I'll bet you already know how important adequate, quality sleep is. Do you know why?
Sleep does much more than keep us from being sleepy. This is a time for your body to relax, restore and refresh. You process thoughts of the day, sometimes via dreams. Your immune, nervous, muscular, and skeletal systems strengthen and repair. Cognition is improved. Wounds heal. Growth hormone is released, especially in men (and that's a precursor for testosterone!)
When you sleep is very important. It is unfortunate that so many people do shift work nowadays. We all have a circadian rhythm that dictates when we are supposed to sleep. The hormone melatonin is secreted and our body temperature drops. The rise and set of the sun affects our circadian rhythms.
Human adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night, and it needs to be high-quality. Just being in bed for 9 hours does not rejuvenate you if you toss and turn all night. Signs of inadequate or unproductive sleep include:
- weight gain
- needing to use an alarm clock and relying on the snooze button / having a hard time getting up
- sluggishness in the afternoon, often being sleepy in a meeting or a warm room
- drowsy after a heavy meal or while driving
- needing to nap to get through the day, or to sleep in on weekends
- falling asleep while relaxing or watching TV in the evening, or falling asleep within 5 minutes of going to bed.
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- inability to cope with stress
- impaired motor skills
Not getting enough quality sleep can lead to more serious problems, such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and mental issues.
There are many things you can do to improve the length and quality of your sleep. Avoid the following within the last 2-3 hours of your day: a heavy meal: alcohol, sugar or excessive strenuous exercise. Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool and comfortable. Buy blackout curtains if an early sun wakes you up or you live in an area that has a lot of exterior
lighting. Make sure there are no small lights from your telephone, computer, etc. Cover them with a small towel at night if you can't remove them. Blue lights are the most disturbing to our sleep, with red being the least disturbing. Try to have red as the color of your alarm clock, set on the lowest brightness, and turned away from you. Have your thermostat set between 68 and 72 degrees, depending on your comfort, and/or use a fan in the room (you also have the added benefit of white noise). Have a blanket available for coziness if you get a little too cool in the middle of the
night. Check your bed and pillows to make sure they are not making you uncomfortable, and keep your sheets laundered - there is nothing nicer to me than getting into a bed with freshly washed sheets! Make sure you keep
your bedroom tidy and uncluttered - believe it or not, you will sleep better in that case. Do not do work in your room or anything stressful.
Have a bedtime routine that you stick to most nights. About an hour before you would like to go to bed, start dimming all the lights in your home and turning off all electronic devices such as the television, computer and cell phone. This stimulation right before bed will interfere with sleep. Playing music is ok, as long as you choose something soft and soothing (no hard rock!) and keep the volume low. Have everyone use their "indoor voices" and do not have any in-depth or heated conversations. Do some gentle yoga designed for the evening, a few tai chi moves, or some light stretching.
Take a warm bath or shower, as this will help to lower your core body temperature and relax you. Using scents such as lavender will further induce sleep - you can have this in your soap or body lotion, or burn some essential oil or a candle. Have a cup of "bedtime tea"; many companies make a flavor of tea containing relaxing herbs such as chamomile and
valerian. Take a few moments to do some deep breathing and quiet contemplation - do not think of worries or things you have to do tomorrow. If you find these things are staying on your mind, make a to do list for the next day or write down your thoughts in a journal; then these thoughts have come out of your mind but are in a place where you can refer to them later.
Once you are ready to try to go to sleep, turn off the light, get into bed and get into a comfortable position. You can do things like focused breathing or progressive muscle relaxation to help you fall asleep. White noise from a fan, or a sound machine with ocean waves, springtime rain or crickets can also be very comforting. You can also purchase "sleep" CD's that you can load onto your MP3 player and listen to while falling asleep.
Human beings were meant to retire with the sunset and awaken with the sunrise. Modern society has not allowed us to do that. Many people must get out of bed before the sun comes up or work odd hours. Excessive lighting at night can prevent us from producing melatonin and can disturb our circadian rhythms. To help get back on track, try getting a sunrise alarm clock. This kind of alarm clock will start a simulated sunrise about 30 minutes before the time you set it to go off. It starts out with a very faint, soft light that will gradually get brighter. You can set how bright you want the final light to be. Then at the time you have set it to go off, birds will begin chirping. Not only will the gradual "sunlight" help
to awaken you more naturally, I personally rather awaken to the sunrise and singing of birds than to the urgent, loud and quite scary buzz of an alarm clock, which causes my heart to race and me to awaken with a jolt; or worse yet, the loud voice of an extreme radio DJ schlepping some product or discussing bad stories in the news. This does not set a positive tone for your day. Take a few minutes before getting out of bed to do a few stretches, and then do a few more when you get up. Another thing you can do to help set your body's "clock" is to get some early morning sunlight into your eyes. I am not suggesting you stare at the sun; removing your sunglasses and rolling down your car window while driving to work and having the bright morning sun shining into your peripheral vision will be enough to activate your pineal gland and help your "clock".
I would also suggest trying a melatonin supplement about 30-60 minutes before bed if you find you need a little extra help. Follow dosing directions on the bottle, and don't take for more than 3 weeks straight without taking about a
week break from it - you don't want your own melatonin production to cease.
If you often wake up in the middle of the night, especially around 2 am, it could be that your blood sugar is low. Try having a small snack within 30-60 minutes before bedtime consisting of high quality protein and complex carbohydrate. A perfect example of this would be almond butter on whole grain crackers or a some sliced fresh fruit with a bit of plain Greek yogurt.
If you try all of these steps and find you are still not sleeping well, see your doctor. You could have an underlying medical issues causing insomnia, or may suffer from sleep apnea. Getting these conditions corrected can greatly improve your sleep, and in turn, your life.
Stevie Winsborrow is a professional chef, functional and integrative nutritionist and holistic health coach, as well as a published author, TV and radio personality and Editor In Chief of Align Body & Soul magazine.