For many, a good night’s sleep can be hard to come by. We toss and turn, count sheep, fall asleep in front of the TV, snooze our alarm clocks, and struggle to rise and shine when morning comes. Some may turn to white noise machines or even sleeping pills in the hopes of catching some sound shuteye. But often, in order to harness the restorative powers of a full night’s sleep, we have to rethink the daily habits that may be interfering with our nightly rhythms.
In this post, we’ll consider what might be robbing you of your hard-earned zzz’s and how you can get your body back on track. So settle in, dim the lights, and get ready to revolutionize your sleep routine.
How Much Sleep Do I Really Need?
The National Sleep Foundation lays out the following guidelines:
School-age children (age 6-13): 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
Adults (26-54): 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
Note: sleep becomes more fragmented after age 60, so people may effectively sleep in two shifts. In that case, napping can be normal and healthy.
What Gets in the Way of Healthy Sleep Patterns?
There are a number of culprits that may be wreaking havoc on your nightly slumber. Here are some of the most common:
Light at night: Too much light in the evening can disrupt the production of melatonin, a hormone primarily released by the pineal gland that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Increased nighttime light exposure has also been linked to health concerns including obesity, diabetes, certain types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases, and gastrointestinal ulcers. You can help program your body to produce melatonin for sleep at the right time of day by getting exposure to daylight during the morning and afternoon. Take a walk outside or sit beside a sunny window.
Anxiety: Anxiety about sleep delays our natural sleep drive, causing us to get tired at the wrong times. Trying to sleep can further override sleep drive because the effort involved activates stress hormones.
Oversleeping: Oversleeping prevents the circadian clock from setting correctly, resulting in more insomnia. Similarly, our alarms often wake us from deep sleep, with any resulting winks we catch after hitting snooze being of lower quality. This can result in our feeling groggy throughout the day.
Caffeine, alcohol, and stimulants: Drinking more than the recommended amount of caffeine per day (up to 500 mg) can cause adverse side effects, many of which interfere with proper sleep cycles, and can help hide existing sleep deprivation. The effects of caffeine can occur even when you consume it earlier in the afternoon or evening so it’s best to stop consumption before 2:00pm. Drinking alcohol before bed on the other hand may help you fall asleep more readily, but often causes frequent periods of wakefulness later in the night as your body metabolizes it.
Rethinking Your Priorities
As a longtime insomnia sufferer, I often fantasized about drifting off to dreamland shortly after my head hit the pillow and waking up to the sound of birds outside my window well-rested and ready to conquer my day. I languished over daytime and weekend naps, and many nights, went to bed well beyond the point of exhaustion. I’d go frequently go from staring at my computer screen to collapsing under the covers without giving my body a much-needed digital detox.
One of the most important steps to ensuring we consistently get a quality 7-8 hours a night is to take sleep seriously. When you prioritize screen time, work, or worries at the expense of time in bed, your body suffers. It’s so easy to diminish sleep’s importance, but in order to reap its rewards (memory improvement, stress reduction, mood stabilization, to name a few), you have to start giving it pride of place — right up there with finishing that new Netflix series, stocking the fridge, and picking up the kids from soccer.
Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Establishing a consistent sleep and wake time can help your internal clock maintain its natural rhythms and over time, help you fall asleep and wake up more easily. If you’re looking to go to bed or wake up earlier, begin by adjusting your schedule in 15-minute increments for 3-4 days at a time until you reach your goal. Avoid making sudden changes as your body will have a hard time adapting.
Turn down the lights: At night, light can disrupt our circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin secretion. Even dim light, such as from a bedside lamp, can have an effect, with brighter light posing greater risk. Try to use warm, yellow light or dim, red light for nightlights. Stop using digital devices within an hour or two of bedtime as the blue and green light from these devices can neutralize melatonin’s effects. If you do find yourself glued to the screen, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses or installing an app that filters the blue/green wavelength at night.
Develop an evening wind-down routine: Set aside 30-60 minutes before bed to engage in quiet activities such as reading, meditating, stretching or progressive muscle relaxation, listening to gentle music, or taking a hot bath. Scents of lavender and jasmine can also help ready the body for sleep by reducing stress and increasing relaxation.
Create healthy sleep conditions: A drop in temperature signals sleep while a rise signals waking. Try to maintain a temperature of 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit in your bedroom. Additionally, your bedroom should be pitch black, or dark enough that you can’t see your hand when you wave it in front of your face. Consider purchasing blackout curtains or a sleep mask and use light at night only when it’s absolutely needed.
If you can’t fall asleep, don’t sweat it: Only go to bed when you are tired. If you can’t sleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and go to another room to do something relaxing until you feel tired again. Don’t remain in bed, watch the clock, use technology, or engage in activities that require considerable thinking or skill.
Start your morning right: Wake up at the same time each morning (within 15 minutes) and get out of bed immediately upon waking. Begin your day with an energizing activity such as light exercise, going for a walk, or gardening. Citrus, mint, and rosemary scents can help reduce fatigue and increase focus. You might also consider purchasing a dawn simulator which mimics natural sunlight over 30-60 minutes and can help improve alertness and energy and reduce depression.
I hope these tips inspire you to treat your zzz’s with the attention and care they deserve. Like with all new habits, consistency is key. While your sleep routine should be unique to your needs and schedule, try to stick to it as often as possible. (This means weekends and holidays too!) What are some of your favorite ways to decompress before you drift off? Drop me a line in the comments section and pass these gems along to a friend. Here’s to sweet dreams and deep sleep!