Sleep: the process by which we get the mental and physical rest we need in order to maintain good health and general well being.
I’m sure that when you read the word sleep it evoked one of two images; either the last time you had an amazingly restorative night of sleep, or, more likely, how little sleep you’re getting and how much more you desperately need.
In 2008, it was estimated that more than 50 million Americans suffer from over 80 different sleep disorders and an additional 20 to 30 million suffer from intermittent sleep problems every single year (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
We all know what it feels like to get a terrible night of sleep, but more and more often, many of us are suffering from these terrible nights at least once or twice a week, perhaps even more. The number and severity of side effects to poor sleep (especially on a regular basis) are varied and disruptive to all parts of life.
Some of the common (and even surprising) side effects of poor sleep include:
- Lower immune system response (making you more susceptible to getting sick)
- Lower sex drive
- Increased chance of accidents (anything from a car accident to slicing your finger open while preparing dinner)
- Impaired cognitive functioning: memory, concentration, reasoning, attention, problem solving (something that students are especially susceptible to, which comes with high stakes when your grades are on the line)
- Serious health problems: heart disease, stroke, diabetes
- Serious mental health problems: anxiety, depression, even an increase in PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) symptoms
Here’s the picture that I often see:
You’re stressed about what’s happening at work (you have too much to do and there aren’t enough hours in the day; you’ve had to deal with confrontation with a coworker/employee/supervisor/etc.; you just don’t enjoy your work anymore and feel like you’re stuck) or in your relationship (or even lack thereof) or in your community or in the political climate. Bottom line is that you’re STRESSED OUT. And with being stressed out, comes exhaustion, so you actually need more sleep and rest.
But as soon as your head hits the pillow, your mind starts going. You replay the conversations of the day (or even of the past year!), reciting what you wish you would have said, or going through the checklist of things you have to do tomorrow or this weekend; you start worrying about the unexpected big bill that just came in, or wondering if the tickle in your throat means you’re getting sick and then you start worrying about the possibility of getting sick and how you can’t take any time off from life in order to nurse yourself back to health. And on and on it goes.
You look at the clock and tell yourself that if you fall asleep right now you’ll be able to get six hours, that’s not so bad right? But then you start to get focused on trying to fall asleep, and you know what that does… simply takes you farther away from relaxation. You look at the clock again and you’ve been tossing and turning for an hour, so you tell yourself again, if you fall asleep right now you’ll be able to get five hours of sleep! At some point you finally fall asleep and are startled awake by the sound of your alarm. Your head hurts, eyes burn, body aches, but there goes your mind again, reminding you of all that needs to be accomplished today.
It’s a painfully relatable picture isn’t it. It’s a cycle that can be interrupted and is solved by sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene is the night time routine that you do to ensure getting a good nights rest. Here are seven of the best sleep hygiene tips to help get your sleep back on track:
- Know how much sleep you need. Most people need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night to be fully functional, but some people are short sleepers (needing only 4 to 5 hours) or long sleepers (needing 9 to 10 hours). Knowing how much sleep you need allows you to know exactly when to start winding down at night so that you can get the number of hours you need.
- Watch your caffein intake! I’ve found this to be the single biggest reason why my clients can’t sleep well. They ingest too much caffeine at all hours of the day and night! Caffeine stays in your system for about 10 hours, meaning that your morning cup of coffee at 8 am will leave caffeine in your system until 6 pm. So if you’re drinking a red bull at 4 pm, that caffeine is staying in your body until 2 am! Not only will this keep you awake, it will make you jittery, your thoughts will raise, will increase any anxiety that you’re already prone to, and can also cause physical symptoms such as upset stomach, hot flashes, and dizziness. The best rule of thumb is to switch to decaf after 12 pm. I know, it’s a catch 22. You drink coffee because you’re so tired but then the caffeine keeps you awake at night, which means you need more coffee the next day, and so the vicious cycle continues. Cutting back on caffeine (please do this moderately because you will have some very uncomfortable side effects from caffeine withdrawal) means you will initially be dog tired, but in the long run it means that you won’t need so much caffeine to keep you going because you will be getting the sleep you need to feel rested throughout the day.
- Stay away from all screens at least 3 hours before bedtime! TV, computer, tablet, cell phone. All of these devices emit blue wave light, which decreases melatonin levels in your brain (the neurotransmitter that helps you sleep). All these screens are also very stimulating, keeping your brain and nervous system active when it needs to start relaxing. For most people, 3 hours before bed sounds literally absurd. This is the ideal, but if this is too much of a stretch, start with just one hour and try increasing it (once you notice your sleep getting better, you’ll actually want to push the time even more!).
- Go to bed around the same time every night. Your body’s natural rhythms love a predictable routine, even if your personality doesn’t. Going to bed within the same hour time frame every night will reinforce for your body and mind when it needs to start relaxing every night. I know this is challenging when the weekend comes around and you want to be social, but if you’ve been suffering from some of the more serious side effects of lack of sleep, then you’re probably desperate enough to socialize during the day so that you can get the sleep you need. If you decide to break your schedule for the weekend, make sure to get right back on track at the start of the week.
- Your bed should be for ONLY sleep and sex. If you Netflix and chill in bed, or read, or write a term paper, or talk on the phone, or browse instagram, then your brain thinks that your bed is where you do life. When you lay down at night, your brain won’t realize that it’s time for sleep, it starts thinking about all the other things that happen in bed. Even if you live in a studio apartment where your bed does become the central focus of all activities, you have to start moving yourself to the floor instead (or chair, table, bean bag, meditation pillow, etc.). I know this sounds like such a pain, but again, if it means you get better sleep, feel less tired, and have more energy for the things you enjoy, it’s worth it.
- Make your bedroom/bed a place of comfort. Your bedroom should be cool (in terms of temperature), dark, and quiet and your bed itself should be absolutely comfortable with a pillow that is suitable for your neck and shoulders, sheets that are soft, and a blanket or comforter that is neither too thick, nor too thin. If you’re financially able to, I recommend in investing in black out curtains and a sound machine; cheaper options would be ear plugs and an eye bra.
- Make a ritual out of bedtime. Make herbal tea, take a bath, listen to relaxing music, read a calming book (not your favorite page turner that will make you want to stay up all night reading it!), stretch, give yourself a foot rub, draw/color, write in a journal, meditate, do whatever is calming, relaxing, and gets you in the mood to sleep.
I’ve specifically worked with people strictly on creating a sleep hygiene routine that is personalized to their needs (and their limitations) and it’s remarkable for both of us when they start to get deeper, more restorative sleep. The fogginess in their brain starts to lift, their depressive symptoms start to ease, they focus better and make healthier choices; they’re able to engage with life from a pleasurable perspective, rather than just dragging through each day.
We all know this to be true, that life is a hell of a lot better when you’re actually rested!