Updated: Nov 14, 2022
Tired of being tired? Sleep is an often underrated lever when it comes to health. Research shows that people whose sleep duration is inadequate, or repeatedly disrupted (e.g., by shiftwork, sleep apnea, pain, or stress) suffer serious tolls on their waking cognitive functions, including performance, working memory, cognitive speed, and accuracy. It is known that proper rest is absolutely critical to healing from any acute or chronic health issue. Furthermore, insufficient quality sleep affects our psychological well-being, significantly affecting our emotional and psychosocial interpretation of events and worsening our perceived stress levels. Have you ever witnessed an overtired child trying to navigate a decision? Unfortunately, we don’t outgrow the very basic human need for adequate and consistent sleep.
If we accept that quality sleep is crucial for healing and optimal health but struggle to actually get it, what can we do to improve our sleep hygiene? Fortunately, there is a lot!
1. A good night’s sleep starts the moment you wake up in the morning. If possible, wake up around the same time every day and try to get outside within the first two hours of waking. Exposure to natural sunlight (even if it’s cloudy) boosts serotonin levels, stimulating your body to rev up for the day, and in turn, improving melatonin levels at night. Morning sunlight is the best way to nurture your body’s internal biological clock or circadian rhythm.
2. Create and stick to a daily routine. Waking up and going to bed at roughly the same time every day also supports your natural circadian rhythm. Life happens but have a one-hour window you target each day and try not to shift your sleep window too much on the weekends to maintain consistency.
3. Create and stick to a bedtime routine, a set of activities you perform in the same order, every night, in the hour or so before bed. This can look different for different people but may include calming activities like a warm bath or shower, a cup of herbal tea, gentle stretching, massage, breathing or meditation, journaling, or reading.
4. Reduce physical stimulation in the hours leading up to bed. Avoid strenuous exercise and heavy meals at least two to three hours before bedtime. Sleep should be a time for your body to rest and digest.
5. Reduce mental stimulation in the hours leading up to bed. It may sound relaxing to veg out with a Netflix show or catch up on social media at the end of the day but the blue light emitted from our favorite electronics signals the brain to stay alert, suppressing the secretion of melatonin which we require for good sleep. At the very least, consider reducing screen brightness in the evenings with Nightshift on your smartphone or F.lux on your computer screen. If you have a tv in the bedroom with which you are not ready to part, consider a timer to reduce background noise and light throughout the wee hours.
6. Build a nest. Create an optimal environment for sleep. Cool, dark, and quiet is the goal. Program your thermostat (or open your windows) to foster a nighttime temperature of around 65 degrees F. Use black-out curtains to reduce outside light and block outside noise with a ceiling fan, white noise machine or relaxing music or binaural beats.
7. Feed your sleep. Last but not least, focus on nutrition. Eating a diet rich in healthy fats, high antioxidant foods, and quality proteins (especially at dinner) helps provide the body with the necessary building blocks to make and balance sleep hormones. Avoid late-night sugar and excess carbohydrates which disrupt blood sugar balance and can cause problems falling asleep or lead to night waking.
As in all things self-improvement, the goal with sleep is practice, not perfection. Commit (or recommit!) to making sleep a priority and make a few small upgrades to your routine. Over time, you may be surprised how much-improved sleep can improve your overall sense of wellbeing.