It’s one of the most common problems we face as humans: our sleep patterns can be absolutely horrible.
Insomnia, stress, depression, anxiety, poor diet, an excess of screen time — we all deal with an abundance of interior and exterior factors that interrupt our sleep. Ultimately, this can contribute to us sleeping too much, not enough, or in extreme cases, not at all.
Because of this, far too many of us spend our waking hours sluggish, grumpy, and pounding coffee or energy drinks just to get through the day… before it’s time for bed, and the whole mess starts again.
So, how do we fix this vicious cycle?
“What IS sleep, actually? We have to start there. So this is this thing we’re chasing after. We’re trying to get more of it. We know it’s important. But sleep is… very strange.” – Shawn Stevenson.
As one of the world’s foremost authorities on the science of sleep (in a world that’s constantly struggling with it), Shawn Stevenson has increasingly found his insight very much in demand.
He wasn’t always an authority on better sleep, though.
He became one after suffering some severe pain and mobility issues at 20. Upon seeking medical advice, Shawn was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease. His doctors at the time told him that it was progressive and incurable, that he had the spine of an 80-year-old man, and that he could only expect to get worse as time wore on.
But Shawn wasn’t interested in hearing any of that.
Instead of accepting the doom-and-gloom prognosis of his medical team, Shawn decided to take matters into his own hands. He started taking a more holistic view of his health, and incorporated some significant lifestyle changes – everything from a better diet, to increased physical activity, to the one thing many treatment plans overlook: proper sleep.
By applying a total-body treatment plan, Shawn was able to not just halt his condition in its tracks, but in some cases, even reverse some of the effects. At that point, he knew he had a mission: to educate the masses on the importance of diet, exercise, and getting better sleep.
Today, Shawn is the host of the #1 podcast on Apple’s “Health and Fitness” chart, “The Model Health Show,” which covers everything from diet and exercise to relationship advice. His books have consistently topped bestseller and audio download charts. And he’s been hired as a keynote speaker to deliver his message of total-body health to companies like Hilton, US Bank, Google, MasterCard, and Whole Foods.
I had a chance to sit down with Shawn a few years ago to discuss his book, “Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to A Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success.” But given the depth of the subject, I had more questions than we had time to cover. So I knew I’d have to bring him back to drop a little more wisdom.
Last time Shawn and I got together, he shared with me a lot of his research about sleep. We’d already covered the basics, so this time we got to talk way more in-depth about the science of how our minds work when we’re sleeping.
Today, researchers like Shawn can actually track our brainwaves while we sleep, and it turns out that those brainwaves actually go through some pretty interesting changes. Shawn explained that we go from a waking state of beta frequency in our brains to an alpha frequency, where we’re more calm and relaxed — sort of that “flow state,” as he says it. Then from there, we transition into theta, and finally, we hit delta, which is when we’re truly sleeping hard!
But it doesn’t stop there. The delta stage is actually divided into two more stages — non-REM sleep and REM sleep, which is, as Shawn puts it, “when you’re gettin’ your dream on.”
REM sleep is super important for maintaining a strong memory. This is when our brains do what’s called “memory consolidation.” We process the things we’ve learned that day and our brains store all that information to be accessed when needed.
That’s why pulling all-nighters when we need to study is actually worse for us. Naturally, we think, “We don’t know nothing! We gotta study the whole book!” We stay up all night quizzing and testing and trying to remember everything. We skip sleeping for the night and don’t let our brains do that “memory consolidation” that Shawn talks about. When we do that, we don’t allow our brains to store all that stuff we’re trying to learn and it ends up being a lot worse for us.
At first, I assumed that REM sleep was the most important part of the sleep cycle, but Shawn says it’s just as necessary as every other part of the cycle.
Non-REM sleep is a big deal for our bodies. That’s when we make a lot of a hormone called the Human Growth Hormone (HGH), also known as the youth hormone.
I don’t know about you–but anything with the word “youth” in it sounds good to me!
So this HGH — this youth hormone — has a significant impact on our physical health. It’s what allows us to heal. It’s what helps us to build muscle mass. We literally grow bigger when our bodies secrete this stuff! And we secrete it the most when we’re getting some of that good non-REM sleep.
Unfortunately, our every day habits can prevent us from getting that good sleep that we need. But the way we live our lives today can make it really hard to get that good sleep we need.
For example, sometimes we drink too much alcohol before bed. Now, alcohol does help us to fall asleep faster, but it also disrupts our REM sleep. That means our minds can’t store our memories like they’re supposed to. Ever had the experience of drinking a little too much too close to bedtime and then forgetting almost everything that happened the previous day? That’s because your REM sleep got disrupted.
And then there are our screens. We’re constantly on our phones or watching TV, especially when we’re nice and cozy in our beds. That is terrible for our sleep. Shawn told me that “Every hour you’re on your device at night, you suppress melatonin for 30 minutes,” and melatonin is that hormone that helps us regulate our sleep cycles.
And there are at least a million other factors that make sleeping hard for us. But we want to be the greatest we can be, right? It’s a new year, a new decade! So I asked Shawn some questions about how we can sleep well and get fit in this new decade.
Fortunately, Shawn had plenty of answers for me.
So what are we supposed to do about all this? In this crazy world full of things that keep us awake, how can we get better sleep and be the healthiest we can be?
Turns out, there are lots of things we can do.
“So that’s what it’s really about, is optimizing our sleep cycles. And we do that with the way we live our lives.” – Shawn Stevenson
Some of the changes we can make are actually really simple. Remember how all that screen time can suppress our melatonin? Shawn recommends putting the phone down 30 minutes before bedtime. Having just 30 minutes of non-screen time before bed really sets up our sleep for success.
Still, feel like you’ve just gotta catch your show on TV? I understand! Winding down at the end of the day with a show or a movie can be a great way to relax and get comfortable. Just put the glasses on! Blue light-blocking glasses (and even blue-light-blocking apps on your phone) keep that bright light from suppressing your melatonin. Shawn says he even has a “neuro-association” now, where he gets sleepy just by putting the glasses on!
And what about alcohol? First of all, don’t get drunk. “The hangover is the result of sleep damage,” Shawn says. I’ve never experienced this myself, but I’ve definitely seen a lot of people damage their REM sleep with drinking too much. Be careful when you drink!
Shawn also recommends giving yourself a curfew on the drinking. He says that a couple of hours before bedtime is best. Also, make sure to drink a lot of water, especially when you drink alcohol. “Your body metabolizes alcohol relatively quickly, for most folks, and you can accelerate and support the process by having some more water,” he says. Giving your body time to metabolize that alcohol can prevent you from damaging your REM sleep.
Feeling like you’ve already missed out on some sleep and you need more of that youth hormone Shawn mentioned? I asked him if there’s another way our bodies can make that stuff, and he had another simple (and great!) answer: exercise!
Weight lifting — at close to our max — is really good for producing HGH. Resistance training like that helps our bodies produce more of that youth hormone we need to build muscle mass and maintain good health and fitness.
But it’s more than just weight lifting. “People are gettin’ hurt picking up a feather…” Shawn told me, “…just because our bodies are so conditioned to sitting and not performing.” Our lives today are really comfortable and convenient. We don’t exert ourselves too often simply because we don’t have to, but over time, this can be really unhealthy for physical health.
Turns out, part of the reason we call HGH the “youth” hormone is because kids make way more of it than adults! They run around outside. They jump up and down on the couch. They play. And they keep playing, because they’re kids and that’s what they do!
And Shawn says we should be playing with them. At his house, Shawn and his sons are dancing all the time. Sometimes they even get into a little wrestling on the floor.
All that playin’ is really good. When we play, our bodies make plenty of HGH. Not to mention, running around like kids do as adults can really wear us out and help us get to sleep. The more tired you are, the more good sleep you get!
It also helps us spend time with the people we care about most. I know that’s top priority for my man Shawn.
Shawn is a really inspiring person. He’s a smart guy, and he’s done a ton of research into ways we can take care of ourselves and get the best sleep we can.
But I think what inspires me most is how much he loves his family.
I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with Shawn and his wife, and I could not ask to meet two more real people in this world. I will never forget that incredible buffalo casserole his wife made… now, that’s good eating!
But even more than that, I’ll never forget Shawn’s dedication to his wife and kids.
Shawn told me about how he likes to take his youngest son to the park and just play a little Simon Says. He’ll run around, play on the playground, climb stuff… and Shawn just follows his lead. Not only is it really good exercise — gotta get that HGH flowin’–but it’s also a really good way to spend some time with his kid and invest in that important father-son relationship.
Shawn also talked to me about his wife, and about how important it is for him to invest in her. For example, when Shawn hits that screen curfew, he loves to spend some time with his wife. Hanging out, talking, maybe giving a little foot massage… They like to help each other relax and wind down together, optimizing those sleep cycles and spending some quality time together all at once.
“I decided to consciously attach myself to my wife. It’s not an ignorant love and attachment. It’s a chosen, decisive, intentional attachment.”- Shawn Stevenson
Shawn’s a family man, through and through. He loves his wife and kids, and he invests his time and energy into being the greatest husband and dad he can be. Even all his professional work and research are geared toward keeping him healthy and helping him take the best care of those closest to him.
I think that’s pretty great.
Shawn thinks so too. When I asked him what his definition of greatness is, here’s what he said,
“For me, greatness is loving somebody more than anything else you can imagine … You know, it’s being able to live fully and completely for somebody else.”
Shawn’s really living up to that definition. He puts his family first. Even when he’s working, Shawn’s thinking about how his research can help his family live better and sleep better!
And his knowledge and advice can really help out the rest of us too. He has so many good tips about ways we can get better sleep and take the best care of our minds and bodies.
Simply put: Shawn is one of the most knowledgeable people in the world when it comes to the science of sleep. So whether you find yourself dragging your behind halfway through your workday, tossing and turning until your alarm goes off, or just feeling like good rest is a thing of the past, you’ll want to hear what he has to say.
Don’t sleep on this episode, though. Check out Episode 896.