Does your night consist of tossing and turning, and waking up feeling like two of the Seven Dwarfs — Sleepy and Grumpy? A good night’s sleep is a vital part of every individual’s overall health and well-being, yet many of us seem to neglect it altogether. Due to the overflow of various tasks and responsibilities in our daily schedule, we tend to leave sleep as one of the lowest priorities on our lists.
Quality sleep is the foundation of having good health, and plays a more critical role than you might think. While you’re asleep, your body is taking time to heal, recover, and rebuild. Your systems are busy flushing out toxins, replacing cells, repairing damaged tissues, and restoring the energy you need to wake up feeling refreshed and alert for the following day’s activities. If you neglect your sleep schedule and begin accumulating a sleep deficit, it can have detrimental effects on your immune system — potentially leading to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alheimer’s, or even cancer.
Lacking the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep also has significant impacts on your emotional and mental wellness. A Harvard University study shows that by only getting five hours of sleep a night, you can adversely affect your brain’s memory, attention span, and reaction time. Sleeplessness can lead to encoding failure, which affects your ability to retain important information. This can manifest into behaviors such as forgetting where you left your keys, or the date of an important meeting you’re supposed to attend.
Getting a good night’s sleep is something that we should all take seriously to take better care of ourselves — especially during times like these. Whether you’re experiencing insonmia or are having difficulty falling asleep, here are some simple ways for you to start on your restful journey:
1. Stick to a Sleeping Schedule
Ideally, it is best to stick to the same sleep schedule every night so your body can find its natural rhythm and settle into a regular sleep-wake cycle. It’s difficult for you to feel your best if an inconsistent sleeping schedule throws off your circadian rhythm — your body’s internal clock which determines your sleep patterns. In fact, an irregular sleep schedule can cause headaches, mood swings, difficulties in concentration, and memory problems over time.
Your circadian rhythm controls the production of melatonin— the hormone that makes you sleepy — by receiving cues from your optic nerves regarding the amount of light exposure in your environment. When there is less light, it tells your brain to produce more melatonin to make you drowsy. Thus, your circadian rhythm helps you feel more awake during the day and more tired in the evenings.
So how do you maintain a consistent sleeping schedule? Well, you should listen to your body when you create a sleep schedule. Some may enjoy staying up a bit later at night, while others prefer waking up early in the morning. Regardless, keep the time that you decide to go to sleep and wake up consistent, and make sure you get approximately 7-9 hours of sleep each night. You need to put in the effort to ensure you stick to this schedule, which requires a bit of planning. For example, if you decide to sleep by 10:30 PM, you need to plan ahead to ensure you are home and in bed by then. It’s important to think of 10:30 p.m. as the time you are actually going to sleep — not the time you should start prepping for bed.
2. Keep All Technological Devices Away From Your Bed
Try to keep your smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other devices away from your bed at night. The blue light emitted from these devices interferes with your circadian rhythm, which makes it harder for your body to adjust to your new sleeping schedule. In addition, the compulsive desire to keep scrolling, texting, or playing on your phone may delay your bedtime and reduce your time asleep. If you need to use your phone or any other device before bed, make sure to turn it on night mode first. This setting dims the brightness of your screen, so it shouldn’t impact your circadian rhythm.
For ways you could better disconnect yourself from your devices, check out our recent article on how you can unplug yourself from technology!
3. Turn Your Bedroom Into a Sleep Sanctuary
A quiet, dark, and cool environment can help promote better sleep. According to Michael Decker — spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine — our body acclimates to the room temperature as we sleep. If we lower our body temperature a little bit in a cooler room, we tend to sleep better.
To achieve such an environment, keep the temperature comfortably cool between 60 and 75°F, and leave the room well ventilated. Lower the volume of outside noises with earplugs or a white noise appliance. Apps such as Relax Melodies can greatly help create a peaceful ambiance as you fall asleep. Use heavy curtains or an eye mask to block out light, for light tells your brain to stay awake. Most importantly, make sure your bedroom is equipped with a comfortable mattress and comfy pillows. Most mattresses wear out after ten years!
It may also help to limit your bedroom activities to sleep only. Keeping computers, TVs, and work materials out of the room will strengthen the mental association between your bedroom and sleep.
4. Avoid Heavy Meals, Alcohol, Caffeine, and Cigarettes in the Evening
Consuming large meals or drinking alcohol before bed can cause your body’s metabolism to slow down, which also slows down its functions to prepare for sleep at night. Oftentimes, it can cause discomfort and indigestion, making it difficult to sleep.
You may think that having a cigarette before bed or in the middle of the night may relax you, but it’s truly not the case. Nicotine — as well as caffeine — are both stimulants that keep you awake rather than asleep. Ideally, it’s best to refrain from consuming any large meals, alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine at least 2-3 hours before bed.
If you’re still hungry, you can have a light snack 45 minutes before you sleep, such as a banana or a small bowl of whole-grain, low-sugar cereal. The phrase, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” is a great advice to follow — especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
5. If you have trouble sleeping, avoid naps, especially in the afternoon
Napping may help you get through the day when you’re running low on fuel or just need to relax. However, if you find yourself unable to fall asleep at bedtime, eliminating even short catnaps may help you fall asleep quicker in the evening. If you must nap, try napping in the early afternoon before 3 PM, for napping after 3 PM can interfere with your nighttime sleep. Aim to nap for only 20-30 minutes. This provides significant benefit for improved alertness and performance without leaving you feeling groggy or interfering with your sleep at night. Short naps generally do not affect the quality of nighttime sleep for most individuals. However, if you experience insomnia or poor sleep quality, napping may worsen these problems.
6. Exercise Early
Studies have shown that those who exercise regularly tend to sleep better at night and feel less restless during the day. In fact, regular exercise improves the symptoms of insomnia and sleep apnea by reducing anxiety, body tension, and improving cardiorespiratory fitness. However, the timing of when we exercise may have a significant impact on our sleep. According to Charlene Gamaldo — medical director of John Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital — exercising close to our bedtime may keep us up at night.
Aerobic exercise causes our body to release endorphins, which can create a level of activity in our brain that may keep some of us awake. Exercise also elevates your core body temperature, which signals your body to be awake. The effect of exercise to some individuals is similar to taking a hot shower which wakes you up in the morning. Exercising at least an hour or two before bed gives your endorphin levels and your body temperature time to wind down to better facilitate sleepiness.
7. Create a Soothing Pre-Sleep Ritual
It’s important to ease the transition to sleep with a period of relaxation an hour or two before bed. Studies have shown that stressful physical and stressful activities can cause your body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which is associated with increasing alertness. Try taking a warm bath an hour before bed — the rise then fall of your body temperature promotes drowsiness. Read a book, meditate, or listen to relaxing music to help you unwind. If you tend to have ruminative thoughts before bed, try writing them down to keep your mind at ease. It’s crucial that you try to refrain from devices that emit any blue light — such as your phone, laptops, or television — so your body will naturally be ready to sleep.
Sleep is taken as underrated in importance, especially amongst many young adults and working professionals. Investing time to ensure you’re getting quality rest is important to your overall well-being and productivity. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or a sleep professional. Sleep is something we should not take for granted, so try your best to get enough sleep on a nightly basis!