I tracked my sleep obsessively for a year and consumed every piece of knowledge I could find on the topic. I summed up everything I learned in this article. Enjoy!
By the end of this article you will know 3 things:
- Why great sleepers have a competitive advantage when it comes to both, optimal mental & physical fitness and creating meaningful work for the world.
- What is stopping you from great sleep and what sleep deprivation is doing to your brain and body.
- How to become a great sleeper and ultimately leverage the skill to show up for people, projects, and causes you care about the most.
I want you to be able to show up for the things you care about in the most powerful way possible. Mastering sleep may be the most important and overlooked foundational skill of them all.
Let's get to it!
There does not seem to be one major organ within the body, or process within the brain, that isn’t optimally enhanced by sleep (and detrimentally impaired when we don’t get enough).
“Why We Sleep”, Dr. Matthew Walker
Section 1: What’s happening when we sleep and why is it a competitive advantage?
I think we can all agree that taking care of our mental health is a good thing. I’ll take it a step further. We should all be striving for optimal mental fitness. After all, any good you want to do for yourself or for others will come from that wonderful mind of yours.
Now, let’s talk about what’s going on in your brain when you sleep that gives you the tools to optimize your mental fitness. Dr. Matthew Walker, author of “Why We Sleep”, describes it quite elegantly. I’ll be referencing Dr. Mathew’s work in “Why We Sleep” often as his book was a large influence on this article. If this is a topic that interests you then go pick up his book — you won’t regret it.
Think of your brain an information processor with 3 core states:
- Wake State — Reception: Experiencing and learning from the world
- NREM Sleep State — Reflection: Storing and strengthening the raw ingredients of new facts and skills (Non-Rapid Eye Movement)
- REM Sleep State — Integration: Connecting these raw ingredients with each other, and, in doing so, building an ever more accurate model of how the world works, including innovative insights and problem-solving abilities (Rapid Eye Movement)
Think of NREM sleep as backing up your data into the cloud and REM sleep as uploading it to the internet.
Now here’s a wild fact — according to the CDC, 1 in 3 Americans don’t get enough sleep. And if Dr. Walker, someone who has studied sleep for over 20 years is correct, then even more people don’t get enough of the RIGHT sleep. Meaning, even if you get your full 8 hours, you could still be deficient in one of the sleep cycles mentioned above. This means at least 1 in 3 people are stunted when it comes to memory and creativity.
This is POWERFUL evidence that you will have a significant competitive advantage over your peers by simply optimizing for sleep quality.
Now let’s dig into REM Sleep a little bit further because its effect on your mental health and creativity is quite astounding.
‘‘Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”
REM Sleep & The Mysteries of this important Sleep Cycle
During REM Sleep your mind is as active as when you are awake. In fact, during REM, your brain is so active that it shuts off all motor functions so you won’t hurt yourself. Or your partner.
As you may have guessed, this is the state when you do your most dreaming. We still have a lot to learn about this sleep state but current research suggests it plays a very important role in both mental health and creativity.
REM and Mental Health:
In his research, Dr. Matthew Walker discovered that REM Sleep “offers a form overnight therapy”. Specifically, when studying human brains while they were REM-sleep dreaming he found that a certain stress chemical called noradrenaline was completely shut off. This is fascinating because it’s the only time our brains don’t contain this stress chemical. I’ll talk more about this stress chemical in the next section.
REM-sleep dreaming takes the painful sting out of difficult, even traumatic, emotional episodes you have experienced during the day, offering emotional resolution when you awake the next morning. — Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep
REM and Creativity:
Turns out testing the common theory that REM Sleep is associated with creativity is quite difficult. Nonetheless, Dr. Walker found a way to run an experiment.
Here’s how it went:
He took a group of people, woke them up during different times of the night and asked them to complete a simple puzzle. The subjects woken up during REM sleep completed up to 35% when compared with awakenings from NREM sleep. Even more astounding, the subjects woken up during REM sleep performed better than daytime waking subjects!
So what do you do to get optimal REM sleep? It’s more about what you shouldn’t do. I discuss this in more detail below.
Section 2: The Enemies of Sleep & What Sleep Deprivation is Doing to Your Brain
The Sleep Enemies
There are 4 main culprits of sleep. If you are a parent then there are 5.
- Stress Hormones
- LED lights
The first one and most tricky enemy to defeat are the stress hormones (primarily cortisol and epinephrine). They are tricky because humans evolved to produce these hormones when dealing with short term emergencies such as running from a lion in the wilderness. In the 21st century with mobile phones and social media, it’s produced more frequently and causing all sorts of problems, one of them being insomnia.
Luckily there are some nutrients that calm the brain from an excess of these stress-related hormones (discussed in section 3)
If you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it’s either over with or you’re over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses — but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically.
“Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” — Robert M. Sapolsky
The next disrupter is alcohol. While it might help you fall asleep it’s also responsible for brief awakenings throughout the night (even if you don’t remember). Alcohol also destroys your REM sleep cycle. Remember, the sleep cycle responsible for mental health and creativity. It’s a total bummer, I like to enjoy a glass of wine or 2 a night also but even a small amount can hurt your precious REM.
Here is a snapshot of my sleep on a night with no alcohol vs a night with only 2 glasses of wine.
Alcohol is one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep that we know of. When the body metabolizes alcohol it produces a by-product chemical called aldehydes. The aldehydes block the brain’s ability to generate REM sleep.
“Why We Sleep” — Dr. Matthew Walker
“But I can have a cup of coffee at night and sleep fine” — chronically deprived sleeper
Introducing adenosine — the chemical that builds up in your brain every waking moment. Dr. Walker calls it Sleep Pressure. When you are awake for 16 or more hours, there is a lot of adenosine build up and therefore you have strong Sleep Pressure.
Caffeine works by blocking the receptor in your brain that produces adenosine and therefore makes you feel awake. This is also the reason for the “caffeine crash”. The chemical is still produced after caffeine consumption, it’s simply blocked from the receptor, so when the affect wears off, all the adenosine rushes into the brain at once causing a crash.
Let’s talk about Caffeine’s half-life (the term referring to the length of time it takes the body to remove 50% of a drugs concentration). Caffeine’s half-life is 5 -7 hours. So if you have a cup off coffee during the 3pm slump, only 50% of it is out of your system by 10pm.
Finally, we have LED lights. Specifically blue light, a wavelength of light that shows up in most screens. All animals have a biological clock called the circadian rhythm and when exposed to lights at night time it disrupts our clock. Hence the night mode on mobile phones and blue light blocker trend you may have seen. I throw on my blue light blockers every day after 2 pm. The 2 determining factors of wake and sleep are the circadian rhythm and sleep pressure discussed above. So if you want optimal sleep, avoid LEDs & Caffeine in the afternoon.
Now lets talk about what sleep deprivation is doing to both your physical and mental fitness.
Based on epidemiological studies of average sleep time, millions of individuals unwittingly spend years of their life in a sub-optimal state of psychological and physiological functioning, never maximizing their potential of mind or body due to their blind persistence in sleeping too little.
“Why We Sleep” — Dr. Matthew Walker
We have all felt the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain and for the most part, are well aware of the consequences, so I’m going to focus on some alarming things it’s doing to your body.
Below I summarize a variety of studies you can find in “Why We Sleep” by Dr. Mathew Walker regarding the effects sleep loss has on our cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune systems.
Cardiovascular System: There is irrefutable evidence that unhealthy sleep leads to an unhealthy heart
Case 1: This study tracked more than 500,000 people across a variety of ages, races, and ethnicities and found shorter sleep was associated with a 45 percent increase in developing coronary heart disease.
Case 2: One night of sleep reduction of just 1–2 hours in healthy young adults results in a significant increase in blood pressure.
Case 3 (This one is scary): Daylight savings. Once a year in the spring we all loose 1 hour of sleep and every year there is a huge spike in heart attacks the following day. Adversely, in the fall when we gain an hour of sleep, the number of heart attacks plummet the following day.
Metabolism: Sleep loss can lead to obesity and digestive problems
Case 1: Quite simply, the hormones controlling appetite called leptin (full signal) and ghrelin (hunger signal) are triggered adversely with sleep loss. This can cause you to either be extra hungry or lose your ability to signal the “full” feeling temporarily.
Case 2: Screwing with your gut. Sleep loss causes a fight or flight response in your nervous system, this trigger something called cortisol (another stress hormone like epinephrine discussed earlier). Increased cortisol causes bad bacteria to gather in your gut. Bad bacteria in your gut prevents you from absorbing food correctly and can cause gastrointestinal problems. Hence the recent Kombucha craze & probiotic craze to stimulate healthy bacteria growth in the gut.
Immune System: Sleep more to fight illness
Case 1: This study gave the flu shot to two groups. Group 1 was restricted to 4 hours of sleep for the six nights leading up to the shot and group 2 was allowed 8 hours each night. Not surprisingly, the sleep-deprived group produced less than 50% of the immune response to the flu shot when compared to the well-rested group.
Myth debunk — You can’t “catch up” on sleep after it’s already lost. ” Even if an individual is allowed two or even three weeks of recovery sleep to get over the assault of one week of short sleeping, they never go on to develop a full immune reaction to the flu shot.” — Dr. Mathew Walker
Case 2: There is a certain set of immune cells that are particularly important in fighting off cancerous tumor cells. One study done by Dr. Michael Irwin at UCLA found that a SINGLE night of 4 hours of sleep swept away 70% of the natural killer cells relative to an 8 hours sleep. Yep. This one really got me. I’m now in bed by 9:30 EVERY DAY. Good night.
I know, this was a lot to digest. But I had to hammer down the why before moving to the how. To sum it up. Superior sleep will not only give you a mental advantage but will also provide you with a better functioning body than your peers who are sleep deprived.
“He who has a why to Sleep can bear almost any how.”
I replaced “live” with “sleep” for effect here.
Section 3: Mastering sleep as a skill
While this skill is more about what not to do, subtraction versus addition or Via negativa, there are a few things you can add to your life to improve your sleep. Let’s talk about nutrients first.
Foods That Help You Sleep & When to supplement
The main things you want to include in your diet to encourage healthy sleep are things that 1) manage the effect of stress neurotransmitters like epinephrine and cortisol and 2) help you naturally produce key hormones for sleep like melatonin.
For this, we are going to use a tweet from one of my favorite authors on optimizing your mind and body, Dr. Mark Hyman. If you don’t know him yet, and optimizing your overall health is important to you then you should go check him out.
Some of my favorite supplements for sleep include:
— Mark Hyman, M.D. (@drmarkhyman) November 13, 2019
Cortisol Manager: Cortisol is one of the stress hormones we talked about. A cortisol manager is typically a cocktail containing Magnolia Bark and L-Theanine that helps you reduce the amount of cortisol in your body.
Melatonin: This one comes with a CAVEAT. Taking to much supplemental Melatonin can mess with your circadian rhythms so I’d recommend something like L-Tryptophan which is an amino acid that our bodies naturally convert into melatonin. Our bodies can’t produce this one on its own so it must be supplemented.
GABA: This is a nutrient that calms the brain from too much of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. When you have low levels of GABA it’s harder for your boy to relax after releasing these stress neurotransmitters. So this one is good to supplement as well.
Magnesium: This one is actually a mineral and it turns out lots of us are deficient. Here is Dr. Mark Hyman on it below:
In fact, in my practice, this nutrient is one of my secret weapons against illness. Yet up to half of Americans are deficient in this nutrient and don’t know it. Think of magnesium as the relaxation mineral. Anything that is tight, irritable, crampy, and stiff — whether it is a body part or an even a mood — is a sign of magnesium deficiency.
Dr. Mark Hyman
L-Theanine: Probably my favorite on the list. Aside from its sleep benefits, it’s also used in a lot of nootropics (supplements that improve cognitive function). L-Theanine lowers blood pressure, releases GABA, the neurotransmitter we talked about above, and levels out the hormone response of caffeine. It’s also found naturally in Matcha, my favorite source of caffeine.
After pouring over sleep supplements I found one that had all of these and did not contain melatonin (remember, I don’t like melatonin because it screws with my circadian rhythm and wakes me up in the middle of the night.
Back to Via Negativa (things to avoid to improve sleep)
I have already talked your ear off with facts so I’ll get straight to the point with these:
- Stay away from caffeine after 12pm.
- Don’t consume alcohol nightly.
- Don’t consume any solid food 3 hours before bedtime (this can cause the release of cortisol–the stress hormone we talked about.
- Avoid LED lights in the evening (or purchase a pair of blue light blockers)
Thank you so much for making it this far! I genuinely believe that focusing on sleep quality is one of the most important long term investments you can make on improving your mental and physical health. Now go get some sleep :)