Why is it that so many of us have such a hard time falling asleep, staying asleep and reaping the restorative benefits of good, quality shut-eye? As I often tell my patients, one reason is that many of us are failing at sleep is because most of us are making sleep-stealing mistakes all day long, which wind up training our bodies how not to sleep well at night. To reverse course, you’ve got to get into training and commit to a program of sleep-supportive habits. But first, you need to know where you’re going wrong. Here are a few of the most common:
Sleep Screw-up #1: You’re all over the map.
If your lights-out and rising times are all over the map, you’re messing with the ability of your body clock to properly regulate your sleep patterns. So, for example, you’re up late a night or two during the work week, or you’re a weekend night owl and sleep in Saturdays and Sundays to ‘make up’ lost sleep, you’re disrupting your body’s sleep rhythms. The result? Lots more weeknight insomnia battles.
To support and reinforce the rhythms of your internal clock, start by rising and hitting the hay at roughly the same time, 7 days a week. Why all the fuss about sticking to a schedule? Because a consistent sleep rhythm reminds the brain when to release sleep and wake hormones. You’ll fall asleep and wake up more easily – every day, like clockwork! In other words, to sleep like a baby, treat yourself like one. Put yourself on a schedule and be consistent.
Sleep Screw-up #2: You’re taking a post-work nap on the couch.
After work you pass out for an hour on the couch, and wake up at 8 p.m., completely groggy – or worse, super-alert when you should be winding down. Then, when it’s time to turn in for the night for real, you’re wide-awake. What’s that about? Once again, it’s a rhythm thing – an evening nap interferes with your sleep rhythms.
If you must take a power nap – and I do encourage them in a pinch – make sure they’re short and not too late, as in, no longer than 20 or 30 minutes and early in the day. A short snooze before 4 p.m. can be refreshing and revitalizing –
Sleep Screw-up #3: You’re not putting on the breaks.
Falling into a deep, restful sleep is all about steadily powering down from your busy day. You can’t expect your body to just slam on the breaks and voila! you’re asleep. Powering down for sleep is a process, and the body, and specifically the brain, needs time to shift to producing neurotransmitters – brain chemicals – like serotonin which promote body-wide relaxation and signal to the brain’s sleep center to secrete melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Embrace a few sleep-friendly habits by day and in the early evening to help your body begin the power-down process to prepare your body for sleep. One of the most sleep supportive things you can do is to create
An hour or so before bed, keep downshifting by dimming the lights throughout the house, taking a warm bath, doing some restorative yoga or a relaxation exercise like meditation. All will help ease tension in the mind and body, making it easier to drift off.
For your nightstand, use low, amber light bulbs and trade electronic devices for an old-school (paper) book to send you into dreamland. Think of it as adjusting both your external and internal environment to the sleep-prep setting.
Bedroom temperature is important too. We’re designed to sleep more soundly in cool temperatures. For most people, 60 to 67 degrees is ideal. In hot weather, setting the AC to about 70 degrees should do the trick.
Make your bed a sleep sanctuary. Keep four-legged animals out of bed as their movements and clanking collars are disruptive to deep sleep. For two-legged bed buddies, mattresses that don’t transfer movement can minimize sleep disruption. Another trick: separate comforters can help keep the nocturnal peace by making middle-of-the-night comforter-stealing a non-issue.
Sleep Screw-up #4: You’re eating and drinking sleep-disruptors.
The 3 p.m. cup of coffee to power you through a tough
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, cut yourself off the stuff by early afternoon, as that