The Three Pillars of Longevity: Recovery Through Sleep
In this series of blog posts, I have done a deep dive of what I call the Three Pillars of Longevity. These are the three primary areas of focus if you want to live a long life in optimal health (and if you are reading this I bet you do)! Recall that the first pillar was proper fueling, including effective use of the breath, liquid as well as macro and micro-nutrients. The second pillar is recovery, which includes recovering from training or work, and sleep. In this article, I want to delve into the importance of, and how to improve sleep. Sleep has gotten little attention in the past but is crucial for you to perform at an elite level and to achieve total health.
But I only need 5 hours!
I have heard from many SEALs and other high performing executives “I only sleep 5 hours and that’s all I need.” This is a self-deceit, not a lie mind you because they believe they only need 5 hours. Yet they are burned out and out of balance, not appreciating the importance of sleep for recovery and balance of the neuro-endocrine, nervous system, and mental health. It seems obvious, but recent research is finally revealing that sleep deprivation leads to performance degradation – which can only be rectified by getting more sleep.
My teammate, former SEAL Dr. Kirk Parsley, has made it his mission to study sleep. Many of the combat vet SEALs he studied had extreme hormonal imbalance due to sleep deprivation, with testosterone levels of 13-year-old girls. The SEALs would sleep a troubled four hours then get up and hit a hardcore workout for 2 hours, further jacking their over-extended adrenals. Cortisol production was over the top with these guys compared to the critical growth hormone and testosterone they needed for recovery. This problem is not limited to special operators but is rampant in our overworked, over-stimulated society. Combined with inadequate fueling and recovery, you have the recipe for personal disaster.
Dr. Parsley’s research has shown that less than 7 hours (give or take 30 minutes to an hour based on individual needs) of quality sleep a night will lead to gradual degradation of performance and health. Five hours a night will give you the mental state of being mildly drunk the next day, and lead to an extra pound or more of weight packed on for every month of deficit. A larger nightly shortfall will have an even greater negative impact, leading to serious health and performance concerns. So if you are a high-performing individual, yet your schedule only allows for five hours of sleep (or that is all you can muster), then you need a plan to get that extra 14 hours of restoration a week. That plan can include napping, sleeping late on weekends, or a sleep vacation! An even better plan would be to figure out how to get the requisite number of high-quality hours of sleep each night.
How to Sleep Well
The first four hours of sleep seem to be the most critical for physiological recovery. This is when you will dip into the level of brain activity associated with deep, dreamless sleep when the hormonal balance is restored. After these first four hours, we move into and out of the other layers, which address different recovery aspects of our physical and psychic being – such as allowing our subconscious mind to process through dreams. If you want to geek out on the science, check out Dr. Parsley’s website www.docparsley.com.
There are a number of tactics that you can employ to reinforce your sleep. But ultimately this issue is about lifestyle. Elevating this crucial aspect of recovery to the same level of importance as fueling and training your body is the key.
Black out your room. This is obvious – we sleep best in totally dark places – but too often there is ambient light, a night light or outside lights that can affect the timing of melatonin release, disturbing the process of dropping into deep sleep. Black out curtains, turning all lights off, and a night mask will all work.
Block the blue light using blue light blocking glasses, screens or bulbs. I have a pair of blue light glasses I use if I intend to read using my iPad or watch Netflix. The blue light prevents the light from tricking me into thinking it is still daylight.
Turn off electronics & TV at least an hour before bed. The stimulation will delay melatonin release and the onset of that crucial first four-hour sleep cycle. Reading before bed is an excellent option, one that never fails to put me to sleep quickly.
Don’t eat food at least two hours before bed. If you are unwilling to give up that late night snack, then stay away from sugar and carbs which will stimulate cortisol production. Also, limit your water intake an hour before bed so that you don’t have to get up to use the bathroom during the night.
Use a sleep supplement, such as Doc Parsley’s sleep cocktail, to augment the melatonin and other micro-nutrients that promote sleep.
Keep your room at a cool 65 degrees. Warm environments or too many blankets will overheat you and keep you from going deep, or wake you up periodically as you sweat.
Develop an evening ritual. I saved the best for last. The evening ritual is where you will really set your body-mind system into a trajectory toward optimal sleep that will be hard to interrupt. The evening ritual of Unbeatable Mind includes a recap visualization and journaling exercise that eradicates any regret from the day. This will prevent restless sleep where your subconscious mind wrestles with the day’s problems. Additionally, specific breathing and meditation exercises help prepare your hormonal and nervous systems for the work they need to do. Developing an evening ritual is the silver bullet for sleep, though the other tactics are important support tools.
There is much more to this topic than what I have covered here and I encourage you to assess your own sleep habits. Implement an evening ritual and the tactics above and get excited with the results.
In the last post of this series, I will dive into the third pillar of longevity which I call integrated training. Until then, sleep well. Hooyah!