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Tracking and Improving your Sleep for Better Health

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A recent focus in my life has been sleep quality. It’s something that we all intuitively understand yet, for whatever reason, choose to ignore. In 2018, when I really ramped up my training, I was often training over 50 hours a week and sleeping under 20. Now, my focus is on flipping the two – sleeping over 50 hours and training/coaching under 20. When I think about it now, I feel like I was putting in 80% more effort for, something like an extra 5-10% short-term performance gain, all while impeding my long-term health. Seems like a recipe for burnout.

Everybody wants the latest hack for recovery. I realized how ridiculous it was that I was scheduling time for my Normatec recovery, ice baths, infrared sauna, etc., all while skipping out on the best aid in recovery – sleep. There were several things topics that I read about that influenced my prioritization of sleep:

  • Sleep and ghrelin/leptin: Ghrelin and Leptin are your hunger and satiety hormones, respectively. When lacking sleep, you get the combined effect of a ghrelin spike and leptin levels falling, leading to overeating.
  • Sleep and the glymphatic system: The glymphatic system is responsible for the clean-up of beta-amyloid plaques and toxins, and becomes highly active during sleep – particularly in the deep sleep phase. Another factor to consider here is glycation, or when toxins can bound to glucose and become “sticky” and, thus, harder to get rid of. As a former boxer who is concerned with the onset of CTE and Alzheimer’s, I abstain from sweets before bed and keep a close eye on my deep sleep levels for this reason.
  • Sleep (Deep Sleep) and growth hormone: Growth hormone levels also spike during the deep sleep phase of sleep and are necessary for a good night’s sleep.
  • Sleep (REM) and mental health: Lack of REM is often linked to depression and other mental health disorders.

Now that I’ve talked a little about the importance of sleep, I wanted to discuss a little about my protocol and the things that I look for in my sleep. I currently self-track my sleep using an Oura ring, and often point others to the Oura Ring Sleep Stages Guide as a great guide towards sleep information.

Oura doesn’t give recommended hours in each stage, but we can back into how much time should be spent in each stage of sleep. Personally, I am for 3.5-4 hours of combined Deep Sleep and REM, although the allocation of the two often switch between the nights. If you want to improve your sleep, I would suggest the following:

  • Alter your sleep timing (not hours)
    • Shifting the same 8 hour sleep schedule can alter the REM/Deep Sleep percentages for me, and quite drastically. My early sleep stages are deep-sleep dominant, while my later (early morning) sleep stages are REM dominant.
      • You can figure out your ideal 8 hours just by trial and error. There’s also some research to there being some genetic influence on sleep timing, and tests like 23andme have suggestions on when to sleep and wake up.
      • Dr Michael Breus talks all about chronobiology in the book The Power of When, where he categorizes people as bears, lions, wolves, and dolphins and describes how each person’s internal clock differs.
  • Common tips:
    • Early sun! (or blue-light exposure)
    • Small dinner (+ no desert, sugar, or high glycemic foods 4 hours before bed!)
    • Limited screen time before bed
    • Keeping your room at the appropriate temperature
  • Oura’s “Take a Moment” feature: a 7 minute guided breathwork to slow your heart rate at the end of the day.
  • Brain.fm/Binaural beats: I’ve experimented with Brain.fm, which claims to enhance focus, meditation, sleep, etc. depending on which sounds you listen to. I tried it – wouldn’t be surprised if it works but don’t necessarily need it. It’s also an odd thing to do in front of your partner, which brings me to my next one..
  • Mouth taping: Recommended by Patrick McKeown in the book Oxygen Advantage. The key is to enforce nasal breathing (important when asleep/awake) – this regulates breathing pace and encourages breathing less (using the diaphragm instead of the upper chest) instead of more
  • Supplement with Zinc & Magnesium (ZMA): Many people are deficient in either/both. Zinc is required for producing melatonin.
    • Side note on melatonin: The typical dosage of melatonin is way too high, on average being 3mg-10mg. I take it only sparingly (i.e. when traveling), and only 300mcg, so either 1/10th or 1/33rd the recommended amount. Not an exaggeration – a 3mg melatonin knocks me out for >24 hours (i.e. an 18 hour flight to the Philippines + an entire night when I arrive). I recommend using it very sparingly.

What are your best sleep tips?