Remember the days when you could fall asleep just about anywhere, anytime, and wake up feeling rested and ready to take on the day? If you can’t, then clearly it’s time to take a hard look at what’s getting in the way of a good night’s sleep and focus on turning your sleep ship around.
Contrary to what you may think, poor sleep is not a fact of life, but is, to a large extent, a by-product of how you live it. So, to reclaim those nights of sound sleep you’ve been dreaming of, approach sleep more like a project that needs tending to, and less like something that just happens (or doesn’t). Here are some ways to take back your nights with habits that will make rising and shining a whole lot easier:
Sleep matters – head to toe, young and old.
No matter what stage of life you’re in, habitually lousy sleep — think tossing, turning, pre-dawn wake-ups or not being able to fall asleep at all – takes a big toll. Not only does a bad night wreck the day that follows, it interferes with how well you learn, how clearly you think, how effectively you fend off illness, how well you age. Bad sleep negatively impacts your mood, weight and libido. In short, crappy sleep is a total body bummer. Habitual poor sleep increases the risk for the health threats we’re most trying to avoid, like Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and obesity.
Poor sleep equals more inflammations.
It may be small consolation but you’re not alone in the troubled sleep department. By some estimates, roughly 70 percent of Americans get insufficient sleep. As a nation, we typically sleep two hours a night less than we did four decades ago. Though it may not sound like a big deal, the research shows that losing two hours of sleep promotes inflammation – the markers that measure inflammation head straight up. What’s more, poor sleepers also lose out on the natural increase in cancer-fighting molecules that happens during a good night’s sleep. (They’ve been measured to rise tenfold during sleep.) Bottom line: don’t take poor sleep lying down.
Take your cues from the successful sleepers playbook.
Believe it or not, there are those among us who rarely have much trouble sleeping (jealous yet?). The good news is that you can learn from them. What are they doing differently? They’re using their daytime hours to habitually set themselves up for a good night, every night. Yup, it’s about embracing multiple healthy, sleep-promoting habits, and layering them on, so pay attention – better-sleep class is now in session:
1) Develop a daily 30-minute sunlight habit.
Our 24/7 access to artificial light makes it easy to miss out on the most powerful sleep-regulating signal of all, natural sunlight. It’s actually the light itself that governs our sleeping patterns. According to Johns Hopkins researchers, as sunlight enters our eyes, it regulates and resets our biological clocks, which triggers the release of the chemicals and hormones that are vital to healthy sleep.
To tap into that light-triggered release, try to get at least half an hour of natural sunlight a day. In addition to regular doses of real sunlight, you can also augment your indoor time by adding full-spectrum light bulbs to home and office lamps to provide some of the benefits of sun exposure.
2) Ramp up your micro movement game.
It should come as no surprise that the more you move, the better you’ll sleep, so make sure you move your body throughout the day. Set an alarm to remind yourself to get up and moving every hour at least. Those five-minute exercise ‘snacks’ or ‘micro sessions throughout the day add up, and are an excellent way to fill the movement gap on days when you can’t fit in a more traditional workout. What’s more, a few daily ‘exercise snacks’ will help burn off some of the excess energy and tamp down some of the stress that might be keeping you up at night.
3) Make 150-minutes your weekly movement minimum.
And yes, multiple daily micro sessions count here too. People who exercise at least 150 minutes a week report twice the likelihood of satisfying sleep than non-exercisers – so get your movement groove on. However, if you have to choose between sleep or exercise, don’t sacrifice sleep to get to the gym. Sleep is primary. Exercise is secondary.
4) Pump a little iron.
Exercise is one of your best defenses against poor sleep because it increases the amplitude of your daily rhythms. It signals the body to promote deeper sleep cycles – which is the goal. While aerobic exercise is great, you can amp up your sleep abilities with some strength-training a few times a week. Why? Because in order for your muscles to repair themselves post-workout, they need to tap into the growth hormone secreted during deep sleep. Ever hear bodybuilders say they sleep soundly? The natural release of growth hormone is one big reason why.
5) Timing matters.
To effectively ride the coattails of that nocturnal growth hormone, in addition to moving throughout the day, try to fit more demanding work outs or exercise into the 4 – 6 hour window before you go to bed. More of a morning mover? Good for you, as studies show that people are more likely to stick to a routine if they exercise first thing in the morning.
Sidestep the sleep-stealers
I often say, if you want to sleep tonight, be conscious of what you do during the day – and avoid what I call the ‘sleep stealers,’ those sleep-unfriendly habits which, when you add a few together will leave you staring at the ceiling far later into the night than you’d like. Topping the must-to-avoid sleep-stealer list:
1) Late-in-the-day Starbucks runs.
When it comes to coffee after 3 p.m., fuggetaboutit. That afternoon cup of caffeine can keep you buzzing for 8 hours, and for slow metabolizers, even longer. Decaf coffee or hot chocolate aren’t safe havens either as both have small amounts of caffeine which might still be too much for your system. So, after 3 pm keep it completely caffeine-free, with herbal teas or water.
2) Post-work cocktails.
Though alcohol may help you fall asleep, it will also wake you several hours later when blood sugar levels drop and you have to visit the loo. Alcohol can also delay the onset of restorative REM sleep, so when you drink alcohol, be sure to have your last swig at least 3 hours before bed so your body can process the alcohol.
3) All-over-the-map bedtimes.
Late nights, cutting sleep hours, or trying to ‘catch-up’ by sleeping-in on weekends will all interfere with finding your sleep groove. Your body clock functions best on a routine, so hit the hay and rise at roughly the same time 7 days a week.
4) Later or too-long naps.
Long afternoon naps are fine for kids but unless you are one, keep your naps short, no more than 30 minutes, and always before 4 p.m., so you don’t slip into a deep sleep cycle which can disrupt nighttime shut-eye.
5) Late dinners.
Eat dinner as early as possible. Late dinners force the digestive process to continue well past bedtime, which can disrupt the onset and well as the quality of your sleep. Your digestive system needs rest too!
6) Post-dinner sweet treats.
One more reason to give sugar the slip? It will give you an unneeded nighttime boost of energy, followed by a blood sugar crash that will wake you up a few hours after you’ve finally fallen asleep. Got late night snacking on your mind? Aake a spoonful of almond butter your no-spikes-no-crashes go-to.
7) Supplements after 5 pm.
Some vitamins and supplements can have energizing effects, so take your supplements by 5 p.m. to avoid that peppy-at-the-wrong time feeling. One exception to the rule is magnesium which can lend a gentle assist on those nights when sleep doesn’t come easily.
8) Energizing OTC drugs and prescriptions.
Antihistamines, diuretics, antipsychotics, antidepressants, decongestants, asthma medications, and some blood pressure medicines can cause sleeplessness and disturb REM sleep. Check if any of your go-to’s contain sleep-stealing ingredients. If so, check with your doctor about switching medications or changing the time you take them to minimize sleep disruption.
9) Heavy snoring and sleep apnea.
If you constantly wake up exhausted, and your snoring has become a nuisance to your partner (that’s likely disrupting their sleep too), get yourself checked out for sleep apnea. Though the condition is serious, and can increase risk of heart attack, atrial fibrillation and stroke, it can easily be treated with lifestyle changes and/or with a CPAP machine to ease breathing and airflow as you sleep.
10) An over-revving mind or body.
After a long day running your brain and body at full tilt, it’s not realistic to think you can just flip the switch and shut them both down in an instant. That approach will net you a fair amount of time counting sheep. Fact is, both mind and body, need a little TLC, a bit of downshifting, and a few clues, to let them know it’s time to start powering down. Calming rituals, like a hot bath, some restorative yoga, turning off all screens and turning lights down to their lowest settings are excellent ways to pump the brakes on your day. To quiet a still-revving brain, a 10-20 minute meditation will help slow those racing thoughts, and if you need more support, keep a notepad by your bed to jot down any do-to’s that come to mind before you drift off.