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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

The most powerful recovery tool you already own...

One of the most common questions I receive is what recovery tools can I buy to help heal my body and improve health? Well, the answer is pretty simple, and guess what, you probably already own it. It's your bed! We have the most powerful recovery tool hard wired into our DNA -- getting a good night of sleep! A restful night provides our body with an environment to recover, repair, and restore cellular function. It's also the time when the majority of our growth and healing factors are released.

Interest in sleep and sleep hygiene has become more and more popular over the past decade. Especially since recent research has shown a correlation between poor sleep habits and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease. The Ted Talk below is by Matthew Walker, a prominent leader in sleep research and author of the bestselling book Why We Sleep (Check out his book and my booklist recommendations).

Sleep is very complex, and much like anything in health/science there is still quite a bit of unknown. There is one consensus statement: quality sleep is without exception the most powerful recovery tool available for our body. So let's cut to the chase, what are actionable strategies you can implement to improve sleep?

Similar to improving chronic pain or poor nutrition, sustainable results in regards to improving sleep develop from lifestyle behavior changes, not pills or medications. The first area to address when working toward improving sleep is actually the act of waking up and the first few hours of the day. This may be surprising as you may think it has nothing to do with sleep or falling asleep. The first few hours of the day has everything to do with sleep as every cell in our body works off a circadian rhythm or "clock". Circadian literally means "occurring naturally over about a day". Upon waking the cells in our brain and body start a timer that slowly ticks towards sleepiness by the end of the day. This timer is very predictive. It works off of and adapts to the sensory inputs we provide for it. Therefore, we must give our body the correct sensory inputs to guide this circadian clock in the right direction and keep balance.

So, what does this have to do with waking up and the morning? Well, the strongest input we can give our circadian clock is morning sunlight. Getting outside within the first 60-90 minutes of waking to get morning sunlight (low solar angle) will trigger your circadian clock by elevating cortisol and adrenaline leading to alertness. This morning light mechanism also starts the sleep timer by initiating the release of adenosine, the sleep-initiating chemical in our body. Research suggests just 5-10 minutes outside in morning sunlight can trigger this circadian clock. So, first recommendation in improving sleep... get your morning sunlight!

In the spirit of embracing debate... what do you enjoy better? Sunrise or Sunset? More on this later.

I mentioned the circadian clock is very predictive and adaptive. So, the second recommendation to improve sleep quality is consistency. Having a regular sleep/wake time schedule is key in getting quality sleep. The challenge for most comes on the weekend with wanting to sleep in or stay up late. The goal would be to keep sleep/wake times within 60 minutes day to day. Matthew Walker talks at length in his book Why We Sleep how sleep is not like money... you can't disregard sleep and accumulate "sleep debt" throughout the week and then expect sleeping in to cure that "debt". In reality, that "sleeping in" will just throw off sleep for the subsequent nights by dysregulating the circadian rhythm and routine.

Still don't think routine is crucial in improving sleep? Go ask any parent with a newborn or infant child how essential a sleep routine is for their child. This begs the question... why do we only prioritize sleep for those under the age of 5? I get it... life is busy, things to do, not enough time in the day. Those are all understandable points, and a big challenge to overcome when working toward establishing a routine, but picture a 2 year old who missed their nap throwing a tantrum that no toy or food can repair... that same bodily frustration and dysfunction is going on within a sleep deprived adult. It just manifests itself in different frustrations, cognitive errors, or forgetfulness. Sleep routine is just as important for the growing adolescent mind as it is for the aging mind. So, second recommendation to improve sleep quality... skip the next episode on Netflix, forget the thought of "sleeping in", and establish a routine sleep schedule.

The next few recommendations are a little more clear cut...

Avoid caffeine 8-10 hours prior to bed (some may need 12 hours)

I'm currently enjoying some caffeine in the form of coffee while sitting outside with my writing supervisor Woody.

Caffeine is an amazing molecule. It works by blocking the receptor in which adenosine binds to in our body. (Quiz time... what is the function of adenosine?) Adenosine builds up over the course of the day with activity and this build up leads to drowsiness, triggering sleep. The simple mechanism of blocking this receptor to increase alertness is why you can find the world's most used stimulant on every street corner. It's important to note, caffeine has a half-life of roughly 5 hours... so, if you have a 200mg cup of coffee at 11am, then at 4pm you'll still have approximately 100mg of caffeine circulating in your bloodstream. Although you may not feel the effects of the coffee at 4pm, there are still caffeine molecules at work in your body limiting the build up of adenosine, which in turn effects the ability to wind-down in the evening.

Limit bright light in the evening

Notice the theme... light is extremely influential in regulating sleep. Bright light, not just blue light, will stimulate alertness (cortisol and adrenaline) and stunt the release of adenosine and melatonin, our sleepy-time chemicals. Therefore, limiting bright lights 1-2 hours before bed will allow for a steady flow of adenosine and melatonin to slowly guide us to a calm, sleep-ready state. Yes, I know what you're thinking... what about BLUE LIGHT and blue light blockers? Blue light and bright light is actually something we want throughout the day. Marketing tells us it's detrimental, but it's not the blue light during the work day that's causing eye strain, it's the fact we're staring at screens for continuous periods without letting our vision relax in panorama mode (more on this for another time). There is some research on wearing glasses that block a large percentage of bright colors on the spectrum for 1-2 hours prior to sleep if you are unable to dim lights (link to these stylish orange glasses). I personally wear these glasses most nights one hour before bed and have noticed a huge difference, especially if I am doing any screen work in the evening.

Enjoy the sunset!

Circling back to the sunrise/sunset debate! They're both a winner in my book. We already discussed the importance of low solar angle (sunrise light) in the morning to trigger the sleep clock... Well a similar sleep-readying mechanism occurs with viewing low solar angle (sunset light) in the evening. The magical collection of violet, soft blues, oranges, and reds causes a cascade of sleep chemicals to be released in our body. This light intake literally tells the cells in our body it is nearing bedtime. It is thought limited outdoor light-viewing is a deficit that may be causal in sleep issues with those doing shift work. I know I personally see it in my clients who are recently discharged from the hospital where there is no natural light and just a constant showering of bright fluorescent light. Ever wonder why those in solitary confinement go nuts? It's not just the social deprivation, but also natural light deprivation. Here is an excellent study that looked at the positive impact of early evening outdoor light on sleep quality.

Keep it COOL

Matthew Walker discussed in the Ted Talk linked above how our body temperature must drop 2-3 degrees to enter a sleep state. Therefore, keeping your bedroom at a cooler temperature is imperative in getting quality sleep. Most research recommends 64-69 degrees. A warm bath or shower prior to bed is also a great way to force your body to offload heat once getting out of the shower and into bed.

So what is the research telling us in regards to sleep and why should you care?

Extensive research has been done on the effects of sleep deprivation on the immune system function. Specifically there is a direct relationship between decreased Natural Killer T-cell (NKT) function when sleep quality declines. NKT cells are the first line of defense for our immune system. Therefore, when you're burning the candle from both ends and running on low sleep, your immune system is more susceptible to the common cold and other pathologies.

Neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimers Disease, are also being widely studied in regards to their relationship with poor sleep quality. During sleep the Glymphatic System, our brain's waste removal system, works overtime in removing unwanted wasteful materials from the day's work. One of these waste materials is Tau proteins. It's been shown that Tau protein accumulation is thought to be a cause of Alzheimers Disease. This leads researchers such as Matthew Walker to make claims that poor sleep has a causal relationship with neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers.

In the Ted Talk at the beginning of this post, Matthew Walker discusses how we don't have to design a complex research study to show the importance of sleep... that study already exists and it happens twice a year: daylight savings time-change. Research shows on average each spring when we lose an hour of sleep with the time-change there is a relative 24% increase in heart attacks. The opposite effect is seen in the fall when we gain an hour of sleep -- a relative 21% decrease in heart attacks. There is also a similar correlation between car accidents, strokes, and suicide. I understand this is just correlation, but its tough to argue with those stats!

Some of this research may sound like typical fear-mongering media, but it really depends how you frame this information. I view the daylight savings situation as empowering... it shows a small change like getting an extra hour of sleep can be super beneficial for some individuals. The same is true for the immune function and neurodegenerative decline research. A few small changes to improve sleep hygiene such as getting morning sunlight, limiting afternoon caffeine, decreasing evening bright light, and maintaining a sleep/wake schedule can have massive positive influence on health and longevity.

So, instead of buying some fancy, expensive recovery tool take the time to fine tune your sleep hygiene. I hope you enjoy the sunrise tomorrow morning... sleep well!

1 comment

1 Comment

John Crook
John Crook
Aug 12, 2022

On the topic of embracing debate, I go for sunsets if I had to pick one. It signifies the closing of a really good day. Also, I loved how you brought up the importance of sleep schedules in babies/children! Something I've never thought of before and yet so soon in life we get away from it and adults really don't set a good example for their children throughout their most important years! Most probably see their parents burning the candle at both ends!

I am also really interested in the "warm" shower/bath before bed. So is it better to have warm vs cold? This was an amazing summary and good reminder for me, thanks!

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