Sleep has been on my mind a lot in the past 6 months. Being pregnant has taken a huge toll on my body and I’ve become even more acutely aware of how horrible I feel the mornings after a “bad” night of sleep. This has been true at other times in my life as well – during my competitive rowing career when I was training 30+ hours a week; during medical school when my brain was working overtime; with the first one to two years of each of my kiddos lives when breastfeeding and night wake-ups led to many sleep disruptions.
I have recommitted to making some lifestyle changes in order to get those blissful, uninterrupted nights of restful sleep we all hope for and would like to share them here with you.
Benefits of quality sleep
Why worry about getting great sleep? Our sleeping hours are the prime time for our body to perform its regenerative processes. We make growth hormone, our “anti-aging” hormone, during sleep which is involved in tissue regeneration (like muscles!), liver cleansing, break down of fat stores and balancing of blood sugar. During sleep our brain clears out toxins and builds memories. The psychological benefits of sleep are also numerous. Adequate sleep leads to reduced stress levels, which we can all use, and gives us a better outlook on life. And who couldn’t use the increase in energy that goes along with high quality and an adequate quantity of sleep?
How to improve your sleep
Here are five categories of lifestyle modifications you can work on to help improve quality of sleep. Yes, there are plenty of supplements and natural sleep aids that can also help, but let’s start with the low hanging fruit, so to speak, and make sure you are on track with these tips first.
1) Sleep Timing
- Your body loves routine and sticking to a consistent sleep/wake cycle is imperative. Get to bed within the same one-hour window each night. I encourage my patients to aim to be asleep no later than 11 pm. This allows for your circadian rhythm to reset appropriately before sunrise. Similarly, aim to wake within the same one-hour period each morning. Don’t succumb to sleeping in until noon on weekends. This can lead to a much more difficult pattern during the rest of the week.
- Give yourself a minimum window of 7 hours during which to sleep and avoid naps especially if you have trouble sleeping during the night. My personal goal is to get a solid 8 hours of sleep nightly, but you may need 9 or more. Getting less than 7 hours routinely is not ideal and will leave you under-rested and prone to needing artificial boosts such as caffeine and sweets during your day.
- If you start to feel sleepy in the late evening, follow your body’s cues and head to bed. Pushing through the fatigue will only ramp up your epinephrine (an excitatory brain chemical) and lead to more trouble later when you then try to get to bed.
2) Sleep Environment
- First off, your bed should be used for only 2 things: sleep and sex. Don’t spend hours a day working, watching TV or even reading in bed. You need to encourage your brain to associate the bed with rest time!
- Keep the ambient temperature of your room on the cooler side to encourage better sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 61°F and 67°F (15°C to 19°C).
- Make your room as dark as possible. Use blackout shades on windows and skylights and turn off all electronic device lights including bedside clocks. If you can’t block out light, then wear a comfy eye mask to bed.
- Invest in a quality mattress and pillow. Think of how many hours your body will be depending on your bedding to keep you comfortable! I suggest finding an all-natural option such as all-natural latex, foam, wool or cotton to eliminate off-gassing of harmful chemicals.
- And speaking of chemicals, consider the allergen load of your bedroom. If you have allergy symptoms that are worse in the morning, then likely it’s your sleeping environment that’s the trigger. Swap out carpet for hardwoods, get dust mite covers for your pillows and mattress, check for mold or moisture in your closets and crawl spaces and invest in a high-quality air purifier to keep you breathing easy. Here is one that I like.
- Focus on keeping your room quiet. Do you have a snorer sharing your bed? Pets that wander in and out of your room/bed throughout the night? How about city noise or night owl neighbors? While you can do your best to create the sleep environment of your dreams (ha ha!) some things might not be so easily changed, and noise levels is one of them. Consider using a white noise machine and/or ear plugs to create some quiet.
- What about if you have little ones waking you during the night? Make sure to keep light levels very low so as not to stimulate your body’s wake cycle. Do your best to stay calm and grounded. Attend to their needs and then back to bed. Consider a short, progressive relaxation meditation to get you back to sleep quickly.
- Finishing your evening meal at least 90 minutes (3 hours is better) prior to bedtime will help ensure your body isn’t trying to digest when sleep should be starting.
- You may want a small snack (around 100 calories or so) within 30 minutes of bed if you find yourself waking during the night. This could be a sign of low blood sugar and that snack could help keep you sleeping until dawn. Try a handful of granola, almond butter with a few apple slices or some mixed nuts as snack options.
- Caffeine can seriously affect your sleep quality as it can stimulate your nervous system for 10-12 hours or more after consumption. Keep caffeine intake to no later than 2pm and you may even want to do a trial of no caffeine to see if your sleep quality improves. Remember caffeine is found in coffee, green and black tea and chocolate as well as some medications and energy drinks.
- Alcohol consumption in the evening is a major sleep disruptor. Yes, it can help you fall asleep more quickly but then your sleep is often lighter (less REM sleep) and more fragmented throughout the night. Not to mention it can leave you feeling groggier in the morning! Recent studies have shown that even one drink a night can reduce the restorative quality of your sleep.
- While staying hydrated is a cornerstone of good health, I encourage patients to monitor liquid consumption in the hour prior to bedtime. Waking to urinate can be very disruptive to your sleep cycle. If you experience frequent night-wakings to use the bathroom and they don’t seem to correlate to liquid intake, consider discussing with your physician whether pelvic floor physical therapy could be beneficial.
- Refrain from any screen viewing within the hour before bedtime. The light emitted from all types of screens has a stimulating effect to the brain and greatly affects our ability to fall asleep and reach quality sleep cycles. Even in “night mode” screens can disrupt sleep so hit the off button.
- It’s not just light that can stimulate your brain before bed. Consider the type of information you are consuming as well. Whether it’s a work deadline, a tv crime show, the nightly news or simply the scroll of social media, the content you involve yourself with prior to bedtime shouldn’t be elevating your stress hormones and adrenaline. Consider mellow music and some gratitude journaling instead.
- Exposure to EMFs (electromagnetic fields) is a growing issue as technology continues to dominate our modern lifestyle. Research is starting to show the potential negative impact that EMFs have to our health. A simple way to help reduce exposure is to keep your bedroom free of unneeded tech devices including tvs, computers, digital alarm clocks and phones. Put any other devices on airplane mode. Move routers to other parts of the house as well.
- Most who engage in regular daily movement have noted the benefits to both falling and staying asleep. Exercise is a great way to support the sleep cycle but if you are having issues with sleep then consider timing here as well. Working out too close to bedtime can raise your adrenaline and cortisol, both of which need to be low to get into our resting state. Try moving exercise to the morning or, at the latest, early evening and see how your sleep improves.
Here’s to better ZZZs for you and your whole family.
P.S. I’ve created a simple checklist of the above tips to help you get your ZZZs in order. You can grab it HERE.