I once heard that the highest quality sleep occurs between 10pm-2am. Not one to slack off on curiosity I wondered why. I also wondered if I could maximize my sleep patterns and sleep less to enjoy more of my life. Considering we sleep roughly a third of our lives away this would be a big boon. I set out to determine if I could create more time in my day without compromising my health by sleeping less.
The Pineal Gland: Natures Alarm Clock
My curiosity led me to the pineal gland. I had recently been exploring the pineal glands role in consciousness. Curious I thought. It turns out that the biological clock that regulates our sleep patterns is the pineal gland. Images of an alarm clock shaped like a pinecone deep in my brain came to life.
Here’s how it works: As you go about your day the pineal gland takes in information about the sun through your eyes and sends it to the pineal gland via the optic nerve. When the sun goes down your pineal gland registers the change in light and begins to secrete the hormone melatonin. Melatonin is responsible for getting you ready for sleep. It is also a powerful nighttime antioxidant that removes the effects of free radicals produced by stress throughout the day. If you are awake past 10pm, this process becomes interrupted and your body’s ability to repair and regenerate is significantly impaired.
Right around midnight melatonin levels are the highest and then gradually decrease and are the lowest levels in the morning. It seems to be the general consensus that if you miss the 10pm bedtime, it will take longer to fall asleep and the quality of sleep will be less restorative, leading to a sense of fatigue in the morning.
When you are exposed to bright light it will prevent the secretion of melatonin, which is why we are directed to avoid TV or computer screens 1-2 hours before bed. When we expose ourselves to computer screens and light the pineal gland registers the light and melatonin is not produced. Darkness is what promotes the production of melatonin. So there really is a scientific reason for those blackout curtains.
I made some notes:
• Get blackout curtains
• Avoid light after 9pm
• Be in bed by 10pm
Sleep is Cleansing and Restoring
In order to determine how little sleep is actually needed I set out to know what role sleep plays in optimal health. My research took me immediately to restoration and regeneration of the physical body. Sleep studies have shown that right around 10pm when melatonin levels increase your body goes through what is called a “transformational phase.” This phase is associated with an increase in the repair and restoration of your body. A reduction of your mental and physical activity is necessary for this phase to occur. If you are a night owl and don’t sleep, 10pm could be a productive time for you because instead of using this increase in energy for repair and regeneration, you are using it to watch TV, work on the computer, read, or do other things. Instead of using the energy for regeneration and restoration, you are burning it up. As you can guess, this leads to morning fatigue.
More notes: So that’s why I always feel like I’ve been hit by a Mac truck in the morning.
In addition, a new system called the glyphatic system that flushes waste from the brain, has recently been discovered by neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The findings were published online August 15 in Science Translational Medicine. This system of cleansing and flushing the by products of brain activity is highly active during sleep. This makes sleep very important for the brain to clear out toxins and junk you accumulate in your brain all day.
This is when I started to worry. Is it really wise to limit my sleep? Is sleeping 5 hours each night doable?
• Best time to sleep is between 10pm and 2am.
• Sleep past 2am to maximize time in deep sleep.
I also discovered that sleep is essential for memory consolidation. This is the process that maintains and strengthens your long-term memories. Insufficient or fragmented sleep can hamper your ability to process what happened during the day and form both concrete memories (facts and figures) and emotional memories.
Safety Note: Sleep enough so as not to lose memory capacity like aunt Gloria. Sleep 6 hours per night just to be safe.
Studies Show More Sleep is Not Always Better
I found study after study that showed negative impacts of less sleep, and really had to dig to find studies that showed less sleep had a positive effect on physical and cognitive performance. After I got rolling a found a few good ones:
- One study I found showed that partial sleep restriction did not impact all people negatively.
- Others showed that cognitive performance peaks for both teens and adults at 7 hours.
- In another study poor sleep quality and longer sleep duration were linked to low memory performance
- Lastly, I hit the jackpot on studies when it came to meditation and the impact it has on the amount of sleep we require. This means if you meditate, you may be able to get by on less sleep.
Catching up on Sleep
Then I discovered that you can actually catch up on sleep. If you burn the candle at both ends and play catch up on the weekend, some of your baselines can return to normal.
My Personal Conclusions
From this information I determined that maximizing sleep quality and sleeping during the most important hours of the evening for optimal regeneration may enable me to sleep less and gain a few more hours to enjoy life. For me this was a big deal considering my normal sleep pattern was from 11pm to 9am for a grand total of 10 hours! Yikes! That’s almost 50% of my life!
I decided that sleeping from 10pm to 5 am for a total of 7 hours could be optimal for me. This way I can maximize my morning hours with meditation, exercise and really get a jump on my day. I could also recover from any lost sleep on the weekends. I came to this conclusion mostly because the idea of getting up any earlier than 5am is appalling.
As always, everyone is different. I even found a study where certain family members had genetic mutations and thrived sleeping from 11pm to 4am. So before you go restricting your sleep like I intend to, keep in mind that everyone is biochemically unique. We all have different stress levels, different mental states, different toxicity loads… and the list goes on and on. So the following recommendations are general recommendations to help everyone sleep better.
1. Don’t Drink Before Bed
It takes about an hour and a half for fluids to make their way out of your body. Don’t drink any liquids after 7pm so you can sleep through the magical 10pm to 2am regenerative period without having to get up and urinate.
2. Remove Electronics
After 9pm If you watch TV, work on the computer or read on your electronic device, shut it down by 9pm and use your last hour to wind down, take a bath, listen to some music, kiss your partner, and prepare for bed.
3. Be in Bed By 10pm
If you are a night owl consider winding down your day so you can be in bed by 10pm when your body and mind can reap the rewards of this magical restorative period. If you go to bed at 2am currently, slowly go to bed earlier and earlier each day so it is not such a dramatic shift for you.
4. Watch Sunsets and Sunrises
Melatonin secretion is enhanced when you watch the sunset. This contributes to better quality sleep. Your brain is able to differentiate between the setting and rising light of the sun and starts a chain of biochemical reactions to support you.
5. Stop Drinking Caffeine
I may lose some readers here, but here goes; caffeine interrupts your natural sleep cycle. There. I said it. Drinking caffeine in the morning is exciting. That’s why we do it, but this excitation can impact our sleep patterns negatively, especially if you drink caffeine later in the day. Begin to decrease the caffeine you drink gradually and watch how your sleep improves.
6. Eat a Small Dinner
When you eat a large meal your body has to focus on digesting. This interferes with regeneration and restoration. Going to bed after a light dinner aids the body and mind in its detoxification and healing processes.
7. Manage Stress
Stress puts you in a state of fight or flight, which increases the release of hormones adrenaline. Adrenaline is not conducive to sleep. Do what you can to be a duck and let any stress in your life roll off your back like water. Take deep breaths, go for nature walks, and meditate. Do what you can to reduce and eliminate stress.
If you still have trouble sleeping here are a couple of night cap recipes given to me by my herbalist instructor. They are really good ones. Go easy on the nutmeg and poppy and increase gradually to find the dose that works well for you.
To help you get to sleep
Ground poppy seeds: 1⁄4 teaspoon steeped in warm organic milk or coconut milk before bed. Slowly increase to the dose that gives you the best sleep without morning grogginess.
To help you stay asleep
Ground Nutmeg: 1⁄4 teaspoon steeped in warm milk or coconut milk before bed. Slowly increase to the dose that gives you the best sleep without morning grogginess.
*It is okay to use both nutmeg and poppy at the same time. Start with a 1/8 teaspoon of each and titrate the dose up until sleep is achieved with a little grogginess in the morning, and then cut back to last previous dose.