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For years, renowned exercise physiologist Dr. Andy Galpin has spent years working with professional athletes and Olympians to help them be at their best when it matters most. While most of those athletes had dietitians, skill coaches, and other health and wellness experts in tow, Galpin noticed none of them had anyone that was dialed in on their sleep performance. Considering how foundational sleep is to recovery and performance, he wondered why there wasn’t anything being done to achieve high-performance sleep. That is why Galpin started Absolute Rest, which provides a comprehensive sleep assessment, analysis, and coaching to optimize sleep.
Sleep is a subject that Galpin has immersed himself in and sees far too many general recommendations thrown around for how many are affected by not getting enough rest. According to estimates, 50 million to 70 million people in the U.S. alone have ongoing sleep disorders. Getting to the root cause of the issue varies from person to person. But Galpin believes there are some physiological hacks you can begin implementing to make sure your next night of sleep is a good night of sleep.
I’m a physiologist so I’m biased. I do not believe in bad sleepers. There is always a physiological reason, and the problem is people’s assessment or interpretation of why they’re sleeping poorly is too rudimentary, and this causes problems. You haven’t looked at the thing causing your sleep to be disrupted. You’ve just only looked at things that aren’t relevant for you in your environment. When we dive into some of these solutions that are still ubiquitous across the population, you have to expand your scope of things.
I’ll give you some things you’ve probably heard.
Make sure it’s quiet and dark. That’s been in thousands of articles. What you want to look for are things like, is there something in your practice that’s causing a pattern? Humans are tremendously good at recognizing patterns and creating anticipatory responses. Correcting that pattern is very difficult to do with one new process. If you want to change a pattern that’s been engrained for six years, one night of supplementation or taking your phone out of the room isn’t going to change that physiological pattern.
This is one of the reasons they say only two things should happen in your bed and they both start with “s.” The reason they say that is that once you cross into that bedroom, you kick off a cascade of physiological responses that cue you to something. If they cue you to excitement, arousal, and stimulation then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing with your blue-light glasses because you’ve kicked off an entire physiological cascade that says stay awake. If the opposite happens then the opposite response will happen.
When it comes to your bedroom, if it’s serene and quiet then when you cross the threshold, you’re going to have a response in that style. That can be learned. It won’t happen acutely. If you take a supplement, it will affect your body, but a behavioral change is a long-term action. You want to think about things that are going to give you instant relief but also things that are going to take some time but are more well-rounded and longer lasting. This is why setting up those habits and routine are incredibly important.
Everything you do in your life is a pattern and your physiology is always paying attention and it’s always adjusting. This is why when we’re making nutrition changes, breath work, and technique changes — it’s all pattern recognition. If you create a pattern of serenity and restfulness, your body will start to learn that. People talk a lot about the sleep environment but they don’t give people any resources like that unless it’s cold, quiet, and dark. Setting a pattern is going to be true for anyone. It’s critical for everyone to have some sort of mechanism that their body knows when it’s supposed to shut down.
If you have all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse as I did a few weeks ago and you try and go to bed, what you’re going to see is an incredibly poor night of sleep for most people. If you look at that heart rate, that pattern will be higher because you’re spending a lot of energy trying to digest 600g of protein. Heart rate is going to be highly tied to switching you from sympathetic to parasympathetic. You can’t digest in a sympathetic state. If your heart rate is elevated, you’re more alert and you’re going to have a harder time getting into a truly restful state. You don’t want to put a giant meal in your stomach right before bed because you’re going to have a hard time getting into rest and digest because your heart rate will be so high because it has so much work to do.
You can sometimes get away with small meals and snacks before bed that will help you not wake up and feel so groggy. A very slow-releasing carbohydrate meal will do that. In addition, there is very clear evidence that eating before bed will not enhance fat mass gain. It will probably help you enhance lean muscle and lose fat. What that means is if you need to eat late at night, having a lean protein and carbohydrate meal is not only OK, but as long as it doesn’t influence sleep, it’s probably beneficial to your overall lean mass and adipose tissue. If you can eat three hours before bed, that’s probably the best place to be. If not, try to keep your meals small with lean protein and some carbohydrates and starch. You want to pick easily digestible foods and things that won’t land on your gut like a sledgehammer.
One of the things people don’t realize is oftentimes when people struggle to sleep on the road, you think it’s the bed, and it might be, but it’s probably mostly the environment. Your environment sends you a tremendous amount of cues on what’s happening. If you can control the environment, you’re going to have a much greater chance of success. You can clip the curtains to make sure it’s nice and dark in the room. People don’t realize how important your other senses are. If you can make the environment smell like your bedroom at home, you’re going to have way more success being restful because you’re going to initiate that entire shutdown sequence.
How do you make your hotel smell like your bedroom? Intentionally construct the smell of your bedroom at home in a way that you can replicate on the road. If you have a particular comforting scent that you like, spray just a tiny amount on the corner of the mattress or pillow you don’t use — something where the smell is in the air. You do that a couple of days prior to leaving for your trip, you take that bottle with you and do the exact same thing in your hotel room. Your body will recognize it immediately.
Obviously, I’m a believer in supplements (such as this Sleep Pack from Momentous), but you want to be extremely careful with melatonin. In the last couple of years, several papers have come out where they’ve run analysis on melatonin, and it can be anywhere between 10-1,000 times the concentration—either high or low—in the supplement than what’s being reported.
Melatonin has a half-life, meaning it doesn’t completely leave your system. If you’re taking 100 times more than you think, hours later, there’s still 50 times more in your system. The next morning, you wake up and a huge percentage of that is still in you, depending on which ones you’re taking, and you’re feeling groggy because you’re sedated. You smash a bunch of caffeine to feel normal, but then you get to nighttime and you’re wired. What do you do? Smash the sleep supplements and end up in this horrific cycle where you feel like death. All we do is take those drugs away, give your body a few days to normalize and everything just goes away.
We just have to approach sleep supplements appropriately. Melatonin is one that I would generally say steer clear of unless you have a very specific reason. I’m generally not a fan of not doing any hormone-based supplement or any supplement until we’ve had extensive bloodwork. This is one of the things we’ve done at Absolute Rest and its novel. We use bloodwork heavily in identifying sleep issues and there is a strong link to a number of physiological markers that you can find in the blood that is going to tell you a lot of why you’re struggling to sleep. You can get very precise sleep plans based on your personal physiology from your bloodwork and this allows us rationale to recommend supplementation or say you have a micronutrient deficiency and other issues happening where you’re not creating enough serotonin. We correct that and these problems go away.
Six years ago, I wrote a book called Unplugged, so I’m very much against technologies if they’re not used judiciously. These technologies are good for rudimentary calibration for basic accountability and awareness. The vast majority of tech that people are using now is simply not accurate at all for things like sleep stages. Orthoinsomnia is a thing that scientists are starting to find where folks create sleep disorders based on too much utilization of their wearables.
Let’s say every morning you wake up and the first thing you do is roll over and check your score. What happens is your body gets used to that little rush of excitement. You start waking up a little earlier because of that and your sleep score starts going down. So, you start developing an anxiety about getting to sleep earlier because you’re waking up earlier and you’re ruining your own sleep because you’re so obsessed with improving your score when the score doesn’t reflect if you slept better or not.
We don’t actually have anyway right now to tell what’s a good or bad night of sleep for you. Right now, you look at the score on a tracker or wearable, no one has any idea of your physiology needs for total sleep for two reasons. We don’t know that data at all globally. Two, those trackers aren’t accurate. I don’t know how many minutes of REM you need — we just have a general number. Now you’re being scored on that number and the technology is inaccurate.
That number is not supposed to be the same every night. You are not supposed to have the same amount of deep and REM sleep every night. Your brain is way smarter than that stupid ass technology. We know that there are person-to-person differences. We also know that depending on the physical activity you did that day, your brain will alter the amount of time and the way it’s getting into different sleep stages.
What we need to have happen is recognition of what’s unique for your physiology and how much you need, and let your brain tell you when it needs more of one stage or the other. It will know that and put you in those stages if you give it the proper space. It’s very critical that if you’re going to use a tracker, you’re using it appropriately and are not consumed by the stages and not going after the wrong targets.
There are a tremendous amount of benefits from wearables but there are also huge consequences if you’re not using them appropriately. The endpoint should be to make you a more resilient sleeper meaning you shouldn’t have to have this special environment, set of nutrition, and an hour-long protocol just to have a decent night of sleep. You should be reacting with a plan. Just like you wouldn’t have the same lifting plan all year round, why would you have the same sleep plan all year round? Use the wearables to calibrate and inform, don’t take action on the recommendations, and have a plan based on what happens in your life.
Follow Dr. Andy Galpin on Instagram @drandygalpin