The Twelve Hours Before Bed Can Make Or Break Your Sleep

In last week’s post we went over the environmental mismatches within your sleep environment that can disrupt your sleep. Unfortunately your sleep environment is not the only place where environmental mismatches can sabotage your sleep.

It might sound counterintuitive, but a good night’s sleep begins when you wake up.

Last week we talked about removing light from your bedroom. While we want to remove light in your bedroom at night, during the day we want to expose ourselves to bright light in the morning. In last week’s post we talked about how light is a zeitgeber, meaning it helps set our sleep and wake cycle. By exposing ourselves to bright natural light soon after waking up we help entrain the proper hormonal rhythm so that our sleep hormones kick in at the proper time at night when we want to fall asleep..

For 100’s of thousands of years our sleep wake cycles followed the rising and setting of the Sun. When the Sun rises, the light hits our eyes and our bodies release hormones that make us awake and alert. When the Sun sets hormones are released that made us sleepy and allows us to drift off to sleep.

https://www.labome.com/method/Sleep-and-Ageing.html

Many people today hardly ever see the sun without looking at it through a window (which is not adequate for the proper hormonal release). Then they spend their evenings staring at a phone/computer/TV and receive artificial sunlight way past the time the Sun has set. In other words they are sending all the wrong lighting signals to their body.

This ends up shifting our sleep cycle later, however due to modern social constraints we need to wake up at a certain time and we use an alarm to wake up earlier than we should, cutting our sleep short. Then on the weekends we disrupt this even further by staying up later [1].

https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45158

So what are some practical things we can do to leverage light in order to improve our sleep and eliminate the mismatch?

The first thing you can do is try to get some sunlight in your eyes in the morning time. You may have heard alot of people say that you must get the sunlight first thing in the morning just as the sun is rising. Yes this is ideal, but I also think that it instills an all or nothing mindset which I am not a big fan of. I for one cannot get sunlight in my eyes as soon as the sun is rising most days of the week. I need to pack lunches, shower, and get the kids off to school 5 days a week. At best I am getting my first exposure to the sun around 3 hours after it rises in the summer.

In my (non-expert) opinion, as long as you get some sunlight in your eyes at some point in the morning it’s better than not doing it at all. It may not be optimal, but optimal isn’t required to reap the benefits in most cases..

The next piece to the lighting mismatch story is the exposure to light at night. Again you will hear suggestions from experts saying your need to shut off all artificial light sources at night once the sun sets. This again brings up the idea of perfect or good enough. I know most people are not realistically going to remove all artificial light once the sun goes down. Hell, I am sitting here typing this blog post at night staring at a computer screen, clearly I don’t follow this rule.

I think there is a huge variation in how light at night affects people. I also think that what they are doing while they are exposed to the light makes a difference. While I am typing a blog post, it’s a relatively easy thing for me to do, it’s not like watching something like the news right before bed, or a scary movie, or trying to solve a hard work problem. Combining light exposure with a stimulating activity is probably not a good idea. So if you are going to be exposed to light at night try to make sure you are not doing something that is going to get you stimulated right before bed.

There are also things you can do to lessen the effects of light exposure at night. You can also take steps like enabling night shift on your devices or wearing a pair of blue light blocking glasses. Are these things perfect? No. Maybe they help, maybe they don’t, but they aren’t hurting you either.

The final thing I would like to point out about light at night is that being exposed to light from the sun during the day may mitigate its effects. Essentially there is some research showing the being exposed to sunlight during the day is a stronger zeightgeiber than the lack of light at night[2].

The next mismatch we will address in regards to sleep is food. We often think of diet and its relation to body composition, energy, and physical performance, but we rarely think about how the foods we are (or are not) consuming can impact our sleep. Everything from the macronutrients, micronutrients, timing, individual responses, and chemicals in a food can affect our sleep.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5554513/

Let’s start with an obvious food and its effect on sleep that nearly everyone is aware of….caffeine.

Caffeine is most widely consumed via drinking coffee as it naturally occurs in a decent dosage in that drink. In today’s modern food environment caffeine is added to lots of drinks and foods.

Why?

It makes you feel alert! With nearly half of Americans reporting they are sleepy during the day[3], caffeine offers a nice pick me up and a quick, cheap, and easy solution to the problem!

I have nothing against caffeine, I myself consume 1-2 cups of coffee a day and take caffeine pills before my athletic competitions. However many people are consuming too much caffeine or are consuming it too late in the day and it is negatively affecting their sleep.

One study tested the effects of consuming 400mg of caffeine taken at bedtime, 3 hours before bed, or 6 hours before bed. Researchers found that the sleep was negatively affected in all three conditions, even the condition where the caffeine was ingested 6 hours before caused participants to sleep an hour less a night[4]!

So if you consume caffeine that is fine, no big deal. If you consume caffeine and are also struggling with your sleep it’s worth evaluating your caffeine consumption. Are you consuming it past noon and/or are you having multiple caffeinated beverages throughout the day? Try limiting caffeine to before bed and limiting the amount to 1 or 2 beverages a day and see if it improves your sleep.

The next topic to talk about in relation to food and sleep is meal timing. In general when you eat your meals and how many meals you choose to eat a day makes little difference in health outcomes. The exception to this rule is sleep.

The biggest problem I see when it comes to timing of food intake and sleep is eating too close to bed. When we do this we kick on processes to digest the food we are eating and instead of shutting things down to go to sleep we are ramping things up to try and digest the food.

The other issue related to food timing is the type of foods you consume, when you consume them. Probably the biggest food group that might affect sleep for both better and worse is carbohydrates. Some people sleep better having carbohydrates in their evening meal, or even consuming a tablespoon of something like honey right before bed. For others they sleep better when their last meal is lower carb. As always when it comes to carbohydrates there is a lot of individuality, so experiment for yourself to see if manipulating carbohydrate intake impacts your sleep or not.

The next food sleep connection we will talk about is related to food intolerances. If consuming a food makes you inflamed or disrupts your gut and you try to sleep in that state, of course it’s not going to be good sleep [5].

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7797530/

It’s likely though if you have a food intolerance, sleep disturbances are not the only symptom, you likely have other symptoms like GI distress, skin issues, trouble concentrating, etc. and in most cases it’s these symptoms that are causing the sleep troubles. In other words, if you know you likely have some food intolerances but are not sure what they are, it’s worth making an effort to figure out what’s causing it and eliminate it from your diet, your sleep may improve.

Finally I think it is important to address your overall energy balance and its impact on sleep. I have been unable to find much in the way of research on this topic but I tend to see poor sleep in people, particularly athletes, who are undereating. In fact I see it in myself if I am chronically not eating enough. The symptoms tend to be frequent wakeups throughout the night and trouble falling back asleep. I suspect there is some stress response due to being in a low energy state that is causing this but again I have not seen much in the way of studies on this topic. If you have been chronically dieting, or you are someone who is highly active and eating a primarily whole foods diet without making an effort to eat a lot of food, and you are waking up throughout the night, you might consider trying to eat some more food and see if it helps.

Now onto the next mismatch, physical activity.

The best benefit of being physically active throughout the day is that it makes you tired. Now I am not suggesting that you do some kind of extreme workout that depletes you enough that you want to take a nap a few hours after. What I am suggesting is that you are moving your body throughout the day because it helps burn off some energy.

Parents of small kids know this all too well. If you have small kids that have not been able to move their bodies all day, by the end of the day they are wired and have a hard time going to sleep. If however they are super active all day long they will fall asleep quite easily.

Adults are no different. Think of a time you did some kind of physical labor all day long, you fall asleep pretty easily after that day. This meta-analysis found that in people with insomnia (disrupted sleep) that exercise helped improve either symptoms [6].

The other benefit to exercise can come from making sure your body’s temperature fluctuates appropriately.

We discussed in the previous blog post how body temperature should drop as you fall asleep. The opposite should happen when you wake up, your body temperature should increase. This helps set the appropriate circadian clocks within your body. A good way to increase your body’s temperature is to get some kind of physical activity in the morning. This doesn’t need to be a formal workout, even a simple walk for 10-20 minutes will do the job,

The discussion of timing your physical activity is also relevant when we talk about sleep. Just like with food intake we do not want to exercise too close to the time you will be going to sleep. This is just going to stimulate your body and put you in a stressed state making it harder to fall asleep.

The final mismatch we have already covered in detail, is stress, specifically chronic stress. Since we have already covered stress in detail I won’t go into why stress is bad for our sleep here and instead point you to the blog posts on stress on why and how to better manage stress (blog post 1, 2, 3, 4).

This is not the most comprehensive post on sleep. There are many other sleep related topics we could cover and there are entire books written on the topic. What I wanted to try and accomplish in this post is to look at some of the not so sexy parts of our lives that might impact our sleep and some simple actionable things you can do to correct them. The good part of addressing these mismatches is that they not only help your sleep but will also help you achieve your health and fitness goals. When your sleep, stress management, and recovery practices are on point your foundation is quite strong and it makes it much easier to reach those goals.

If you enjoyed this series of posts on optimizing your health foundation and would like to get more actionable information to help you reach your goals you can sign up for my newsletter using the form below and I will email you when I put out new content that you can use.

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  1. (2017, March 27). The effects of self-selected light-dark cycles and social constraints …. Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://www.nature.com/articles/srep45158
  2. (2022, January 6). Current Insights into Optimal Lighting for Promoting Sleep and …. Retrieved August 9, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8747801/
  3. (2022, May 13). Sleep Statistics – Facts and Data About Sleep 2022 | Sleep Foundation. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/sleep-facts-statistics
  4. (n.d.). Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3805807/
  5. (2021, January 1). Sleep disorders related to nutrition and digestive diseases – NCBI. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7797530/
  6. (2018, July 11). Exercise can improve sleep quality: a systematic review and meta …. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6045928/

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