Getting quality sleep is a vital part of having good health. Although the amount of sleep needed varies by the person from 5 to 9 hours, most find 7-8 hours adequate if they can sleep restfully.
Because quality sleep is an essential part of good health it’s in our interest to get the needed sleep when possible. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect every night’s sleep to be ideal. Life comes with young children that wake in the night, shift jobs, illnesses, and more. Fortunately, even when life throws us a curve, there are often opportunities for improving the chance for a restful sleep.
While the nature of sleep is both interesting and complex, that’s not the topic we will delve into. Suffice it to say, there are at least 5 stages of sleep. Stages 1 and 2 are considered light sleep, stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep, and stage 5 is REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. It’s during REM sleep that you dream. When you manage all five stages well, you’ve had a good night’s sleep.
Before the invention of artificial lighting, humans arose with the light of the new day and retired with the passing of sunlight. With the invention of artificial lighting, sleep habits began to change. In modern times, this gradual shift in human activity made a rapid change with the invention of the alarm clock, electric lighting, and 24/7 TV. The list of inventions that compete with sleep is long and still growing. Increasingly, many compromise their balance of sleep by staying up late and then awakening to an alarm clock during an incomplete stage of sleep. Being jolted out of bed by an alarm tends to create a “fight or flight” situation that increases the heart rate, pumps up cortisol levels and in time invites chronic stress-related diseases.
To avoid the stress of an abrupt wake alarm, the best plan is to develop a regular sleep routine that allows you time to cycle through the necessary sleep stages so that you aren’t arising during a stage that leaves you feeling groggy and tired. Once on a regular schedule, it’s more likely you will fall into a pattern that naturally brings you out of deep sleep well before the alarm goes off. If a comfortable routine doesn’t develop you may be short-changing the hours of sleep needed.
Although you may not have the luxury of waking to the morning light of a sunrise, you can compensate for your body’s need to awaken gradually. Try to come up with a routine that is not stress provoking. For some, this might be playing soft music while taking a shower and having breakfast. In contrast, listening to the news as it reminds you of the world’s problems would not be recommended. Having uninterrupted time to adjust and contemplate the coming day will usually make the coming day much more productive. For many, their most creative ideas come shortly after waking. Having a few moments to contemplate these ideas as they arise and perhaps spear them with a pencil can be rewarding. In surveys of CEOs, celebrities and a wide range of people that have been successful, this habit ranks among the ones most often mentioned.
For many, the ability to sleep is interrupted by worry about future events that we believe may be beyond our control. And although we realize that such worry may be irrational, it is part of being human. Fortunately, having a plan before going to bed can help if combined with an acceptance that leaving the unknowns to a higher power is enough for the night. Even if the higher power lets you down, know that the magic of deep sleep often brings amazing ideas when we awaken. If getting to sleep continues to be a problem, then consider one of the following tactics.
Avoid naps during the day. It’s better to get restful sleep that leaves you energized and not needing a nap. However, a power nap of 30 minutes or less is usually ok.
Get physical exercise during the day that stresses your muscles. Regular exercise helps normalize circadian rhythms, helps calm your sympathetic nervous system, and helps regulate your endocrine function. Be aware that intense late evening workouts can make it challenging to calm down.
Get as much natural light during the day as you can so that your body can feel the difference when you turn out the lights for sleep.
Spending some time during the day in a natural surrounding helps relieve tensions that can keep you from getting restful sleep. For those living in an urban world, this can be a challenge. There is ample evidence that surrounding ourselves with natural things helps reduce inflammation and synchronize our internal clock. One strategy for an office environment is to surround yourself with potted plants that can be both decorative and healthful. There is an added benefit to walking barefoot on the earth. Give it a try at home or on your lunch break. Kick off your shoes and take a short walk around the yard. If nothing else, just feeling like a kid again is good medicine.
Be aware that caffeine is a powerful stimulant and implement a caffeine curfew. Some people metabolize caffeine quickly, for others, it lingers in their body many hours longer. To avoid having your nervous system energized while trying to get shut-eye, experiment with stopping caffeine consumption 4 hours before bedtime. If you are sensitive to caffeine, make your curfew earlier. For some, it’s best to have no caffeine after lunchtime.
A glass of wine before bed may seem like a nice way to relax and may even help put you to sleep quickly. Unfortunately, it will likely leave you tossing and turning in the later stages of sleep that help boost memory, concentration, and learning. This loss of quality REM sleep is the reason for a foggy feeling the morning after a night out. Depending on how you metabolize alcohol you may need to avoid alcohol for 3-5 hours before bedtime.
Having a bedtime routine helps set in motion some helpful prerequisites for a good night’s sleep. In the hour before lights out, engage in relaxing activities. This might include taking a bath, listening to relaxing music, or reading a chapter from your favorite book. Watching TV before bedtime is rarely helpful. The same goes for ebooks and laptops with LED (“blue light”) lighting. If the day has been particularly stressful, a session of meditation on the breath can be helpful. By following a pre-sleep ritual, you create an association between your routine activities and sleep. The practice of meditation can be especially helpful if you have a chattering mind that’s inclined to jump from thought to thought. Of course, be sure to have a quiet, dark, and comfortable place to sleep.
Eating before going to bed may seem relaxing. Unfortunately, for most, it disrupts their sleep. Be sure to give yourself at least 90 minutes after a meal before heading to bed. An even better strategy for weight loss and restful sleep is an intermittent eating pattern where you eat your last meal 4-6 hours before bedtime.
If your environment is noisy and keeps you up at night, you may want to try white noise. Apple and Android offer white noise apps. As an alternative, turn on a fan or humidifier. Also, a cool room is usually more conducive to deep sleep. When the weather is accommodating, open a window to let in the fresh cool air.
Now, all you need is a little time to decompress from the day and a good night’s sleep. For motivation and inspiration to improve your sleep habits you can look to either Benjamin Franklin or Winnie the Pooh.
“Early to bed and early to rise,makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”-Benjamin Franklin
“For early to bed, and early to risewill make a bear happy, and healthy besides.”– Winnie the Pooh
Have a good night’s sleep. Should you arise early on a Saturday morning, join me for a walk around the lakes.
Nancy Neighbors, MD