Sleep is so important for recovery and increasing your level of fitness. Dr. Ruchir P. Patel MD, FACP, Medical Director and Founder of The Insomnia and Sleep Institute of Arizona and avid CrossFitter, talks about the 3 most common mistakes people can make that affect sleep. This is the second of more articles to be produced by Dr. Patel for Wodstar.
1. Not keeping a consistent sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends.
In order for the body and our internal circadian rhythm (‘internal clocks’) to stay consistent to allow us to sleep well, it is very important to ensure that you attempt to stay as consistent as possible to keep your work-week sleep schedule even on the weekends. Now this may seem torturous to some but it is important to allow the brain to have consistency in terms of it knowing when to sleep and when to be awake so that you do not develop insomnia especially on Sunday nights and then have a rough start to the week. More and more research has shown that many crucial regenerative processes occur throughout many major organ systems in the body including the heart and brain that are dependent upon the brain being able to reach the various levels of sleep. If sleep is either interrupted secondary to not keeping a consistent schedule or developing insomnia and being sleep-deprived these regenerative processes are greatly affected. Think of this process of consistency as that of trying to get a baby or toddler to sleep consistently through the night – if you place the baby to sleep at different times each night then it will be very difficult for him or her to actually learn when sleep time is and when it is time to be awake. This same process in essence occurs to the brain when it lacks consistency in the sleep-wake schedule.
2. Keep your thoughts about yesterday, today, and tomorrow out of bed.
I very often see patients that come to me reporting that he or she is not able to get to sleep at night because “I cannot turn off my mind” or “my mind keeps racing about various things that I need to do tomorrow or that I should have done today”. This is a very common and major mistake that many individuals are guilty of when he or she is attempting to go to sleep. Remember, you are trying to sleep and not trying to solve your problems at this time. The most important point about this major source of insomnia is to attempt to learn ways to sort through the various items on your mind that could be causing stress or anxiousness before you enter into the bedroom. In order for the brain to be able to relax and drift off to sleep, your mind must be clear, calm, and relaxed. I very often tell my own patients that I, personally, never think about sleep as sleep should be innate and natural, and more importantly, I leave all of my thoughts and stress about the day downstairs in my office and by the time I enter my bed I know it is time to relax and sleep. I have, in essence, taught myself and my brain that when I finally do retreat to the bedroom that that this will be the time for me the unwind by listening to music or reading something light to take my mind off of stressful things so that I can close my eyes and go to sleep with a clear conscience.
This is something that many individuals that develop insomnia will forget how to do and then they end up becoming very preoccupied by the notion that a) they are not sleeping well, b) they need to sleep, and c) they need to work extra hard to make sure they do sleep. These are the elements that in fact perpetuate insomnia rather than help to resolve it. The key thing to remember is focus on re-learning how to forget about sleeping and learn methods to relax your mind before going into the bedroom itself. Once you have learned these self-soothing mechanisms then you are much better equipped to “treat” your own future insomnia without the need to panic and reach for a sleep aid.
3. Exercise: This is especially important to all of the dedicated Crossfit athletes out there.
While having a regular exercise regimen is very important to foster good sleep each night, a very common mistake individuals will make is exercising too late in the day. The general rule-of-thumb with exercise is to avoid exercising within 4 hours of bedtime.
The reason for this is actually physiological: all of our brains have a gland called the pineal gland that produces and secretes melatonin. Melatonin, many of you may think is a sleep aid, but in reality it is not a sleep aid. The pineal gland begins to secrete melatonin into the blood stream generally within 2 hours of the normal time that our circadian rhythm or internal clock is set for us to go to sleep. Melatonin then activates various regions of the brain that release neurotransmitters that aid in activating the process of sleep which in turns then also helps to “turn off” the neurotransmitters that help us to stay awake.
The relationship between exercising within 4 hours of bedtime and melatonin is the fact that melatonin release is dependent upon our core body temperature declining (see figure below), which is what naturally occurs as the evening and night approaches.
If there is a sudden spike in the body temperature during this period then melatonin release is actually delayed and thus the initiation of the process of sleep is then delayed and thus having a difficult time falling asleep.
So with that being said, the ideal time for individuals to exercise should be at least 4 hours prior to the time of bedtime or ideally first thing in the morning.
Train hard and sleep well!
Ruchir P. Patel, M.D., FACP
Medical Director and Founder, The Insomnia and Sleep Institute of Arizona
Board certified and fellowship trained in adult and pediatric sleep medicine