“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This old proverb, made famous by Benjamin Franklin in his 1735 book Poor Richard’s Almanac, has stood the test of time — because it’s so true.
Having said that, I’m extremely excited to have my dear friend Shawn Stevenson on this episode to talk about the importance of healthy sleep.
In today’s episode, we cover how a crazy teenage injury led to his career, and ultimately how he came to write his book, Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Better Success.
We’ll also discuss 10 insights from his book that could help you get better sleep starting tonight, such as what drinking caffeine before bed can do to your brain, how to set up your workouts to help (and not hinder) your sleep, how to get the right kind of sleep (yes there’s more than one kind!), and so much more.
Shawn’s story of how he became aware of sleep’s importance is fascinating. Let’s jump right in and hear about it.
Who Is Shawn Stevenson?
Shawn Stevenson is a bestselling author and creator of The Model Health Show, which is one of the top nutrition and fitness podcasts on iTunes. I really value his mission to share quality information with the world to help us all be as healthy as we can be. In fact, we’ve already had a great conversation about how to upgrade your brain, boost metabolism, maximize hormones and ‘burn’ body fat on a previous podcast.
Shawn, whose background is in biology and kinesiology, is the founder of the Advanced Integrative Health Alliance: a company that provides wellness services for both individuals and organizations worldwide. He’s a dynamic keynote speaker who has graced the stages of TEDx, universities and numerous organizations with outstanding reviews. He is also known as “The King of Sleep”, and I’m excited to hear his tips on how to master sleep so we can optimize our health and achieve greatness!
The Start of Shawn’s Health Journey
Shawn — a high school track athlete — was just 15 years old when he broke his hip during a race, seemingly out of the blue. It wasn’t for another 5 years, when he was 20, that he’d learn why. His doctor diagnosed him with a degenerative bone disease, claiming he had “the spine of an 80-year-old.”
His whole world came crashing down after the diagnosis, as every doctor kept telling him there was nothing he could do, and that this was simply an incurable condition. However, Shawn didn’t give up or take it lying down.
“I [realized if] I don’t change my life now, I’m never going to change. I made a decision to get well, and that really drove me into initially taking a pre-med course in nutrition in the first semester.” –Shawn Stevenson
Until he took that course, Shawn had no idea at the time how important our food choices truly are.
Shawn felt compelled to ask his doctor if his disease had anything to do with his diet. The doctor waved it off and simply said it was something he’d have to live with — before giving him more prescriptions to put in his mouth.
“I really dug in and decided instead of focusing on what school taught me about disease, that I was going to learn everything I could about health and the human body.” –Shawn Stevenson
That decision changed his life. Through his studies, Shawn learned three critical changes he would eventually take that would improve his health dramatically, and turn his life around.
The Three Changes that Transformed Shawn’s Health — and Life
Shawn has never been satisfied to simply know that something works. He wants to know how it works. That’s why, when a lifestyle change also leads to a change in his health or body, Shawn analyzes the scientific reason behind the changes.
All that analysis helped Shawn decide what changes he would make to help him improve his health and wellbeing, despite his bone disease. In the end, here were the three changes that worked:
#1 – He changed his diet
#2 – Started exercising again
#3 – Optimized his sleep
Exercising came from reading a study about the rehabilitation of injured racehorses.
“With the study, they had the horses start taking calcium and other supplements to increase the bone density. There was some change, but there was radical change if they walked the horses and gave them the supplement.” –Shawn Stevenson
This is because the body assimilates nutrients through movement, which is why the horses that walked and were given supplements had the greatest transformation in their bone strength and density. This showed Shawn that when you move your body, it’s activating biochemical pathways for your body to assimilate the nutrients.
The third one, sleep, happened more organically for Shawn.
“When I started to [eat healthier] for my body and began training on an elliptical machine, a stationary bike, [I] walked and picked up the weights again, I naturally fell into a normal sleep pattern. Six weeks later, after making that decision, I lost 28 pounds. The pain I’d been experiencing every day for two and a half years was gone. Ultimately about nine months later, I got a scan done, and [my] two herniated discs had retracted on their own.” –Shawn Stevenson
What a powerful confirmation of what healthier choices can have on our bodies!
Not only did Shawn feel and look better, everyone at his university started to take notice too. Helping his professors and fellow students understand his transformation became the birth of his career as a health and sleep expert.
Shawn’s 10 Science-Backed Strategies for Getting Life-Changing Sleep
It’s not just about hours of sleep, but the quality of those hours that largely influences energy levels and overall health. Of the 21 strategies that Shawn has in his book, we are going to look at ten ways you can make changes today to improve the quality of your sleep and start waking up refreshed.
Before we dive in, here’s a quick vocabulary lesson that might help you better understand some of the concepts below, and why they’re important:
First, get to know what rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is. We go through several stages of sleep, from the lightest stage to the deepest stage. REM is that ultra-deep stage of sleep, and the most important! It’s when the most changes occur in our brains.
Here, Shawn explains why REM sleep is so important, mentally and physically:
“It’s called memory processing … [REM sleep] converts your [daily] experiences into short-term memories, and eventually long-term memories. If you’re not sleeping, you miss most of that process. As for physically, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal showed the impact of sleep on two groups of exercisers … Group A slept eight-plus hours a night, while Group B, was sleep-deprived with around five hours of sleep per night. Group A lost far more weight and body fat than Group B, yet the only difference was the amount of sleep that they were getting.” –Shawn Stevenson
Another important vocabulary word: Melatonin.
Melatonin is a hormone primarily released by the pineal gland (in your brain) in the evenings that basically makes us sleepy and ready for bed. It has long been associated with control of the sleep–wake cycle.
That’s important to know, since the strategies that follow can help you regulate how much melatonin you’re producing, and how much deep REM sleep you’re getting — so you can wake up feeling refreshed and energized for the day ahead.
Strategy #1: Get outside, and get more sunlight.
The purpose of getting outside more often to receive more sunlight is to increase the brain’s production of serotonin: a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. Serotonin gets converted into melatonin, which is what helps you sleep at night.
“When melatonin’s high, cortisol is low, so make sure you’re getting some exposure to sunlight every day to help you sleep better at night. Getting natural light [where you work] helps set your circadian cycle [the sleep-wake cycle].”–Shawn Stevenson
Even if you live where there are bad winters (meaning minimal sun), that’s okay. There’s no need to buy fancy gadgets to help deal with that: just going outside, even when it’s cloudy, can help you get the sun exposure you need.
Strategy #2: Avoid screens close to bedtime.
There’s another chemical in your brain called dopamine. Once thought to be related to pleasure, we now know that dopamine it’s all about seeking pleasure. And guess how millions of us seek pleasure all day (and sometimes all night) long? Through our screens — phones, computers, tablets, televisions — where there are always opportunities to read exciting news articles, see hilarious cat videos, and connect with people we care about. It’s like a slow drip of drugs, really!
That said, it can be hard to put the screens away at bedtime, even for Shawn:
“[When browsing the internet, it’s like] I seek, I find, I seek, I find, and you get looped in and it’s very difficult to break that pattern. Everybody’s had this happen where you go to check your Instagram for a minute. Then it’s 30 minutes later, an hour later, and you’re still scrolling. This is what’s going on. Our brain is hardwired to get addicted to stuff like this, and these awesome social media apps know how to manipulate our minds and take advantage of that. This is a call to take your brain back. It’s being more aware so you can catch yourself and break the pattern.” –Shawn Stevenson
A study found that just two hours of your device usage before bed was enough to suppress melatonin secretion. You can go to sleep or pass out, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting that rejuvenating sleep. This is why a lot of people are sleeping eight hours, but they’re still tired when they wake up in the morning — because their melatonin is suppressed due to being on their device right before bed.
Making matters worse, Harvard researchers found that the strength, luminance, and specifically the blue spectrum of color radiating from our devices is triggering a reduction in melatonin all the time.
While there are blue light blocking glasses to help with this (Shawn even recommends an app called FLUX that can help reduce your exposure to blue light) Shawn advises that the key component is to find something that’s of greater or equal value to staring into your device before bedtime. He says building better habits — like connecting with our loved ones, reading books, or playing games with our kids — is really what will help us build a healthy pattern of restorative sleep.
So find something that fills you up, and avoid the screens at least 60-90 minutes before bedtime.
Strategy #3: Cut back on caffeine.
Caffeine has the ability to affect the nervous system for up to eight hours, affecting the normal stages of REM sleep and deep sleep, so do your best to avoid it or only drink it in the mornings.
Here’s what Shawn taught us:
“[Researchers] gave people caffeine right before bed, three hours before bed, and six hours before bed. They found that even six hours out was enough to have noticeable effects. They used monitoring systems measuring their brain waves to find out that their sleep is actually getting interrupted because of the caffeine.” –Shawn Stevenson
Whew — at least he didn’t say cut it out completely! It all depends on how sensitive you are to caffeine, but keeping the intake early in the morning or before lunch is optimal.
Strategy #4: Stay cool.
Growing up in Ohio, trying to sleep during the summers was hell! I battled to sleep through the humidity and heat, and now I understand why.
“Your body goes through a process called thermal regulation every night around 9:00 PM on average. It does this to lower your core body temperature to create the ideal environment for deep sleep — essentially your body cools you off to sleep better.” –Shawn Stevenson
According to the experts, 62 to 68 degrees is optimal for sleeping. So set a little bit extra aside for the electricity bill, and crank up the A/C at night.
Strategy #5: Find the perfect bedtime.
Timing your sleep is like timing an investment: it’s not always easy, but if you invest at the right time (even a little bit), you’ll enjoy some big rewards!
Research shows that for the greatest increase in pre-bedtime melatonin (and a deeper sleep) the perfect bedtime seems to be between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM. (Depending on when you have to wake up in the morning, of course.)
“Experts say that there is twice as much value per hour in this window, and people will notice it. If this doesn’t fit your lifestyle, stack the other conditions and do the other things, because the timing matters [as our] body’s wired up to work with nature.” –Shawn Stevenson
We can’t all have the perfect bedtime, but it’s good knowing that stacking the other strategies Shawn’s suggested so far will still drastically help improve the quality of your sleep.
Strategy #6 Blackout your bedroom.
Did you know? Our skin has photoreceptors that pick up light. One study demonstrated that even the smallest amount of light behind somebody’s knee in a darkened room was enough to take them out of their normal stage of sleep!
“Photoreceptors pick up information and send it to your brain to secrete more daytime hormones, namely cortisol. Your neighbor’s porch light, streetlights outside, this unnatural light [has] been dubbed light pollution. Getting your room pitch black can keep that stuff out of your room. [Be wary of] internal lights too. An ugly alarm clock staring at you has the same effect.” –Shawn Stevenson
I guess I’m going to need to throw a blanket over my alarm clock now! These strategies really are more about making small, smart changes than huge lifestyle changes.
Strategy #7 Train hard, but smart.
Many people know that a good workout can help you sleep, but did you know that a consistent exercise pattern or routine is important, too?
“A study was done with Appalachian State University breaking exercise up into three groups. Group A exercise at 7:00 AM in the morning, Group B 1:00 PM, Group C 7:00 PM. Group A spent up to 75% more time in deep anabolic sleep.” –Shawn Stevenson
This isn’t to say your workout has to be early in the morning — but initial morning activity is important because it encourages a normal cortisol spike.
If you really want to train in the evenings, similar to screen time and caffeine, it’s recommended to stop about four hours before your planned bedtime, and not later.
Strategy #8: Go easy on the booze.
Research shows that while drinking alcohol before bed does help you to fall asleep faster, it’s not helping you get any more of that extra-important REM sleep.
“There are benefits to drinking red wine [for] the [anti-oxidants]. … [However] It’s about having a happy hour instead of long drinking sessions. Giving time between drinking and going to bed.” –Shawn Stevenson
So far what we’re learning is that we don’t have to completely change our lives. It’s more about timing our activities, including drinking: Shawn recommends having your last drink between two to four hours before bed.
Strategy #9: Take the right supplements.
When it comes to sleep-aiding supplements, the most popular one seems to be that over-the-counter melatonin in the vitamin aisle. But Shawn warns that taking it might not actually be that helpful for your sleep:
“What’s [being] seen clinically is that taking melatonin supplementation decreases the function of your melatonin receptor sites. They start to downregulate, your body stops knowing you can produce it.” –Shawn Stevenson
Dr. Michael Bruce is a board-certified sleep specialist, and he recommends people back off melatonin completely. However, everything has a place. For travelers changing time zones, for example, taking melatonin in the short term help to set your normal sleep cycle can be okay. Dependency and using it too much is the problem. The amount in an everyday supplement is way too high, and your body will start to downregulate.
Ideally, begin with natural remedies, camomile tea or Kava (the national drink of Fiji) are shown to be a mild sedative.
Strategy #10: Get grounded.
Dr. Jeff Spencer, a renowned athletic coach, is directly connected to 40 combined National Championships, Olympic gold medals, and Tour de France victories with his coaching. One of the most important tools in his health-and-wellness (that includes healthy sleep!) toolbox: learning how to ground yourself.
Shawn explains what this means:
“Getting grounded means getting your body connected with the earth’s surface. Me being very analytical, I want to see the science and know how it works. The earth itself is brimming with free electrons and your body is operating off of this interesting combination of protons and electrons. When you get grounded, inflammation goes down and your parasympathetic nervous system kicks on. As soon as you get grounded, instantly your parasympathetic nervous system is turning on and your sympathetic nervous system is turning off.” –Shawn Stevenson
The parasympathetic system is your rest and digest system. The sympathetic is fight or flight. Getting grounded immediately switches our sympathetic system off. The conductive surfaces that do this are anything from grass, dirt, soil, sand, — even concrete is a little bit conductive.
“Getting your body in touch with things like sand is why people feel so good when they go to the beach. Some people even fall asleep at the beach. I saw this clinically proven as Dr. Jeff was using grounding equipment that connects to the ground, [with a] prong in your outlets. Using this equipment lowered nighttime cortisol and helped normalize cortisol during the daytime.” –Shawn Stevenson
There you have it — if you live in California there’s no excuse not to get down to the beach for some grounding, but even if you’re in New York City without daily access, you can get yourself some of the earthing equipment available online.
Why You Should Listen to This Shawn Stevenson Podcast Episode Right Now…
Guys, this interview is packed with research, and information about healthy sleep and the impact it has on the body and brain. You can listen to the full episode to get all the information, and don’t forget to share the episode with someone who needs to hear it: you could change someone’s life!
I can’t recommend Shawn’s books enough — the first is Sleep Smarter, 21 essential strategies to sleep your way to a better body, better health, and better success. I also highly recommend Eat Smarter: Use the Power of Food to Reboot Your Metabolism, Upgrade Your Brain, and Transform Your Life.
You should also check out his website The Model Health Show to connect with him and listen to his world-class podcast.
I want to acknowledge Shawn for his service and commitment to healing the world. I love seeing people’s dedication to their craft and their research that challenges them to go above and beyond. I know his heart is committed to healing people and having them live healthier, happier, richer, fuller, longer lives. It’s helped me the last few years to understand the power of sleep for myself. I want to acknowledge Shawn for everything he consistently does to serve humanity. This is summed up in his definition of greatness:
“[Greatness is] service. Find a way to serve every day, every encounter that you have. There’s a way that you can bring some value to somebody’s life.” – Shawn Stevenson
Friends, join me on Episode 302 to learn about the Top 10 Ways to Sleep Smarter with Shawn Stevenson. I know you’ll get just as much out of it as I did!