Here is a topic near and dear to my heart, an important facet of health that I’ve been working on as much as my diet and exercise.
The single most important aspect of your training development outside of the actual exercise is your ability to get good sleep. Even the important factor of your diet serves in large part your ability to effectively sleep, and its positive effects on your health will be limited if you aren’t sleeping well.
Over 1/3 of U.S. residents surveyed report they don’t get at least 7 hours sleep, and it’s no surprise nearly 40% report some sort of sleep disorder. While some may try to pinpoint the cause to some sort of disorder, the reality is that our choices play a substantial role in how much sleep we get or don’t get.
Unless you’re caring for a newborn child (during that period, they’re often going to wake up overnight and there’s little you can do about that), those choices were to a substantial degree probably avoidable. Even being compelled to keep a complicated, troublesome schedule due to career or family concerns is to some degree a preventable product of life choices. We often choose other priorities over sleep and don’t realize what a mistake that is.
But I digress, and that’s a whole other topic. Barring such extenuating circumstances, most people have ample opportunity to get good sleep every night, and they just don’t. And they may not be fully aware of what else they do aside from just staying awake to deny themselves of that opportunity to sleep….
Obviously being a wired internet society has played some substantial role in our actively avoiding sleep. We have digital devices all over the home. We bring our phones or laptops to bed or have a TV in the room and turn it on, etc.
Most of you are well aware of the advice not to do that, and acting on that advice remains your prerogative just as not acting on it remains your risk. Needless to say, if you’re having trouble getting sleep and you’re doing any of the above, it would be a good idea to stop now.
Let’s get out of the way the usual, obvious advice that you’ve read or received elsewhere:
- Don’t consume caffeine after 12:00 noon.
- Try not to consume too much caffeine in general. 2-3 cups of coffee maximum.
- Cut yourself off from digital devices before bed.
- Kepe digital devices away from your bed and sleeping area.
- At bedtime, shut off as many devices and lights as you can.
- If you can’t turn it off, put your mobile phone on vibrate. Disable as many notifications as you can.
- Keep the room a bit cool, 65-70°F, around 20°C.
- Leave your work at work.
- Decide before bed you will address any of your other problems in the morning.
If you aren’t doing any of that and can do any of that, you can start by attempting the above.
However, there are several other things you can do to table-set your ability to sleep better, and go figure a lot of them involve your fitness, your diet, and a couple of other little things you probably never considered.
Make sure you exercise today.
A body’s elevated cortisol and insulin levels are often due to your body not getting any exercise. All those nutrients you consumed were never utilized. They’re floating in your bloodstream and keeping you awake. Why did you even bother drinking that cup of coffee if all you were going to do today was sit?
My body’s relationship between not getting any physical exercise and having trouble getting to or staying asleep isn’t exactly 1 to 1 but it’s kind of close. Even recently, after having taken a week off from training or exercise, I find myself waking up too early, around 3-4am.
Waking up overnight like this doesn’t happen because you have to pee, as most think. It’s actually a result of a buildup of cortisol in your bloodstream while you sleep. In my case, all that cortisol in my bloodstream had nowhere to go over the last few days, and now I’ve got enough of it in my system to wake me up too early. I should have gone for a run! (I have since fixed this recent lack of exercise problem)
I imagine a lot of people who have sleep problems aren’t getting much exercise. If they even just went for a 30 minute walk, let alone anything else from strength training to running or cycling, they could clear some of that stress hormone and insulin from their bloodstream, and their sleep that night might be a bit better.
If you tend to go to bed stressed, consider exercising after work
Again, cortisol buildup causes sleep problems. If you go to bed stressed, assuming you even drift off to sleep, your cortisol levels will get so high you likely will wake up during the night, or at best the quality of your sleep that night won’t be so great and you’ll feel it in the morning.
Cortisol and insulin are put to use when exercising. If you get to the end of a stressful workday, it may be a good idea to get in some exercise and help burn some of that out of your bloodstream.
Yes, exercise can produce its own cortisol, and that could defeat the purpose. But the better your exercise feels during or after, the less cortisol you will have sitting in your bloodstream afterward. So don’t go crazy on this workout, unless you know doing so will leave you feel endorphin-great afterward and that this will help you rest later.
More than likely, all you need to do is something steady and easy for at least 30 minutes. Strength training could work if you prefix your workout with some brief warm-up cardio.
Eat 2-3 magnesium rich foods today.
Among its other benefits, magnesium is essential to effective sleep. I posit it’s a hidden key reason many people don’t sleep well, as it plays a key role in regulating your circadian sleep patterns.
And most people don’t get anywhere close to enough magnesium (the RDA is 400mg a day). It is a nutrient you have to go a bit out of your way to get into your diet.
While I encourage you to take a Calcium-Magnesium supplement (as calcium along with its value to healthy bones is essential to utilizing magnesium), and I encourage you to take a chelate or citrate variety thereof… you honestly should get as much magnesius as you can from food, and while many healthy foods provide a token amount of magnesium, there are a handful of key foods that can give you a good portion thereof. Here are some I recommend:
- Brown rice. I actually get the majority of my magnesium from brown rice, as the 3 cooked cup serving I typically put down during weekday lunches contains about 250mg alone. You don’t need that much, but even 1 cooked cup gives you close to 85mg. Most foods with magnesium don’t give you more than 30-40. Brown rice is a great way to get a lot of magnesium very quickly. Other whole-germ varieties of rice offer similar benefit, but brown rice is the most readily available. White rice is not beneficial here because the refinery process strips away most of the magnesium.
- Almonds. Nuts do have a good quantity of magnesium, but like brown rice almonds are more readily available than other varieties, and they give you a decent quantity of magensium and other key nutrients (like Vitamin E and the similarly named but quite different Manganese). 12 almonds, by no means a full serving, have 40mg of magnesium. Eat a handful or serving of almonds and you’ll probably get 20-25% of your RDA of magnesium from that alone.
- Bananas. One banana will give you about 35-40mg of magnesium. Plus, as I’ll discuss later, it’s rich in the potassium you also need. It is a sugary fruit so I suggest you not eat it before bed, though obviously it’ll be of great use to you before, after or even during exercise.
Other healthy foods will provide a bit of magnesium here and there. But the three I mention above will get you a good way towards the 400mg you need. If you’re crazy like me and eat 2-3 cups of brown rice, you’ll probably get most of what you need for the day from that alone.
Eat 2-3 potassium rich foods per day.
Potassium is not just key to regulating your body’s electrolyte content, but it also plays a role in your body’s ability to sleep. If your potassium levels are low, your bloodstream gets out of whack and here comes all that cortisol that’s going to either keep you awake or wake you up overnight when you don’t need to wake up.
The RDA on potassium is actually 4500mg, and most people don’t even get 2000mg. Most processed food is devoid of the potassium its original form had, and that’s the staple of most people’s ill-advised diets. Even 3000mg would be enough for most people, but most won’t even get that much.
However, whereas magnesium is a bit hard to compile from diet without some work, many whole foods will give you a healthy dose of potassium. Most meats and pretty much any vegetable on Earth are somewhat rich in potassium, giving you a few hundred milligrams per serving. You could just eat a clean maintenance diet rich in meat, fruit, and vegetables, and probably get close to the potassium you need.
However, our diets contain a lot of grains, dairy and other stuff that isn’t potassium rich. So it’s probably a good idea to add a couple of potassium-motherlode foods that will give you a whole bunch in a serving:
- Bananas. I discussed them above. One will give you about 400-425mg depending on size. I usually eat two.
- Avocados. The fatty fruit that guacamole comes from is not cheap compared to other produce, and eating it is a bit cumbersome. But one avocado will give you 950-1000mg of potassium. If you’re worried despite your better efforts that you’re falling short on potassium, there’s a good chance one avocado will immediately fix that.
- Potatoes. This catch-all starch is rich in potassium, and in general is one of the most comprehensive vitamin-rich foods you can eat. If I need to give a vegan any diet advice, the first thing I recommend to them is they eat a lot of potatoes. One small 2-3 inch yellow potato gives you close to 500mg potassium. But most who eat potatoes don’t just eat one that small. I can put down about a pound of potatoes in a sitting, and that much provides over 1800mg by itself. Most people don’t get 1800mg of potassium in a day, even if they eat processed potato products (which as mention have lost much of their potassium while adding a bunch of toxic garbage).
Eating a single serving of those three foods will probably get you half your needed potassium alone, and a clean whole food diet with it will combine to give you more than enough potassium to get you to 4500mg no problem.
Eat a protein rich diet, every day.
During sleep, your body rebuilds. Your body needs protein and its amino acids to rebuild. If you run out of amino acids while sleeping, your body is going to cease that rebuilding, and in all likelihood build up enough cortisol and insulin to wake you up too early.
Even if it doesn’t, you may wake up tired, sore, having gained little benefit from sleeping, thanks to the lack of available amino acids and protein to help rebuild your body while you slept.
You should consume at least 1g of protein per day for every pound of lean body mass (weight minus body fat) you’re carrying. The more active you are and the harder you’re training, the closer your daily protein need is to 1g per pound of bodyweight or more.
Sleep is not just where your recover, but it’s where your body rebuilds. And your can’t effectively rebuild and recover without adequate protein, which is a much higher amount than most medical experts will tell you. It will negatively affect your sleep if you don’t eat enough protein.
Make a point to drink water during the day, but stop 1-2 hours before bed
Sure, many people don’t get enough water, but I posit most people reading this probably do get plenty of water. Yes, blood viscocity can thicken without adequate water intake, and that could affect your heart rate and in turn your cortisol levels and your sleep. Yes, you should make sure to drink 8+ cups of water per day if you’re actively training.
However, though I mentioned it’s often cortisol and not the need to pee that wakes you up during the night, the need to pee does interfere with your ability to relax and sleep, as well as your ability to stay asleep. So you don’t want to drink much water before bed, as it may pass straight through you and you’ll need to pee once you’re in bed.
Get all your day’s water in before you finish dinner. Eliminate the possibility of being thristy when it’s bedtime, so you’re not putting yourself in a position to fill your bladder around bedtime. Personally, I drink 8oz water in the morning, 17oz from a bottle throughout the workday, and the other 30-50oz (depending on need) between the end of work and the end of dinner. I usually drink a good portion of that water around and with dinner.
A cup of water to wash down vitamins at the end of the day is fine, but leave it at that.
At some point later in the day, get into and out of cold conditions
Your body responds to rather cold conditions (a cold shower, stepping outside into extreme cold) with a sense of shock. After it comes down, the relative feeling of normalcy produces an uncanny relaxation in the body. This is probably why I tended to sleep better during the winter in Chicago. I would run at night, in those extreme cold conditions. The initial shock would give way to the warmth of exercise. But then that night in most cases I would sleep a full night with minimal interruptions.
A cold shower at night is definitely worth a shot if you find you struggle to sleep and you don’t plan to step outside into cold weather. I’ve found a cold shower does work well in relaxing sleep that night, but I had so much easy exposure to cold outdoor weather in Chicago winter that there was no need to bother with cold showers. Obviously, in summer, the cold shower is going to be your only option.
Note also that this doesn’t necessarily work if you subsequently go to bed in cold conditions. If your cover isn’t sufficient to keep you warm, your body will just tense up to try and warm up, and you won’t relax enough to get to sleep. The key to this tip is to get cold, then get out of the cold, and then go to bed in more normal conditions. Your body will relax in kind in the warmer conditions, and you’ll sleep soundly.
Note also that this doesn’t apply if your cold exposure is early in the day, like a morning cold shower or a run in the morning cold. So much time will pass afterward that by bedtime the exposure will be a distant memory to your biology, likely as if it never happened. It’s got to be closer to bedtime for the effect to be felt.
Eat a big nutritious dinner and don’t go to bed hungry.
I’ve talked before about going to bed hungry and waking up hungry being common culprits to insomnia and sleep deprivation. I won’t rehash those arguments. Eat a big enough dinner that you’re not hungry at bedtime. The only way you’re getting to sleep and staying asleep if you’re hungry is if you’re so beaten and tired that you don’t even have the energy to eat.
Eat about an hour or two before bed, because as mentioned you likely will drink some water around dinner, and you want to sort out your bathroom needs before you go to bed.
Given that, make sure dinner is big enough that you won’t be hungry in a couple hours, that it’s not even a consideration.
Such a dinner typically is rich in protein, healthy fat and thick starchy carbs. Vegetables are of course fine, but I find when all the carbs are vegetables they digest quickly and you do go to bed hungry. Don’t belive the hype about carbs at dinner making you fat. That’s only true if you don’t exercise much, or you eat garbage.
One key note: If you intermittent fast, I would avoid saving all your needed calories for the day for this final dinner, unless you know you can put down 2000+ calories and absolutely stuff yourself. You’re probably not going to eat everything you need, most likely, and there’s a good chance you wake up hungry during the night.
If you’re going to do the Warrior Diet, make sure you’re not eating less than 2000 calories (many who do the diet under-eat), and I would make the one meal a longer meal that starts early in the evening and is basically you going back for seconds and thirds over the course of a couple hours… like a Thanksgiving meal. Don’t try to pound it all in one sitting. You probably won’t.
If you must leave your phone on at night, don’t sleep between your phone and your wi-fi router.
Hidden secret: EMF signals from digital devices can interfere with your sleep. Even if they don’t wake you up, they can inhibit the deep and REM sleep needed for max recovery. Though I could posit that the rise of mobile technology and 5G have produced a legion of unknown sleep and resulting health problems, that’s a digression I have no time for right now.
There have been several times over the past years that I have been unable to sleep during the night, with the phone off and away from me… until I’ve unplugged my modem and wi-fi router, and then I’m able to pass out no problem.
I recommend you figure out where in your home your wi-fi router is relative to your bed, your nightstand, or anywhere else you might place your phone while sleeping. Make sure, if you were to draw a straight line between your phone and your router, that you’re not laying between them. The signal will go right through you, even if the phone isn’t actively being used. It likely will interfere with the quality of your sleep.
Put the phone somewhere where its signal path to the wi-fi router is away from you. Move the bedstand if you must, or put it on a chair or desk or something else.
Keep some Suntheanine and water near your bed in case you wake up
Yes, I said that you don’t want to drink any water at bed. However, if you do wake up during the night, you will likely need to pee and you probably should use the bathroom anyway if you do.
From this point, it won’t hurt you as much to drink a bit of water before you go back to sleep. However, the key reason for the water being there is to take some L-Theanine aka Suntheanine.
L-Theanine is an infreqeuntly available but still valuable amino acid that’s important for the utilization of magnesium. Your body produces some, but it could certainly use some more.
It also helps reduce stress, but that’s a secondary benefit of its main value: A safe and natural sleep aid. People who take Suntheanine at night often can drift off to sleep within half an hour, and it’s decent sleep. You can see where I’m going with this: If you wake up in the middle of the night, use the bathroom, and chase a dose of Suntheanine L-Theanine with some water before going back to bed. You’ll more likely drift back off to sleep instead of sitting awake.
I would not recommend taking Suntheanine every night before bed, not just because you don’t want to be dependent on the supplement, but because as I mentioned in my L-theanine piece it interferes with the absorption of other nutrients, and at that hour you’re still digesting dinner. In the middle of the night, however, you’re probably not digesting much of anything.
So, now, you know the obvious tips, and now have some useful less-obvious tips for improving your sleep. Get to work. And get to sleep.