Though we may not think of it as such, sleeping well is a skill, and an essential one at that. During sleep, our body does much of its cellular maintenance and repair work – do it well and greet the day in a good mood, energized, and brain-fog-free, refreshed by the restorative down time. Sleep poorly and you feel it all day long, fighting off brain fog and generally sleep-walking through the day, with a tendency to nod off at inopportune times like the morning Zoom meeting or your kid’s T-ball game. 

Why is it that something that is so natural and so essential to good health can become so hard to do well? Has modern life taught us how not to sleep? In a word, yes. A few less-than-stellar habits can, over time, wind up teaching your body how to resist a good night’s sleep. The good news is that we can re-learn the art of sleep by day and set the stage for sleep success at night. Here’s what you need to know and how to help master the art: 

Take a look at the classic sleep screwer-uppers.

To take back your nights and set them up for deep rest, start by getting familiar with a few of the classic, big-picture sleep screwer-uppers – and see if they may be playing in to your sleep issues. Do you have:

  1. Chronic stress and an over-revved, over-stimulated nervous system – one that’s too jacked up to come down when you need it to, namely at bedtime.
  2. Hormonal imbalances – particularly adrenal and thyroid hormones, which can wreck sleep if too much or too little is released at the wrong time. For example, sleep hormones being released when you need to be alert, and vice versa.
  3. A less-than-stellar diet – food bad guys like sugar, starchy foods and processed carbohydrates correlate with poor sleep, in part because they’re metabolic disruptors, raising blood sugar and overstressing the organs responsible for regulating your hormones. This roller coaster can affect the sleep cycle by waking you up at odd times during the night, as hormone levels fluctuate.
  4. Food sensitivities – like dairy and gluten which, for some, can trigger sleep-disruptive digestive discomfort or even pain – hardly conducive to a restful night! 
  5. Gastrointestinal dysfunction – difficulties with gas, bloating, constipation, acid reflux, and IBS not only disrupt your days but can also be uncomfortable enough to make staying asleep difficult.
  6. Common stimulants– everyday chemicals like alcohol, caffeine, prescription meds, OTC meds and recreational drugs can all have an energizing effect and interfere with sleep.
  7. Sleep apnea – a serious condition that develops when the tissues at the back of the throat relax, blocking the airways. The brain senses trouble, in the form of oxygen deprivation, and sends wake-up signals. It stimulates the release of “fight or flight” adrenaline and cortisol, aka the stress hormones. That’s a rotten scenario for sleep. Worse, sleep apnea can increase blood pressure, raising your risk of heart attack and stroke as well as interfering with insulin sensitivity, increasing diabetes risk. 

Be aware of the more subtle sleep-stealers.

In addition, there are also a number of seemingly innocuous daytime habits that have a negative impact on our sleep, usually without us being aware of it. Some the common offenders are: 

  1. Random bedtime schedules: To sleep like a baby, do what they do: go to bed and rise at the same time seven days a week – no random late nights or weekend lie-ins. Why? A consistent sleep rhythm reminds the brain when to release sleep and wake hormones. The result? You fall asleep and wake up more easily – every day (like clockwork!).   
  2. Spending uninterrupted hours in your desk chair: Glued to the computer screen all day and couch potato-ing at night? Then don’t expect to sleep well. Not moving enough during the day will leave you with energy to burn – staring at the ceiling at night! Physically tiring yourself out with more movement throughout the day will help sleep come a lot sooner. You don’t have to run a five-minute mile or power-lift at the gym for 2 hours, just take multiple 5-minute movement breaks throughout the day and, if possible, an evening walk. It adds up!
  3. Night-time napping on the couch: If you pass out on the couch after dinner, wake up groggy at 9 p.m., then try to go to bed at a normal hour, chances are you’ll wind up wide awake well into the wee hours. That too-late and too-long nap effectively throws off your body internal clock. But there’s nothing wrong with a short, sweet, refreshing power nap. Just make sure yours are 20 or 30 minutes tops, and ideally before 4 p.m. so as not to interfere with your normal bed time.
  4. Bringing your day to a screeching halt: Maybe as a college kid you could go from studying to passed out in minutes but in adulthood your body needs a bit more encouragement, more clues that it’s time to prepare for sleep. It has to produce the sleep neurotransmitters which signal the brain’s sleep headquarters that it’s time to start releasing sleep hormones. Start the shift after dinner by beginning to wind down: shut down your devices and screens and trade them for a book; dim the lights; take a hot bath; listen to calming music; take a few minutes to meditate, do some restorative yoga or relaxation exercises. The fewer physical and mental distractions the better.

Daytime eats that take a bite out of your nights.

So what else is screwing up our ability to sleep? For many people, it’s the little, insidious underminers that contribute to habitual sleep fails. Something as simple as what you eat and drink can pack a subtle, sleep-stealing punch, for example:  

  1. Who needs water? You do. One less talked about side effect of dehydration is, you guessed it, poor sleep. Fortunately that’s a pretty easy fix. Just be sure to get the bulk of your water drinking done earlier in the day to minimize bathroom visits in the dead of night. Shoot for eight glasses at 8 oz. per day.
  2. Love a 4 p.m. cappuccino pick-me-up? A cuppa of cap can easily keep you awake into the wee hours, and even later if you happen to be a slow caffeine metabolizer (slow metabolizers may feel the buzz as many as 8-10 hours later). Your best bet? No caffeine after 12 noon and, if you need a cup of something warm, switch to naturally caffeine-free rooibos tea, herbal teas or bone broth.
  3. How about a small, polyphenol-packed square of extra dark chocolate? Great stuff, but eating it as an after-dinner treat may hit you with a subtle late-night jolt. Indulge by mid-afternoon at the latest.
  4. Popping a nighttime dose of vitamin C when you feel a cold coming on? That too – along with vitamins like B12, D, certain herbs and multivitamins – can have an energizing effect, right when you need it least. Take them earlier in the day.
  5. How about a nightcap? In a word, no. Though alcohol does have an initially sedating effect, later on, as the body starts processing the stuff, you’ll wake up more often (think nocturnal bathroom visits) as your body tries to offload. And the booze-driven blood sugar spikes and crashes cut into sleep time as well. Shorter, more fitful sleep? Uh, no thanks.

Embrace a pro-sleep schedule.

If you look at your daily routine through the lens of ‘will this make my sleep better, or will it make it worse?,’ your choices become a lot simpler. But it’s also important not to obsess or rachet up your anxiety levels. Think of good sleep as a skill you’re working on – practice makes perfect and some nights will be better than others. To help get you back in tune with your body’s internal clock and re-connected with the natural rhythms of light and dark, try my sleep-supportive ‘prescription.’  

7:00 am

  • Enter your waking hours more naturally with light. Switch to a sunrise-simulating ‘alarm’ for a gentler, less stressful start to the day.
  • Next, do a few yoga poses – the classic Sun Salutation is an oldie but goodie – to get the blood flowing.
  • Follow that with 5–20 minutes of meditation for a calmer start to the day. 

9:00 am

  • Settle into the work day, but keep a pair of 2 – 5 pound weights on your desk. Pump a little iron while waiting for your next meeting, or between calls.

10:00 am

  • Step into the (morning) light, or take a Zoom call in it! Sunlight governs (and improves) our sleeping patterns, so make a half an hour of natural sunlight your daily goal. As light is being absorbed by our eyes, sunlight is helping to regulate and reset our biological clocks, triggering the release of specific chemicals and hormones that are vital to good sleep. 

11:00 am

  • Get out of the office chair and take a quick powerwalk around the neighborhood if you can, or climb the steps at your place a few times to add some movement to your morning.
  • Got a sit-to-stand style desk? Then switch to stand mode for an hour or two, or alternate seated and standing positions every half an hour or so. (Set a timer to keep yourself honest.)

12:00 noon

  • If an outdoor Zoom call isn’t on the menu, then make sure an outdoor lunch is, to get that sleep-regulating boost!  
  • Craving that second cup of coffee? If it’s got caffeine in it, this should be your last jolt of the day.

3:00 pm: 

  • Grab an afternoon cup of a naturally caffeine-free herbal tea or bone broth. For some people, decaffeinated coffee in the afternoon may be fine, but keep in mind that there will be trace amounts of caffeine in it which may still be enough to interfere with nighttime sleep. If you’re struggling with Z’s, I’d say skip it.

6:30 pm: 

  • Eat light at night, with few carbs and plenty of veggies to keep blood sugar levels on an even keel. This will lessen the stress on your liver and kidneys so they’re not working overtime trying to clear out all that excess sugar and salt from your bloodstream. 

7:30 pm:

  • Put down your fork and close out the dinner hour, in order to be finished with food at least three hours prior to hitting the hay. Doing so will ensure that digestion is almost completely wound down by the time you’re ready to call it a night. 
  • Now should also be last call for liquids too.

8:00 pm: 

  • Kick off your ‘electronic sundown’ by shutting down all screens – including TVs and phones – and switch over to screen-free activities like reading a book, knitting, coloring, etc. – to start downshifting body and mind. The less nighttime excitement for them the better.
  • Turn lights down or switch to bulbs with a soothing amber glow. Shut off anything with white, florescent or LED light, all of which have a stimulating effect that’s good for day, but lousy for sleep at night. 

9:00 pm: 

  • With digestion close to complete, the final phases of your pro-sleep wind-down: with a hot bath or shower, followed by a few relaxing yoga poses or a short meditation.

10:00 pm: 

  • Seal the deal with high-quality CBD tincture, or get a similar sleep-encouraging effect with magnesium citrate powder or magnesium glycinate or threonate (start with 300mg and increase to 500 or 600mg if needed) and glycine (start with 3 grams and increase if needed). You can try them individually or mixed together in water. 
  • Need a bit more help? Then try 200 to 400mg of L-theanine or 300 to 600mg of GABA and see what dosage works for you. A combination of the two can also do the trick.

11:00 pm: 

  • Lights out – and enjoy your time in Dreamland! 

11:30 pm: 

  • Still awake? Then get up and out of the bedroom. Keep the lights low, all screens off, and do a half hour or so of reading – think poetry, no thrillers – knitting or meditating, before returning to bed.

10 Daily Habits to Live to 100

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