Improve Your Sleep To Improve Your Life!
Sleep is probably the most underappreciated aspect of health. The doc always tells us to eat less junk and more vegetables, and to move our bodies 150 minutes each week. We’re told that eating better and exercising improve our physical and mental health, which is true. So you work for one third of the day, and one third of the day you try and do healthy things like exercise, but what about that final third of the day. When we’re busy with deadlines, or our schedules are jam packed because of our kids’ sports, sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice. “I’ll make up for it when I’m dead,” is the common joke. Sadly, the joke has some truth to it since poor sleep can double your risk of death.
Of course we always hear stories of Bill Clinton, Tim Cook, and others who notoriously only need 4-6 hours a night to recharge and still accomplish big things. We almost see it as a badge of honor, arguing with our friends and coworkers about who got less sleep the night before. If you sleep 4 hours and feel rested and are able to accomplish your scheduled tasks without biting your loved ones’ heads off, then you can stop reading right here because you are one of the lucky few! For the rest of us, averaging 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night is incredibly helpful in improving our physical and mental well-being. Approximately 30 percent of the population deals with insomnia. That is over 100,000,000 Americans who are regularly not hitting their target amount of sleep! Poor sleep can lead to increased likelihood of obesity, traffic accidents, as well as reduced work productivity.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of the sleeping hours so you can enjoy your waking hours.
Just like personal hygiene involves washing your body, brushing your teeth, clipping nails etc., sleep hygiene is how we describe a group of behaviors that promote healthy sleep.
- Naps - Try to eliminate or minimize any naps to ensure you are tired at bedtime. If you must nap, limit it to under 30 minutes.
- Caffeine - Limit your caffeine intake to earlier in the day. For me personally, I avoid any caffeine after noon, but for most people they say no caffeinated drinks after 2pm. You may also want limit your water intake before bed to reduce nighttime wakings due to a full bladder.
- Bed Activities - Only use your bed for sleep and sex. That means no eating in bed, watching television, or surfing social media for hours. We want your body to build a strong connection that being in bed means it’s time for sleep. Adding in other stimulating activities can disrupt that connection.
- Electronics - Electronic devices such as televisions, smart phones, and tablets emit blue light, which sensors in the back of our eyes interpret as “the sun’s up, time to be awake!” For about an hour prior to bedtime try to limit your exposure to electronics. Alternatively, invest in blue light glasses that filter out the wakeful light.
- Bedtime routine - As much as possible, have a consistent bedtime and routine leading up to bedtime. Try to engage in relaxing activities in the hour before bedtime and have a regular schedule (e.g., shower, brush teeth, read, sleep). This helps your body recognize that you’re getting ready for sleep.
Most people sleep a little better when the room is on the cool side, but this is personal preference. Try out a few different temperatures and coverings to see which allows you to feel the most comfortable. Also contributing to your nighttime comfort is your bed and sheets. It can be tempting to scrimp on your mattress, but do you really want to go cheap on something where you spend one third of your life? Having a mattress that is the right amount of firm or soft and supports you adequately is crucial for ensuring quality sleep and minimizing pain in your back or neck in the morning. If you find your sheets scratchy, you probably aren’t going to sleep with them rubbing against you for 8 hours. Find bedding that makes it easier for you to reach the right temperature without irritating your skin. It’s also important to ensure the room is free from lights and noises that can disrupt your sleep. Having a fan or white noise machine can help reduce the impact of external noises.
The most common sleep issue people talk to me about is that their thoughts seem to race at bedtime. I don’t know what it is about our beds that lead to this, but it’s extremely common. Thankfully, this is often addressed with a couple different strategies that are easy to implement. The first is to have paper and pen next to your bed that you can write down the thoughts that are bothering you. Many people report that doing so almost feels like it pulls the thought from their head and puts it down on paper and reduces their sleep problems. It’s almost as if your mind knows it doesn’t need to focus on the thought because it’s on the paper so you can remember it in the morning. Similarly, new research has shown that writing out a To Do list for the next day makes it significantly easier to fall asleep. On the paper next to your bed, think about what you plan to do the next day and write it out. This again frees up your mind from trying to ensure you don’t forget an important task, and can help you fall asleep an average of 9 minutes sooner than not doing so!!
Some people find it helpful to do deep breathing techniques, or a mindfulness meditation practice before going to sleep. These can put your body in a state of relaxation, which allows for easier sleep. Deep breathing takes less than a minute, so with a little practice you can be on your way to easier sleep. Although mindfulness meditation is not intended to promote relaxation, most people do find that it’s helpful in that regard. Bringing yourself into the present moment for 5 or 10 minutes before trying to fall asleep can also help to calm intrusive thoughts. Free apps such as Calm and Headspace provided guided meditations that make it easy for beginners and experienced meditators alike.
Kids are my downfall. When Mary wakes me up after 3am I just cannot fall back asleep. We do everything we can to reduce her nighttime wakings… for the selfish reason of reducing my own nighttime wakings! If you have an infant, your in for some sleep deprivation until they get into a routine that allows for sleeping through the night. If you have toddlers, there are some things you can try to reduce some of those nighttime intrusions.
- Do not have them in the bedroom or bed with you after the pediatrician recommended period (typically one year, but speak to your child's doctor).
- Ask yourselves these questions to try and understand the underlying issue: Is there a pattern? Is the child uncomfortable (e.g., hot or cold)? Are they having nightmares? Are they just looking for attention?
I’ll write an entire blog post about addressing the most common childhood sleep issues, but for now just do the best you can to proactively help your child address the issues you recognize.
Getting Yourself Back on Track
What do you do if you’ve had insomnia or sleep problems for awhile and need help getting back on track? You can use the techniques I mentioned above, and if that isn’t enough, I’d recommend speaking with your primary care provider or scheduling with a therapist who has experience working with sleep disorders. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends Cognitive Behavior Therapy as the first line treatment over medication. Sleep medication is difficult to transition away from as the body often forms a dependence on it after a period of time. Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is a treatment specifically designed to help those struggling with chronic insomnia. With the guidance of a therapist, you work to address negative thoughts and behavioral patterns that are interfering with effective sleep. Although returning to a healthy, natural sleep pattern requires dedication, it pays off in terms of quality of life and life expectancy. I have never met a patient who regretted their decision to put in the effort to improve their sleep.
If you're ready to take back your life and improve your sleep, or overcome stress and anxiety, please reach out and schedule a free consultation. If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to give me a call at 727-469-3008.