“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.