“When the body is tired, the mind can quickly get defensive. When we repeatedly push ourselves to get a lot done, we forget to prioritize proper rest. Getting caught in a cycle of constant productivity uses up our inner reserves and sometimes even pushes our mind out of balance. The tension in the mind that builds up from exhaustion can easily morph itself into narratives of worry or into fake stories that further agitate the mind.” Yung Pueblo
In the midst of COVID and mental health epidemics and pandemics, the US is also in the midst of a sleep crisis. The silver lining? There are action items we can do to get better sleep and promote real rest, regeneration, and wellbeing in our lives.
Good sleep is a critical aspect of health. Sleep boosts your immune system and improves memory. New studies are even showing that sleep protects against dementia. In addition to the benefits science measures, we are also aware of the common-sense benefits of sleep. When you don’t sleep well, you’re grumpy. When you do sleep well you are more patient, you’re a better driver, you feel more energy. This begs the question: what can you do to get better sleep?
Tips for Better Sleep
Dr. Allen Gee says the first step to getting better sleep is to explore the reasons fueling your dysfunctional sleep. If you don’t understand the nature of your current sleep experience (what your habits are, when you feel rested, when you don’t, etc) then it is hard to make changes for the better and even more challenging to know if the changes are helpful. The first step to getting better sleep is to build a well-rounded understanding of your current sleep experience. This awareness can come in the form of keeping a sleep journal, keeping track of your eating and exercise habits, as well as noting when you go to sleep and when you feel tired throughout the day. Sometimes there are diseases underlying poor sleep, such as sleep apnea, that can be addressed. In other instances, getting better sleep is a business of practicing better hygiene. Addressing sleep disorders and diseases looks like sleep lab studies, home sleep studies, as well as practicing sleep hygiene. Better hygiene (and tips) include:
Going to bed and waking up at the same time everyday anchors your sleep cycle. A daily sleep schedule facilitates a healthy and sustained circadian rhythm (the pattern responsible for our sleeping and eating habits).
Getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
The minimum amount of sleep that the CDC recommends anyone get each night is seven hours. Simply put, four or five hours of sleep a night is not conducive to wellbeing. This is because REM sleep occurs in the second half of your sleep cycle, and if you are not sleeping long enough your body does not have enough time to settle into the healing stages of sleep.
Reducing Alcohol, Nicotine & Caffeine.
Alcohol, while it may help you relax, has been shown to rob you of REM sleep (the deepest level of sleep where much of our bodily maintenance occurs). Heavy alcohol consumption has also been shown to impair your breathing while sleeping, making it hard for you to stay asleep. Nicotine is a stimulant and leads to light sleep. Caffeine blocks adenosine signals (a sleep chemical) resulting in a blocking of the sleepiness signal. Avoiding these chemicals prior to bedtime helps your body settle into its natural care rhythms.
Keeping it cool.
Sleeping in a room around 65 degrees helps support your body’s natural cooling during sleep, allowing you to fall and stay asleep better.
Evading late night high intensity work outs, but do work out regularly during the day.
Heavy exercise one to two hours before bed can make it hard for your brain to calm down. It takes a couple hours for body temperature to cool down and heart rate to calm down enough to sleep. On the other hand, regularly working out has been shown to lead to better quality sleep. Read more here.
Eating light at night.
Heavy meals at night can cause indigestion which then interferes with sleep. Also avoid drinking a lot of fluid before bed to prevent frequent, and disruptive, bathroom breaks.
Leaving time to unwind.
A relaxing routine before bed helps que your brain to calm down and begin the process of falling asleep. Once you have a wind down routine, it conditions your brain to recognize and prepare for rest.
Getting some sun.
Feeling sunshine on your skin, especially in the morning, helps regulate your sleep wake cycle. Specifically, it lets your body know that it is day time and it is supposed to be awake.
Leaving the devices out of the bedroom.
Sleep scientist Matt Walker says, “Think of the ideal bedroom as a prehistoric cave somewhere in the Great North: cool, dark, and gadget-free.” Devices are distracting – light and noise can disrupt your sleep and make it harder for you to fall asleep.
Avoid lying in bed for too long.
Lying in bed hoping you will eventually nod off does not help you fall asleep, it can actually make you more anxious and frustrated. You want to train your brain to associate the bed with sleep, and spending too much time awake in bed does the opposite. If you’re still awake after about 30 minutes, get up and do something that will help you get sleepy.
Taking a look at your medication schedule.
Lots of medications are known to disrupt sleep patterns. Talk to your doctor and pharmacist to see if any of your medications are on the list, and ask if you can take them earlier in the day.
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Good sleep is a necessity for human wellbeing, and it is an unfortunate side effect of modern culture that sleep care is one of the first things to be sacrificed for productivity. Reclaim your sleep habits and take care of your rest – it impacts every aspect of your physiology, and is a critical component of vitality.