5 Ways to Improve Our Sleeping Patterns
November 7, 2019
One of the most restorative, rewarding parts of our day is bedtime – that feeling of relaxation that washes over us when we know our work is done and all that awaits is slumber. And after a good night's sleep, there’s really nothing better than waking up feeling refreshed, energized and ready to tackle a new day. But what happens to us when sleep doesn’t come so easily?
Sleep is critical to our overall health. In fact, a well-rested body helps us maintain healthy body weight and decreases our risk of diabetes, heart disease and other cancers. In addition, sleep can reduce our stress levels, enhances our moods, allows us to think more clearly, increases our memory retention, reduces inflammation, lowers incidences of depression as well as repairs our body in general.1 But so many of us suffer from poor sleep that Ariana Huffington, author of "The Sleep Revolution," has claimed that our culture is in the midst of a “sleep deprivation crisis.” To help create nurturing nighttime rituals and promote the rest our body so desperately deserves, read on.
One of the main reasons we can have difficulty falling asleep is due to our increased levels of light exposure. Nowadays, we're constantly “plugged in” to our devices, staring at our screens, which makes our eyes more sensitive to fluctuations in light. To be more specific, our eyes contain photoreceptors that react to alterations in light and dark. These receptors are connected to our regulatory sleeping system called the circadian rhythm, an internal clock that enables us to stay awake during the day and sleep at night. Artificial light, particularly blue light (the light emitted from computers, phones, tablets and TVs), disrupts this cycle, delaying the signal to our brain that tells us to fall asleep, sometimes by four to six time zones. For healthier sleep cycles, we try to turn off all devices an hour before bedtime and instead, read a book or meditate.2
Close the Kitchen
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that our diet strongly impacts our ability to sleep well. Not only does food provide nutrients our bodies need to remain healthy, but it also establishes the chemical environment our brain needs to develop neurotransmitters to maintain our sleep cycle. Specifically, ingesting too little fiber or too much saturated fat and sugar can lead to a reduction in those much-needed zzz’s. However, in addition to what we eat, it’s also important to be mindful of when we eat, due to food’s effect to our digestion and metabolism. Too much, too late is never a good idea, especially when it comes to caffeine and other stimulants. In fact, studies have shown that consuming caffeine within as much as 6 hours before our heads hit the pillow can reduce total sleep time by an entire hour.3 Lastly, the practice of eating with the sun is known to support our circadian rhythm and greatly minimize sleep disruptions due to food.4
According to Dr. Charlene Gemaldo, MD of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, being physically active helps us fall asleep easier and improves the quality of our sleep cycle. To be more specific, when we exercise moderately (aerobics), it can increase the amount of “slow-wave” (deep) sleep we get, offering our brain and body more time to rejuvenate. Exercise can also help us stabilize our moods and decompress our mind – a cognitive process that helps us naturally transition to sleep. Due to the release of endorphins and the increase in body temperature that comes as a result of physical activity, it’s important to listen to our bodies in order to decipher when it is best for us to work out. It varies from person to person, but typically 30 minutes of exercise per day is recommended for the best quality sleep.5
Often times, the inability to fall or stay asleep comes from being too revved up, either due to anxiety and life stressors or hormonal imbalances. The practice of "winding down" can promote a more peaceful end to our day. Some beneficial practices to promote relaxation include: taking a gentle yoga session after work, a nighttime meditation practice, sipping soothing chamomile after dinner (which both encourages digestion and slowing down), sitting in nature/star-gazing or taking an aromatherapy bath. All of these activities send signals to our body saying that it’s time to move into a more quiet phase of our day. Keeping our bedrooms dark, quiet and cool will also help us remain asleep after we’ve drifted off.
Set a Schedule
Waking and going to bed at the same time every day helps our internal clocks sustain a regular resting schedule. Once our bodies are adjusted to this routine, it eventually becomes easier to fall asleep. Our goal is to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night, and it’s best to initiate the “wind-down” period an hour before our hopeful bedtime. Now that the days are getting shorter and the nights longer, it’s a great time to implement new rest schedules in keeping with the season.6
There are a slew of other reasons why sleep can be disrupted – many of which often feel out of our control – such as life stressors (illness, finances, kids and family issues), fluctuating hormone levels associated with aging and medical treatments, anxiety/depression, sleep disorders, and chronic pain. All of these are common yet significant realities in many of our lives, but in the midst of facing issues like these, it’s important to not simply accept poor sleep as an inevitable reality or dismiss our need for it. In these moments, it’s good to speak with a professional, as there are often remedies to incorporate and new practices to adopt. As any sleep-deprived person will attest, when rested and clear, our days are brighter, our bodies stronger and our outlook on life is more optimistic.
“By helping us keep the world in perspective, sleep gives us a chance to refocus on the essence of who we are. And in that place of connection, it is easier for the fears and concerns of the world to drop away.” – Arianna Huffington, The Sleep Revolution