It’s barely 2 p.m. and my chest feels tight. My head is pounding and my body is heavy. My heart thumps loudly, reverberating across my upper body. I am both exhausted and wired. My mind is racing at a thousand miles a minute, but is at the same time kind of glassy and void. I am cranky and unproductive. And, frankly, unkind. When I feel this way, I know the reason is often simple. I didn’t get enough sleep.
Halloween might have come and gone, but the zombies out there remain. So many of us go through life without enough sleep.
We often prioritize productivity, it’s almost as if taking a pause or resting is a bad thing. People glorify the ultra-busy lifestyle with Instagram posts that glamorize people walking with big cups of coffee or at their computers with sayings like “no rest for the wicked” or “genius never sleeps.”
In fact, genius does sleep. And it’s crucial to our health.
“Sleep your way to the top,” once declared Arianna Huffington, the founder of the famed news outlet, the Huffington Post. In 2016, she left her position to focus on Thrive, a startup meant to combat burnout, which then led her to write a New York Times Best-Selling book titled The Sleep Revolution. “Everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep,” she says.
No words could be truer. Medically, our bodies need sleep to restore energy, encourage cellular growth, and repair cell damage. In my latest podcast with health coach and functional medicine coach DJ Llabres of Life Science Philippines, she explains that “your brain and all your other internal organs detoxify. When you sleep your stress response is dampened, your nervous system can reset and recover, promoting emotional resilience. Not only does it do wonders for your mental health, it also reduces the risk of chronic, stress-related conditions such as cardio metabolic diseases, diabetes and cancer.”
Sleep also allows you to maintain a healthy weight. “It regulates your appetite and metabolism,” DJ says. A lack of sleep creates a hormonal imbalance in your body, increasing the production of ghrelin and lowering levels of leptin, causing cravings and hunger pangs. Anyone who has had a sleepless night knows that not only do they end up snacking and bingeing all day, but they also end up craving sugar for fuel.
“I recommend seven to nine hours of sleep a day,” shares Llabres. “And quality sleep is essential.”
Lately, I’ve been so protective over my own sleep that I will miss out on things on purpose when I know my body needs rest. If I could give people one piece of advice to feel better immediately, it’s to drink more water and get more sleep. Two things that seem to be so accessible but are elusive. We are so burdened with responsibility that we feel obliged to maximize the hours in a day. However, if I’m too overstretched and fall sick, I’m of no use to anyone either.
Here are my five favorite ways to get a good night’s sleep:
Avoid caffeinated beverages after 2 p.m. In general, I have detoxed my body from caffeine. As much as I love coffee, caffeine is a drug that no one talks about. I wrote about this in a past article and elaborated on why I gave up my daily coffees. Studies have shown that 400mg of caffeine taken even as long as six hours before bedtime will significantly disrupt sleep and reduce it by at least one hour. Some people will argue that they are so used to it that they can still fall asleep despite having several cups of coffee a day; however, it does affect the quality of sleep and impairs you from that deep and restorative sleep that your body needs. So, if you can’t remove caffeine from your diet, at least limit it. Drink lots of water to flush it out and, of course, watch out for hidden sources like in sodas, energy drinks or bars, iced teas and the like.
Eat a light and early dinner. Choose easy-to-digest foods such as nutrient-dense vegetable stews or soups. When we eat a calorie-dense and heavy meal, our body is focused on using energy to digest the food. Our gut tells the rest of our body and our brain that it’s not yet time to sleep. And although we may fall asleep faster, especially if we consume alcohol, the quality of sleep is not good. We also tend to wake up in the middle of the night. “Alcohol relaxes the muscles in your throat and in your body in general, which tends to slow down or block the breathing,” explains DJ. “This results in your body jolting you awake, to essentially keep you alive.”
Create a peaceful environment. Don’t bring work into the bedroom. Put away your laptops and hide your clutter. Choose bed linens in soothing colors, preferably in solids. Try not to overstimulate the senses. Make your room a sacred space and safe haven. Play some soothing music and light a candle. Aromatherapy can also help calm the mind. Our olfactory system is so intrinsically linked to our memories and nervous system that certain scents can trigger specific responses. Lavender and rose scents have been proven to help promote deeper sleep.
Turn down the lights. Once the sun goes down, so should the vibrance and intensity of light in your home. At 6 p.m., start turning off all the top lights and switch on lamps and ambient lighting. It’s important to nurture our natural circadian rhythm. “When the blue light of the sun hits our eyes and our skin, our bodies start to produce cortisol,” explains DJ. “This is what gives you energy. When the sun goes down, our bodies produce melatonin, which makes you sleepy.” The biggest problem is that the lights never switch off, tricking our bodies to always stay awake. Our ancestors used to follow the rhythm of the sun so seamlessly, until electricity allowed us to stay up later. Think of long-haul flights in an airplane, when they slowly turn down the lights to create an environment for sleep. We should do the same in our homes.
Switch off your screens. In the same light, our minds and bodies stay awake due to excessive and almost non-stop blue-light exposure from our screens. There is no point in creating a moody and peaceful ambience if our eyes are glued to our devices. “The light from our devices tricks our retina into thinking the sun is still up,” explains DJ. “Your body is then pumped with more cortisol, which causes stress in our body and even our minds. Often, the anxiety that keeps you up at night comes from what we might have seen on the TV or our phones from calls, texts and emails.” Personally, I like to unplug and turn my phone and TV off one hour before I go to bed. I find reading a good book or is one of the best ways to relax the mind.
To learn more about my journey and why good sleep is essential, please listen to my latest episode of Soulful Feasts featuring DJ Llabres of Life Science Philippines. Available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.