How to Sleep Better Naturally & Become Anti-Fragile Backed by Science

Or, How Sophie Reclaimed Her Choice.

Want to be fearless and anti-fragile? Decades of research suggests the perfect predator, or outdoor enthusiast, gets 7-9 hours of sleep regularly.

7-9 hours of sleep every day. Period.

Don't be all like the normal sleepless sheep and tap into your confirmation bias to ignore this article because you sleep 5-6 hours a night and wonder why things on your body hurt.

Be better. Teach yourself to make new memories, perform better, and reclaim your spark.

Imagine a poor Irish mother named Sophie back at the turn of the 20th century. She has 8 grubby cute kids to feed and the father is a drunk. Her options are very limited by the cultural norms of the time and she doesn't have enough money to buy the food she needs to feed herself and all of her kids.

What are her options?

Try to work harder of course, earn more money to hopefully buy some potatoes and feed her lovelys. But she works in a steaming laundry 15 hours a day making pennies. She's caught in the loop of poverty and exhaustion, she cannot see clearly because she's so tired from scrubbing clothes for merchants with her scabbed red hands.

It's a pity because she really is the nicest person with beautiful green eyes.

Maybe Sophie was the one with the drinking problem.

Her kids become thieves stealing bread and unfortunately she gets pregnant again because she's Catholic and has to do what her husband wants in the bedroom. If she saw clearly, she would have ignored some far off pope and closed her legs to her smelly husband that couldn't even provide for the family that already exists.

So stuck in this quandary she can either:

A. Pick her favorite strongest kids that massage her feet when she gets home and feed them fully so that they thrive and actually reach adulthood. But this requires she lets a few of them be starved and die off quickly (they were annoying anyways and were expensive to feed).


B. Distribute the food equally to all kids and watch in misery as they all wither away from malnutrition and turn to a life of crime and never fully grow up and maybe hoping secretly her husband will die from his own vomit after a particularly bad bender. But he doesn't and this is the miserable life she will always lead.

Sophie's choice is always hard for us humans. (Unless we are psychopaths, who usually do well when resources are scarce, but that's not the point.)

This choice of scarce resources is not at all hard for our brains though. In times of scarcity our brains are excellent at shunting blood and energy away from certain "children" so that the "favorites" will thrive. There's no debate, survival is top priority for our brain and less important "children" will be compromised without us even realizing it.

If different parts of our brain were like children, can you guess which children are kicked to curb and left high and dry without food?

So what kinds of things are considered scarce resources to our brain?

Certainly things like these all play a role:

  • nutrition

  • hydration

  • stress

  • exercise

  • exposure to toxins

  • healthy relationships

  • mindfulness

  • safety

  • sleep

We are adapted for survival. This is the concept of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And most of us are not victims, we adapt.

However we are not infinitely adaptable.

It takes some time but eventually time gets the best of us all.

When the balance of stress and recovery is chronically out of balance, something's gotta give. We will cope with insomnia. We will avoid or endure, but we wont recover in an adaptive way.

Sleep is our main form of recovery for our mind, brain, and body.

Neuroscience is getting much better at showing what exactly happens to our brain when we have insomnia and sleep deprivation. Fancy scanners have identified which children likely are going to get the boot from mom and be starved out of precious resources.

No Sleep = hungry brain

No Child Left Behind, Psych! Here's the Losers in our Brain During Chronic Insomnia.

1. Hippocampus.

The part of our brain that makes new memories.

Result of sleep deprivation: You can't learn anything new! All that physical training and exercise you did at 0500 before you go to work, you don't learn anything new or store any of that fitness. It's like you just exhausted yourself running up a sand dune, ending up exactly the same place after 30 minutes on the elliptical. All that studying for grad school or work for your online degree last night, waste of time. It's like you never even read it.

2. Astrocytes.

Cells that clean up waste products and support and maintain the neurons (the so-called "brain cells").

Results of sleep deprivation: Your brain vacuum doesn't suck up the dust and dirt off the floor. It has a jackhammer attachment that actually cracks up the tiles and shreds the carpet so the floor is broken up instead of cleaned up. The vacuum goes haywire without sleep!

3. Frontal and Parietal Lobes.

The energy-hog parts of our brain responsible for decision making, problem solving, and executive function.

Results of sleep deprivation: The instant gratification monkey part of our brain kicks the shit out of the rational decision maker part of our brain and we excel at procrastination, self-sabotage, and impulsivity and then become filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread later.

Executive function is the ability to self assess and monitor behaviors to see if we're reaching goals. That usually goes first without sleep. So it's no wonder that the most sleep deprived are the most insistent that they are okay. They have no self awareness of their problem because that part of the brain is one of those very expensive children that always ate too much meat, so Sophie's hand was forced.

Without rational thinking and acting impulsively, it's quite the sustainable problem, one of our quirky human processes. This function is super adaptive for survival in the short term, but maladaptive for longevity.

4. Amygdala.

Fear and Anger emotional center.

Results of sleep deprivation: We all know the loudest and most annoying unfortunately get the spotlight. Ugh, politics right? Our brain acts that way too when resources like sleep get tight. The volume on the amygdala turns up 40% with sleep deprivation, making us more irritable and angry and prone to make decisions and behave emotionally.

Unfortunately this means that Sophie's most annoying child that cries and spits all of the time gets fed, but one of the nicer children that think rationally and plan for the future gets the axe instead. Hey, there's only so much food to go around, right? The cycle of self-sabotage continues.

So how do we become a good sleeper?

What is it anyways? Insomnia? Simply put, it's less than optimal sleep regularly. It's a complex bio-psycho-social problem. Not solely medical, not solely genetic, not solely in your head, but a lot of different factors play a part and we have no way of determining exactly why some people are better than others.

The verdict is in! The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society developed a consensus in 2015 based on 5,314 scientific articles. 7-9 Hours are recommended.

What about sleeping in on the weekend?

Banking sleep on the weekend doesn't do much for you. Shoot.

How about medicine from the doctor?

Medicated sleep puts you "out" but not into deep sleep. Sleep medications are basically amnesiacs. They make you forget that you were sleepless and waking up frequently.

There's a 99.98% chance you aren't part of the genetic elite super warrior race that can actually get away with 5-6 hours of sleep and have normal performance, much less peak performance.

For peak performance: 7-9 hours. Period. I'm talking to you military, fire, and medical! Our most sleep deprived professions.

Also, some of our most important professions for public health and safety, making it a policy issue. Sleep is the most integral function for recovery. Recovery from everything. Mental, emotional, and physical stress.

It's a big mystery as to why we need sleep, but we know we do. People with brain damage that cannot sleep will unfortunately die. Sleep deprivation really is the best form of torture. The waterboarding thing, total waste of effort compared to sleep deprivation.

Chronic insomniacs are at higher risk for:

  • 1. Higher sensitivity to physical pain

  • 2. Wrinkling earlier

  • 3. Getting fat

  • 4. Having way less sex

  • 6. Adverse health outcomes like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and depression

  • 5. Dying earlier, OMG!?!


Let me explain, no, there is too much, let me sum up: Sophie's Choice.