Sleep should be easy, says MUD\WTR’s sleep advisor, sleep scientist and physician Dr. Jeffrey Durmer. He’s a systems neuroscientist who has worked with Olympic athletes on sleep training for a competitive edge. But if sleep is a natural behavior, why is it so hard to get enough of it—especially that real quality, wake-up-refreshed, deep kind of sleep?
While Durmer says true sleep disorders are relatively rare, if you find yourself restless, tossing and turning at night, you are far from alone. Sixty years ago, Americans averaged the recommended eight hours of sleep per night, Durmer says. Today, working adults are averaging around 6 to 6.2 hours.
Capitalism and technology have created a culture of sleep deprivation—“one of accomplishment, achievement and capital gain,” Durmer observes. “That is a force of our culture causing people to change their behaviors. As a result, we've also reached all kinds of psychological, physical and emotional disorders in our culture.”
Add in using social media and phones at night and your circadian rhythm system—which regulates natural processes such as sleep, body temperature and hormone secretion—goes into jet lag mode, activating “for wakefulness rather than sleep,” Durmer says. This can cause further sleep disruptions over time.
So what can we do to improve our sleep? Durmer points to three key pillars for sleep success: duration, timing and quality.
Below are three ways to embrace these pillow-time pillars and get better sleep, according to Durmer.
1. For better sleep, cut caffeine—especially in the afternoon.
Not only can caffeine prevent you from falling asleep in the first place, it can hinder the quality of the sleep you are getting.
“Caffeine is a potent antagonist of adenosine,” Durmer says. What does that mean? Well, adenosine is a nucleoside, a building block of RNA, that occurs in all our body’s cells and promotes sleep.
“If you put caffeine into the system, it's blocking adenosine from getting the signal across to shut down wakefulness,” says Durmer. The result is that “it causes you to stay awake by inhibiting sleep.”
If you’re going to drink a caffeinated beverage, Durmer suggests 2 p.m. as a cut-off time to rid the body of all caffeine prior to bedtime.
“Once you go into sleep with caffeine on board, your sleep itself is lighter,” Durmer says.
2. Pay attention to light—day and night.
The light you take in throughout your days affects the quality of your sleep, Durmer explains. During the day, go out into nature and spend time in the sunlight to maximize the activation of your circadian rhythms, he recommends.
“I tell people, go outside for walks; instead of having a meeting [inside], go for a walking meeting,” he advises.
At night, lower the lighting and go for more natural tones of light.
“Go toward orange [hues] in the evening,” Durmer says.
He suggests using light bulbs that can change color, such as “smart bulbs.”
As a rule of thumb, stay within the yellow through red zone of the color spectrum at night, rather than the daytime greens, blues and cooler colors that are more stimulating (note that the latter includes the blue light of computers and phone screens).
3. Create rituals around your sleep.
The way we help children go to sleep is by patterning behavior with them: take a bath, brush your teeth, read a book.
“Doing soothing activities that they can control, that they feel comfortable with and that are repeatable so that the next night we do the same thing” improves children’s sleep, Durmer says.
And sleep rituals aren’t just for kids. Ritual is a huge part of what leads to healthy sleep, Durmer says. So, be sure to create your own wind-down routine to signal to your body that it’s time for some good, deep, restful sleep.
Read more: Jeffrey Durmer is a Performance Jedi
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