Finding Freedom Week 3: How To Get The Best Sleep of Your Life

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Last week was all about playing the role of the sleep alarmist, and quite frankly, I only hit the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the unpleasant effects even a moderate sleep deficit can inflict on your mind and body.

Hopefully what you read was compelling enough to motivate you to invest serious thought into the role of sleep in your life, and prime you for some suggestions on just how to improve it.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been researching and experimenting with my sleep for over 8 years now, and I’ve finally reached a point where I feel like I’ve discovered my recipe for an ideal nights sleep. This took a ton of trial and error, many multi-month long experimentations, multiple overnight polysomnograms (a monitored sleep study in a lab), and a whole lot of persistence.

But, for all the time, effort and money I’ve invested into sleep, it was absolutely worth it. When I’m well rested, I’m happier, healthier, more pleasant for my family to be around, a better mother and partner, I have far more to give to both myself and others, I make substantially better financial decisions, and quite simply I am a better all-round version of myself.

Frankly, I can’t see how this isn’t true for all of us.

But, before we get into what worked and what didn’t, lets first talk about the 4 primary pillars of sleep that need to be analyzed when contemplating how to go about improving your sleep.

#1 – Depth of Sleep

In last weeks post I summarized what proper sleep should look like in terms of a typical 90 minute sleep cycle. Moving through your 4 stages of sleep, and ultimately completing your cycle with REM sleep. When we talk about depth, we are talking about the quality of your sleep and the movement through the necessary stages in order to achieve ALL the benefits required of sleep.

#2 – Duration of Sleep

This one is pretty obvious, it’s all about your total time sleeping. Fall asleep at 10PM and wake-up at 6AM, and you’ve hit your mark for an 8 hour sleep. At least in theory.

#3 – Continuity of Sleep

While you might get the requisite 8 hours of sleep each night, continuity is all about whether or not your sleep is being fragmented. Are you sleeping that full 8 hours, working through your various stages of sleep, or are you waking up repeatedly, or being roused from deeper stages into lighter ones, effectively fragmenting your entire nights sleep?

#4 – Regularity of Sleep

Regularity comes down to your daily habits. Do you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day? Failing to do so really messes with our bodies natural circadian rythyms, including when and how much of the primary sleep (melatonin) and wake (cortisol) hormones are produced. Even adjusting your bedtime (or wake time) by just 15 minutes each night in one direction or the other can have a substantially negative effect on the biological processes involved in proper sleep.

When it comes to these 4 pillars of sleep, it’s important to note that all 4 dovetail in their performance. We need to be hitting on all of them in order to achieve sufficient sleep. Attend to 3 and ignore a 4th, and your efforts to achieve proper sleep may very well be wasted.

So let’s break down what worked for me in truly ensuring all 4 pillars were in optimal shape.

Sleep Disorders

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating. If you have even the slightest indication that you have a sleep disorder, get a referral to a sleep specialist. That means if you snore, if you wake repeatedly during the night, if you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, or if you regularly experience daytime fatigue.

That basically describes everyone – doesn’t it!? But seriously – if you are experiencing these symptoms, something is going on with your sleep and you need to address it. STAT!

You can do everything else in this post, but if you have an untreated sleep disorder, you will fail to see any substantial ROI on the sleep investments you do make.

Sleep Routine

Sleep hygiene is a total buzz phrase these days, but for good reason. Not only does it directly support Pillar #4, being regularity, it also prepares your body for sleep, proactively supporting the other 3 pillars.

While sleep regularity seems like the simplest pillar to address, it is far from easy. That’s because life gets in the way and consistently derails our plans. Sleep, and a sleep routine, is often the first to give when the unexpected comes up. Colicky baby, dinner plans that go late, last minute notification that your child needs cupcakes for a school bake sale the next day. There’s always something.

With a proper sleep routine in place, you are going to dramatically increase your chances of actually going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. Doing so helps your body consistently regulate its wake and sleep hormones so that you are working WITH your bodies natural biological processes instead of AGAINST them.

I’ve tried a lot of sleep routines over the years, and here’s what I found. The best sleep routine to have – is the one you will actually follow! Every single night!

Here’s the real crux of this pillar. You have to prioritize the routine. You have to prioritize your sleep. That means saying no to anything that is going to intrude on your sleep time, and being consistent about it. Easier said than done!

I’ve tried routines that are everywhere from 10 minutes to an hour long. The hour long routines, while they are wonderful and definitely made me feel sleepy, were simply too challenging for me to do consistently. My 1 hour version looked like this:

  • 900 PM – Brush/floss my teeth and have a warm shower in a candlelit bathroom (lovely);
  • 915 PM.- Do a 15 minute sleep preparing yoga routine;
  • 930 PM – Read a book for 15 minutes;
  • 945 PM – Make a journal entry about my day;
  • 950 PM – 10 Minute Sleep Meditation in low light;
  • 1000 PM – Lay down and all lights out.

I followed that routine (relatively)consistently for 2 months, and there’s no doubt, it was effective. It reduced my exposure to light, facilitating the production of melatonin, helped lower my body temperature in preparation for sleep, allowed me to write down anything that was on my mind in order to reduce anxiety, and overall relaxed my muscles and released tension.

After my two month commitment, I knew I needed to shorten it up in order to make it a consistent habit. So I analyzed what was giving me my best return on time invested, and tweaked and experimented until I ended up at this:

  • 930 PM – Brush/floss my teeth and wash my face with cool water in a low lit bathroom;
  • 940 PM – Low light reading for 15 minutes (never use a screen!);
  • 955 PM – Apply sleep tape & 5 minutes of focussing on my breath in the dark;
  • 1000 PM – Time for sleep.

This 30 minute sleep routine provides massive sleep cues to my body, and creates similar effects to the 1 hour routine in just half the time.

Finding your own sleep routine is all about trial and error, but if you focus on starting your routine with something you would never consider skipping, while reducing exposure to light, lowering body temperature, and having firmly established cues that tell your body to get ready for sleep, you’ll be less like to skip and more likely to see major improvements in all 4 pillars.

Diet

When it comes to dietary regimens, I’ve pretty much tried it all. Eating meat, going vegan, settling on vegetarian, multi-month long elimination cleanses of sugar, alcohol, caffeine, gluten and dairy, the whole 30, eating rabbit food, a therapeutic and modified ketogenic diet, and intermittent fasting. To name a few.

Many of these made absolutely zero difference on the quality, duration and continuity of my sleep.

What I did find effective however was a combined approach of a modified ketogenic diet, along with intermittent fasting. We’ve been following that regimen for about 5 months now, and I have definitely noticed a difference in the depth and continuity of my sleep.

While I have found the ketogenic diet extremely challenging in terms of my deeply rooted mindset towards what constitutes “healthy” foods, I do believe the primary benefits (with respect to sleep) stem from the overall elimination of nearly all sugars.

This is truly noticeable in my day to day energy levels. Gone are the days of the 2PM crash, or the ups and downs pre & post meal or workout. All because my body has learned to use ketones as fuel rather than glucose, negating the insulin spikes associated with the increased blood sugar levels produced by carbohydrates.

The intermittent fasting has also been surprisingly impactful. In large part I believe this is because I am following a 16/8 fasting cycle, limiting my eating to between 12-8 PM, with an occasional 24 hour fast thrown in for good measure. Generally I am done eating earlier than 8PM, creating a buffer from the time I consume my last meal, to the time I go to bed. This is very helpful in terms of allowing my digestion to have completed prior to bed, and facilitating the lowering of my body temperature.

I have always been a person who thought caffeine had no impact on me. I was wrong. While I couldn’t tell you that I ever felt energized after having a cup of coffee, the reality is, when I was regularly drinking caffeinated beverages, my depth of sleep was extremely poor as was my continuity of sleep. Caffeine wreaks havoc on these areas, and can further reduce our bodies ability to produce adenosine, which is a hormone that makes us feel sleepy.

Further – the half-life of caffeine is 6 hours, while the quarter life is….you guessed it…..12 hours. So if you drink a grande coffee at 2PM to get through your afternoon slump, it’s the equivalent of drinking a 1/4 cup of coffee right before you lay down at 10PM. Who does that? So while I haven’t eliminated coffee entirely, I’ve switched to decafe, and drink it in the morning hours.

Alcohol and sleep aids have an equally deleterious impact on your sleep. While both act as sedatives, and one might think that would be a benefit, being unconscious is definitely not the same thing as being asleep. Rather than garnering the reparative effects of sleep, alcohol and sleep aids can not only prevent those repairs from happening, but actually UNDO repairs and connections that your body has been making.

When looking from an entirely sleep oriented perspective, if you don’t want to do a ketogenic/caffeine free/intermittent fasting diet, the biggest takeaways from all my trials with food boil down to these four things:

  • Reduce overall carbohydrate consumption, particularly refined sugars and other simple carbs;

  • Don’t consume caffeine after noon, or alcohol several hours before bed. Even be wary of decafe coffee, which can have a wide range of residual caffeine;

  • Stop consuming food several hours before you go to bed; and

  • Don’t rely on sleeping pills to facilitate proper sleep.

Exercise

Here I will be brief. Exercise is good for sleep – just not right before you go to sleep. Exercise jacks up your heart rate and body temperature, two things your body is trying to lower when you are heading off to bed. BUT it does help improve your bodies production of adenosine (which is the hormone that allows you to feel sleepy), so it’s ideal to exercise every day, just not in the hours immediately before bed.

The Gadgets

Okay, there’s a TON of sleep gadgets out there, but not all are created equal. I’ve tried a lot, but I’m only going to talk about the ones I have found that TRULY work. While these might involve forking out some cash upfront – the ROI will be well worth your initial investment.

The Neck Nest

This little pillow may look weird at first glance, but it has been amazing. If you’ve looked into sleep before, you will know that the ideal sleeping position for your overall health is to sleep on your back. I was a hard core stomach sleeper – the worst position.

The neck nest was invented by chiropractor and exercise physiologist, Dr. Peter Martone. The pillow is designed for your neck, rather than your head, with the idea that by supporting the neck, the pillow would not only facilitate the practice of sleeping in a neutral position on your back, distributing your weight as evenly as possible over the surface of your bed while supporting your spinal curves. An additional benefit to utilizing the neck nest, is that it provides counter pressure to your C-spine, the natural curvature of your spine that is slowly being eroded by sedentary computer work, driving, texting etc.

About 5 months ago Mike and I both decided to invest in The Neck Nest pillow. I won’t sugar coat this part, it has been an absolute challenge to re-train myself to sleep on my back, and I’m still working on it, but it’s created dramatic changes in my sleep. Imagine going to sleep on your back and waking up 8 hours later in the exact same position. Not having moved – not having tossed and turned, and feeling well rested.

I’ve experienced this multiple times with the Neck Nest, and as my ability to sleep on my back increases, it’s happening more and more frequently.

In addition to the pillow, your purchase gains you access to Dr. Martone’s 30 day sleep quest, which provides you a daily e-mail/video chalk full of tips on how to improve your sleep. I’ve completed the entire quest, and implemented almost every single one of Dr. Martone’s tips.

At a discounted upfront cost of roughly $110 USD (when you use our referral link), it is absolutely worth the investment.

*While this is an affiliate link, both Mike and I paid for our Neck Nests upfront, personally trialled them to assess their quality/results, and continue to use them on a nightly basis.

The Weighted Blanket

Around the same time we bought the Neck Nest’s, we also decided to splurge on weighted blankets. I’ve heard and read a lot about them over the past several years, and finally decided to pull the trigger.

The theory behind the weighted blanket is that it provides a grounding effect, gives you a stronger sense of security when you are sleeping on your back (arguably a very vulnerable position from a historical perspective), and minimizes movement during sleep.

After much market research, we chose blankets from the Hush Blanket Company, which is based here in Canada. Personally, I like the heavy weighted feeling on me when I’m sleeping, and I do find it reduces my overall tossing and turning substantially.

The one and only complaint I have about the blanket is that it is quite warm in the summer, but to combat this, we fold our blankets up at the bottom to expose our feet, which then act like radiators (A tip we got from Dr. Martone’s 30 day sleep quest!). It sounds weird, but it’s actually quite a nice feeling. We’ve also gone ahead and ordered the ICE Hush blankets which are a cooling weighted blanket due to be released this month. In fact – I’m hoping that when we arrive home from France later this week, they will be waiting there for us!

*Once we’ve had those for awhile I’ll provide an update on how they are.

It’s important to note that the weight of the blanket is determined by your individual size, roughly 10% of your body weight. The blankets are sold in 5 lb increments, with a recommendation to round up for your body weight.

When we got the blankets we were both shocked at how heavy they were, and I immediately regretted rounding up, but after a few months of use I have adjusted to the weight and am very happy with what I have, so I do recommend following their guidelines here.

Overall – when the Neck Nest and weighted blankets are used in tandem both these products are worthwhile investments. At $199.00 CAD per blanket, the Hush Blankets aren’t cheap, but they are high quality and provide a substantial ROI.

*Again, while this is an affiliate link, we paid in full for our own and include them here only because we feel they are a high value product.

Sleep Trackers

There are many different gadgets and gizmo’s out on the market that promise to track your sleep and give you precise feedback about what is going on when you are dead to the world. Unfortunately none are entirely accurate at this point, certainly not when compared to an overnight polysomnogram.

But, that doesn’t mean you should write them off entirely. Using a sleep tracker can be an excellent way to establish a personal baseline, alerting you to marked deviations from your norm. If you are paying attention to your baseline, you’ll often be able to pinpoint what may have caused a particularly poor night of sleep (caffeine/alcohol consumption, job anxiety, jet lag etc.) This can help you avoid certain behaviour or activities that worsen your sleep.

I would caution that once you have identified optimal sleep habits, it’s probably not worth continuing to wear the sleep tracker. Doing so, and seeing even slight deviations in your sleep quality can have negative mental impacts on your overall sense of energy and well being. So once you’ve reached optimal sleep – focus your energy into maintaining the habits that got you there and rid yourself of the sleep tracker.

White Noise

This is one of my favourite tools for sleep continuity. Not only is white noise a major sleep cue that my body now firmly associates with sleep, but it also blocks out a lot of ambient noise that would otherwise interrupt the overall continuity of my sleep. Things like sirens, vehicle noise, neighbours car alarms, you get the idea.

The beauty of white noise is that it can be as simple (and cheap) as running a fan in your room. While I have an actual noise machine for our youngest, (it’s portable so we can take it everywhere we go), Mike and I, and our oldest son just use good old fans in our bedrooms. It works wonders to provide a steady state, soothing noise that lulls us to sleep and keeps us there.

There are some arguments out there that fans can cause negative effects, such as drier skin, increased muscle aches, etc, but I’ve slept with/without them and can’t say I’ve noticed an increase in those issues.

Taping My Mouth Shut

I’ve saved the cheapest, and best kept sleep secret for last. Mike and I have both been taping our mouths shut while we sleep for the past 4-5 months.

Mike started it – and I distinctly recall telling him “that’s stupid”.

I was wrong.

I started doing it about a week after he did and the results blew my mind. By taping my mouth shut, it forces me to breath through my nose during sleep. As a total mouth breather (especially when my sleep apnea appliance is in my mouth), this was an absolute sleep game changer.

Mouth breathing not only dehydrates our bodies over night, but it decreases our oxygen saturation substantially. Leading to poorer depth and continuity of sleep (two of my primary problems!).

We started off using Nexcare Water Resistant tape at $12 a roll, but once we found how effective the taping was, we looked for a cheaper alternative and found that 3M surgical tape works just as well. This isn’t an affiliate link, but at just $21 for a box of 12, it’s about $2 per month for us to tape our mouths shut, and works just as well as the $12 stuff.

While it may sound weird, and not all that appealing – just give it a try.

As a side benefit, it also substantially improves your oral hygiene, reducing your likelihood of cavities and tooth decay, keeping your dental bills in check.

The Zero Gravity Bed

Here’s one we haven’t tried yet – but I’ll include because I have heard wonderful things about it. Before we go and invest a few thousand dollars though, we are going to take another tip from Dr. Martone’s 30 day sleep quest and start placing blocks of wood under the headboard of our bed, to raise our bed by just a few inches. We are also going to add in a small pillow under our knees.

These two ultra cheap hacks will simulate the adjustable position that a zero-gravity bed employs in distributing weight as evenly as possible, and alleviating pressure points.

Once we’ve tried it for a few months, I’ll write an update and let you know if we are going to pull the trigger on the real deal!

For Kids

While I’m clearly obsessed with my own sleep, I’ve actually invested dramatically more time and effort into researching and ensuring my kids have solid sleep habits as well.

From Day 1. Literally…….day 1.

The investments have paid off. I have two kids who are dream sleepers, they go to bed without issue, and sleep through the night. Our oldest clocks a consistent 10-11 hours of sleep, while our youngest is a sleep MACHINE, racking up 12-13 hours each night, along with a 2 hour nap each day.

This didn’t just happen all on it’s own. It took a lot of intentional planning, consistency and diligence to build proper sleep habits and expectations. But it was absolutely worth the heavy up front investments. After all, if our kids are sleeping well, chances are Mike and I will be getting better sleep too, and everyone will be happier in the morning.

Specifically when trying to improve you kid’s sleep habits, here are 7 simple steps that can have BIG impacts on all 4 of their sleep pillars:

  1. Establish a firmly rooted sleep routine for them, and don’t deviate from it! If you value your sleep and theirs, find a way to make this a priority. That includes nap times!
  2. Use a white noise machine in your kids bedrooms. This helps block out ambient noise, minimizing or eliminating constant interruptions to their sleep cycles;
  3. Make your child’s bedroom a place for sleep. I know we all like to store our kids toys and what not in their bedrooms – but the more you can make this a space they associate with sleep, the better they will sleep. So minimize the clutter, and keep things simple.
  4. Keep it cool. We have a tendency to overdress and over bundle our kids for sleep. But the body needs to lower its temperature if we want to achieve quality sleep, so keep it cool!
  5. Keep it dark. Temperature and light are the two factors that play the most substantial role in our bodies natural sleep rhythms. So if your child has a bedroom where natural light comes pouring in at dawn, you can bet they will wake up at dawn as well. Use black out curtains, and keep light to a minimum until you want them to wake up (that includes keeping devices out of the bedroom).
  6. Encourage your kids to sleep on their backs, and use a minimalistic pillow that doesn’t cause their chin to tuck towards their chest (effectively reducing their airway).
  7. Consider investing in a weighted blanket for your child as well. Although you don’t want to use these with infants, and should check with your paediatrician before using one with a younger child, they have been long shown to be extremely calming for children, particularly for kids who have high anxiety. Check out Hush Blankets weighted option for kids.

Hope you enjoyed this 2 part sleep article. If you have any tried and true methods to optimizing your sleep, please leave us a comment! Next week we’ll talk about some of the amazing things we saw (and learned) on our 3 week family trip to France. See you then!

2 thoughts on “Finding Freedom Week 3: How To Get The Best Sleep of Your Life

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