Good health and good sleep go hand-in-hand. Without enough good quality zzzzzz’s, it’s only a matter of time before immunity tanks and you’re dealing with a lot more trouble than simply feeling groggy in the morning. But why is it that so many of us have such a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep and reaping the restorative benefits of quality shut-eye?
As I often tell my patients, one reason is that many of us are making a lot of sleep-stealing mistakes — inadvertently training our bodies how not to sleep with a litany of bad habits that lay the groundwork for big sleep fails.
To take back your nights and set them up for rest, stop making these common sleep mistakes and teach yourself how to sleep well again – without reaching for cocktails or pharmaceuticals:
Bad Evening Habit #1: You’re not letting your body know it’s time for sleep.
Above all else, our sleep is ruled by the natural circadian rhythms of light and dark. Our bodies are most alert when they’re exposed to natural sunlight, and most ready to shut down, and stay down, when we’re in darkness, which ensures a steady supply of the all-important sleep hormone, melatonin. If your place is floodlit with high wattage and bright florescent lights till the time you turn in, you’re in effect tricking your body into thinking it’s still daytime.
OK, so I’m not suggesting that you live by candle light, but, consider putting lights on a dimmer or switching to strategically placed amber bulbs (this will also help tame the sleep-stealing blue light monster). Next, when you hit the lights off at bedtime, let the bedroom be dark, really dark – no shining alarm clock dials, no screens, no flickering power strips. Block any street light, or yes, even moonlight, from beaming in through the window with dark shades or drapes. If that’s not feasible, experiment with an eye mask. And turn off the bright lights in the bathroom which will jolt your brain awake if and when you have to take a nocturnal bathroom break. Go with an unobtrusive amber night light instead, using the lowest watt bulb possible, or battery-operated flameless candles on a timer.
Bad Evening Habit #2: You’re ignoring your sleep ‘wave.’
So you stayed up a little too late watching Netflix. Now, you’re in bed and wide awake. If you’ve been there for 30-45 minutes waiting for sleep to come, odds are, it won’t, not for at least another hour and maybe longer. You’ve missed catching the sleep wave or what some researchers call the “sleep gate,” the period of time that your body will let you fall asleep. Researchers have found that the body cycles through different sleep phases in the course of a night. At the beginning of each phase, which lasts from 90 minutes to 2 hours, the “gate” opens and if you miss it, you’re out of luck.
If it’s been 45 minutes and nothing’s happening, sleep-wise, there’s no point in fighting it. That will just stress you out more as the anxiety that surrounds insomnia makes the insomnia that much worse, a classic vicious circle. So break it! Get out of bed and do something calming for the next hour or hour and a half – read a book (in low light!), or do some other relaxation technique (i.e., meditation, knitting, restorative yoga). Time will pass, pleasantly, and you’ll be ready to ride the next sleep wave when it hits.
Bad Evening Habit #3: You’re enjoying a sleep-stealing late-night snack.
You don’t need it, you’re not going to wake up starving in the middle of the night! But if you do snack, avoid refined grains or sugars. They’ll disrupt your steady-state down-time metabolism, creating blood sugar and insulin fluctuations that may well wake you up at odd times.
If you must nosh, make it a high-protein snack. That should at least avoid the blood sugar/insulin rollercoaster and it may provide a helpful dose of L-tryptophan, an amino acid needed to produce melatonin.
Bad Evening Habit #4: You’re buying into the nightcap fallacy.
A shot of alcohol before bed will put most people to sleep. It is, after all, a sedative. Trouble is, it likely won’t keep you in a state of deep, restful sleep. The alcohol gets processed by the body, the sedative effect disappears and often there’s a rebound effect – you wake up wide awake in the middle of the night. And when you habitually drink at night, over time, the go-to-sleep effect can wear down, and the wake-you-up-at-3 a.m. effect can intensify. And because alcohol is a diuretic, drinks before bedtime increase the likelihood and frequency of sleep-disrupting bathroom breaks.
Lose the late-night booze. If you feel you must consume alcohol, restrict the drinking to earlier in the evening, for instance, a glass of red wine at dinner.
Bad Evening Habit #5: You’re relying on sleeping pills as a sleep short-cut.
Whether we’re talking over-the-counter or prescription, the research supports my clinical experience which is that, long term, they’re ‘bad medicine.’ Pills just mask the problem, can be highly addictive, potentially lethal and may increase Alzheimer’s risk. To top it off, the drugs, can actually make insomnia worse, not better.
In addition to relaxation and stress-reduction techniques, don’t forget to take advantage of nutrients that can prepare the body for sleep. Shop for a sleep-promoting formula that contains ingredients like the amino acids L theanine and taurine as well as 5 HTP and GABA. Herbs like lemon balm, passion flower, chamomile and valerian root may also be productively added to the mix. Basic mineral supplements like magnesium and calcium can be surprisingly effective sleep enhancers. And especially for people over 50, whose bodies produce less of their own melatonin, small doses of a melatonin supplement taken for short periods can also help.
Final thought: If you can’t quite get to the bottom of your sleep problems, talk with your doc about the possibility of sleep apnea, which is a major contributor to big-time sleep – and health– problems.