Ahhhh, sleep and those ever-elusive zzz’s … remember the good old days when you’d wake up (without the need of an alarm) and actually feel energized? Or maybe that’s too long ago and feels like a distant, questionable memory. Alas, for many of us, adulting requires schedules where there are too many things to do, and not enough hours in the day in which to accomplish them all. This existence leaves us tired, cranky, and in a never-ending, desperate search for sources of caffeine.
In addition to our need to be five places at once, we also live in a culture which doesn’t encourage getting a full 8 hours of rest, leaving people with the notion they somehow failed at life if they allow themselves this oh-so elusive luxury. For those of you who only dream (ha!) of anything more than five hours of shut-eye, here are some tips to help you get a better-quality set of zzz’s and feel more human-like when your alarm annoyingly awakens you from your magical slumber.
Tip 1: Put down the technology at least one hour before bed
There’s very solid evidence showing your love of tech is messing with your sleep – especially when you look at it close to bed time. The lights, which are emitted by a screen (that includes tablets, phones, and eReaders), come in many different wavelengths. It is the “blue” light which stimulates a sensitive area of your brain, making it believe it’s daytime and that you should be awake. Internally, you, and other living creatures, possess something called a Circadian rhythm, a light-sensitive, hormonal cycle which regulates your body temperature, hunger levels, and whether you feel drowsy or alert.
Before electricity, humans would naturally wake up and fall asleep with the sun’s movements, in contrast to the present day, where you can trick your brain with a flick of a switch (or a scroll of a thumb). Experts suggest going tech-free at least one hour before you hit the sheets to minimize the stimulating effects of light. This might even mean reading an old-school book instead.
Tip 2: Slow everything down an hour before bed
In addition to keeping tech out of the bedroom, it’s wise to slow things down as you approach your bedtime (just like you do with your kids!). This allows the brain to switch from high-level functioning gamma and beta waves to the more relaxed alpha and theta waves which are needed to wind down for sleep. If you don’t have the luxury of reading for an hour or taking a nice long soak in the tub, save the chores which don’t require much brain power for this time instead.
Tip 3: Keep your bed for sleep and other fun things…
Speaking of keeping things out of your bedroom. Make sure you designate your mattress for sleep and, um, adult “fun” only. When you use your bed to do your taxes, answer work emails, or to sit on while having uncomfortable conversations with your partner, you train your brain to associate this space with stressful things. So, whenever possible, appoint this room as the sanctuary of your home, where only pleasant and enjoyable events happen.
Tip 4: Make sure your mattress is working for you
Mattresses aren’t cheap, and not everyone has the kind of money around to buy a new one. But when you consider that you spend approximately one third of your life sleeping, you can see why it is a necessary investment for your well being. If your current mattress situation needs some attention, but you don’t have the funds, have a look at your finances and see if you can start a small savings plan. Cutting extras, like buying lunch and a morning coffee from your favourite café, can add up quickly. You could also put the word out to friends and family that you’re in search of a gently-used mattress, should anyone be giving one away.
Tip 5: Make Martha proud…
…and spoil yourself with some lovely bed linens. Especially if yours are old and each night the fitted sheet wraps around your feet instead of the mattress. We’re not talking 1000 thread count here, just a good quality set you can easily launder and throw back on your bed when they’re dry. Aim for sheets made of natural fibers (avoid rayon, polyester, etc.) so that they breathe and you don’t wake up sweaty and stuck to your PJ’s.
Tip 6: Keep your room cool
As mentioned previously your body goes through a natural cycle where your body temperature fluctuates, and in the middle of the night, it rises slightly. To avoid the aforementioned stickiness in Tip 5, set your thermostat between 64-70 degrees Fahrenheit before going to bed. This will help you sleep better and will also help you save on your heating costs!
Tip 7: Keep your room DARK
As you learned with electronics, your brain is stimulated by sources of light, which can really hamper your ability to get a good sleep. This also applies to other kinds of light, including street lights, the light from your digital clock, and even what trickles in from your kid’s nightlight in the hallway. Wherever possible, eliminate or lessen these sources of stimulation by buying blackout blinds, closing your bedroom door further, or buying a clock which allows you to alter the brightness of the numbers (if you can’t go without a clock entirely). Make your room a sleep tomb and your body will thank you.
Tip 8: Keep your room quiet
This might seem obvious to some (or be an obsession already for others), but if you’re a light sleeper, it’s imperative that you do what’s needed to keep your room quiet. This might mean buying a white noise machine (ocean sounds, anyone?), running a fan, or buying ear plugs from your local drug store.
Even if you don’t consider yourself someone who is bothered by noise, your zzz’s might still be getting disturbed at night by sounds. If you’re in a deep stage of sleep, you’re unlikely to remember these disturbances. You’ll just feel exhausted the next day instead and have no clue why.
Tip 9: Don’t eat within 3 hours of bedtime
Weight-loss experts have been saying this for a while now, but it’s also great advice for helping to enhance the quality of your zzz’s. While you’re fast asleep your body is very busy with lots of essential rest and repair activities needed for the next day. When you shove a cheeseburger and fries down 2 hours before you hit the sack, your body has to work at digesting and processing that food instead of facilitating these key processes. So, although a big meal might make you deliciously drowsy, it equates to a crappy night’s sleep (and possibly bizarre-o dreams) in the end.
Tip 10: Get sweaty during the day
Aside from the fact that a good dose of high-quality exercise makes you feel great, keeps you healthy, and helps to increase your self-confidence, it also makes you sleep really well. When you get a sweat going, your body releases serotonin, one of the feel-good chemicals your brain loves. When it begins to get dark, your Circadian rhythm kicks in and converts the serotonin in your system to melatonin, which gives you a stellar sleep.
So, the moral of the story is: the greater the amount of movement you get in your day, the larger the amount of serotonin (and thus, melatonin) you’ll produce. (P.S. if this means you get exercise via the “fun” mentioned in Tip 3, so be it!)
Tip 11: Watch your liquids
Let’s start with some people’s favorite sleep agent, alcohol. Like the cheeseburger and fries, booze can make you feel warm and fuzzy, allowing you to fall asleep quickly. But as it’s metabolized, it disrupts your normal sleeping pattern, and wreaks havoc on the quality of your sleep. This is why after a big night out you might crash like a baby, but then wake after only a couple of hours and struggle big time to fall back to sleep.
What works instead? Well, it might not be as enticing, but liquids containing the melatonin-precursor tryptophan – found in warm milk – work wonders, as do some of the herbal sleep teas you can find at your local health food stores. If you chose the latter, make sure you speak to your physician or pharmacist if you are on medications, or suffering from any health issues to make sure these herbs are safe for you to ingest.
Tip 12: Check with the professionals
The Centre for Disease Control estimates that 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep challenges, and that those experiencing insufficient hours of rest are “more likely to suffer from chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes … as well as cancer … and reduced quality of life and productivity.” So, if you are struggling with chronic sleeping issues, it’s time to visit your physician to see what the next steps are. And before possibly accepting a prescription for a sleep aid, book an assessment at a sleep clinic to get some helpful insight and suggestions.
Lauren Brown MSc. WWHP, is a certified Health & Wellness Coach who loves teaching about all facets of health and wellbeing. Much of her time is spent in workplaces, helping empower employees to get healthy through the wellness programming initiatives and educational sessions she delivers. Please see www.inspiringhealth.ca for more information.