This may seem like common sense, but considering the vast array of drugs people consume in their pursuit of a deep night of sleep—everything from Ambien to Benadryl to dirty martinis—my clinical strategy for assessing a patient’s sleep problem may sound absolutely radical. If you were to come to my booth at Paleo f(x)™ to ask me what I think about how (for example) you wake up at two in the morning and then spend the next four hours fighting yourself to get back to sleep, before I would even begin to offer a diagnosis to fix your sleep, I would rattle off a few basic lifestyle questions:
What’s your diet like?
Are you getting some exercise in the day?
How stressful is your life and how do you attempt to deal with that stress?
I’d also probably ask you about your nighttime habits, like whether or not you get under the covers and snag your phone one last time to check email or Facebook (by the way: don’t do that). I’d also ask if you have an alarm clock in your bedroom. If you tell me that you have one, and it’s one of those bright LED jobs with pulsating alert lights (there’s even one that shakes the bed) then I might personally watch over you as you order black-out curtains and swear to me that you will hand deliver all of your alarm clocks to electronics recycling at Staples.
The point here is that the quality of your sleep—which is vitally important to physical and emotional being, longevity, and cognition—is largely a function of how well you’re dialing in these key lifestyle factors.
If this is a new topic for you, I’d suggest you spend some time on the FAQ page of my website to get a basic education in what the scientific literature says about sleep, as well as an overview of my clinical approach to the subject.
Some of what I’ve learned came the hard way. Before I went to medical school, I was a Navy SEAL, with all of the sort of untamable, turbo-charged resolve that comes with being a SEAL. Not to mention an unusual threshold for pain. In medical school, I was determined to get more done in my life by restricting sleep to five hours a night, often less. This was how I justified cramming in training to be a triathlete into my schedule.
This is another thing I’m emphatically saying not to do.
To cut to the chase, this stratagem made medical school at least five times harder than it should have been. I recall forcing myself to read through medical textbooks Clockwork Orange-style, hours each day, dragging my eyes across the same sentence over and over because my ability to retain information was so thoroughly compromised. My health and performance levels plummeted to dangerously low levels.
I also have experience working with special operators in the military, the SEALs in particular, who face an extreme set of circumstances when it comes to sleep. Working in adrenaline-pumping situations at 0200 hours, night after night, is not anomalistic. It’s right there in bold on the job description. So as an MD with the mission of helping Navy SEALs deal with the physical ramifications of their work—and the science suggests that sleep deprivation is a contributing force when it comes to PTSD—we work to mitigate the situation in whatever way we can. Part of this strategy is nutrient-based; poor nutrition affects sleep, and lack of sleep will trigger cravings for sugar and junk food. It’s an unforgiving cycle.
The job of a special operator, and the culture that goes with it, can often lead to using drugs with the intent of flipping yourself awake and asleep like a light switch. The problems with this are many. Of particular significance is how sleep drugs—alcohol being on of them—fail to induce real sleep; rather they just knock you out, degenerating optimal sleep architecture by as much as 80%.
What I try to do for these guys is to help them optimize as many lifestyle factors as they can so they can mitigate the negatives affecting their sleep. This includes the Sleep Cocktail, a natural sleep supplement comprised of vitamins and nutrients designed to replenish specific deficiencies that may be interfering with the the induction of a sleep cycle. Another important step to help diminish the complications disrupting circadian rhythms is for the SEAL to learn a simple breathing or meditation technique so that he can both take advantage of a spare five minutes to alter brain waves from beta to alpha (even a few minutes can have a therapeutic benefit) and also to rev down to induce sleep as smoothly as possible.
These are simple things you can do as well. There probably isn’t an area of your life or biomarker on your next blood test that won’t show marked improvement by eradicating any sleep debt. Whether you’re a Navy SEAL in a war zone, a nurse working working a double-shift or parents with newborn, it all applies.
5 Tips to Improve Your Sleep
Think about some of the automatic routines of hygiene built into your day, like brushing and flossing your teeth, taking a shower, shaving, washing your hands. All habits that you don’t have to think about. This is what you want with sleep hygiene: to make it a habit, like all of these other forms of hygiene. Here are some general guidelines that will improve your ability to go to sleep, your ability to stay asleep, and the quality of your sleep.
1. Set Up Your Bedroom. Thomas Edison really screwed us when he finally figured out the light bulb. Human beings, like ever other living thing on planet Earth, takes cues from light. The circadian-rhythm controlling suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is sort of a master clock of our circadian rhythms. Located just above the optic chiasm in the hypothalamus, the SCN will trigger changes that charge you up for activity or start shutting you down for sleep, based on the blue light waves. So your first order of business when it comes to sleep hygiene is to make your bed room your room for two things: sleeping and sex. TV, email, even reading a book should be done in another room. Set up your room by blacking out the windows (every little crevice) and putting your alarm clock in a drawer so that when you turn out the lights, it is truly dark. This allows the SCN send the message to your brain and hormonal system that it’s time for sleep.
2. Ritualize Your Routine. Just like when little kids are put in a bedtime routine (take your bath, put on your pajamas, you read stories, etc.). Turn off the lights in the house, brush your teeth, put on your pajamas; do all of these things in successive order and THEN it is time to turn off the lights and go to sleep. Do this in the same order at the same time every night.
3. Add a Relaxation Technique. Adding a simple relaxation exercise—even just a few minutes of slow, deep breathing—is a nice addition to your sleep routine. Do some reserach on the benefits of meditation and find a practice that suits your needs. This will help you wind down and get yourself ready for sleep, and give a boost to the transition of your brain waves into the slower, synchronous waves of deep relaxation and ultimately sleep.
4. Supplement Intelligently. Some people see supplementation as a four-letter word, but when done appropriately, it can really work wonders. I worked with the SEALs on helping them to mitigate the difficulties of their work, which usually happened at night. It’s the kind of work that encourages a host of stress hormones being released into the body, making sleep that much harder. I wanted to create something that could safely deliver a deep, restful sleep, so that when they did have the opportunity to get some rest, they could induce it safely and healthfully. This is what lead to the development of the Sleep Cocktail. The cocktail is composed of a combination of nutrients including vitamin D3, magnesium, tryptophan and a small dose of melatonin, that was designed to replace bits and pieces that might be missing. Filling those nutritional needs helps allow the kind of restorative sleep they need to increase both their performance and recovery.
5. Don’t Forget to Put the Basics to Work. Eat well and restore nutrient levels, get some exercise, and put your new pattern of sleep hygiene into a consistent practice. Do all that and we’ll probably have to find something else to talk about other than troubled sleep at Paleo f(x)™.
For more information on Dr. Kirk Parsley and strategies to improve the quality of your sleep, visit his FAQ page on www.docparsley.com. For information about his nutritional supplements, visit www.sleepcocktails.com. Also be sure to watch his TED Talk on the subject of why sleep deprivation is America’s number one problem.