Don’t Just Sleep. Sleep Better.
While everything about sleep isn’t fully understood, one thing is for sure – it has a huge impact on our everyday lives…our physical, emotional and mental health. Not getting enough sleep certainly affects all aspects of your life. The worst part of it is that you might not even be aware of it. But sleep isn’t only about quantity. The quality of sleep is even more important. How you spend your time in bed. What you do before you go to sleep. How you awake. In other words, you don’t just need more sleep…you need to sleep better.
In the Past, Sleeping Was Easier…
The sun would rise. People would get up. They went to work, tended to crops, cared for livestock. Then when the sun went down, they slept. And this cycle repeated day in and day out. Then came electricity. Light bulbs replaced candles. Our ability to work longer hours, late into the night, meant our sleep cycle was broken. Jump forward to today. We stare at computer screens in offices, sometimes without windows, and may not even know it’s night time until we leave to go home. Then when we finally got to bed, we stare at smartphones and tablets, catching up on the latest news, sharing tweets and liking posts. And when we finally close our eyes, we expect to get a good night’s sleep, so we can repeat the process tomorrow.
But now, it’s 2AM. And you’re still not asleep. Panic sets in.
Telling yourself to relax simply won’t do it. It’s too late. Maybe you’ll go to bed early tomorrow. But today, you’re going to be tired. Maybe if you’d done things differently, you would have fallen asleep sooner. And if you had, you wouldn’t be suffering through your next day. The two are more related than you think. Lack of sleep affects your physical and mental performance, your immune system, metabolism and overall vitality.
Tip 1: Reset your Circadian Rhythm
Think of your circadian rhythm as a 24-hour internal clock. It’s constantly running in your brain and alternates between alertness during the day and sleepiness at night. This is known as the sleep/wake cycle. There are numerous factors that affect your rhythm, but the main factor is daylight. This impacts hormone release, eating habits, digestions, body temperature, and other important bodily functions. Biological clocks that run fast or slow can result in disrupted or abnormal circadian rhythms, as well. Irregular circadian rhythms can often be the cause of various chronic health conditions, such as sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.
Your circadian rhythm functions at its best when you have a regular sleep cycle – going to bed and waking up at the same times each day. Figuring out your natural sleep/wake cycle is a crucial step to sleep better, so you wake up feeling energized and ready for the day. Here’s a some easy tips to stay on track with your internal clock.
- Don’t sleep in – Despite how nice it might sound, especially during your days off or the on weekends, sleeping in only sends conflicting signals to your body. Your body doesn’t understand that you need to go to work, it just knows that you usually wake up at 8AM everyday and then all of a sudden, you sleep until noon. Your body then wants to sleep until noon the next day, too. Best bet, when you have a day off, wake up as you normally do, and if you feel tired, just have a short nap during the day.
- Get up and go to sleep at the same time, every day – Setting your internal clock cannot be done without setting and sticking to a schedule. Choose the time in the evening when you begin to feel the most tired. Turn off the TV and your phone. It’s time for bed. Be sure to set an alarm, so you wake up each day at the same time, as well.
- Be careful with afternoon naps – While they can energize you and help you make it through the day, make sure they’re no longer than 30 minutes, as that will only make it harder to fall asleep later in the evening.
- Don’t eat too late – It’s perfectly normal to feel drowsy after eating, but it’s not a good idea to fall asleep immediately after a meal, as you probably won’t get good, quality sleep. This can also cause weight gain as your body doesn’t burn as many calories while sleeping. So fight the carb coma and try wait at least two hours before drifting off to Never Never Land. Prepare tomorrow’s lunch. Call a friend. Organize that sock drawer. Once you’ve given your body time to digest your food, then it’s time for sleep.
- Do not overthink – While your mind is a powerful tool, it can also be your worst enemy. So when it’s time to go to bed, turn it off. Don’t think about what you didn’t get done today or what you have to do tomorrow. Doing so makes falling asleep more difficult. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, don’t think about it; the stress will only keep you awake. Try taking slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out your mouth. Slowly count as you inhale and exhale.
Tip 2: Your Food Counts
We’ve talked about how what you do during the day influences the way you sleep, and the same goes for what you eat and drink. Here are some basic things to avoid:
- Coffee – It’s a no-brainer, right? You shouldn’t drink coffee before you go to sleep. In fact, it can even have an affect on your body for up to 12 hours after you’ve consumed your last cup of joe. So try to limit your caffeine intake to before noon.
- Energy drinks – The same logic applies to energy boosting drinks as well. They are high in caffeine that will keep you awake and sugars that will give you that temporary feeling of energy. Another popular ingredient is taurine, which increases your heartbeat and muscle contractions, giving you the feeling of being extra attentive. This is great when you’re driving on a long trip but not if you plan on going to sleep anytime soon.
- Alcohol – There is a myth that a nightcap will help you sleep better. It’s true that alcohol will slow you down, but it will only interfere with your body’s natural mechanisms when going to sleep and can damage your sleep cycle so avoid alcohol before going to bed.
- Sugary drinks – The main reason to avoid them is because the sugar can make you feel energized – hardly a great thing when you’re trying to sleep. Sugar is also bad for your teeth, which can lead to tooth decay. So make sure to brush before you go to bed. You’re welcome, mom. Sugary, carbonated beverages can also cause you to wake in the middle of the night to answer nature’s call, which interrupts your sleep cycle.
- Avoid fatty or spicy meals – Highly seasoned, fiery foods may add some spice to your life, but they’re also a key ingredient for poor sleep. Heavy foods, such as beef or pork, can also be tough to digest, giving you heartburn and further interrupting your sleep. Make lighter, healthier choices like chicken or turkey. Also, try avoiding big meals right before you go to bed. Try to finish eating your last meal 2-3 hours before bedtime. If you have to eat late, try something on the lighter side like a fruit and yogurt or a bowl of low-sugar cereal. Milk can also help with late-night heartburn.
Tip 3: Know Your Exercise
Exercise is not only important for better sleep but also for better overall health. It’s even a great way to reduce stress. Exercising once a day will improve how you feel.Some people may require more or less time working out, but for most of us, even 20-30 minutes can help you fall asleep faster and sleep better. And after you work up a good sweat, your body will spend more time in deep sleep, which is essential for its rejuvenating properties.
Find your routine and stick to it. Your body will thank you for it.
Timing is important. Because exercise speeds up your metabolism and can make you feel more alert, the best time to exercise is either in the morning or afternoon. Exercising too late can be detrimental for sleep. If your idea of exercise is running 5 miles or 60-minutes of heart pounding cardio, try exercising at least 4 to 5 hours before you go to sleep.
On the other hand, slow-moving exercises, such as yoga, can help you relax and sleep better, so these types of exercises can be done much closer to your actual sleep time.
Tip 4: The Importance of Light
We’ve mentioned before that light was the main source of information for syncing our circadian rhythm. Long ago, there were no clocks, especially in rural areas, so we only had the sun and the moon to guide us.
When exposed to light, our body decreases melatonin production which helps regulate our sleep-wake cycle. So when it gets dark, our body increases melatonin telling your body that it’s time to sleep. That’s why many supplements that promote sleep have melatonin in them.
Nowadays, there are all sorts of things that get in the way of this normally natural process. Your body tries its best, but it is constantly bombarded with artificial and false signals. Here are some tips that will help you put that melatonin monkey to rest.
- Sleep in a dark, quiet room – Use curtains or window shades to create the perfect environment for sleep. Block all light, and most of the sounds. Some people relax better with a white noise or rain machine, so if that helps, go for it. If you can’t eliminate all the light, try wearing a sleep mask. Avoid brightly lit alarms clocks. And if you’re a fan of fur babies, you may be better off with them in another room. This may be hard to contemplate but give it a try.
- Say no to electronics in the bedroom – Don’t have a TV inside your bedroom. Again…no TV in the bedroom. You’ll just be tempted to watch your favorite late night host or catch up on reruns of I Love Lucy. The blue light emitted by the electronic screens suppresses melatonin and make you feel more awake. Instead, listen to relaxing music or even better read a book with a dim, yellow light.
- And that includes no cell phones or other smart devices – It sounds difficult, and it is. We are addicted to our smartphones and tablets, but even they have automatic options to eliminate blue light from their spectrum and emit yellowish light that will help you prepare for sleep. If your device cannot control light temperature, turn the brightness all the way down. There’s no need for such a strong light to be pointed at your eyes. For computers, software like f.lux is a free download that warms up your computer display at night. The best bet though, is to keep them out of the bedroom or turn them off.
- When you get up, let the sun in – When you wake up in the morning, don’t sit in a dark room while looking at your phone. You’ll just get drowsy again. Open the blinds, turn on the lights. Even better, go outside and enjoy a cup of coffee. The sunlight will help you stay awake and make your morning that much easier.
- During the day, expose yourself to the sun – Once again, we have a tendency to stare at our screens the whole day, and we can’t change our workspace. Whenever you have the time, take a break, go outside, run to the store. If it’s your day off, take a nice stroll, or walk your dog. Whatever it takes to get you outside the house. Take in as much sun as you can during the day, bring your desk closer to the window if possible. You’ll feel better, and you’ll sleep better in the evening.
Tip 5: Your Bedroom – Your Kingdom
You don’t necessarily need to feng shui your room to sleep better, but there are a few tips that will help your brain, and your body, relax easier.
- Find the right mattress – It’s surprising how many people don’t want to invest in something that they spend over 30% of their lives on. Find the right mattress! Choose one that’s not too soft or too hard, but just right for your neck and back.
- Eliminate noise – That means no electronics, no clocks (think tick-tock) and no pets. We love our furry friends, but they have a tendency of waking us up during the night, and that simply won’t do. The only noise should be a sound machine if that helps you, and if you live in a noisy neighborhood, minimize that by closing your windows. You might even give ear plugs a try.
- Do not let your room be too hot – Sleeping in a room that’s too hot will make you sweat, causing you to toss and turn all night. The temperature of your room should be around 60-68 degrees with plenty of fresh air. Think of your room as your cave…cold, dark and quiet. That’s the perfect environment for a great night’s sleep.
Tip 6: Emotional Baggage
One of the biggest problems that influences the quality of our sleep is our emotional state and the amount of stress experienced during the day. Different people react differently. Some may deal with stress or emotions by sleeping all day while others may suffer from insomnia.
It’s not easy to classify these problems and offer simple tips. Some solutions require the help of a professional, but here are some points you should pay particular attention to.
- Anxiety – It’s not easy telling someone with anxiety to stop worrying. It’s like telling someone that’s drowning to relax and just breathe. Taking a moment and looking at the bigger picture helps some people. When it’s time to get some shut eye, try turn off your brain by thinking about simple things. Simple breathing exercises can help some people to fall asleep.
- Stress – Much like anxiety, stress is not an easy problem to solve, especially if you know those same problems will be waiting for you in the morning. That is why exercise is a good way of releasing all the extra energy and tiring yourself out so you can sleep better.
Ask a doctor about possible solutions to your problems, as lack of sleep will only lead to more stress. When alone, learn how to control yourself, learn how to breathe properly. Relax, and calm your mind – like meditation.
Clear your mind and stop thinking about your problems until tomorrow. Realize that when you’re rested and energized, you’ll be better equipped to address the hurdles in your life.
Be At Your Best. Get Your Rest.
Until then, remember, there’s a reason why we sleep. It’s a chance for us to recuperate from a hectic, stressful day. Our brain gets a quiet moment to file the days events. It’s a peaceful, calm time that our bodies and minds depend on so take the necessary steps to sleep better. Because better sleep = a better life.