An Insomniac’s Solution to Better Sleep

Last week I wrote a post about how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and I addressed four simple ways we can all reduce our chances of developing AD. The final prevention strategy I identified was getting adequate sleep.

Sleep is Important

  • When we sleep, our brains flush out harmful neurotoxins.
  • During sleep we consolidate memories and reinforce learning.
  • During sleep we repair our bodies.
  • When we sleep, we fight off infection and disease.
  • And during sleep we replenish hormones and neurotransmitters.

Generally, sleep puts our body in a physiological state to be ready for the next day. If we do not sleep we are not in a physiological position to be successful in our daily tasks.

Sleep’s Impact on the Brain and Cognitive Functionbrain image for sleep article

  • Studies show that sleep deprivation hinders working memory.
  • Lack of sleep also affects your ability to pay attention.
  • Sleep deprivation impairs visuomotor performance, an important aspect of cognition.
  • Sleep deprivation impairs the brain’s reasoning ability.
  • Sleep deprivation also negatively affects both long term and short term memory.
  • Sleep deprivation has a tremendously negative effect on all cognitive function. In addition to the aforementioned examples, lack of sleep increases perseveration errors (repeating words or phrases), rigid thinking, and poor sleep can increase difficulty in using new information necessary for decision making and solving complex tasks.
  • Lack of sleep can cause depression and even increases the risk for suicide.

Sleep’s Impact on the Body and Athletic Performance

  • Sleep deprivation slows glucose metabolism by as much as 40%. No one wants a slow metabolism.
  • Sleep deprivation increases cortisol, a stress hormone which directly affects body fat storage and weight gain. Individuals with elevated cortisol levels are at a greater risk for weight gain and obesity.
  • Lack of sleep also leads to insulin resistance, a condition in which your cells do not use insulin properly. There is a direct connection between type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.
  • Sleep deprivation causes a decrease in growth hormone, which is necessary in tissue repair. Athletes with chronic soreness and inflammation can often trace this to sleep related issues.
  • Poor sleep leads to decreased glycogen synthesis. Glycogen is the body’s energy source for intense exercise, such as sprinting and weightlifting. Glycogen helps break down fat into energy that the body can use. A decrease in glycogen synthesis also adds more work and stress on the kidneys. When the body does not properly synthesize glycogen, it will begin using proteins for energy which are harder for the kidneys to process. Many of us may have adequate glycogen storage but our bodies do not synthesize it properly — one reason for this may be sleep deprivation.
  • Lack of sleep also increases cravings for sugar and high caloric foods. In one study, subjects would sleep for 8 hours a night and then have their next day food choices recorded. Then they slept for four hours and had their next day food choices recorded. After the four hour sleep night, participants ate more calories and showed preferences for high calorie junk foods.
  • A University of Colorado study found that just losing a few hours of sleep in consecutive nights led to a weight gain average of two pounds.
  • One study showed that restricting sleep from young, healthy, college-age students for just four days resulted in blood glucose and insulin levels consistent with those suffering from obesity and diabetes.
  • Both adults and children are more likely to be overweight the less they sleep.
  • Sleep deprivation increases our risk for accidental injury and accidental death.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation increases our risk for almost every disease — cancer, heart disease, strokes, obesity,  diabetes, and yes, Alzheimer’s.human body

But how do you know if you are getting enough sleep?

Dr. Deborah Gordon uses this checklist to assess whether her patients are getting adequate sleep:

  1. Are you sleeping 8-9 hours a night?
  2. Are at least 4-5 hours deep sleep?
  3. Do you remember some of your dreams?
  4. Do  you wake feeling refreshed?

If you answered, “Yes” then you are one of the lucky ones who is getting enough sleep. But for many of us, sleep is a luxury. Sleep is something we wish we had but we just don’t know how to get it, or we don’t believe it truly is the priority it needs to be.

So what can be done?

I have struggled with sleep my entire life and I have tried virtually every trick in the book. Here are my thoughts on what works and what does not work:


In my experience, most supplements do not work for sleep acquisition or they only work for a short period of time. The best success I ever had with a supplement for sleep was a night time protein drink made by Progenex called “Cocoon.” Cocoon contains L-tryptophan, (yes the stuff in turkey that makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving) and it worked great for a few months, but then I started having diminishing returns. Essentially, it stopped producing great nights of sleep. I have talked with a few others who had similar results. They loved it but then Cocoon eventually stopped working.

I have also tried supplementing with melatonin (the sleep hormone), and I have had decent success. However, there is a growing amount of evidence showing that if you take melatonin your body will stop naturally producing it. The scientific community seems to be in debate over this, but to me, it’s not worth the risk that your body might stop producing a necessary hormone for sleep.

Tart cherry is a really popular option and I have heard people rave about its sleep benefits. Tart cherry purportedly increases your natural melatonin production. Sadly, I have wasted quite a lot of money in health stores buying various forms of tart cherry with very little success.

ZMA is a supplement I would recommend with caution to someone struggling with sleep. ZMA (or zinc monomethionine and aspartate and magnesium aspartate) is a supplement with considerable research showing its effectiveness. Unfortunately, my overly regular digestive system cannot handle ZMA. Magnesium can have a laxative effect on the intestines and many report such effects from ZMA usage.

There are some doctors who will suggest avoiding magnesium aspartate because it breaks down into aspartic acid, which can be toxic. But I have also heard the magnesium aspartate binding to the other ingredients in ZMA minimizes this risk. So if you are interested in trying ZMA make sure you choose a product that contains Zinc Monomethionine Aspartate, Magnesium Aspartate and Vitamin B6 such as Optimum ZMA.

I have known athletes who have taken ZMA for years and swear by it. There is also considerable empirical evidence to its effectiveness, but remember it can cause diarrhea in some users and there are some doctors who will tell you to avoid magnesium aspartate.

Vitamin D. The absolute number one supplement that anyone suffering from sleep-related problems should take is vitamin D. Vitamin D, taken in the morning, can greatly improve the body’s physiological ability to produce quality sleep. According to the federal government’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, as many as 75% of all Americans are deficient in vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to help with natural melatonin production and vitamin D is necessary in maintaining optimal hormone levels.vitamin d

There are other supplements out there that promise sleep but these five are the only ones that I have come across that have anecdotal and empirical evidence supporting their effectiveness. However, it should be noted that I currently do not use any supplements, other than vitamin D, to aid me in my sleeping issues.

My solution, and hopefully yours, will be to improve your sleep hygiene.

Sleep Hygiene

If you are serious about getting good quality sleep, here are 9 sleep hygiene strategies:

    1. Schedule. In my experience, the number one most effective sleep tool is sticking to a schedule. This will be difficult in the beginning and it may mean sacrificing a few hours of sleep at first. But schedule a wake time and never vary from that time by more than an hour. So if you set 6:30 am as your wake time then you should never get up earlier than 5:30 am and never get up later than 7:30 am. Some experts recommend never varying by more than 30 minutes. I will be honest, it is hard to do this on weekends. I have to get up at 6 am on weekdays. When my alarm rings at 7 am it is difficult to convince myself that getting up right now will help my sleep.
    2. Darkness and light. Before bed the body cannot produce sufficient melatonin in the light. When it is time to sleep, you need darkness. Avoid lights, especially blue light at least one hour before it is time to sleep. Use bright light to wake yourself. In fact, exposure to sunlight early in the day will increase your vitamin D levels and actually aid in your sleep. Vitamin D deficiency is very common and I would highly recommend that you supplement with vitamin D in the morning. There is evidence that sunlight exposure early in the day also increases melatonin production.
    3. Silence. Many have success with white noise, music, or sleep machines. If you do rely on such devices, have them set on a timer to go off. Most sleep experts suggest that quiet sleep produces more REM and overall better sleep.
    4. Avoid Blue Light. Cell phones, tablets, computer screens, and televisions all emit a blue light that blocks the brain’s production of melatonin. Many experts suggest avoiding all such screens for 3 hours before bed. In doing research for this chapter, I have heard many anecdotal reports stating that wearing blue blocker glasses at night has greatly improved sleep for many individuals. I ordered a pair for myself and in updates to this post, I will let you know my results.
    5. Cooler temperatures. The body sleeps better in cool temperatures. Do not workout right before bed or take hot baths as both of these activities will raise your core body temperature.
    6. Caffeine. Caffeine affects everyone differently, but if you have any issues with sleep then you should avoid all caffeine 8 hours before bed.
    7. Alcohol. Alcohol decreases quality sleep and too much alcohol may block all REM sleep. Excessive alcohol has a similar effect as sleeping pills. This is not quality sleep and the body and brain will not get the physiological effects of deep sleep from the type of sleep induced from alcohol.
    8. Exercise. Most studies show that exercise does indeed improve sleep. Just remember to not exercise too vigorously right before bed. The rare exception to exercise helping with sleep is if you have an adrenal/cortisol problem. If you suspect you may have such a problem you should consult a doctor.
    9. Blood sugar balance. Too much insulin can drive your blood sugar levels to drop at night, which will lead to restless sleep. To avoid this, eat healthy blood sugar balancing foods such as grass-fed beef, shellfish, fish, vegetables, and plenty of quality fat, such as fat from butter, avocado, coconut oil, animal fat, and fish oil. Avoid too many grains, sugar, and only eat small amounts of fruits at night, as these foods can upset your blood sugar balance.

There are some other potential health concerns that could be affecting your sleep. Thyroid issues, low testosterone in men, and suboptimal levels of estrogen in women can also lead to poor sleep. Please consult a physician if you think you may suffer from any of these problems.

The first step is recognizing you need better sleep and the second step is improving your sleep hygiene. Good luck!

Do you suffer from poor sleep? What strategies have you tried to improve your sleep?

This week’s SFCW:

Workout One: Sleep for time!
Haha, just kidding. But we DO want you to start prioritizing your sleep. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep so that your body can work its very best for you!

Ok, for real, Workout One: 5 Rounds for time of 

  • 10 Wall balls
  • 10 Pull-ups

If you have a kettlebell but not a medicine ball, you can sub squat thrusters for the wall balls. If don’t have equipment, substitute 10 push-ups, 10 squats, 10 burpees. And buy a kettlebell. ;)

Workout Two: Tabatas 

Remember, Tabata means 20 seconds of work followed by a 10 second break for 8 rounds (a total of four minutes). The first few rounds feel easy but it starts getting tough sooner than you expect. If you need to modify and do 4 rounds, that’s ok! You just have new goals to shoot for. Four rounds this week, 5 next, and you’ll be at 8 rounds in no time.

Perform 8 rounds of Tabata intervals for each of the following exercises. Rest one minute after each set of Tabatas (after ALL the sprints, rest one minute before starting the push-ups):

  • Sprints (track, treadmill, anywhere)
  • Push-ups
  • Lunges or squats
  • Planks

You are welcome to choose any four exercises that you want–these are just suggestions for those with limited equipment. Tabatas are great because you can perform them with any exercise you want. I’d caution against doing them with super heavy weight (you want to get a lot of reps completed and 20 seconds is really short when performing heavy deadlifts) and you don’t want to risk injury this way. But feel free to do burpees, pull-ups, mountain climbers, squat jumps, rowing, biking, anything to ramp up your current fitness level.

Workout Three: Complete for time

  • 2 Kettlebell swings, 2 push presses (one per arm using the same kettlebell)
  • 4 kettlebell swings, 4 push presses
  • 8 kettlebell swings, 8 push presses
  • 16 kettlebell swings, 16 push presses
  • 32 kettlebell swings, 32 push-presses
  • Repeat this cycle with lunges (holding the kettlebell) instead of the push-presses

If you don’t have a kettlebell, switch out the swings for single leg squats/pistol squats (so instead of 2 swings, one single leg squat each leg). These are hard. If you can’t do them well (not many can, it’s ok!) Find a chair or couch and use one leg to sit down and then get back up again. Make sure the chair or couch sits lower to the ground–about knee height is great. Use the same chair or couch to do incline or decline push-ups instead of the push-presses. If push-ups are hard for you, put your hands on the couch/chair and do push-ups. If push-ups are easier, put your feet on the couch/chair and hands on the floor.

Don’t forget, we appreciate your comments! Let us know below, do you suffer from poor sleep? What strategies have you tried to improve your sleep?