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Your morning determines your night, and six other sleep secrets
This newsletter is about sleep.
Why? Sleep Day 2023 was on the 17th March. On the same day I held a workshop on how to achieve ideal sleep. The workshop itself was over two hours of dense information. I cannot put it all here. However I can share some of it.
Here are seven little known secrets about sleep. They might change your life.
1. Sleep is the most important thing you can do for yourself
We live in the era of self-improvement. With our basic needs met, for the first time in history we can focus on optimizing our lives beyond survival and reproduction. Most of this optimization is around nutrition, exercise and stress. All of these are critical aspects.
Sleep has a higher impact than any of these.
Suboptimal sleep will damage all dimensions of your health, make your more anxious and unhappy, and reduce your lifespan.
Going from average sleep to the ideal sleep results in 10 extra years of life, +25% productivity, +11% happiness.
You can find out how much you can gain by improving your sleep, by completing the questionnaire here.
2. Current normal sleep is dysfunctional
Normal sleep in 2023 is bad sleep.
I won’t suffocate you with statistics about sleep. Suffice to say they are bad. They show people sleep for too little, with too much variation, at the wrong times, feel sleepy during the day, have disruptions to their sleep and lack energy.
The situation is worse than this. Most people do not notice slightly bad sleep quality, like they don’t notice sleep apnea.
Why is our sleep nowadays so bad? Because our man-made environment is not in tune with our circadian rhythm.
3. Good sleep is effortless
Most sleep advice revolves around the moment when you go to bed. The Internet is full of tips and tricks on how to fall asleep.
This type of advice is almost useless. It’s like putting band-aids on a wound while continuing to poke yourself with a knife. Sure, it might momentarily stop the bleeding, but it does not solve the underlying issue.
If you are having difficulty falling asleep, then you need to treat the cause, not the immediate symptom.
We evolved to fall asleep effortlessly. It’s not a skill that you have to learn. All our ancestors, and all our ancestor species slept. They slept well. We have a history of many millions of years of good sleep. Only in the past hundred or so years has bad sleep become common.
Sleep is a state of the body that arises in response to signals.
These signals come from your body and from the environment. When you struggle to fall asleep, it’s not because you are ‘bad at sleeping’. It’s because your body did not receive the right signals to go to sleep.
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4. Your morning determines your night
Crucially, these signals come throughout the whole day, not just in the evening. Your body has a circadian rhythm that adapts based on signals. Disruptions to this rhythm at any time will affects the rest of it.
The Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) is a bundle of about 10,000 neurons that coordinates circadian rhythm. Light is the main circadian signal it uses.
In the morning, strong light is the signal for it to wake up your body. Without it, you don’t fully wake up.
Artificial light is too dim for this task. Sunlight is between 10,000 and 100,000 lux. Average indoor lighting is around 30-100 lux. The difference is immense. We don’t notice it because our sight adapts to varying light intensities.
When you wake up and remain indoors, you don’t fully wake up. Your body is in an in-between state, neither asleep, nor fully awake. It only becomes awake when you go outside for the first time and expose yourself to sunlight.
Because waking-up is delayed, your circadian rhythm is also set back. No sunlight in the morning means less sleepiness at night. It is harder to fall asleep because you have delayed your circadian rhythm.
So if you get up at 7 AM, but then stay indoors until 11 AM, then your circadian rhythm is delayed. You might feel awake after waking, especially if you drink coffee. But your circadian clock will be running behind. So when you try to go to sleep at 10 PM, your circadian clock is still 2 hours early, so you don’t feel sleepy. You stay up too late and disrupt the rhythm even further.
5. Artificial light is both too dim and too bright
Artificial light is too dim to wake us up. Yet it is too strong to allow us to transition into sleep.
Natural light at night is either absent or incredibly low. A full moon is 0.1 lux, while starlight is 0.001 lux. That’s 500-50000x lower than average artificial lighting.
This light is a signal telling our SCN to keep us awake. It thinks it’s still day so we should be awake and active.
Transitioning from fully awake to asleep naturally took hours before artificial lighting. Outside as the sun sets, light gradually dims. Then our ancestors spent some time in darkness without light or only with firelight in which they progressively felt sleepier and sleepier until actually falling asleep. You cannot shorten all of this to a couple of minutes and expect success.
There have been studies where people spent time in nature without artificial light. Without fail, in these cases they went to sleep around 9-10 PM. Both night owls and early birds, people who slept easily and those with trouble going to sleep, they all found sleep easy.
6. Sleeping pills don’t help
Medication for sleep is common despite it’s unpleasant side effects. 8.2% of adults declare they took medication for sleep at least four times in the past week. 80% of people taking sleep medications experience side effects like oversleeping, feeling groggy, or having a hard time concentrating the next day.
These side effects would be worth it if the drugs actually helped. But they don’t. If anything they make sleep problems worse.
Sleep does not equal being unconscious.
Going to sleep and sleep itself are incredibly complex states of your brain and body. They are not the same thing as losing consciousness. That is one (small) dimension of it.
If I punched you hard enough to know you out, you would not say you are asleep.
Yet that is exactly what sleep medication does. It renders users unconscious for a period of time. That’s not sleep. It impedes sleep. People taking them have symptoms of insufficient sleep: they do not sleep because they are unconscious from the drugs.
7. Melatonin supplements do not help sleep
Melatonin is the preferred natural alternative for those who do not want to take medication for sleep. Sales of melatonin supplements in the U.S. grew 500% from 2003 to 2014.
However melatonin does not help sleep. Research shows no benefit in almost all cases.
Taking melatonin is not as risk-free as you might think. It is a substance that our body produces. However melatonin supplements have 10x-1000x times more melatonin than produced in the body. That’s huge.
There is no clear data as far as I know on the risks of so much melatonin. There are however two troubling facts:
An experiment on Siberian hamsters showed melatonin supplementation shrunk their testicles
Melatonin is a powerful hormone regulator. Among other things it influences the timing of puberty. So it clearly has powerful systemic effects on the body.
If you found that useful, let me know. I have a ton of insights around sleep and crafting the ideal sleep, which I can share. Also I am working on a course for the ideal sleep, but it’s not ready yet.
The ideal life is easy when you know what you need,
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
― Homer, The Odyssey