It seems like the holy grail of our era: a sound night’s sleep. Almost everyone I know struggles with (or has faced bouts of) ongoing sleep deprivation. And even though decades of research by sleep scientists has definitively shown that the quality of our sleep drives all aspects of our quality of life, pop culture continues to insinuate that sleep is a luxury.
We often feel like we’re not “measuring up” when we can’t really function on less than seven hours—maybe even that we’re weak, undisciplined, not as gritty and driven as the next guy. The truth: We’re not MEANT to function optimally without adequate sleep. In fact, we’re liable to be less effective, less creative, less healthy, and verifiably less safe. (For more insight into the deep downsides of fatigue, check out the post, "Fortify Yourself: Address Fatigue!")
Still, for many of us, stringing together a series of nights of solid sleep proves as tricky as a Rubik’s cube. And during this stressful, pandemic-permeated year, it’s likely more true for most of us than ever before. What the heck do we do to rack up more rest at night? First and most important, seek your doctor’s advice or consult with a medical sleep clinic, if your situation is dire. If you feel more mildly affected, consider these accepted & proven ”do’s and don’ts” to increase zzz’s.
1. Do stick to a clock.
Raise your hand if you sleep later on weekends in an attempt to play catch-up or go to bed at varying times, depending on the day’s deadlines and/or tv options. Feel that whoosh of air? Hands usually fly up because this is SO common. However, sticking to set bedtimes & wake times, including on days off, sets you up for much more predictable & productive sleep patterns. If you’re not currently turning in at your ideal bedtime, some experts suggest aiming for a time that’s an hour or two ahead of the targeted bedtime and gradually going to bed 15 minutes closer to that time over a series of weeks. Most also recommend rising at a targeted time daily, too, as a way to “train” your brain & body to sleep within your optimal timeframe.
2. Don’t go crazy with the caffeine.
By the time you read this, it may be too late—for today, but tomorrow you might try reining in caffeine consumption for the sake of sleep. 85% of Americans ingest caffeinated products daily. This includes moi, but I so before 9am. Why? When I read & read & read about caffeine over the past couple of years, one fact (among many) shocked me: Caffeine has a half-life of just under 6 hours!! This means that about half of the caffeine you drank 6 hours ago is still circulating in your system now. And 12 hours later, you’re still metabolizing the last 25% of the stuff, which depending on your sensitivity, might still keep you bug-eyed at bedtime. If you’re like many & you grab a coffee during that ugly 3-4pm slump, then falling asleep, even after 9pm can present a very real challenge. You probably know that going cold turkey when it comes to caffeine can trigger unpleasant side effects like headaches, fatigue & irritability, so check out these excellent tips on gradually cutting back.
3. Do create a cozy bedtime routine.
This sounds lovely, doesn’t it? In our mind’s eye, we picture a warm bedtime bath, favorite pj’s, and a bed that just envelopes us in comfort. All that’s missing is mom tucking us in! In reality, we might jump from computer desk to mattress (often hauling a screen of some sort along with us), and that mattress might be saggy, and we skipped pajamas because the leggings we’ve worn all afternoon are “close enough.” (By the way, when my hubby & I finally invested last year in a new mattress to replace the 15-year-old, roller-coaster shaped one on which we’d been tossing & turning, BOTH of us immediately reported more restful sleep!) Creating a bedtime routine takes some thought and commitment, but it helps the brain switch into slumber mode and can work magically. Check out these ideas from the National Sleep Foundation, an incredibly rich source of info and tips.
4. Don’t let the light in.
What light, you say? The sun has set, you say? Unfortunately, unless you visit a dark sky park (yes, they exist & the one in Cherry Springs, PA, remains on my must-visit list), it’s never truly dark. This is astonishingly important to the human brain & body, which uses light & darkness to trigger sleep and waking. Consider the amount of light at night in your bedroom—from screens & nightlights to bright digital clocks & streetlights with a glow that seeps in through curtains. That amount is plenty powerful enough to disrupt melatonin levels &, so, your sleep. Some strategies: program nighttime device settings to filter blue light from screens; hang light-blocking curtains or blinds; use a motion-sensing nightlight rather than one with a constant glow; and turn digital clocks away from you or off altogether.
5. Do play it cool.
Like light exposure, body temperature plays a big role in sleep response. It seems counterintuitive, but we become sleepy when our body temp naturally begins to fall slightly toward the close of day. This drop cues the brain to get ready for a long rest. There are ways to support this cooler state. Ironically, warm baths help because, when you step out, you actually become a bit chilly! Being too warm can impede sleep. We’ve all experienced that overly hot tangle of blankets, right? You fling a leg out from under them to cool back off. Setting the thermostat toward the low side, cracking a window on these crisp nights, resisting heavy sleepwear, and peeling away blankets from a heavy stack all help.
6. Don’t rely solely on sleep aids.
Whether you regularly use OTC sleep aids or prescribed medication, and whether you’re considering starting or stopping use of a product, your doctor is the first professional you should consult on this topic. They know your specific background & will advise you accordingly. IN GENERAL, most experts recommend short-term usage because of side effects. Also, nightly use of melatonin may be ineffective because this supplement tends to work best when you need to re-set your circadian clock, such as during jet lag, rather than to promote nightly sleepiness. In his book, Why We Sleep, researcher Matthew Walker posits that sleep aids actually seriously alter the nature and crucial functions of sleep and dreaming, because they create a state of sedation rather than true sleep.
7. Do give meditation a go.
Meditation is proven to ease insomnia. Guided sleep meditations and music abound on the internet, but you need not set extra time aside at night. Doing a few minutes of meditation at any point during the day can help you relax, not only at night, but throughout the day (which is why I do it at the crack of dawn). Meditation also helps to alleviate anxiety and depression. Personally, I rely on a simple prayer-meditation practice for spiritual reasons as well as for ALL of the benefits mentioned here.
8. Don’t be tempted to nap.
Here’s where most of us cover our ears and shake our heads. I love a good nap, too! Let’s just say, if you’re currently struggling to establish a reliable sleep schedule, skip the naps. Once you’re in a groove, try to keep them to half an hour or less, lest they mess up your sleep mojo. Here’s why: Throughout the day, we build up a drive to sleep that creates “pressure” on brain & body, culminating in slumber at the end of the day. If you nap, you can easily weaken this “sleep drive” and either fail to drift off or wake up in the wee hours.
9. Don’t skip exercise.
Studies show that moderate aerobic exercise helps people fall asleep and also garner more slow-wave or deep sleep. (Is there anything exercise can’t help us with health-wise??) So, even if you’re feeling tired, try mustering the energy to keep your workouts going. Keep this in mind, though—Exercising can trigger endorphins and raise core temperature, both of which can delay sleep onset, so be sure not to schedule workouts within a couple of hours of bedtime.
10. Do seek medical advice when sleep deprivation persists.
I strongly refer you back to your physician or a medical sleep clinic for this particular discussion. Everyone has different circumstances, health histories, and needs. Sometimes discussion with a doctor will reveal extremely serious conditions such as sleep apnea that you may not even have suspected. So, when sleep problems persist, seek medical advice.