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Forget 8 Hours: New Approaches to Sleep

What if you could redefine your approach to sleep and see your creativity, mood, memory, motivation, energy levels, and alertness skyrocket? Who wouldn’t want to make a few adjustments that could have their health, work, relationships, and family life be enriched beyond measure?

redefine your approach to sleep, woman floating on mattress

Why is Sleep Important?

Sleep is an essential element in good health and well-being throughout your life. Adequate, recuperative sleep can help protect your mental health, physical health, quality of life, and safety. During the various phases of sleep, your body is working to support healthy brain function, consolidate information, process memories, stimulate creativity, and work on physical restoration. To maintain our overall mental and physical health, we need to experience all the phases of sleep (light, deep, REM) in a series of cycles that feels to us like one continuous night’s sleep.

Our Current Approach Sleep

Because we know that sleep is essential (in part, from the experiences we’ve all had with not getting enough at times), we get anxious when we think we’re going to have a sleepless night. We’ve heard our entire lives that we need eight hours of sleep and we get stressed if we look at the clock in the middle of the night and do mental calculations about the sleep we’re missing.  Cortisol is released, we waken further, and perhaps begin to worry about the fullness of the upcoming day, which drives sleep even further away.

To stave off a repeat of the previous night’s wakefulness and worries, we might take a sleep aid, or drink an extra glass of wine thinking it will induce drowsiness. Your pattern may not look exactly like this, but it is estimated that one in three people experience some form of insomnia which leads to a higher risk of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression. Lack of sleep can also encourage premature aging, contribute to weight gain, and affect your memory.

A New Approach

But what if you learned that you didn’t need eight hours of consecutive sleep? An entire sleep cycle takes approximately 90 minutes. It is in 90-minute segments that we experience all the phases of sleep with their distinct restorative emphases. What if instead of obsessing about getting eight hours of sleep per night, we took an approach where we focused on ensuring we had a sufficient number of 90-minute sleep cycles per week? Approximately, five sleep cycles per night might be our optimal pattern, but if we only got four one night, it’s not the end of the world. The goal would be to get your optimal number of nightly sleep cycles at least four times per week.  

This is the R90 method (recovery in 90 minutes) that sleep expert, Nick Littlehales uses in his coaching of elite athletes. The R90 method, with additional methodologies that incorporate working with your circadian rhythms and strategies to “sleep smarter” have been shown to lead to performance increases and stress-reduction in the athletes he coaches.

Circadian Rhythms

Working with your circadian rhythms has to do with setting your body clock in alignment with daylight. These rhythms are ingrained in us and the product of millions of years of evolution. Our internal body clock regulates systems such as eating, sleeping, body temperature, alertness, mood, digestion, hormone production and more in a twenty-four-hour cycle that works in harmony with the rotation of the earth. If we arrange our lives to be more in sync with these rhythms, then we’re not fighting against what our bodies want to do naturally at certain periods of the day.

For example, melatonin (the hormone that regulates our sleep) is produced in the pineal gland which responds to light. The secretion starts at approximately 9 pm and stops around ten hours later when testosterone secretion begins. By keeping regular hours and waking at a consistent time each morning, we align ourselves with these rhythms. Constant wake time is key.

Sleep Quality is all About What You Do from the Time of Waking

Waking at a consistent time is key to getting your body clock in sync. Your total amount of sleep time can be flexible, but it is determined by counting back in 90-minute slots from your wake time. If you’ve determined that your consistent wake time is going to be 7:30 am, then count back in 90-minute sleep cycles to determine when you’re going to go to bed based on the demands of a particular day. To get five sleep cycles—what we’re estimating is optimal for most people—you would need to be asleep by midnight.

Pre-Sleep Period

But how do you ensure you’re actually asleep by midnight? According to Littlehales, you need to have an adequate pre-sleep routine that might include a number of simple preparatory steps to wind down toward sleep such as:

  • Avoid blue light for an hour or so before bed. Dim it down. Go for red or yellow light or even candlelight prior to bed. Your smart phone even has a setting to alter the light spectrum at night.
  • Hydrate an hour or so before bed (and go to the bathroom—without turning on bright light—right before bed.)
  • Don’t eat for a couple hours before bed—your bowels naturally want to shut down the desire to expel starting around 9pm.
  • Cool down your bedroom and begin to move your body from warm to cool. This change in temperature helps trigger the actual drop in body temperature associated with sleep. A quick warm rinse-off in the shower before entering your cooled down bedroom will help make this happen.

Post-Sleep Period

What we do when we wake up is just as important as what we do to prepare for sleep. It’s all part of one 24-hour cycle that we want to work with optimally.

  • Awaken at a consistent time–early enough to allow you to take it slow.
  • Allow daylight in as soon as possible. Consider a dawn simulator if your wake time occurs while it’s still dark outside.
  • Hydrate and eat a small, healthy breakfast—even if you think you’re not a “morning eater.” This replenishes and fuels your body to start the day.
  • If possible, take a walk and be out in actual daylight for a brief period before diving into your day.
woman awake from sleep getting sunlight

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Foods & Supplements That Can Aid

There are numerous foods and supplements you could consider using in your daily life and/or in your pre-sleep routine, such as:

  • Tryptophan and serotonin foods that may promote restorative sleep–think turkey, nuts and seeds.
  • Calcium helps the cells in the brain use the tryptophan to create melatonin.
  • Magnesium is said to help induce a deeper sleep state.
  • Essential oils such as bergamot and lavender, sandalwood and frankincense create a sleep-inducing blend.
  • Passionflower, St. John’s Wort and Valerian Root may also all be calming the mind and nerves.
  • CBD (cannabidiol) is being studied for its effectiveness in combating insomnia and improving sleep quality. Because it interacts with receptors in the serotonin system, it appears to influence a number of sleep-related bodily functions, including emotional regulation and sleep cycles. , CBD is also being looked at for its efficacy in enhancing alertness and reducing daytime sleepiness. These aspects can be effective in increasing the consistency and strength of the sleep-wake cycle.

The Optimal Sleep Room

Lastly, a few tips for your bedroom.

  • Make it as dark as possible for sleeping.
  • Keep your smart phone in another room (or power it all the way down). You don’t want any notifications interrupting your sleep cycle.
  • Keep the clutter out of your bedroom. This is the chamber for restoration.
  • Sleep on your non-dominant side in the fetal position. In other words, if your right-handed, sleep on your left side. This signals the brain that you can fully relax, but are still prepared to defend your heart, lungs, genitals with your dominant hand.


  1. Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body & Mind by Nick Littlehales

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