Sleep well and prosper


Photo taken by the author

“Think in the morning. Act in the noon. Eat in the evening. Sleep in the night.” – William Blake

I’ve always been a good sleeper. Particularly, a good awakener. I pride myself in morning productivity. I’m a morning runner, I like a good breakfast, and I’m rarely able to sleep past 10 a.m. on the weekends. Rise with the sun. It just seems natural.

Lately, things have changed. I’m struggling to get out of bed. The most obvious change has been my sudden reliance on my snooze alarm. In a span of two months, I’ve gone from a single 9-minute snooze to 5. It is affecting my exercise routine, hygiene, motivation, and productivity.

Apparently, I’m not the only one. Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep per night in order to function at full capability, but less than 70 percent of working Americans sleep more than 6 hours. Nine hours may seem excessive, but there are serious dangers of sleep deprivation.

  • For starters, under-sleeping makes you function like you’re drunk. According to a study conducted by the University of South Wales, if you stay awake for 17 hours, your body will operate as if it had a blood alcohol content of .05 percent. That number grows to .1 percent if you push it to 28 hours, which is above the legal limit to drive in most countries.
  • Second, the less you sleep, the less you remember. Researchers at the University of Zurich found that memory retention is directly correlated to how much time a person spends in REM sleep. A REM cycle lasts about 90 minutes, meaning we experience 5 REM cycles throughout 8 hours of sleep. Cut that down to 6 hours, and we lose 20 percent of our memory. 4 hours and 3 REM cycles mean our memory functions at 60 percent. This might explain why all-nighters in the library don’t necessarily result in high test scores.
  • Finally, sleep deprivation is linked to weight gain. When you sleep properly, you have more energy. Throughout the day, tired people will compensate for lack of energy by consuming more calories, according to a study by the University of Chicago. Calories do give our bodies a boost and are certainly necessary, but a good night’s sleep can help prevent overeating.


The Culprits 

Why my sudden languor? Experts have confirmed that snoozing is certainly a factor in morning lethargy, but there are several other culprits that weasel their way into our daily routines, and they might surprise you.

Light Pollution 

Spending long days in an office without natural light, watching TV and computer screens in the evening, and using your smart phone before bed can seriously disrupt your circadian rhythm, or sleep-wake cycle. Are you guilty of some of these bad habits?

Our brains regulate our sleep-wake cycle by producing melatonin when it’s dark. When our brains sense natural light, melatonin production fades, and we begin to wake up. This explains why black-out blinds make getting out of bed so difficult. Our melatonin levels are cranked to the maximum because our bodies think it’s still dark.

It also means that bright screens before bedtime are telling us to stay awake. Any light during dark hours holds off melatonin production, but the blue light emitted by phones, tablets, computers and TVs is especially disruptive. Even the red lights on a digital clock can disrupt melatonin production.

Get as much natural light as you can throughout the day, especially in the morning, say experts.

I spoke via email with Dr. Jeanne Duffy, neuroscientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She explained, “We don’t know exactly how much natural light we should get, but it is important to get as much bright light as possible in the morning; that’s an important time of day to get outdoor light exposure to keep our circadian rhythms in sync.”

So, try sipping your coffee outside, taking a morning jog, or eating breakfast by a sunny window. If you can walk to work, or for a part of your commute, do it.

Americans spend 87 percent of their time in buildings and 6 percent of their time in enclosed vehicles. “Studies of people who only get outdoor light exposure (no artificial light exposure) show they sleep longer and go to bed earlier than the same individuals who have access to artificial light,” said Dr. Duffy.

If you work in an office, take your breaks and lunches outdoors. If you can, move your desk close to a window and keep the curtains open. All of these little steps help you synchronize your body clock to the sun.

Food and Drink 

Yes, no surprise here. A recent study on diets and sleep patterns found that people who sleep less than 5 hours a night had the lowest dietary variety, drank the least water, and consumed the least lycopene, an important antioxidant in fruits and veggies. Normal sleepers had the most variety in their diet.

This sounds like good news for us voracious and adventurous eaters. However, certain foods and beverages before bedtime should be avoided for sound slumber:

  • Alcohol Yes, alcohol is a powerful somnogen, or sleep inducer. It makes you sleepy initially, but actually disrupts the circadian cycle. People are more likely to wake up in the middle of the night or the morning after a night of drinking. Pradeep Sahota, M.D and chair of Department of Neurology at the University of Missouri, says, “Alcohol disrupts sleep and the quality of sleep is diminished. Additionally, alcohol is a diuretic, which increases your need to go the bathroom and causes you to wake up earlier in the morning.”

Alcohol is also habit-forming, and 20 percent of American adults claim to drink alcohol in order to aid sleep. While it does help in falling asleep initially, alcohol is a depressant and slows down our REM cycles, so we experience fewer per night. Plus, if dependency is developed, we experience withdrawal symptoms when the substance leaves our system, about 3-4 hours after consumption, causing us to wake up.

  • Red meat Red meat takes a long time to digest, meaning our bodies stay up late breaking down those tough proteins. Meat with high fat content is even worse, so no more bedtime burgers. A recent study links saturated fats with lighter sleep and frequent sleep arousals. So, if you wind up dining late, go for a non-fatty protein like lean chicken, tofu, or yogurt.
  • Spicy foodCardamom, cayenne, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric are proven to raise our body temperature. Higher body temperature has been linked to poor sleep quality, so avoid these spices near bedtime. Spicy food can also cause heartburn, which makes falling asleep more difficult and uncomfortable. 
  • Chocolate – Particularly dark chocolate. While dark chocolate is more nutritious than milk chocolate, it contains high levels of caffeine. One square of 72 percent dark chocolate contains 22 mg of caffeine, which is equal to that found in half a cup of drip coffee. So, if you’ve got that late night craving, best opt for milk over dark.
  • Orange juice – Avoid orange juice and for that matter, anything acidic. Acidic foods trigger acid reflux, and they also affect the bladder. Your sleep will be interrupted by several trips to the bathroom. Plus, high sugar levels leave you feeling awake and energized.

Dr. Duffy underlined that when we eat is also important. “Our bodies anticipate events that occur regularly (like eating) and prepare ahead of time for it. When we eat at unexpected times (like during the night), our body is not ‘ready’ for it, and then can’t respond in the most efficient way.” This can lead to spikes in blood glucose and eventually type 2 diabetes.

“Sleeper snacks”

So, we shouldn’t eat in the middle of the night, and we’ve all been lectured about eating too close to bedtime. However, there are some “sleeper snacks” that actually help us fall asleep.

  • Complex carbs – Items like whole grain cereal, whole wheat bread, popcorn (no butter), and non-acidic fruit are rich in complex carbs and low in sugar. They help to prevent spikes and crashes in blood sugar, which can cause sleep arousal and cravings.
  • Tryptophan This sleep-inducing amino acid is most famously found in turkey. It is also plentiful in bananas, milk, yogurt, almonds, sunflower seeds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, eggs, cottage cheese, chickpeas and buckwheat.
  • Potassium – Potassium is an important muscle relaxer found in bananas, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms. These three are also great sources of complex carbs.
  • Melatonin – What the list of foods that contain melatonin lacks in length it packs in flavor: cherries, orange bell peppers, walnuts, raspberries, and goji berries.

The Snooze 

There have been no clinical studies conducted on snoozing, but I spoke via email with three sleep studies experts, and they all agreed: the best practice is to toss the alarm clock and wake up naturally.

Dr. Mary A. Carskadon, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, explained what happens to our bodies when we hear our morning alarm. “If we’ve been asleep, the alarm will trigger an arousal response, similar to the ‘fight or flight.’  If we set the alarm for a time when we’d be likely to awake naturally, the effect will be smaller because our body has a natural process that sets us up for waking.  For example, our cortisol levels are already rising before we wake naturally.  If we set the alarm for an early time relative to our body clock, this arousal response will feel more intense.”

I’ve fallen into a vicious snoozing cycle, actually setting my alarm an hour before I need to get up in order to enjoy those five luscious snoozes. Why does it feel so good?

Dr. Carskadon posited several theories. “You actually need more sleep; it feels warm and cozy in your bed, and it’s chilly outside; you have worries and concerns coming up that you’d rather not confront just yet… just a few more moments of peace, please.”

While snoozing has not yet been clinically studied, I’m fairly confident I’m not alone. In surveying friends, relatives and coworkers, I found that the majority of people under 30 regularly use the snooze button to varying degrees.

Dr. Duffy warns against snoozing. “You should not set your alarm early if you know you will only use the snooze. Better to set your alarm at the point when you really mean to get up. The snooze button interrupts the normal process of sleep, which is dynamic, and you’re also spending less time sleeping because you wake, hit the button, and then fall back asleep.  We know from research studies that interruptions during sleep disrupt the ‘flow’ or normal progression of sleep and can lead to feeling less refreshed in the morning.”

“The healthiest practice is to go to bed and wake at the same time every night (even on weekends) and allow yourself sufficient sleep every night. Regularity of sleep timing and duration, and sufficient duration, are very important for sleep health,” Duffy writes. Carskadon agrees, adding that a healthy breakfast, physical activity, and a positive attitude are also necessary.

If you’re like me and aren’t ready to commit to a 7-day stabilized sleep-wake cycle, avoid that snooze button. If you need an alarm, it means you aren’t getting enough sleep. Maximize the time you have by setting your alarm for the time you actually need to get up. Then, follow through. No snoozing.


Take the Challenge

With the goal to reclaim my former productivity, I’ve decided to make 3 changes:

  • Set my alarm for the time I actually need to wake up. Then, do it.
  • Turn off all screens 30 minutes before I want to sleep. I will charge my phone far from my bed to resist temptation to check emails, texts and the time. Plus, I will physically have to get up to turn off the alarm in the morning.
  • Choose sleeper snacks like cherries, milk, yogurt, and whole-grain cereals over dark chocolate, wine, anything acidic, fatty, and protein-packed.

Want to join me? Take the challenge and let me know your progress in the comments section. I’ll publish a follow-up article next month including my personal results, along with your feedback.