The benefits of a restful sleep cannot be understated. Waking rested improves your emotional, mental, and physical health. With a good sleep you can start the day without an alarm clock, refreshed and energized and with no need for a caffeine fix to get going. Getting the right amount of sleep is also one of the primary treatments for serious mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and others.
Yet, both quality and quantity of sleep have declined so much so that, according to recent surveys, more than in 1 in 3 peoples is chronically sleep deprived. We are becoming the zombies of sci-fi. Stress, overscheduling, and technology reduce sleep quality and quantity, creating a vicious cycle of poor sleep and reliance on stimulants. Coffee, alcohol, drugs interfere with natural circadian rhythms. Technology at bed time creates stress (cortisol) and excitement (dopamine); checking your phone is so addictive. Your natural circadian rhythm is also disrupted by blue LED light. Your circadian rhythm is your internal clock which regulates your sleep-wake cycle, making you feel sleepy at night so important physical and mental repair work can occur. This rhythm is calibrated through tiredness and natural light and darkness. [There is an important study out Europe (2018) showing a correlation between increased LED street lighting and breast and prostate cancers, due to disrupted sleep rhythms.]*
Given the intrusions of stress and technology into nocturnal rhythms, it is more essential than ever to find out how much sleep you truly need and create habits to protect your body’s sleep requirements. But how much sleep is enough? Try the following self-sleep assessment to determine this:
Find a block of time of five to seven days where you can sleep-assess. A vacation is a good time to do this, as you need to separate yourself from the demands of work, school, etc. You will need at least five consecutive days and will need to abstain from caffeine, alcohol, drugs (including marijuana), sleeping pills, late night parties, and rich foods. Try to avoid jet lag as well. Go to sleep when tired and wake when rested. Over the course of the five to seven days, you should get an average sleep time, which indicates the right amount of sleep for you. (Note: If you suffer from anxiety, PTSD, or a serious health issue, this method may not work as well.)
Once you have an idea of how much sleep you need, try to incorporate some of the following habits for healthy sleep:
7 Keys for Deep, Refreshing Sleep:
- Make it Routine: Routines are essential for good sleep. Routines include diet, exercise, and sleep timing. Try to eat a balanced meal no later than 6 or 7 pm. Avoid processed foods, deep fried foods, sugary foods, and even those with a high glycemic index. If snacking before bed, try some healthy fruit, protein, nuts, or greens at least an hour before sleep. Exercise, while good for you and part of helping your body expend enough energy to be tired, can be stimulating, so try to exercise no later than 7 pm if sleeping by 10. And, exercise regularly; some research says that if you sit for a living you should be doing at least hour of moderately intensive exercise each day. Housework, fast paced walking, and focused exercising count. Also, try to keep the same sleep and wake time each day, including weekends. This helps your body rely on sleep predictably.
- De caffeinate yourself: Stimulants, such as caffeine, can interfere with sleep, and lead to a self-reinforcing negative cycle—substances needed for sleep and others to wake up. If drinking coffee, try not to have any past noon. Alcohol and drugs also interfere with your circadian rhythm so try and limit their use.
- Create pre-Sleep Habits: Your circadian rhythm is already there—a reliable, predictable sleep and wake rhythm; you may need to reset it, however. One way to do so is creating a Sleep Hour: the hour before sleep is especially important to help your body sleep. Useful routines can include a hot bath or shower, hygiene (brushing teeth, etc.), easy reading, and even some journal writing (see below). Set up your bedroom as a quiet, slightly cool place with a good supportive mattress. The pre sleep hour is not the best time to watch TV, catch up on emails, or browse news on your iPad. A good book or connective conversation are much more conducive to sleep.
- Think through Worries or Plans BeforeSleep: Stress affects sleep. In today’s high stress world, it is easy to be so occupied during the day that you do not process thoughts, feelings, or emotions as they occur (which is the best way to manage stress). What can happen at night, then, is your brain says, “Finally, the world is quiet, I have your attention; let’s deal with some of these issues.” This does not make for great sleep. Try carving out a space an hour before bed and write out your worries, thoughts, plans, schedules, etc. When you lie down to sleep, say to your thoughts, “I have already addressed this; time to sleep.”
- Train your Smartphone: The average person uses their phone 80 to 100 times a day. The link between electronics and brain stimulation at night is clear, and it is an understatement to say that Smart phones are not designed to be put down. An incredible amount of research goes into their development, including manipulating your sympathetic nervous system (your flight, flight, or freeze response).You can “train your phone” to be off from the hour before sleep until morning. For most people, the temptation to check messages is too high to use their phone an alarm. They still sell good alarm clocks, and, if you have followed the sleep check above, you should be waking naturally. This means the bedroom, from one hour prior to sleep, should be devoid of electronics. A much better use of your time is tend to your relationships: talk, cuddle, and be in each other’s presence. They still make really good books too, and libraries are great places to find reading that suits you
- Practice PMR: Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a great way to help your body unwind before sleep. In yoga, shavasana, the “death pose” is similar. PMR starts by tensing one muscle group at a time, holding it for 10 seconds, while breathing deeply and slowly, then relaxing. Start at your feet and move your way up to the top of your head, working both halves of your body at the same time. PMR can help alleviate tension or stress so sleep occurs sooner.
- Count: To train your mind to go to sleep, try some mental exercises to keep your thoughts lightly engaged and off of worries. a) Number Focus: Count backwards from 100, moving down one number for each in-breath and out-breath cycle, seeing the numbers in large black letters on a white screen. Each time your mind wanders, start back at 100. Even better, try this in a second language. b) Word Focus: Pick a word and then form a word from each letter. Use the last word of that round to begin again (this too works well in a second language)
The benefits of a good night’s sleep cannot be understated. It is one of the key pillars of health, along with diet, exercise, stress management, and social connection. Some sleep issues, however, require more intensive assessment and tools; such as ADHD, PTSD, postpartum depression, anxiety, health issues, etc. Some people also have undiagnosed sleep apnea, which affects sleep.
If you need some support for your sleep health, contact me for personalized coaching. I am trained in a number of sleep therapies, including sleep restriction therapy, one of the best methods for overcoming insomnia. I promise the therapy will not put you to sleep.