Sleep. It seems like it should take no effort at all. But sleeping well enough to wake up rested and ready to take on the day with a clear head, is, for far too many people, elusive. For some, poor sleep means tossing and turning, waking up multiple times a night, or not being able to fall asleep at a reasonable hour. We’ve all been there, and frankly, it stinks.
But, more than just an annoyance, poor sleep is a major health underminer, which is why I urge everyone to get their sleep act together. Not taking sleep seriously impacts all aspects of your day-to-day life: how well you learn and process information, how clearly you think, how effectively you fend off illness, how well you age. And let’s not forget: your mood, your weight and yes, even your sex drive. Crappy sleep is a body bummer, and if you make a habit of it, you’re increasing your risk for exactly the kinds of health destroyers we’re all trying to avoid, like Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, heart attack/ failure, stroke, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and obesity.
In short, sleep isn’t something to be toyed with – it’s serious business, and the time to clean up your sleep act is now. Here’s where to start:
Don’t believe the ‘I-sleep-5-hours-a-night’ hype.
OK, time for a little tough sleep love: if you think you can get by on just a couple of hours of sleep a night, you’re wrong – or perhaps a bit delusional from lack of sleep. Fact is, approximately 99% of all adults need 7 – 8 hours of sleep nightly. But what about all those masters of the universe who claim they’re crushing it despite sleeping ridiculously few hours? They’re either fudging the truth, or they’re among the extremely rare 1% of adults who, thanks to a genetic mutation, are fine on 4-to-6 hours a night. For the other 99% of us, not so much.
Get into a sleep groove.
If your bedtimes are all over the map, it’s like running a transit system without a schedule – a lot goes off the rails. Without a consistent schedule, sleep and wakefulness hormones don’t get released at the right time and systems throughout the body tend to go haywire. If, on the other hand, you want to train yourself to sleep like a baby, consider acting a bit more like one – by committing to a regular bedtime. No matter your age, training yourself to go to bed and rise at the same time every day – even on weekends – will give your body the predictable routine it craves, and your reward will be a better night’s sleep.
Let the rhythms of darkness and light guide your sleep.
Inside all of us is a “master clock,” in the brain’s hypothalamus, which receives information from cells in the eye about the duration and brightness of light throughout the day and signals when it’s time to release sleep and wakefulness hormones. To take advantage of the regular daily rhythms of light and dark, try going to bed on the earlier side, say 10 p.m. or so, and rise 7 -8 hours later with the morning light, and if needed, with help of a sunrise-simulating alarm. The alarm’s slowly rising light mimics sunrise and helps naturally trigger wakefulness hormones at the appropriate time, without the shock of a blaring alarm.
Hit the floor, gently.
After the morning light – from the sun or the sunrise-simulating alarm – gently wakes you, get out of bed and go straight into a seated meditation, and a yoga stretch or two to get the blood flowing. Even if you only have time for a 5-minute ‘sit,’ you’ll get your day off to a calmer and more relaxed start no matter how busy the day ahead may get. However, if you start the day rushed and panicked, your stress levels will only go up from there, so best to start from a lower, calmer baseline. A morning meditation will help take the edge off the daytime stress and limit it from spilling over into that over-revved, ‘monkey brain’ headspace that keeps so many of us up at night.
To sleep at night, get a dose of morning light.
A daily dose of morning sunlight is one of the most powerful sleep-regulating signals of all, so try to get at least 30 minutes of natural sunlight a day. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that it’s actually the light itself that governs our sleeping patterns. As it’s being absorbed by our eyes, sunlight regulates and resets our biological clocks, triggering the release of specific chemicals and hormones that are vital to healthy sleep as well as other functions.
Get off your duff.
People with sleep challenges often underestimate the sleep-inducing power of movement. You don’t have to run a daily marathon but if you want to sleep better, you need to move more, particularly if you’re working from home these days. Run errands on foot. Run up and down the stairs of your house. Chase your dog around the yard. Whatever it is, keep moving throughout the day! If you’ve got a more vigorous routine that you do on the regular, try to get it done about 6 hours before you turn in so your body has enough time to wind down.
A little napping goes a long way – but keep yours short and early.
Babies and toddlers need 2-hour naps – adults don’t. A grown-up power-nap should no more than 20 -30 minutes, preferably before 4 pm. Longer or later-in-the-afternoon naps damage your natural sleep rhythm – and will make it tougher to fall asleep at night or encourage you to stay up well past your normal bedtime. While naps are no substitute for a good night’s sleep, they can be a refreshing pick-me-up when done wisely.
Beware of sleep-stealing sips.
If you want to screw up your sleep – and I am pretty sure you don’t – what you drink matters, probably a lot more than you may realize. If you must have your morning java, go for it. As for that tempting 3 p.m. cup, however, skip it if you plan to sleep tonight. Afternoon coffee can interfere with sleep up to 8 hours after drinking it, or even longer if you’re a slow caffeine metabolizer. For some people, drinks like decaf tea, decaf coffee, and even hot chocolate may be an option, but regardless, all will contain small amounts of caffeine, which for poor sleepers may still be too much.
Good stuff can keep you up at night too!
Healthy, fresh foods made into a delicious evening meal is a wonderful way to wrap the day, but be conscious of when you’re eating, what you’re eating and when you plan to turn in for the night, as one will impact the other, sometimes rather significantly. To prepare your body for sleep, finish your evening meals on the early side, in order to give the body plenty of time to complete the digestive process. The goal is to not have the belly working overtime when the rest of you is trying to sleep. To make it even easier on your digestive tract, go for easy-to-digest soups, veggie-packed stews and salads at dinnertime and curb the carbs to keep blood sugar levels stable. Another tip? Now’s also a good time to cut off all liquids too.
Some supplements can slow your snoozing skills.
Another often overlooked good-for-you item that can screw up your sleep? Certain supplements taken too close to bedtime. Though some supplements may encourage better sleep, others can have an energizing effect, so you need to give your supplements – and their dosages – a closer look, particularly if you are struggling with sleep issues. Among the ones that can interfere with sleep, for example: vitamin A; certain B vitamins; vitamin C, vitamin D.
Some supplements can upgrade your sleeping skills.
For a natural, non-pharmaceutical assist with your sleep skills, you may wish to try a high-quality CBN product formulated to help with sleep, or try magnesium glycinate or threonate (start with 300mg and increase if needed) and glycine (start with 3 grams and increase if needed). Another option: L-theanine and GABA. People react differently to each, so start with at least 200 to 400mg of L-theanine or 300 to 600mg of GABA, either in combination or on their own and see what works for you.
Sweet stuff is a sleep-killer.
There are a million reasons to cut sugar out of your life, but in case you need another, listen up: sugar before bed will make it tougher to fall asleep and stay asleep! A sweet treat will give you that quick lift of energy as you’re trying to nod off, and the crash that follows will send you dashing to the loo throughout the night as your kidneys work to clear the sweet stuff out of your bloodstream. If you like a small square of extra dark chocolate (ideally 75% cacao or more) enjoy yours earlier in the day to minimize the energizing effects of the chocolate’s ingredients.
Downshift your body.
As important as it is to encourage sleep supportive behaviors by day, as the nighttime falls, you need to keep up the good work, and start winding down your body, in effect, giving it the heads-up that soon, you’ll be putting your head down for the night. Just like you would with a baby, set the stage for sleep with calming rituals, done at a slow, mindful pace. Go through the house, turning unneeded lights off, and the rest lights down to their lowest settings. Turn off all electronic devices and have a soak in a hot bath to relax the blood vessels, which will help you fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality.
Downshift your brain for the night.
Before you turn in for the night, turn down the noise and stresses of the day with another few minutes of meditation. Doing so will not only calm and quiet your mind but will help soothe your sympathetic nervous system or SNS, enabling the parasympathetic nervous system or PSNS to kick the relaxation response into gear, making sleep come more easily.