Sleep Mastery: If you could take a FREE pill that optimized your mood, hormones and weight…oh and that pill could also make you live longer with no side effects, would you take it? Of course you would, it’s a no-brainer. Well that “medicine” exists but it’s not a pill: it’s SLEEP. Now if only you could track, optimize and master sleep, you’ll be on your way to reaping all of it’s benefits!
Here’s how you start…
How I Got My Best Sleep:
My eyes opened as my phone’s alarm was going off. I pulled off my blackout eyeshade and reached to grab my phone on the nightstand to turn it off.
But it WASN’T my alarm! The phone was ringing and it was work calling. I answered:
“Hi, Dr. Popa we are ready for you in Room 1” the nurse’s voice said.
It was 7:29 AM and I had overslept by about 1 hour, which never happens (I usually wake up early and have a hard time sleeping in even on weekends). I apologized profusely and I jumped out of bed to get ready.
Not a good start!
Except for the fact that I had just recorded one of the best sleep sessions ever. My S+ sleep monitor read a 94 out of 100!
It was a “good news-bad news” situation. On one hand I made a lot of people mad at work. On the other hand, I was going to have a really good day; being rested with a “full charge” of REM and Deep Sleep usually means I’ll have neurotransmitters like GABA and hormones like Growth Hormone and Testosterone available to keep me calm and ready to do some catch-up work under a little bit of pressure from a bunch of (understandably) angry patients and staff.
To track my sleep for the last 2 years or so I’ve been using the “ResMed S+” monitor pictured right. It sits on my night stand, pointed at my chest as I sleep. Inside the “S+” has a very sensitive motion detector monitoring respiratory patterns from afar. Programmed with a smart algorithm, the “S+” can calculate what stage of sleep I am in depending on how I breathe and my other motion (i.e. tossing and turning = awake).
Sleep Stages “101”: The basics of sleep to get you started
Sleep occurs in cycles which repeat themselves every 90-120 minutes or so throughout the night. As we begin to fall asleep, brain waves start to slow down from fast “Beta” (awake 18-32 Hz), to slower “Alpha” waves in Light Sleep (8-12 Hz) and then to Deep Sleep “Delta” waves (0-4 Hz). Following this, the brain goes into REM sleep which is a period of fast, de-synchronized brain waves. It is not uncommon to briefly wake up after REM and then fall asleep again, repeating the cycle. Here’s how things broke down for me as far as Sleep Stages during my well-over-slept night session. I’ll use this as a brief lesson on what happens during each Sleep Stage:
1. Light Sleep (in green): 3 hrs, 59 min
Most people can sense this initial phase of sleep when brain waves start to slow down from a high frequency awake “Beta” (12-38 Hz) to slower “Alpha” waves (8-12 Hz). During this stage muscles relax and eye movements slow down. “Alpha” waves during this stage are also frequently found in meditators and are also associated with creativity….maybe this is why you get the best ideas right before falling asleep. Still this is not a “major player” as far as Sleep Stages are concerned.
2. REM Sleep (in yellow): 1hr, 38 min.
R.E.M. is a very important period of sleep of intense brain activity. It is short for Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (R.E.M). Brain waves are fast and desynchronized during this stage, similar to those in the “awake” state. Breathing becomes more rapid, irregular, and shallow and the “S+” Sleep Monitor can sense that via breathing patterns; eyes move rapidly in various directions and limb muscles become temporarily paralyzed. Heart rate increases and blood pressure rises during this phase. This also is the sleep stage in which most dreams occur. REM sleep is regulated by neurotransmitters like GABA and Acetylcholine (Ach) (1) and it is thought to play a role in memory consolidation, the synthesis and organization of cognition, and mood regulation. A deficiency of REM can leave you groggy and unable to concentrate.
3. Deep Sleep: 1 hr, 33 min
During Deep Sleep brain waves, called “Delta” waves, become very regular and slow down to 0-4 Hz frequency. Whereas the mind regenerates during REM, the body regenerates itself during Deep Sleep. Responsible for faster athletic recovery, lean body mass and good mood, Growth Hormone is released from the pituitary (2) during Deep Sleep. So are LH and FSH, triggering hormones for testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and fertility. While some “good” hormones get released, stress hormones like Cortisol get suppressed during Deep Sleep (3). Said differently, insomnia and lack of Deep Sleep in particular will raise daytime Cortisol levels which, among other things, lowers Immunity. Deep Sleep is important for the release of hormones, which control everything in our bodies including sex drive, glucose levels, appetite, weight, energy and immunity. Don’t get enough Deep Sleep? You’ll be more likely to lose interest in sex, gain weight, get sick a lot. No one wants that! Given how important this sound you would think most of us would track sleep more diligently than counting the Calories and grams of carbs in our food.
4. Awake Time: 1 hour, 1 min.
Awakenings are pretty common and most of the time we don’t remember them. If you are spending a long time awake every night however, or if your monitor tells you that you’re waking up many more times than the average person, then it may be time to talk to your doctor and ask for an official sleep study. Sleep studies can even be done inside your own home now, in the comfort of your own bed so no more excuses! Definitely call your doctor if you:
- aren’t getting deep sleep
- have excessive daytime somnolence
- wake up gasping for air
- have difficulty staying awake while driving
Who Should Track Sleep?
Everyone! But as I stated above, if you’re already aware that you get poor sleep, you should look into the actual cause immediately. Sleep Apnea for example is an extremely dangerous, yet very treatable, condition which is on the rise in the US. Air flow in and out of the lungs gets obstructed causing low tissue oxygen conditions (hypoxia) and frequent interruptions of sleep with awakenings which prevent the achievement of Deep Sleep. This causes massive whole body inflammation, disrupting hormonal balance and increasing one’s risk of sudden death by up to 300%. Tracking the specifics of the “type” of sleep you get might be your first and only clue that you even have this issue and can lead you to take the first step toward correcting it.
Try this for fun first…then you can get competitive
Not only is it important to track sleep because of how dramatically it can impact your life, but it is actually really fun to do. With the right monitor you could get you “hooked” on good sleep, finding yourself engaging in “competitive sleeping”. You’ll challenge yourself to get a better night’s rest, getting a higher score to beat your previous best “sleep performance”. Then once you get high scores, take the next challenge: string together a whole week of scores 85 and above. Pretty much ANY problem you are facing can’t stand up to the healing power of a good week of sleep.
Sleep monitors have come a long way and you don’t even have to wear most of them. They will break down your sleep into very detailed and useful information. This article discusses the best sleep monitors out there.
Ranked first is the Whithings “Aura” ($285 on Amazon) which will monitor your heart rate, respiration, motion, noise, heart rate and even wake you up with a pleasant blue light during the part of your sleep cycle that will make you feel most refreshed.
Planning For Better Sleep:
Here’s what I tell my patients, and anyone else who will listen, about what they need to do to get the best sleep:
- Invest in a sleep monitor: You can buy the “Aura” above (no affiliation) or you can buy the monitor I use ResMed S+ for $80 on Amazon (no affiliation)
Make your room as dark as possible. Even small amount of light can disrupt the ability of your pineal gland to secrete Melatonin, a key anti-oxidant, hormone regulator and REM Sleep promoter. Invest in a comfortable eyeshade $13.99 on Amazon (no affiliation) to block out all of the light around your eyes.
- Kill the noise: Wax Earplugs ($7.45 on Amazon) or Silicone Earplugs ($13.99 on Amazon) (no affiliation for either). These are far better at blocking out sound than the foam ones but you’ll still be able to hear your alarm in the morning.
- Go to sleep early: Deep Sleep is primarily available in the early part of the night, in the time period of 9 PM-12 AM. Don’t be a night owl…If you miss this period your hormones and immunity will likely suffer.
- Turn off High Frequency devices: Falling asleep is about brain waves getting slower. Computer screens, TV’s and cell phones have screens which generate high frequency signals and are excitatory to your brain, thus interfering with your ability to slow down and fall asleep
- Keep the temperature in the bedroom down : 68-70 Degrees Fahrenheit has been shown will get you the best sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and chocolate (stimulants) in the afternoon and evening.
- Finish eating and exercise at a minimum 2-3 hours before bedtime
- Work out with heavy weights early in the day to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Get exposure to a few minutes of bright sunshine or daylight early in the day or at lunch if possible. This helps adjust your circadian rhythm, keeps you awake during the day and helps you fall asleep at night.
Starting with these steps should help you get a head start on your journey to better sleep! I’ll have more advice coming soon on “sleep hacks”. Stay tuned.
- REM sleep at it’s core 2015 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4448509/
- Growth Hormone Secretion During Sleep 1968 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC297368/
- Sleep and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary Axis 2002 – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12055986