This little blog is about a subject very close to my heart: sleep.
Until I learned this stuff, I slept like crap. Since my teenage years I’ve struggled with sleep, which I initially put down to drink, drugs and all the things people do when they’re young. But my problems didn’t stop when that lifestyle stopped. In fact it went on for well over twenty years, nearer thirty. I was a nightclub bouncer for many years—seventeen, on and off—so that ingrained my poor sleeping habits further. There had been only one night that I remember sleeping straight through in my entire adult life. That is a night I will never forget: it was the night my mum finally lost her battle with cancer.
Between the emotions, the exhaustion from those final months and the relief her suffering was over, I collapsed into bed and slept like a baby. It certainly isn’t something I want to relive and it is a hell of price for my one good night’s sleep. Her passing is a big driver for why I do what I do, for why my life is dedicated to helping people. That drive led me to learn some pretty amazing things, one of which is how to sort out most sleep issues.
We all know sleep is important for good function and well-being, yet so many of us struggle in this day and age. We end up going about our day-to-day lives feeling less than stellar. We can’t get to sleep at night, stay asleep through the night or wake up properly in the morning. Why is that and how did it become normal? I shall tell you. I’m nice like that.
Why we can’t sleep
Our natural biological rhythms are tied in to the light and dark cycles of the earth. Day & night, awake & asleep. When it’s dark, our brain registers this through the eyes and the skin. The body slows down and gets ready to take care of lots of important processes while we sleep.
Our thyroid is doing its thing, taking care of our metabolism. Our liver is super busy, dealing with how our body metabolises sugars and fats, deals with stress hormones, takes harmful toxins out of the system… and it also has a role in regulating our sex hormones. For you men reading this, waking up without a tent pole is an indicator your hormones are not at the greatest of levels and chances are you are not getting enough quality sleep. So get some sleep and stay hard!
The liver has a lot to do and if we aren’t asleep when we should be, it can’t do its job properly. Not only that, our brain has some detoxing to do of its own, which also relies on being asleep. It depends on, among other things, a hormone called melatonin to help this process.
Melatonin is very much linked to light or more accurately linked to darkness. Too much light equals no melatonin. Our growth hormone is highest while we sleep, helping our bodies repair and grow. Now, with all that in mind it’s easy to see how poor sleep is detrimental to our health & well-being.
Light is a key factor
Not all light is created equal. We developed as inhabitants of this planet, with full spectrum sunlight. Our problem in the modern world is twofold. One, we are not exposed to much natural light and, when we are, we’re normally covered in sunblock (so actually blocking out the good stuff) or we’re binging the sun and getting burnt, which is obviously not good either.
Problem number two is all the artificial light we are exposed to. Among other things we have a big overexposure to blue light, far exceeding the amount that can be found naturally within full spectrum sunlight. Blue light concentrations at their highest and most harmful come from back lit screens, so think smart phones, tablets and PCs. You have no doubt seen that blue glow on someone when they’re looking at their phone in the dark. Blue light in excessive amounts and at the wrong time is a right fucker.
The problems with blue light
First off it is pretty damaging to the eyes, which is pretty common knowledge. But it also is hugely disruptive to our circadian biology. Circadian is just a sciencey word for body clock. All that light pouring into our eyes is signalling to our brain that it is daytime and our brain will act accordingly. All the hormones and chemicals that should be up and about in the day will be doing their thing.
Among these hormones is cortisol which is known as a stress hormone. Its job is to get us up and moving in the early part of the day as well as helping us in times of threat by ramping us up for “fight or flight”. Cortisol is very important, at the right time, in appropriate amounts. It is not the friend of bedtime however. Have you ever gone to bed only to find your mind is chattering away with worries: tasks that need doing, replaying events and even playing events that haven’t happened? That is a sign that your cortisol is out of whack and is doing its thing at the wrong time of day.
What is the friend of bedtime, is a little neurotransmitter called serotonin. That little puppy helps you relax and ultimately get to sleep. Serotonin is known by some as the happy hormone. When people go to the doctor’s and get antidepressants, those pills are generally aimed at regulating serotonin in the brain. It is great at night time, however, if your cortisol is out of whack, your serotonin will also be out of whack. There is a seesaw effect. Which often means it is higher in the morning, making it a struggle to get up and feel alive. Not the best ways to start and end your days!
Personally, I think medicating is rarely the answer, if ever. Depression is a sign that we have become far too removed from what our bodies need biologically. It is a symptom, a sign that something needs to change. There are two very big problems with our approach to health in the western world, politics aside. I’ll try not too carried away here, as this shit fucks me right off…
A quick rant about our approach to health
One problem is that we look to medicate symptoms as opposed to finding and addressing the cause. A symptom-based approach doesn’t get to the root of the problem and actually solve the issue. The medications themselves often come with their own problems too. It’s a fucking great business model though, keeping customers coming back for life.
The second major problem is we wait until we feel shit. We wait until something goes wrong and then we look to the doctors to fix us, with that same symptom-based approach. We are not taught how to look after our own health. We are taught how to be passive with our health, essentially victims with no control, looking to be saved by the doctor.
How’s that working out for you? It nearly killed me, quite a few times and I watched it kill my mum. Although I tried for many years to get her to take ownership of her health, she remained passive, looking outside for help and for something to blame. No parent takes advice from their child after all and vice versa. That rant was actually, pretty mild for me, well done Gareth!
Now back to the whole light thing.
So in a nutshell, too much light at the wrong times messes with your body clock and consequently your health and quality of life.
Because I’m nice and the whole point of this is to be helpful, I’m going to give you some tips to deal with these light problems. You’re welcome. The obvious thing to do would be to limit screen time but, in this day and age it is far from practical. Yes, the modern world fucks us up but we still have to live in it—living in a cave just isn’t option for most people.
How to deal with our light problems
So the first practical thing I would recommend is to get a blue light filter on all your back lit devices. There are a ton of apps available for this (check the reviews though kids, some aren’t that effective). Make sure that it is set for 24 hours a day, not just night time. There are physical filters available that go on the screen if you’d prefer. You can also get blue light blocking glasses which helps your cause even more, particularly if they are worn around the house at night. Again, check the reviews. Personally, I always use the glasses when working on my laptop, including this moment now as I type this.
Next up, do your best to get some full spectrum light from the sun, particularly in the morning. Again, I understand that this isn’t always practical as people work different times and the weather isn’t always helping us out. But if you can, get out there in morning or the evening (or both!). Your body needs it, in the eyes and on the skin. We’ve all heard about Vitamin D from the sun and how it is important for health so I won’t go into that one for now.
When you’re at home in the evening, get yourself away from screens as early as possible. Personally, my phone goes off before 8pm, any later than that and I’m in trouble. 7pm is even better. Start dimming the lights, switch to lamps or even candles in the evening. The brain needs to know it is night time so it can start winding down the body in preparation for sleep. Try to avoid eating too late, preferably before 7pm or as close to as possible. All the extra work from breaking down a meal can keep us awake and disrupt everything that should be going on when we sleep. On the flip side of that, make sure you eat breakfast for that very same reason.
Anything electrical needs to be off in the bedroom, even that little red light on the tv can be disruptive. Personally, I don’t think the bedroom is the place for a TV anyway. The bedroom is a place for three S’s: Sleeping, Sex and Somewhere to keep your clothes. My recommendation here includes switching your phone off and not charging it in your room. If you are leaving it alone for a couple of hours before bed that is plenty of time to charge it anyway. What’s more important, checking Facebook at night or your health? If your phone is your source of alarm then simply put it on airplane mode.
Lastly, make sure you get up and go to bed at the same time each day, even on weekends. Every time you have a lie-in you’re basically giving yourself a bit of jetlag and disrupting your clock. Your health and quality of life are being affected by that extra hour or two in bed. Now I understand we all have lives to live, there will be times when we can’t stick to those rules, for social engagements etc. Life happens. These are general guidelines, but the more you can stick to them the better so do your best, but don’t beat yourself up when something comes up that needs doing and gets in the way, we need to enjoy ourselves too.
A quick aside
Something else that has been invaluable in my sleep quality is grounding myself, a practice also known as barefoot earthing. That is a whole blog on its own and I don’t want to make this ridiculously long. A quick search on the old internet machine will come up with a ton of stuff on it, so you will have to do a bit of homework on it if you haven’t heard of it, sorry. What I will say is I earth myself every night for at least 15mins and the difference is huge. Less time just doesn’t seem to cut it.
It can take a little while for your body to reset to its natural rhythm so be patient. This is no quick fix, it is a life style change. If you want it reset quicker or are struggling I recommend you seek out an AMN practitioner who knows how to reset your sleep pattern and rhythms.
Full disclosure, yes I am an AMN practitioner and I’m massively biased towards the system (because it works).
Take good care of your body clock—your health and quality of life depend on it.
Big punkass love