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Sleep Well with S.E.L.F. Correction

Rest and recovery are often undervalued components when it comes to fitness and achieving performance goals.  Many people feel that they need to do more in order to achieve more, which may be true if you’re currently not doing much, but if you’re already grinding away, then doing more is often not the answer.  Quality restoration is crucial to optimize performance and so I’d like to share some of the highlights and strategies that I found valuable from Eoin Lacey’s presentation on Sleep at the 2018 SWIS Symposium interlaced with some of my own findings on the topic.

Your body rests in cycles as you sleep and there are 4 stages within a sleep cycle.  There used to be 5 stages, but recently stages 3 and 4 have been lumped together as researchers have stated that there were no physiological changes between the two stages to necessitate having two different stages.   Each cycle can last from 90 to 120 minutes in length.

Stage 1 – Is usually the shortest stage lasting from 5-15 minutes where your eyes are closed, but you can still be easily awakened.

Stage 2 – Is a little longer in length than stage 1, but your body temperature and heart rate starts to drop along with a reduction in muscle tone as your body prepares for deep sleep.

Stage 3 – Is usually the longest stage where you are in a deep sleep.  In this stage physical restoration such as tissue repairs occur along with strengthening of the immune system.  If you were to be awakened during this stage, you would feel a little disoriented and groggy.

Stage 4 (REM Sleep) – REM stands for” rapid eye movement” and happens around the 90-minute mark of the sleep cycle.  In the first cycle it usually lasts about 10 minutes but increases with each successive cycle of uninterrupted sleep.  During your final sleep cycle REM sleep may last up to 1 hour.  The REM stage is where you may experience intense dreams as your brain is the most active during this phase of sleep causing the rapid eye movements.  Heart rate and breathing quickens along with an increase in oxygen consumption by the brain.  This stage is thought to be the most restorative stage for our brain and central nervous system.  While some may use alcohol to aid in falling asleep, it interferes with the body’s ability to achieve REM sleep and will reduce your overall REM sleep.

Ideally, we would like to get between 3-5 uninterrupted sleep cycles each night.  That’s about the popular 7-9 hours we’re accustom to hearing, but 1-2 hours should be a deep REM sleep.  According to studies, most people get about 60% of the sleep they need for optimal functioning.  Most of us are going through our daily activities only having a 60% recharge!  Most of us don’t like leaving for work in the morning with a cellphone that’s only got 60% of a recharge, yet we do this with our body and mind regularly.  If you consider that studies revealed that people who suffer from sleep apnea are 3 times more likely to develop diabetes and 23 times more likely to have a heart attack, that drives home the importance of getting proper restorative sleep.

So how can we improve our sleep at night?  There’s an array of tips out there for what is known as Sleep Hygiene that we’re familiar with such as sleeping in complete darkness, set a cooler temperature, avoid caffeine 6 hours before bedtime, reduce blue light exposure, etc.  While many of these tips have been shown to help, they are usually part of a wind down routine performed close to bedtime.  But it’s what you do upon waking in the morning and your habits throughout the day that have a greater impact on how you sleep at night.

S.E.L.F. Correction is an approach that might be of greater value, especially if these habits are stacked with good Sleep Hygiene.  Before I break down the S.E.L.F. acronym, I’m going to quickly explain the hormone cortisol because it is mentioned a few times throughout the S.E.L.F. Correction approach.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands and released into your bloodstream.  It helps with many of the body’s functions including the control of blood sugar levels, metabolism regulation, blood pressure, helps reduce inflammation and assist with memory formulation.  It is a crucial hormone for wellbeing.  It has a bad rap as it is well known as being the “stress” hormone.  There’s a lot of articles about lowering your cortisol levels, but we absolutely need cortisol for proper balance.  The problem comes when we secrete too much cortisol too often and have sustained high levels.  Sustained stress is one of the top culprits for that happening, which causes the release of too much cortisol as our body tries to combat the stress.  Cortisol is trying to help us, it’s not the bad guy.  We want to lower stress to properly balance our cortisol secretion.  That generally means a lifestyle shift that involves less stress.  Proper sleep habits and S.E.L.F. Correction can help with this by boosting cortisol when it’s supposed to be high and having it taper throughout the day.

Here’s what S.E.L.F. stands for:

Social stimulation – within your first hour of waking, interact with someone or people.  Whether it be your partner, children, possibly even some emails if you can’t be face to face with a real person.  Social stimulus boosts cortisol levels which is what you want in the morning to feel awake.  As the day goes on cortisol levels should taper down as adenosine (sleep drive) levels rise toward the evening.

Exercise – get moving sooner than later upon waking.  There is a post exercise spike in cortisol levels which will contribute to that wakefulness, not to mention increased circulation and the array of other health benefits exercise has to offer.

Light – natural light is preferred, but light first thing in the morning will help shut down melatonin and boost cortisol levels to wake your body up keeping your circadian clock on a healthy sleep/wake cycle.  It’s recommended to get at least 1000 lux of light in the eyes for about 20 minutes upon waking.  (This does not mean stare at the sun.  Please do not do that.  You will go blind.)  1000 lux is comparable to an overcast day.

Food – What you eat and when you eat it throughout the day will affect cortisol levels and mood.  Food creates stimulation in your body so eating breakfast and consuming the majority of what you will eat throughout the day earlier on will help make winding down at the end of the day easier.  Foods such as legumes, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, leafy greens and colorful vegetables, whole grains, dairy, lower sugar level fruits such as berries, and healthy fats are good options for breakfast and early day meals to help boost morning cortisol.  Starchy carbs boost adenosine and serotonin levels and actually help you wind down, which is one of the reasons why you feel nice and lethargic after eating meals with a high carbohydrate content.  I can sum this up as saying eat balanced meals comprised of real food, don’t get crazy with extremes.

I hope that you have found this information useful!