How To Relieve Stress, Recharge Your Brain, And Get A Better Night of Sleep
Written by Calvin Sun
Have you ever let pre-competition anxiety keep from you getting a good night of rest? Or maybe stressing over an important meeting at work or a big interview kept you from getting enough sleep? Many years ago, the night before my first national-level powerlifting meet, I had the opportunity to experience this first hand. Between the time zone change, worrying about making weight in the morning, and the anticipation of competing at nationals, I found myself restless and unable to calm my mind.
Anxious, racing thoughts kept my brain way more active than it should have been at bedtime. What’s worse is that the more I looked at the clock, the more anxious I felt. I was worried I wouldn’t get enough sleep to be well rested for my competition. This made me feel more anxious which, in turn, made falling asleep even more elusive. I later learned that this is referred to as anticipatory anxiety in clinical settings.
In the years since, I’ve done a variety of research, experimentation, and testing of numerous methods to help me reduce this evening anxiety, de-stress, and optimize my sleep. Many of my clients ranging from business professionals to competitive athletes have found these methods can dramatically reduce their stress and improve their sleep. In today’s post, I will share my current protocol that I have used to help myself and many of my private clients unwind and relax in the evening as well as improve sleep quality.
What You’ll Need
1. Relaxation Supplement Stack
In a chapter of my eBook on Post-Workout Supplementation, I share a pre-bed protocol consisting of GABA, glycine, L-theanine, and magnesium. Research has found that GABA helps reduce psychological stress, improve sleep, and restore the autonomic nervous system to baseline [1,2]. A study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that GABA supplementation resulted in an enhanced ability to return to a normal resting state from a stressed state as measured by heart rate variability (HRV). In addition, levels of salivary chromogranin-A, a marker of psychological stress, was unaffected in the group supplemented with GABA indicating an enhanced resilience to stress-inducing stimuli .
Glycine is an amino acid that also acts as an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Multiple studies have found that taking glycine before bed can improve sleep quality, cognitive function, as well as reduce daytime fatigue [3,4,5]. A study published in Sleep and Biological Rhythms found that glycine supplementation resulted in shorter times to reach slow-wave sleep, the deepest stages of the sleep cycle. In addition, researchers found that glycine reduced daytime sleepiness and improved performance of memory recognition tasks.
L-theanine, an amino most commonly found in green tea, has been found to reduce both psychological and physiological stress responses . A study published in Biological Psychology found L-theanine supplementation resulted in lowered heart rate and an attenuation of the sympathetic nervous system (aka “the fight or flight” response of the autonomic nervous system) resulting in an anti-stress effect.
Magnesium is a co-factor in hundreds of enzymatic reactions throughout the body and is sometimes referred to as the “relaxation mineral”. Common symptoms of deficiency include muscle cramps, insomnia, loss of appetite, restlessness, irritability, sugar cravings, fatigue and high blood pressure . Magnesium glycinate and citrate are the best forms to take orally. Avoid supplements containing magnesium carbonate, sulfate, gluconate, and oxide as they are poorly absorbed. In addition to oral supplementation, Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) baths and magnesium oil are two effective ways to get more magnesium in your body.
You can purchase each of these products separately but I recommend taking a natural relaxation formula called CalmBoost as it contains all of the supplements in one formulation. I recommend taking 3 capsules about 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
Recommended Supplement: CalmBoost (90 capsules, 30 servings)
2. Headphones (Ideally Noise-Cancelling) + Guided Meditation Audio
The brain operates with 5 primary brain wave frequencies: gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta.
Beta waves (12 Hz to 40 Hz) are involved in conscious thought, logical thinking, and tend to have a stimulating effect. Typically, beta waves allow us to focus and complete work-based tasks. However, high beta waves are associated with anxiety. Tools such as mindfulness training and meditation can help bring brainwaves down to the the alpha and theta wave ranges (4 Hz to 12Hz) which can help you feel relaxed, calm, and more grounded.
Electroencephalographic (EEG) studies have found a significant increase in alpha and theta activity during mindfulness-based meditation . In addition, long-term meditation practice is associated with an enhancement of brain regions related to focus and attention which can help enhance daytime cognitive function . Mindfulness-based meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm are both great ways to learn these techniques to optimize your brain waves in the evening to achieve a more relaxed and calm state. I’m also a fan of both the guided and unguided meditation series from Brain.fm. When combined with the supplement stack I mentioned earlier, there’s a synergistic effect as both GABA and L-theanine have been found to enhance alpha waves in the brain [9,10].
In addition, I recommend investing in a good pair of noise cancelling headphones to help block out any distracting noises during your meditation sessions. I’m a fan of the Bose QuietComfort headphones as the noise cancelling technology is incredibly good and the reduced distractions can help you get the most of out your mindfulness training.
Recommended Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Cancelling Headphones
Recommended Audio Programs: Brain.fm, Headspace, Calm, Progressive Relaxation Guided Audio by Dr. Heidi Fearon-Baker
3. Eye Mask
While closing your eyes during meditation can be sufficient, wearing an eye mask can help enhance your ability to achieve a calm and relaxed state. Given the abundance of bright, light-emitting screens such as mobile phones, tablets, computers, and televisions, our eyes tend to be overstimulated at night. Alpha brainwaves predominantly originate from the occipital lobe during wakeful relaxation with closed eyes. Using a good eye mask can help further reduce the amount of light that is able to enter the eye and stimulate the optic nerve. The result is that alpha wave production from the occipital lobe of the brain is enhanced.
In addition, research has found that even ambient light exposure can result in suppressed melatonin release before bedtime . Melatonin is a hormone produced the pineal gland that regulates sleep and wake cycles. I don’t recommend supplementing with melatonin as it can cause side effects such as headaches, grogginess, and hormone fluctuations. In fact, in many countries melatonin is only available with a prescription if at all. If you want to improve your sleep habits, I suggest avoiding excessive light exposure at night to promote endogenous melatonin production.
Recommended Eye Mask: 3D Light Blocking Eye Mask
Putting It All Together: The Stress Relief and Deep Sleep Protocol
Now that you have all of the elements of the protocol, it’s very easy to implement them into your evening routine.
Step 1: Take your relaxation supplements approximately 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime.
Step 2: Wear an eye mask to block any light from stimulating the optic nerve, help promote natural melatonin production, and enhance production of alpha brainwaves.
Step 3: Use a guided meditation app with noise-cancelling headphones for 15 to 30 minutes.
Step 4: Feeling relaxed and calm yet? Remove your headphones, eye mask, and get a great night of sleep!
This simple routine can be performed nightly before bed to improve your sleep and help train your brain to reach the alpha and theta brainwave state that’s essential to relaxing and calming the mind. I personally follow it every evening and it’s made a huge difference in my sleep quality, reducing anxiety levels, and improving my cognitive function during the day. My clients have reported that they have had some of the deepest and most restorative sleep ever by following these guidelines. I hope you find it to be equally beneficial.
Have questions about this protocol? Feel free to post your questions below in the comments.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to enhance your performance and optimize your recovery, check out my eBook on post-workout supplementation. Inside you’ll find a variety of recommended supplements, reference charts, meal timing suggestions, and goal-based guidelines. You’ll also get access to my private coaching group where I share the latest research, supplement reviews, protocols, and answer your questions.
Also Check Out…
1. Nakamura H, Takishima T, Kometani T, Yokogoshi H. Psychological stress-reducing effect of chocolate enriched with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in humans: assessment of stress using heart rate variability and salivary chromogranin A. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2009;60 Suppl 5:106-13. doi: 10.1080/09637480802558508. Epub 2009 May 21.
2. Gottesmann C. GABA mechanisms and sleep. Neuroscience. 2002;111(2):231-9.
3. Yamadera W, Inagawa K, Chiba S, Bannai M, Takahashi M, Nakayama K. Glycine ingestion improves subjective sleep quality in human volunteers, correlating with polysomnographic changes. Sleep and Biological Rhythms. Volume 5, Issue 2, pages 126–131, April 2007
4. Inagawa K, Hiraoka T, Kohda T, Yamadera W, and Takahashi M. Subjective effects of glycine ingestion before bedtime on sleep quality. Sleep and Biological Rhythms. Volume 4, Issue 1, pages 75–77, February 2006.
5. Halson, S. Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Med. 2014; 44(Suppl 1): 13–23. 2014 May 3.
6. Kimura K, Ozeki M, Juneja, L R, Ohira, H. L-Theanine reduces psychological and physiological stress responses. Biological Psychology 74 (1): 39–45. 2007.
7. Rude, R. Magnesium Deficiency: A Cause of Heterogenous Disease in Humans. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. Volume 13, Issue 4, pages 749–758, April 1998.
8. Chiesa A, Serretti A. A systematic review of neurobiological and clinical features of mindfulness meditations. Psychol Med. 2010 Aug;40(8):1239-52. doi: 10.1017/S0033291709991747. Epub 2009 Nov 27.
9. Abdou AM1, Higashiguchi S, Horie K, Kim M, Hatta H, Yokogoshi H. Relaxation and immunity enhancement effects of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration in humans.
10. Nobre AC, Rao A, Owen GN. L-theanine, a natural constituent in tea, and its effect on mental state. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2008;17 Suppl 1:167-8.
11. Padmanabhan R, Hildreth AJ, Laws D. A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and preoperative anxiety in patients undergoing general anaesthesia for day case surgery.
12. Gooley J, et al. Exposure to Room Light before Bedtime Suppresses Melatonin Onset and Shortens Melatonin Duration in Humans. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Mar; 96(3): E463–E472. Published online 2010 Dec 30. doi: 10.1210/jc.2010-2098