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When you sleep you are giving your body the rest and repair it needs.  Your brain and body work non-stop throughout the day and they need a break about every 16 hours.  The break is what we call sleep.  It’s not the same as resting, as we all know.  Resting is consciously slowing down your physical activity, but sleep is far more than just slowing down.  Sleep is much deeper and allows our body and mind to repair and prepare.  Different parts of the brain light up when we sleep.  Most of our bodily functions slow down or turn off, while others start up.  Thus, it is important to learn how to sleep right so your body and mind can be at full capacity.

Getting Enough Sleep Analogy

Sleep is sort of like changing the oil in your car.  Any mechanic will tell you that if you change your oil as often as prescribed, your car will last the longest and work at its best.  However, if you are anything like me, you wait longer than you are supposed to.  Yeah, you can get away with it, but your gas mileage suffers a little bit and the life of your car may be shortened, even if just a little.  Sleep is the same way.  If you learn how to sleep right, like you’re supposed to every day, your body and mind can function at their best.  If you don’t, your mind and body don’t work as well and research suggests that your illness, disease and cancer risks may increase as well1,2,3

Lack of Sleep

We have all experienced a lack of sleep at one time or another; perhaps you never get enough sleep.  But just like waiting to change the oil for longer than you should, your body and mind still work, but not as well as they could or should.  You may also mask the symptoms with coffee or energy drinks.  But that could potentially lead to other problems.  While a lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems itself, more issues may arise with the overuse of caffeine.  You are basically forcing the artificial release of hormones that are normally reserved for stressful situations we faced in the caveman days, like running from a bear.4  If those hormones aren’t “burned off” by vigorous exercise right away, these hormones ultimately cause your cells to age at an accelerated rate!5

Caffeine and Lack of Sleep

Caffeine can make you feel energetic and focused, for a while, but the best way to deal with a lack of sleep is, well…sleep .  Like water, most of us don’t get enough of it and perhaps fewer pay attention to the effects it has on our bodies.  That’s often because a lot of us get used to NOT having the amount of sleep we actually need.  Basically, we run around like zombies on 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night and pretty soon, that becomes our normal.  But it shouldn’t be normal because, like zombies, our capacity is quite limited, whether we realize it or not.  In fact, studies have shown that sleep deprivation is equivalent to intoxication!6

Get Consistent Sleep

Whether you like it or not, your body is programmed to be consistent in its sleep cycle.  From the time you are born to the time you die, this is true.  Don’t kids have bedtimes?  Don’t we all know to put babies down for naps and to bed for the night at about the same time every day?  What makes you, an adult, think that your body somehow doesn’t need that same consistency?  It might be that you are too busy to get 8 hours a night.  Well, get un-busy because you need the consistency of going to bed and waking up at the same time every day as much as your kids!

If you stay up late some nights, but not others, wake up early some mornings, but sleep in on others, then you are essentially confusing your brain and it doesn’t know when to sleep.  This is not how you will learn how to sleep right.  If this is you, then you probably have trouble with getting to or staying asleep because your brain is just not working right!7

Is it Possible to Catch Up On Sleep?

Many people want to believe that they can be inconsistent and sleep in on the weekend to make up for it.  While this is not entirely false, it is far from entirely true.  Let me show you what I mean with an example:

Maybe you sleep for 5 hours one night and 11 hours the next.  Of course it is doubtful you could sleep for 11 hours straight, but we’ll pretend you can for the sake of argument.  But even if you did, would that be the same as two eight hour nights?  Now let’s think about what you actually do.  We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you get a whopping 6 hours a night during the week (that’s pretty good for an average American).  When you get to the weekend, you’ve got to sleep for 13 hours on Saturday and Sunday to average 8 hours a night for the week!  Good luck with that, but again, even if you did, would that be equivalent to 8 hours a night?  Certainly not.8

Sleep for Long Enough

So if we go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning, is that it?  Of course it isn’t because we could be going to bed at 10:00pm and waking up at 2:00am.  We need consistency, but also the proper duration, or length of sleep each night.  The vast majority of us humans need 7-9 of sleep per night.  There is a small fraction of people that do just fine with much less, but you are probably not one of them.9

Most of us are 8-hour folks and that is what we should shoot for.  But that does NOT mean going to bed 8 hours before we get up.  If you do, you will not get 8 hours of sleep.  I know, I know, you are thinking that I am crazy for not only suggesting that you need 8 hours of sleep, but that you should go to bed 8.5-9 hours before you have to wake up.  Who has time for that?  Well, if you want function better, be happier, and reduce your cancer risk, then you’ll find a way.  In fact, if you get the rest you need every night, you will likely be more productive than having more time, but less sleep every day.

Take a Short Nap

What happens if you have a bad night?  Maybe you got to bed late, couldn’t get to sleep, or couldn’t stay asleep?  Naturally, if you have the time you will want to take a nap. Naps can be very beneficial.10  However, you should tread lightly.  Napping is good, especially if you are lacking in sleep from the night before, but it can also be your enemy.

The more often you take a nap, the more your body will get used to it and expect it.  Then you end up with a confused brain again and being tired all the time.  Worse though is that it can throw off your consistency.  Maybe you are going along fine, getting 8 hours a night, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and then you fall asleep in your armchair for an hour that night.  Do you think you will be able to get your 8 hours that night?  Now you are in a cycle that is precisely what you want to avoid.

Naps aren’t bad, but if you are going to take one, set an alarm and and take a 20 minute power nap.  That way, you can “catch up” a little, but avoid throwing off your cycle.

How to Get to Sleep

It is not easy to get on a good sleep schedule.  Yet it is worth it despite the difficulty you are likely to face.  You may find that getting to sleep or staying asleep challenging, but your body will re-learn if you are patient.  Figure out a schedule that works for you and stick with it.  Have an appointed time to go to sleep each night and a time to wake up and do it every day, day after day.  Small deviations are fine, but don’t get too far off or you’ll end up back where you started.

Now this doesn’t mean no late Friday nights or Sunday sleeping in, but beware of excess.  Avoid deviations of more than an hour more than a couple times a week.  If you don’t, you’re threatening to throw of your body’s rhythm and it may take several nights to get it back.  To help you along, here are some techniques to help you get to sleep:

Technique #1: How to Sleep Right

Learning how to sleep right can be tricky because you have a lot on your mind, but part of getting to sleep is your brain “turning off” conscious thought.11  So naturally, if you could “turn off” your consciousness like a light switch, you could get to sleep right away.  Of course you can’t do that, but you can simplify what your mind is doing so that it is closer to that unconscious state.  It is a very difficult technique to master, but it is worth the effort because of how well it works.  I use it every night, but it took me a long time to master.

Dealing With Background Noise

The first part deals with background noises.  All of us have had times where sounds drove us up a wall while we tried to sleep.  This technique includes actually listening for these sounds; they are your friend.  Maybe it’s a car driving by, a cat meowing, or someone shutting a door.  The idea is to purposely listen for these sounds. Why?  Eventually you sort of trick yourself into liking sounds that normally would keep you awake.  You used to do this when you were a baby and even a kid, but unlearned this powerful skill as an adult.  This step is really hard though because it has been years, maybe decades since sounds didn’t keep you awake; you are literally reprogramming your brain’s response.

If sounds are part of your sleeping process rather than an irritant to it, then the sounds that once kept you awake actually help you sleep.  Instead of getting mad at the dog barking down the street, hearing the sound simply becomes a recognition of its existence rather than producing an emotional response that will make it harder to get to sleep.

Shutting Down Your Brain

The second part involves shutting down your consciousness.  When you are asleep your brain is actually working like crazy, but not the conscious part.11  The idea here is to speed up the process.  None of us are capable of not thinking about something, but thinking as simplistic as possible is closer to nothing.  If you’re laying in bed thinking about work or next week’s party, your thoughts are relatively complex.  Simplifying your thoughts is closer to a state of sleep.

So what should you think about?  The answer is the simplest thing possible: a dot or just blackness are two that I regularly use.  Just stay focused on it and NOTHING ELSE.  Your mind will wander, particularly at first as you try to learn this technique.  But as soon as you notice, take your thoughts back to that simple thing.  You brain is only capable of focusing on one thing at a time, so keep it simple and you are closer to being asleep.

Putting it all together

Parts 1 and 2 are meant to work in tandem while you sleep.  When you become skilled at it, you are subconsciously listening for random sounds and focusing on the dot at the same time.  While you focus, the sounds just come and sort of blend in to the environment.  Eventually, it will become natural and sounds will just be a part of your background and you will think of that simple thing by instinct rather than by force.

Technique #2: How to Sleep Right

Although the above technique works best for me, I occasionally use other techniques in conjunction with it.  The main one is a deep breathing method to help relax my body.  There are 2 ways I use this, both of which I often use in combination with the above method, especially when I am having a particularly hard time not thinking complex thoughts.

Putting Your Body to Sleep Part by Part

The first involves focusing on letting each body part “fall asleep” individually.  I start by lying down in a comfortable position with my eyes closed.  I take a deep breath, and as I slowly exhale.  As I do so, I let the tension of my feet ‘float away.’  I repeat this if I feel the need, but then I move on to other body parts.  Next is lower leg, upper leg, groin, abs, chest, neck, face, head, arms, etc. until my whole body is relaxed.  My intention is to let my whole body “fall asleep” piece by piece, but the truth is that I often don’t remember actually getting to my whole body before falling asleep.

Putting Your Body to Sleep All at Once

The second way to do this is very similar to the first.  The difference is that I let the tension from my whole body “float away” over and over with each breath.  It’s more of an all at once approach.  With each breath it feels like only a small amount of tension leaves, but that small amount leaves my entire body instead of each body part separately.  So, little by little, the tension I am holding onto leaves and I become more and more relaxed.

Review on How to Sleep Right

Everyone is different, so remember these techniques aren’t a catch-all.  Experiment and learn what works best for you and what doesn’t.  Just don’t dismiss an idea too soon because it will take time to get used to.  It takes time, especially the listening for sounds part.  You may not be impressed at first, but once it becomes part of your routine, falling asleep gets much easier.  Also consider some natural supplements to aid you in your sleep goals.