If you follow me on Social Media — you know I am constantly moving. From running and working out, to doing a PhD, to running a company, to hosting a podcast — there is never a dull moment.
The most COMMON question I get is:
How much do you sleep?
Before I answer that let’s talk about the science.
Sleep is a fascinating scientific topic. While a lot of advancements have been made in recent years, we are far from understanding everything. If you look at the primary literature you will find fascinating work in the field of sleep, memory, neuroscience, and dreaming.
When we sleep, we cycle through different stages of sleep categorized as REM (rapid eye movement) or NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep. I like to break it down into 6 major stages from being fully awake to fully asleep. Each stage has a characteristic electroencephalogram pattern associated with it. When sleep studies are preformed, participants are hooked up to an electrophysiological monitoring system that records electrical activity in the brain. Below are the 6 major stages and the associated electrical patterns.
1. Awake (alert/stimulated) — Beta Waves
2. Awake (relaxed/almost asleep) — Alpha Waves
3. NREM Stage 1 (light sleep) — Theta waves w/ alpha waves
4. NREM Stage 2 (sleep) — Theta waves w/ sleep spindles & K-complexes
5. NREM Stage 3 (Slow wave sleep) — Delta waves
6. REM (awake but asleep, dreams) — Low voltage, rapid Beta like waves.
As we age, however, some of our sleep patterns change. Studies have shown that older age adults go to bed earlier and wake up earlier, it takes them longer to fall asleep, they sleep less, they have an increased number of “wakings” throughout the night, they wake up easier, they have a reduced amount of NREM stage 3 sleep, increased amount of NREM stage 1 & 2 sleep, and shorter and fewer NREM-REM sleep cycles.
Taking care of our sleep patterns and building in a sleep routine is crucial for the quality of our sleep. If you look throughout the internet you will see all sorts of “sleep hygiene” articles. Instead of trying to discuss all of the “typical” sleep hygiene techniques like removing blue light, getting black out curtains, removing screens from the bedroom, etc. I want to discuss a few things that have helped me over the years. If you are looking for ways to improve your sleep hygiene and you want to learn more about the science — check out Arianna Huffington’s book: The Sleep Revolution.
I remember when I was young, I could never sleep. I would lay awake for hours and I only needed 3–5 hours a night to function at 100%. My sleep disparities persisted until after college.
As I approached medical school, I knew things had to change. I knew memory formation and long term memory retention are dependent on the length and quality of sleep. If I was going to study 15 hrs a day and remember everything I learned, I needed to figure out a way to sleep.
Fast forward 5 years –
I sleep between 6–7hrs a night.
Sure, it is not the recommended 7–8hrs, but I truly believe the quality of my sleep outweighs the time I spend asleep. That may not be the same for everyone.
I routinely fall asleep within 2minutes of laying my head down. By the time I go to bed, I fall asleep instantly. I do not wake up until morning and when I do, I always feel awake and energized.
How do I do it? Keep reading.
What is Overlooked
What is often overlooked is that we always want an immediate fix, a pill, or a solution to our sleep issues. I found that my sleep issues were centered around my own thoughts and my mind.
I bet you can relate to this; when my mind is racing and when I have things to think about — it seems like it is impossible to fall asleep. That use to be my main issue. I developed a technique that allowed me to quiet my mind and train myself to push my thoughts to the next day.
To get to sleep each night without fail I do these things about an hour before I go to bed, if you are having trouble sleeping, you should try this:
1. Write out what you accomplished today
This may seem daunting or useless, but once you get in a routine, it is easy to do. I actually do not write out what I do on a day-to-day basis, instead I use the schedule I made from the night before to cross off what I accomplished and what I got done that wasn’t on my list.
This should be quick, I typically do this throughout the day so by the time I get home, it is already done.
2. Write out how you can improve your productivity tomorrow
A lot of advocates of meditation call for thinking about these types of thoughts first thing in the morning. I find by doing it at night, I get the thoughts out of my head so I do not think about them when I try to go to sleep.
When we are young we are graded on our homework and we are constantly being evaluated. As adults, we are not evaluated on a day-to-day basis. This practice allows me to evaluate my productivity and work to improve each and every day.
3. Write out your schedule for tomorrow
This to me is the most important part. If you forget everything else do this!
About an hour before I go to bed, I write out my schedule for tomorrow and what I plan to accomplish. While it sounds menial, it frees my mind of all of the small things I have to do. It holds me accountable to achieve my goals and frees my mind from the clutter. It is so easy to get inside our own head and lay in bed thinking about everything we have to do. By simply writing it out the night before, we are able to free our mind from thinking about it.
For big ticket items or important things, my favorite practice is to put a specific time next to it. Maybe I have an important business call, important experiment, or I have to send a few emails, by writing out “Emails to X at 9am” or “DNA extraction after lunch”, I no longer have to think about the big-ticket items because I know they are taken care of and I know I can hold myself accountable to completing them tomorrow.
4. Write out what you are thankful for
It is easy to go to bed stressed, anxious, and overworked after a long, busy day. With hormones at an all-time high and cortisol still coursing through our veins, the simple practice of writing out what you are thankful for is so therapeutic. Gratitude and mindfulness has been shown to lower cortisol levels and improve regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system.
5. Leave a notebook by your bed
We all have had those moments when we wake up with an important thought. We think about it for a second, and next thing we know we are trying to solve the issue, think about the new idea, or tackle the problem in the middle of the night. Having a notebook nearby allows you to write down the thought and save it for the morning. This frees your mind to go back to sleep.
As we age we can only expect our sleep quality to diminish. These techniques have worked for me and have allowed me to sleep better than I ever have in my life.
I am not saying they will work for everyone, but I bet if you try them for a few weeks, you will really see an improvement. Obviously, everyone is different but learning how to control your mind is the first step to a better night’s sleep.
Everyone always asks about tea, sleep aids, melatonin, etc.
I love warm chamomile tea before bed but I am not a fan of most of the sleep aids or supplements on the market. Remember quality over quantity. Studies have shown that certain hypnotics actually alter memory consolidation while we are sleeping.
You can find a list of the sources I used in providing scientific backing for this article at the bottom of the page at this link.
Disclaimer: All opinions are my own. I do not provide medical advice. If you have questions please ask your doctor & do your own research. I am still a medical student and a PhD candidate.
As always, if you have questions feel free to reach out me. Changing isn’t easy but I believe you CAN do whatever you set your mind too!
Thanks for reading!
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(photo credit: Biff Stephens)
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