Healthy Living

Sleep -- The Unconscious Workout

05/22/2016 08:41am ET | Updated June 19, 2016

The equivalent of not sleeping well is like running in the same place but not going anywhere. Oh no wait, I just described the treadmill. Welcome to the workout that doesn’t require any squats, weight lifting, or burpees. Besides if you can’t sleep, then you don’t get the benefits of all that hard work at the gym anyway.

Last week I attended the Annual Institute for Functional Medicine Conference in San Diego, California. This year's theme wasn't fancy or complicated. There was no focus on the human genome or the biochemistry of a tomato. Even a non-medical person could have attended and found lifestyle gems to apply to their own life.

It was about going back to the basics.

The foundation of what it truly means to live a healthy life. Functional medicine is about getting to the root of disease and to heal from within. This approach to medicine can sometimes get a bad rap due to the often high costs of lab tests, office visits, and supplements which insurance doesn’t usually cover. It is easy as a doctor to get caught up in the newest fancy test to determine whether you have leaky gut syndrome or heart disease. While I find these tests to be extremely valuable when I work with patients, when I go to sleep at night I think about the millions of other people who are still suffering.

I believe the day will come when functional medicine is just plain medicine.

That it will be accessible to anyone with health insurance and not just those that can afford to pay out of pocket. Until that day comes though, I was reminded this weekend that we already have all the tools and knowledge we need to start living a healthier life. Today.

I usually attend these conferences with a notebook full of new insights to help heal my patients. This time I found myself taking notes just as much for myself. I kept asking these questions. Do I sleep enough? Do I move enough? And if not, why? Intellectually I know all the statistics about why I should eat healthy, sleep well, and move often. That poor sleep increases my risk of heart disease and increased weight around my middle. But how often do I truly practice what I preach?

Most of the time I do the right thing.

But I am human. And like you, I too fall off the wagon. I often run into my patients when I’m at the grocery store. While usually my cart is filled with vegetables and lean protein, sometimes a bag of salt-and-vinegar potato chips sneaks in there and I literally shield my cart with body lest I be judged.

One of my biggest downfalls is not getting enough sleep on a consistent basis. I decided to be my own doctor and write myself a personalized sleep prescription. To recommit to myself that sleep is a top priority. To commit to making sleep a restorative and healing ritual at the end of the day instead of falling into bed exhausted.

I physically wrote out my top 3 priorities on my personal prescription pad that I use to prescribe medications to my patients. I taped it to the wall above my nightstand as soon as I got home from the conference. See my prescription. Having it displayed will make me more accountable to stick to my plan.

When you see a doctor, they usually check your temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and weight. Sleep is just as critical to your health and is like your 5th vital sign. If we don't get enough sleep, studies have shown we can go clinically insane.

The sleep prescription below is universal.

Among the top complaints I hear from people is that they don’t sleep well or are always tired. You may need to be looked at more closely by a functional medicine doctor. However, you can start sleeping better tonight.

Get the best sleep of your life.

  1. Set a bedtime alarm. Make it a calming sound. Not the blaring blast you get from your morning alarm clock.
  2. Do NOTHING 30 minutes before bed that involves an electronic device. Brush your teeth (and floss). Give yourself a facial. Take a warm bath. Have sex. You get the idea.
  3. Insomnia is not a nighttime disorder. It's a 24 hour disorder. How you start your day is how you end it.
  4. Exercise in the morning. This activates your parasympathetic (rest and relaxation) nervous system which helps you have more cycles of REM (deep) sleep so that you feel more restored in the morning.
  5. Eat at least 2 hours before bedtime. Your stomach also has a bedtime and eating food can keep your body awake. If you absolutely must eat late, try taking digestive enzymes.
  6. Melatonin is NOT a sleeping pill. Its sole purpose is to reset your circadian clock so that you fall asleep on a natural rhythm.
  7. Don't exercise at night. If you must exercise at night (after 6 pm) and find difficulties falling asleep, try taking ashwagandha and phosphatidylserine 1 hr before exercise.
  8. You can't improve what you don't measure. Wearable technology is everywhere. You can find a device in your price range to record your sleep habits and share with your doctor.
  9. You've tried everything. If you still can't sleep and have exhausted every supplement and recommendation known to man, ask your functional medicine doctor about testing for a possible tick-borne illness (i.e. Lyme).

Your Homework

At your next doctor’s appointment, ask them to write down a personalized sleep prescription on their prescription pad. It is important that it is an actual prescription versus some random piece of paper that could get lost in the shuffle of your life. Force your doctor to be specific. For example, adjust settings on your iPad or computer to decrease blue light emissions at night which can suppress melatonin.

Want more?

Join The Unconscious Workout challenge! It is the only step-by-step email course that will show you how to get the BEST sleep of your life in just 21 days. In less than one month, you can wake up energized, decrease your risk for heart disease, and melt away belly fat. It's like a HIIT workout for sleep. Sign up today.

Sweet dreams,

Dr. Tiffany Lester


Dr. Tiffany Lester believes that we all have the ability to take charge of our health. Often we just need a bridge to reach that other side. She has been that bridge for hundreds of patients at her clinical practice, Alliance Integrative Medicine - one of the leading integrative medicine centers in the country. By combining the best of functional medicine, acupuncture, and nutrition, she navigates the complexity of the body to get to the root cause of disease. Get your own personal prescription for your best health today.