Sleep Science Decoded

You know how I'm always extolling the virtues of playing high quality hands over a high quantity of hands? Well, the same goes for sleep. How much sleep you get is not nearly as important as how well you're sleeping. 

I don't think I have to tell you how vital getting enough Z's is to playing and living your best. Being tired leads to poor decision making across the board. Unfortunately, we live in a world where a smorgasbord of stimulants are relentlessly ladled down our throats and into our systems.

The Consequences

It's not just all in your head, either. Not sleeping enough has been shown to affect your body on a hormonal level, not only messing with your cortisol balance (the hormone that manages stress and our immune systems) but also with your production of ghrelin and leptin, which regulate your feelings of hunger and satiety, respectively. So you're stressed, you’re more susceptible to illness, you're eating too much or not enough, you're making bad decisions, you're irritated and more than likely irritating. It's a breeding ground for disease and disaster. 

5 Steps to Better Sleep for Peak Performance at the Tables (and Life!)

1) Turn off

Before you can switch off your brain, you're going to have to turn off the technology. All of it. So many of us crash on the couch in front of the TV, or glued to an eREADER or laptop in bed. The artificial light created by these devices reduces your body’s ability to produce the hormone melatonin, which is critical for falling and staying asleep (low levels of melatonin have also been associated with a higher risk of some types of cancer). 

You will also want to remove any electronic devices from your room or make sure they are at least three feet away from you to reduce exposure to Electromagnetic Frequencies (EMF).

2) Ditch the drugs

I'm talking all drugs that are not doctor prescribed and absolutely critical to your survival, even the socially ‘acceptable’ ones like booze and caffeine - especially right before bed time. Consider this: while many people insist on their 'night cap', alcohol actually acts as a stimulant, so it may make you feel sleepy for a bit, but it ultimately interrupts your sleep cycle. (If you've ever had a few drinks and then been wide awake and buzzing at 2am, you know what I mean). 

Caffeine in moderation has been shown to be fine in the morning, but try to cut it out after noon. This includes caffeine found in energy drinks. Marijuana and speed stimulants should also be nixed, as they mess with your body's natural chemical process, and as a result, interfere with your sleep.  Yes, as with alcohol you may crash after taking these drugs, but you are not actually falling asleep, you are passing out. There's a big difference. 

When you sleep your body is not only truly resting, but it's repairing cells and realigning your chemical balance. (Think cortisol, leptin and ghrelin levels, as well as testosterone, estrogen and human growth hormone levels - the hormone associates with aging and healing.) The idea here is to go to sleep, purposefully. Lie down, close your eyes, take a few minutes to reflect idly and passively on your day, and then drift off. 

3) Make sure it is DARK

As mentioned in my first point, artificial light messes with your ability to shut down, so make sure your bedroom is dark. Like, can't see your hand in front of your face dark. 

4) Keep your cool

Studies show we fall sleep better in cooler temperatures (not to be confused with frigid temperatures). It is also important to note I said we fall asleep better; to stay asleep we need to be what the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience's Dr. Eus van Someren calls, "perfectly comfortable" - and what that is exactly will vary from person to person. Regulating body temperature during sleep can be a tricky business (especially if you sleep with someone else), however, most studies suggest a room temperature of about 65 degrees is best. This will keep your noggin nice and cool, but your body warm under the covers.

5) Wind down with your day

Cortisol is like any hormone - it's good in moderation. While most of us have a pretty poor perception of cortisol and only see its link to stress, heart disease and belly fat, the chemical also helps us regulate our blood pressure and bolster our immune system while also providing energy. So, instead of fighting cortisol, it's time to embrace it on its own terms.

Our cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning, giving us that feeling of energy and pep. As the day goes on, cortisol levels naturally decrease - or they should. A combination of over-stimulation, over-scheduling, over-eating the wrong foods and general over-stressing pushes our cortisol levels into overdrive. In other words, it’s not cortisol’s fault – it’s yours. Poor lifestyle choices lead to the negative side-effects of this otherwise beneficial hormone. 

You can help combat cortisol overkill by embracing your body's innate rhythm. This means living actively and exercising. It means trying to alleviate stressors as the day goes on by reducing workload and unrealistic expectations.  It means allowing your brain and body to wind down as the day ends and getting to bed at a reasonable time.

So what's a reasonable time to go to bed?

I'd love to weigh in on this with a definitive answer, but I’m going to refrain. Some experts say at least 10pm is ideal, since we get our best sleep before midnight and are more productive during the day. Others agree in part, concurring that getting to sleep before midnight is good, but you don't have to stay asleep. In fact, waking up in the middle of the night is truer to our natural rhythm. Others still say it doesn't matter when you sleep, as long as you are sleeping deeply for your first three hours, and then REM sleep (i.e. sleep lighter) for the second part of your shut eye. Yet another camp believes it depends on how old you are. There’s also a convincing study that looked at 1.1 million people over 6 years that showed that  as little as 5 hours of sleep is better for you than 8.

Now, as someone who likes his late nights, but also tries to make sure I get quality sleep, I lean towards the third opinion for myself, but that might not work for you – and it’s really all about you.

The ‘You’ Factor

I think the best practice is to stay true to yourself. I operate just fine being somewhat of a night owl, but many people wouldn’t. If you feel perfectly content with 5 hours of sleep, then roll with that. If you simply cannot function on anything less than 8, then that could very well be your magic number. The main thing to take away from this is that throughout all the studies and all the findings, quality sleep is more important than the quantity. So sleep well, my friends, and grind on.