detoxification. There are so many aspects to your bio-rhythms, it would be exhausting to outline them all, and really the general message is, that if you have good circadian rhythms, your health, happiness and performance levels will likely be notably stronger than if you don’t. And the only reason they wouldn’t is because there is a serious issue that needs addressing, and that will be much easier to address if you’ve got good circadian rhythms to support the improvement of whichever element is out of balance.
It’s so important, that it’s worth taking care with your lie ins. Because whilst you can somewhat repay stored up REM deficits, you can’t actually repay the overall sleep deficit with extra sleep at the weekends. So whilst there can be something restorative about a lie in, particularly if you’re always getting up at 5 or 6am, that must be weighed against the disruption to your circadian rhythms that gets created by consecutive lie ins. When you have two successive lie ins on the weekend, your rhythms reset, and then all of a sudden, trying to get up early on the Monday morning is hell, because your body has been reprogrammed to expect sleep at this time, and your week kicks off in the ugliest and most fragmented of fashions.
So if nothing else, please pay attention to the usefulness of maintaining regular sleep rhythms to help your body know when to sleep and when to wake.
However, if you really want to smash life, and sleep, it’s not just worth paying attention to quantity and rhythm, arguably the biggest variable is the timing of when you get those 7-9 hours…it makes such a huge difference to how useful and balancing those hours of rest ultimately prove to be.
Now for almost all of human history, our routines were pretty nailed on. We would get to bed not that long after sunset, and pass the night-time hours fast asleep. That’s why the word midnight exists, because it represented the midpoint of our nightly sleep ritual.
Now the Dickensians pissed about with this a little bit by breaking the night into two distinct sleeps and cavorting in the middle of it. And then came the lightbulb, which turned everything upside down by giving us the opportunity to evolve our nocturnal habits with the flick of a switch.
Now one could fairly ask, why does it matter? Well it comes back to the good old circadian rhythms, which are so hard wired into our systems. Indeed, in almost every culture I’ve encountered, there exists an expression along the lines of ‘an hour before midnight is worth two after’. What this means is that for every hour of sleep you attain prior to midnight, it gives you the equivalent benefit of two hours of sleep after midnight. So, according to such folk wisdom, going to bed from 9pm-5am offers an equivalent of 3 hours more rest than sleeping from midnight-8am.
This seems to be borne out by recent research into hunter gatherers, who typically spend 7-8.5 hours in bed, starting between 8:30-10:30pm, preceded by low level camp fires that are quite dim and ideal for allowing the nervous system in a lower state of activation, and then they typically wake up in and around sunrise, depending on the season. This is thought to be the most accurate reflection of how our circadian rhythms are most naturally programmed.
Indeed, one of the world’s foremost sleep experts, Stephen Lockley of Harvard Medical School, has gone on record as saying that the most harmful invention of all time is the lightbulb! This is because of the absolute chaos it has created for our sleep timing, our sleep rhythms, and the reduction in quantity of sleep we’ve been getting since touch-of-a-button illumination became a possibility.
One of the obstacles of late night living is the fact that never in animal kingdom history has nature had to find a workaround for lifestyle induced sleep deprivation. So whilst we can manage feast and famine dynamics with regards to nutrition, our biology is absolutely flummoxed if we force it to undergo feast or famine with our slumbers, and nature just hasn’t had nearly enough time to try and adapt to this whole lightbulb thing. And so we guinea pigs end up getting caught in the crossfire of deranged schedules and the cycle of stress and exhaustion that follows. And doubly unfortunate is the fact that whilst our neurophysiology struggles to adapt, our mind has very quickly jumped on the late night bandwagon, and will insist that you get so much value from staying up late. However, I’m not convinced many people over the age of 30 are actually getting much benefit from regularly staying up late, when compared with what’s possible when you align yourself with your natural rhythms.
Interestingly, the ancient Indian science of Ayurveda had quite a lot to say about daily rhythms as well. It is massively in favour of being in bed and lights out by 10pm, which is still later than our ancestors, and if you’re ill, it recommends going to bed closer to 9pm.
The reason for this is twofold. Number 1, the majority of your melatonin production occurs between 9pm and 1am, but only if you’re asleep, or at least resting horizontally with lights out.
This means that if you go to bed at 9pm, you get your full complement of melatonin production, and that has a corresponding effect on the rest of your hormone profile. And at least if you are lights out by 10pm, you are getting three quarters of your natural profile of melatonin, which is my personal threshold for still managing to feel great the next day.
However, if you go to bed at 11pm, you are only getting half of your melatonin production, and hormonally things are considerably more shaky. And if, like some folks, you’re only switching the lights out at midnight, then you’re only going to get a quarter of your melatonin production, which is quite frankly rubbish for your body, brain, and mood the following day, and long term is likely to have a very negative impact on your mental health and psyche.
There is also another reason why ayurveda is a huge fan of this cutoff time for sleep. This is the observation that your liver does the vast majority of its detoxing between 10pm and 2am if you are asleep, which means that you are fully cleansed when you wake up, and therefore you feel lighter and more energised. In this day and age of industrial exposure to contaminants, it’s even more crucial to ensure sufficient detox time is allowed for.
Now my body type, and the 33% of people who share a similar(ish) body type to me, find this aspect extra useful, because the liver is where we can be a little weak, and that is absolutely true for me, as my liver has been somewhat dysfunctional since at least the age of 21, when I signed up for some medical trials to supplement my student finances, and Northwick Park hospital said I couldn’t participate because of my dickie liver…now whether that was because of my body type or the fact that i’d been a heavy drinker throughout my teenage years may have had something to do with it!
But whilst my body type suffers more with late nights, all body types benefit from adhering to these rhythms, as best they can, albeit there is some wriggle room depending on where you are in the world and what time sunset occurs.
I should also add that whenever I go to bed at 11pm or later, there is notable brain swelling and inflammation the next day, even if I wake up later, which gives me good information that my body just doesn’t like it. Now you may not be the same as me, or you may be so normalised to the brain swelling that you don’t notice it, but it’s potentially another significant reason why sensible bedtimes work.
Ayurveda then recommends waking up no later than 6am, unless you are adrenally exhausted. The reason for this is that you will wake up when the body’s rhythms are waking up, and that will give you energy for the day, whereas when you wake up at say 7am or later, things are going in the opposite direction, and you’re more likely to feel groggy.
This is also backed up by modern science, which suggests that the rise in temperature in the predawn phase of the day is what typically causes us to start waking from the deep phases of sleep, not the light. So timing your sleep with the rise and fall of daily temperatures is critical for the best quality rest. And if your body type means that it’s absolute agony to tear yourself from the warmth of your duvet, find ways to motivate and reward yourself for doing well…for vata types, maybe the afternoon snack is only available if you’re up and out of bed by a certain hour!
Ideally, you would also have some sense of the sun rising, which will wake your body up even more, especially if you are susceptible to sadness, heaviness, lethargy or depression.
And if you like to exercise in the morning, then something like sun salutations or five tibetans is absolutely ideal for getting your body moving in a way that is harmonious to your nervous system.
Now if some of you are squirming at all this, I understand. We are faced with a culture that is so out of sync with our bodies, that it can be tricky to marry the two. But it’s up to you. Do you want to feel better and perform better? Or do you want to conform? You are your own sovereign being, and it’s your prerogative to live life exactly as you see fit. But one thing I’m convinced of, is that all human beings have a preference for more joy in their lives, and this may well represent one of your best opportunities for you to achieve that. When you’re young, your bouncebackability means that you can lean more towards spike-high joy and still be good. As you get older, perhaps that diminishes. Nothing about any of this is meant to be prescriptive, simply informative about what a better possibility might look like.
So if you like the idea of more background joy in your life, but are not sure how you’re going to pull it off, I dare you to test it yourself. Just try 10 days of going to bed closer to, or ideally at 10pm, with the recommended screen discipline and dining suggestions listed herein. Set your alarm for a correspondingly earlier time if you feel, albeit earlier than 5:30am is less than ideal. Just see how much better you feel with this adjustment. Most people find it pretty remarkable.
And just remember, midnight is meant to be the middle of the night. It’s not meant to be part of the opening phase of the sleep cycle.
Other things you could consider to hack your sleep to programme itself in a more timely way would be to manage the lighting and temperature in your home at night.
For example, you can switch off half the lights in your house at 8:30pm (or programme them to do this every night if you have Echo), and you will find your body is much more ready for bed when you go, and your melatonin peak will come two hours sooner which is absolutely what you want to happen, and a great way to cut down your energy bills during an energy crisis too! It’s worth noting this result is somewhat contingent on you practising screen discipline, which you can manage using timers on your wifi, or programming your phone via the Focus action in settings if you have an iphone.
Another energy saving tip would be to time your thermostat to cool the house down at 9pm. The reason for this is that when your body temperature has cooled down by a couple of degrees, you fall asleep faster and you get much more of phases 3 and 4 deep sleep.
Now again, body types comes into this inasmuch as vata body types hate the cold, and like to feel nice and snuggly before bed, but the principle applies just as equally to you, so have a think about whether you have a really hot shower before bed to give you thermal deliciousness, and enough runway to then have a temperature drop and still be comfortable.
Or you could go the whole hog some nights and have a hot bath, which causes high levels of vasodilation, followed by a massive loss of heat, and that will help you sleep really soundly if you time it right.
Eating earlier is also a really good idea. This is because digestion takes 2-3 hours, and if you try to sleep while food lays undigested in your body, you’re going to really struggle. Also relevant is the fact that your digestion is programmed to switch off after about 8pm because historically you were usually winding down in a pre-bed phase by this time.
The type of food you eat also may also make a difference. Information on ideal food types is mixed, the only thing that seems clear is that plenty of fibre is a good idea for a sound sleep. Ayurveda would certainly suggest avoiding hard to digest foods like red meat and other difficult to digest foods for your evening meal, because such, heavy unprocessed food in your gut will severely diminish the quality of rest and instead of detoxing well, you will likely flood your intestines with toxins from your undigested food which will make you feel heavy and quite possibly fairly sh*t the next day.
So given that ideally you would eat 2.5 hours before bed, you can then work backwards from whichever bedtime is your comfortable limit. For me, because I like to bed at 10pm whenever I can, that means I’m defo best eating by 7.30pm. If you wish to achieve optimal performance, then 6-7pm is absolutely golden, while 7-8pm is an acceptable compromise. Otherwise you’re reducing what your body will be capable of doing for you at night, and the next day you’re quite simply going to feel a good distance away from your best.
It’s not easy saying such a thing, even in an early dinner culture like the UK, because our eating times have gotten later and later as our work life has become more dominant and I know some people reading this will feel a natural reactance against this information like a teenager reacts negatively to good advice from a parent. Our ego’s need for sovereignty often finds a way to supercede and justify the ignoring of wisdom, but at what cost?
As for people of a Latin disposition, it may sound positively unattainable, which I accept. But it’s a case of knowing what you’re signing up for. I was in a conversation with someone with addiction issues the other day, and they told me about all the reasons they want to socialise a lot, and thus put themselves in jeopardy of a relapse. I reminded them this morning of all of the unregistered consequences of what their socialising actually means for their family, and for their future, and to try and reframe their view of it based on the overall net effect of their habituated tendency. To a much lesser degree, maybe we can consider how we can make attainable adjustments. Not in a bid to achieve perfection, but more in a bid to enjoy the fruits of marginal gains. Unless of course you wake up feeling bright and breezy each day, in which case there’s potentially no real need for you to listen to me.
Now there are other interesting observations with regards to our daily rhythms which I feel are worth sharing. Firstly, we ALL experience a ‘post prandeal dip’ between 2pm-4pm in the afternoon (totally independent of diet) which suggests to many an expert that we should be sleeping during this phase, but obviously with work schedules as they are, it’s nigh on impossible to achieve outside of certain regions of Spain! And then there’s the fact that none of the hunter gatherer tribes studied around the world take an afternoon nap, except maybe on ten occasions a year, so what’s the solution?
Well, if you’re doing two meditations a day, you might not actually find you get the post prandeal dip (needs to be tested). But if you’re still susceptible, try doing your second meditation during this phase (having eaten between 12-1), and you’ll find you can give yourself the rest you need, re-energise yourself in a time efficient manner, and then smash through the rest of your afternoon in fine form. It’s absolutely ideal.