My struggle with sleep has been ongoing for some time although it went to a whole different level last year when I went full-time as a fitness professional. My challenge has never been in going to sleep. My ex-wife would say I could literally be talking one second and snoring the next. The problem was with me staying asleep and waking up early…sometimes more than an hour before my alarm…and often hungry to the point that there’s no way I could go back to sleep.
I tried numerous sleep supplements and none made any difference. One particular product from GNC gave me some pretty wild and crazy dreams. Valerian Root was one of the key ingredients and it is known to cause “vivid” dreams. Unfortunately it didn’t improve my sleep.
As a trainer, it seemed that my busiest days where I would often go over 10,000 steps on top of my personal workouts were followed by the earliest mornings in terms of me waking up hungry. Clearly I wasn’t eating enough. The challenge was where to add the extra food and how much.
I’ve been lifting weights since high school and at 51 this year, I’ve spent the bulk of that time training in the early mornings. As a result, I’ve always placed the majority of my carbs earlier in the day in my post-workout shake, breakfast, and lunch.
It is widely accepted that our bodies respond best to carbs in the hours immediately following a workout using them for recovery rather than storing them as “extra”. Consequently, my afternoon snack and dinner have always been made up of lean proteins, healthy fats, and fibrous veggies…but little to no starchy carbs.
That used to work in that I had no issues with my sleep, however as the years passed by, the quality of my sleep diminished. After talking with Keith Klein, my long-time nutritionist in Houston, TX, and Paul Kriegler and Jacob Webb, members of our corporate nutrition team with Life Time, I was definitely open to change.
All three collectively believed I was under eating in general given my level of activity and that I especially needed to add in more carbs at night. They suggested that my low carb dinner was setting me up for low blood sugar during the night, and that was the cause for me waking up. That all sounded great in theory and I made the changes they suggested. Unfortunately, in the short run, it didn’t really help.
And then, I found the answer…
Have you ever heard of the risk factors associated with blue light exposure? Bottom line, we as humans are very sensitive to light. Many years ago, before electricity, our daily schedule was largely driven by natural light. When the sun came up, we got up and did our thing. When the sun went down, bed time was soon to follow.
When the sun goes down, our body naturally produces more melatonin which is our sleepy-time hormone. With the introduction of electricity followed by an ongoing proliferation of technology, our exposure and in many cases over-exposure to light in the evenings has steadily increased. The blue light that comes from our screens including our phones, tablets, games, and TV’s is particularly damaging in that it can literally suppress the production of melatonin and ultimately alter our circadian rhythm.
If you’re basically glued to your screens right up until you go to bed, good luck with your sleep. This doesn’t even include the stimulation to our brains from the very thing you’re doing with your screens in the first place. This can only exacerbate the problem of not properly winding down before attempting to drop into a deep and sound sleep.
For me, learning about the effects of blue light and really light in general was life changing. I was guilty both at night and in the morning for different reasons both with equally damaging results. For years, I have been very much plugged into my screens in the evening which never kept me from going to sleep, however I would routinely wake up multiple times a night so clearly I struggled with staying asleep.
Waking up extra early in the morning was totally self-inflicted despite my best intentions. Before I became a fitness professional, my career was in sales, and I would regularly set my alarm up to an hour early in order to workout before making it to an early morning appointment. I probably did this to some degree several times a month for the past ten years or so.
In my research I found that exposure to blue light in the early mornings can actually reset your body clock. Wow! As a creature of habit, I always start the day with coffee, my bible, and my lap top. So every time I got up early on purpose, exposing myself to the blue light from my computer and phone, I was slowly teaching my body to wake up earlier and earlier.
Then when I started working as a trainer last year, I was waking up early partially due to hunger and yet I would still start my day the same way…with my coffee, bible, and lap top. Talk about a negative compounding effect.
To break the vicious cycle, I took drastic measures. Thanks to the advice from my nutritional advisers, I finally figured out how much to eat every day to match my high activity level. This pretty much solved being overly hungry even if I did happen to wake up extra early.
My blue light “blocking” strategy includes the following:
1 – Setting the “night shift” on my iPhone for 2.5 hours before going to bed.
2 – Downloading the F.LUX app on my lap top which allows you to customize the timing of it’s blue light blocking effect.
3 – Purchasing a pair of blue light blocking clip-ons for my prescription reading glasses.
4 – For watching TV, cooking, and any other domestic activity, I purchased a basic pair of blue light blocking glasses.
5 – And finally, because my two desk lamps are LED (emitting blue light), I purchased an OLED desk lamp which I use strictly after 6PM until going to bed. OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diodes and has ZERO blue light.
The results? My sleep has completely changed. According to my Fitbit, the length and quality of my sleep has steadily improved. Now after several months of putting the latter pieces into play, I pretty much sleep through the night sometimes with my alarm going off.
Trust me…that hardly ever happened in the past. I’m not really sure why I ever set my alarm in the first place because it would never go off. Now as crazy as it may sound to those who battle with their snooze alarms every morning, it’s almost a welcome way to start the day as it means I got a much needed good night’s sleep.
Closing thoughts for my readers:
For those of you using your cell phone as an alarm, these closing remarks are just for you. Do yourself a huge favor and go buy an inexpensive alarm clock. If your phone is close to your bed, whether you’re using it as an alarm or not, you will be compelled to check it. Simply remove the temptation completely by leaving your phone somewhere outside your bedroom.
The worst thing you can do for your sleep is to check your phone during the night. Your brain will light up like a Christmas tree and it will take some time for you to calm back down and get back to a deep sleep. Trust me, social media or email or whatever can wait until the next morning. It’s not worth the damage to your sleep which is vitally critical to your overall health and well-being.