The benefits of optimizing sleep are legion—everything from more time awake and alert to higher creativity, better concentration, memory, learning ability, productivity, and problem solving. Proper sleep also promotes a youthful glow and razor sharp focus; alleviates cognitive decline; offsets stress-induced premature aging and boosts immunity. It even makes you appear younger!


How much sleep is enough?

A large experiment tracking the health trends of thousands of people over many years discovered that consistently sleeping only 6 or 7 hours per night leads to an earlier death. A smaller 3-year study indicates that sleeping 5 hours for just 1 week leads to excessive insulin resistance which raises your risk for diabetes. Needless to say, most adults need at least 8 hours of quality sleep each night.



Many people find that their sleep need decreases with age and is typically 7-9 hours for adults in their 20s, 6-8 hours for those in their 30s, 5-7 hours when they reach 40, and 4.5-6 hours when they hit 60+. This may be due to changes in the central nervous system’s ability to stimulate serotonin production after sunset—a vital neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood, appetite, and sleep cycles. Hypothalamic aging (the decline of neurons in your hypothalamus) also makes it more difficult to transition from wakefulness into deeper stages of slow wave sleep (SWS). A good rule of thumb: if you’re still awake after 10 pm without an apparent trigger for insomnia, increase your sleep need by 1 hour (i.e. if you normally get 7 hours, aim for 8).


Prescription sleeping pills are usually unnecessary and can lead to serious health consequences. The only time they’re appropriate is when there’s a substantial risk for injury and performance impairment in the absence of rest (e.g. staying awake 18 hours straight after an all-nighter studying for exams).


Sunlight and sleep: what is the connection?

Minimum exposure to sunlight should be about 20 minutes per day with eyes wide open in order to keep cortisol in check—the hormone that helps you wake up and stay alert but also causes belly weight gain, depression, immune suppression, metabolic syndrome, and inflammation; suppresses sex hormones; weakens bones; and increases the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.


It’s better to get your sunlight exposure during daylight hours because UVB wavelengths are largely blocked by glass (i.e. 60% of them don’t pass through a window). Research has shown that this “open eye” approach is capable of boosting serotonin up to 250% within 15 minutes—a neurotransmitter involved in regulating sleep quality and learning ability!



How do you optimize the sleeping process?


Step 1: Create an ideal sleep environment

Exposure to noise, light, excessive temperature fluctuations, or air pollution can all keep you awake at night. To ensure a good night’s rest without side effects it’s important to eliminate these factors completely from your bedroom. Your sleep environment should also be free of all electronics—including cell phones and computers, because the LED lights emitted from their screens can trick your brain into thinking it’s still daylight even when you’ve closed your eyes.


Ideally, your room will have a temperature that allows for comfortable nakedness without blankets or heavier clothing but most people need to wear a t-shirt or extra layer if they live in colder climates. Ideally, it’ll have airflow (i.e. no wall air conditioners), yellow lighting devices like incandescent bulbs or regular light bulbs at eye level (no more than 2 feet away) and nothing else in there except for comfortable furniture for sitting (no TV). If you have problems falling asleep using these guidelines, light therapy may help.


Step 2. Make sure you’re getting enough quality, low intensity sunlight exposure each day

Sunlight is critical for circadian entrainment (i.e. to make your sleep and wake cycle align with the 24-hour solar clock). Most people get too little—and this can lead to a host of disorders like depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, chronic stress, insomnia, and accelerated aging. UVA blue light is helpful because it suppresses melatonin production (a hormone that helps you fall asleep) but some experts recommend avoiding it until about mid afternoon because UVB wavelengths can increase skin cancer risk when sunlight hits your bare skin directly.


Step 3: Create an ideal eating environment for sleep

A short-term sleep deprivation study on mice revealed that their brains release the pleasure chemical dopamine (which is released during pleasurable activities like eating, sex, and drug use) to compensate for the stress of being awake. This was demonstrated by measuring levels of extracellular dopamine in the rodents’ prefrontal cortex—the area associated with motivation, movement, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. More evidence that food can be addictive! Science shows that this type of stimulation has a similar effect on your brain as cocaine. It’s important to note, however, these effects are temporary because there isn’t enough glucose or fat available to fuel them in the long term.


Sleep detoxifies our body

Good sleep also involves cognitive cleanup—whereby your brain removes waste by-products related to neural activity from the previous day (like proteins and neurotransmitters)—and this doesn’t happen while you’re awake! Sleep is also important for memory consolidation which leads to longer-term storage of new information in your hippocampus. Brain imaging reveals that when we are asleep our brains shift into hyperdrive to effectively encode recently learned information. This includes visualizing images, using semantic knowledge, making connections between related facts, and creating associative links between them. Too little sleep (or poor quality sleep) can result in a dramatic reduction in your ability to learn and this is reflected by changes in brain activity.




We also know that the food you eat before bed can have detrimental effects on memory consolidation, especially for people with metabolic syndrome. For example, eating a meal 3 hours before bed increases neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) while consuming one too close to sleeping time has been shown to impair it. Likewise, if you avoid heavy meals for at least 2 hours prior to sleeping the body has time to metabolize them with minimal interference. Additionally, insulin sensitivity decreases an hour or two after eating, so anything with sugar should be avoided at this time because it’ll rapidly spike blood sugar and insulin. This especially includes foods with a high glycemic index like sugary, starchy carbs (i.e. white bread, pasta).


Step 4: Manage stress levels for good sleep

This is probably the most important factor because we all deal with it on some level (daily or not), but you can alleviate much of the negative impact related to chronic stress by following these guidelines:


Take cold showers – this stimulates the autonomic fight-or-flight response in your brain, increases alertness, and reduces fatigue. To do this, stand under cold water for as long as you can handle it. This tactic is also useful if you need a quick power boost during the day.


Meditate or exercise – research demonstrates that mornings are the best times to perform these activities because exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety while stimulating BDNF, an important protein related to learning and memory. Additionally, morning workouts have been shown to improve cognitive performance. Exercise does not have to be strenuous; even moderate physical activity helps create a healthy hormone balance that helps regulate your body’s sleep cycle. Meditating a few minutes per day using either the thought-stopping technique or mantra-chanting helps clear negative thoughts from your mind—a common cause of poor sleep quality. Keep in mind that meditation should be practiced daily (even if only for 5 minutes), but never within 1 hour before bedtime.



Final thoughts: To improve sleep quality, the best thing you can do is implement a proper circadian rhythm (unless you have an underlying health issue, like untreated depression). For most people who are experiencing poor sleep it’s simply because they aren’t aware of how their daily habits affect hormone levels and our internal body clock which determines when we feel awake or tired. Understanding these factors gives us the power to override them and create better sleeping patterns that lead to improved cognition and optimal brain function throughout the day.


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