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The Science and Practice of Perfecting Your Sleep

Sometimes I come across a presentation that is so electrifying it would be a shame not to share it. And there’s no better way to do that than through our Center’s blog.

If you are unaware of Dr. Andrew Huberman or Dr. Matt Walker, slide over to the internet and find them. Here are some of the points I got from their video discussion on YouTube. Watch the video right here.

Dr. Huberman is a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology and has made numerous significant contributions to brain development, brain function, and neural plasticity. Dr. Huberman has a wonderful way of making science accessible to the non-specialist to encourage them to action. Find him at https://hubermanlab.com/

Dr. Matt Walker is a Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology and the Founder & Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of the best-selling book Why We Sleep and host of “The Matt Walker Podcast.” He focuses on the impact of sleep on human health and how we can improve it. You can find him at https://www.sleepdiplomat.com/

Remember, neural plasticity is our brain’s awesome superpower of rewiring and learning new behaviors, skills, and cognitive functioning so we have the ability to change our behaviors to enhance our health and functioning.

Some of the Standard Sleep Tips


Use Light Effectively

As the vision scientist, Dr. Huberman discusses the cells in the eye that inform the brain about the circadian times of our day. So it is important to get sunlight or other forms of bright light in our eyes early in the day when we want to be alert. Just be aware that natural sunlight, even on a cloudy day, is way more potent than the brightest indoor light. So try to go outside for 20 minutes or more at some point early in the morning. That light is essential during our 24-hour circadian cycle when our body temperature is rising. In reverse, we start to get less light in our eyes later in the day toward the evening because our body temperature is going down, and our body is starting to push us toward sleep.

Alcohol and Its Disruption of Sleep 
Alcohol has very detrimental impacts on your sleep. Alcohol is mistaken as a sleep aid by many, but it’s actually a sedative that slows down communication in the brain. We mistakenly use it to help us fall asleep, but sedation is not actually sleeping – we are only losing consciousness quicker. Alcohol also fragments our sleep; therefore, the quality of sleep is poor. And alcohol will actually have us waking many more times during the night, making sleep less continuous. We might remember a few awakenings the next day, but not many, and the next day we do not feel restored. Also, alcohol is quite potent at blocking REM (rapid eye movement) sleep which is critical for cognitive functions like learning and memory, and emotional and mental health. So many reasons not to use alcohol too close to our sleep cycle.

Caffeine Dose and Timing are the Keys
The half-life of caffeine is about 5-6 hours, quarter-life is between 10-12 hours for the average adult. Even the half-life of caffeine circulating in the system can interrupt the depth of our sleep even though we might go to sleep just fine. Or we can’t fall asleep or stay asleep, which can also be caused by caffeine. The reason is caffeine can drop your deep sleep by up to 30%. Dr. Walker’s analogy is, “He can age us by 10 to 12 years, or we can do it late in the afternoon by drinking a couple of espressos.” When we wake the next morning not feeling restored, we will be reaching for more cups of coffee than usual. So goes the dependency cycle of needing caffeine to get moving and then needing something to help wind down because we are overly caffeinated.

Dr. Walker’s recommendation for when to halt caffeine intake is to take your typical bedtime and then count back somewhere between ten to eight hours, and that’s the time you should cease.

Cool Down the Sleep Environment
A cold sleeping environment helps lower our body temperature, making it easier to experience deep sleep. This is why we usually feel well-rested after sleeping in a cold room. Plus, lower temperatures help with melatonin production and better sleep quality. Set the temperature somewhere between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit because people sleep even better within that range. Not only in terms of falling asleep but also in maintaining a deeper sleep.

A Few Unconventional Sleep Tips

The first tip Dr. Walker shared was to know that everyone occasionally has a bad night of sleep. His advice for a bad night of sleep is to do nothing. In other words, don’t compensate with a nap, don’t sleep in later the following day, don’t consume extra caffeine, and don’t go to bed earlier that night to compensate. Naps later in the afternoon are like snacking and no longer being hungry for the main meal. Resist the urge to go to bed early, which will interfere with your natural chronotype. When we are not aligned with our natural sleep rhythm, our body is not ready for sleep, and we are tossing and turning for hours. Then we start worrying, causing more sleep issues. And, of course, consuming extra caffeine is going to crank you up and interfere later with sleep as well.

The second tip is to have a wind-down routine for sleep. Sleep is a physiological process. It’s similar to landing a plane, and it takes time to descend into a good solid sleep gradually. It’s not like a light switch that we turn off and just jump into sleep. Try some light stretching, meditation, or reading. Avoid screens like television or other light-emitting devices which only keep you awake. We don’t come blasting into our garage at 60 mph and slam on the brakes, but we would be gradually downshifting and applying the brakes instead. Find what works for you, like a warm bath or shower routine, and then stick to it. Just like we tend to do with children by creating a bedtime regime, we should create our own ritual and make it a habit.

His third tip is don’t count sheep. Research done at UC Berkeley found it actually made going to sleep harder. Instead, they found that visualizing yourself on some kind of mental walk through nature, like the beach or a hike, seemed beneficial. Getting your mind off itself is a wise piece of advice. Also helpful is to write down all of your concerns about an hour or two before bed. Some people call it their worry journal. Dr. Walker said to him it’s like closing down all of the emotional tabs on his brain’s browser. If we don’t close down our computers, we know that power is being consumed and draining the battery. So it’s the same for our brain to get good sleep as well.

Interestingly, it seems that difficulty and anxiety in the dark are not the same as difficulty and anxiety in the light of day. When we have those thoughts at night, it comes with a lot of rumination and catastrophization that is disproportionate to what you would describe when you are awake. In the light of day, those thoughts will look less panic-inducing than at 3:00 a.m. That’s why closing up all those different components and getting them out on the page can interfere with this nighttime rumination. The research data shows that keeping a journal decreased the time it takes to fall asleep by 50%, which is better than any drug could provide.

The fourth tip is to remove all clock faces from your bedroom, including your phone, and resist checking them. If you are having a tough night, knowing that it’s 2:35 in the morning does not help you at all. In fact, it is going to make matters worse.

In summary, sleep is incredibly fundamental to so many of our biological functions. Our brain is not just simply quiet and resting but actually can be 30% more active in different sleep stages than when we are awake. It is an intense system and probably the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body health. The quantity and quality of our sleep is an imperative rather than a luxury to our overall well-being and health.

I hope you found this information enlightening and can add a few more tools to your sleep kit.

Katherine Jahnke

Katherine Jahnke

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach, Owner/Founder