Sleep is fundamental. We all know this, yet when our schedules get busy and packed, it is often the first thing we cut. We think we’ll catch up later, that it’s just one night, but raise your hand if you’re perpetually tired. (Yeah, me too, which is why I set out to learn more about the topic, hence this blog.)
Loss of sleep creates a negative and downward spiral. When we’re tired, we don’t think as quickly or clearly. It takes us longer to do less and at decreased quality, making our days even longer to try to accomplish what we need to. That leads to the temptation to skip on sleep again and a resulting sleep deficit that can have severe and negative physical health impacts like weight gain and a compromised immune system.
If you turn that on its head, though, think of what life looks like when you’ve slept well. You feel good. You have more energy. You think faster, clearer and better. And your body does better. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But getting one night of good sleep isn’t the answer — it’s helping your body create a consistent circadian rhythm.
Circadian rhythms regulate our sleep/wake cycle. With sleep as with any other system, timing is everything. Break up the timing and things start to fall apart. All it takes is one cog in the wheel to get out of place and production comes to a grinding halt.
The key to consistently getting good sleep is to establish activities or habits that help your body focus its circadian rhythms. What we do has a direct impact on both the quality and the quantity of sleep. And both of these matter. Even if you are in bed for 9 hours, you may not get the right quality or quantity of sleep if you can’t calm you brain enough to fall asleep, if you toss and turn throughout the night or if you wake up frequently, for example.
The type of sleep is critical, too. Earlier in the night, we tend to have deep sleep which is when physical restoration takes place and your body repairs and improves itself. Toward the end of the night, we experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is mentally restorative sleep and is when we dream.* In between deep and REM sleep is light sleep, which is helpful but not as necessary as the two other types. What all this means, then, is if you don’t get enough sleep, you may end up getting the physically restorative sleep you need, but not the mentally restorative REM sleep that happens at the end. This is what can create the mental grogginess and difficulty thinking that accompanies sleep deprivation, whether on a one-off or continued basis.
There is a lot of great sleep research out there and I’m not going to try to summarize all of it. But here are a few ways to start to improve your sleep quality:
Prepare your environment. Create a sleep environment that minimizes noise and light while you sleep. That may include wearing earplugs for that snoring person or pet next to you or an eye shade if your partner is up late reading in bed. If there are scents in your room, make sure they are calming scents like lavender rather than something like peppermint that is more likely to perk you up. You might find some ambient noise helpful to fall asleep as well. Reduce the temperature in the room while you’re sleep — the ideal temperature is said to be from 64-68 degree Fahrenheit.
Track your sleep and alertness for at least a week. Pay attention to when you go to bed, when you wake up, whether you woke up during the night, whether it was easy to fall asleep, whether you needed an alarm clock, how you felt first thing in the morning and a points throughout the day. Many fitness trackers capture some sleep figures, so that is an easy and (generally) accurate way to see your sleep statistics, particularly as it relates to how much you woke up, how long it took you to go to sleep (latency) and how much time you spent in various sleep stages.
Identify how much sleep you need. There is no one “right” answer for how much sleep you need. Yes, it varies based on whether you’re a child, adolescent, adult or senior, but genetic and other factors also come into play. For example, one study suggested that those who are “night owls” may require one less 90-minute sleep cycle than morning people or larks. The best way to gauge how much you need is to track and see how you felt after X hours of sleep and see what emerges over time. I used to think that I only needed six hours, but I’ve found that I feel more energetic if I have at least seven, so I have adjusted accordingly.
Set a consistent wake-up time. When you go to sleep and wake up at different times each day, your body isn’t able to create an effective circadian rhythm. Setting a consistent wake-up time is the first step in locking in that rhythm. Once you body knows that you always get up at 6:30 AM, for example, you will begin to wake up at that time without the need for an alarm if you’re getting enough sleep. It’s important to wake up the same time every single day, though. If you vary your wake-up time significantly during the weekend, it undermines the work you put in during the week in creating your circadian rhythm.
Work back to create a consistent bedtime. Once you know how much time you need to sleep and have decided what time you need to wake up, count back to determine when you need to go to bed each night. Since I know that I need at least seven hours of sleep, if I set 5 AM as my wake-up time, I might set my bedtime somewhere around 9:30 to factor in the seven hours of sleep plus time to actually fall asleep.
Create a shut down sequence. With a bedtime in mind, create a routine you will follow every night to allow both your mind and body to began relaxing to set you up to easily fall asleep and have a good night’s sleep. Your shut-down sequence might take into account factors and practices such as:
- Ease off food, alcohol and caffeine.
- Stop eating at least two hours before sleep. Digestion takes a lot of energy and can interfere with sleep.
- Stop drinking alcohol one hour per each drink before bedtime. So if you had a beer after work and a glass of wine with dinner, you would avoid alcohol in the last two hours before you sleep.
- Caffeine has a half life of 5-6 hours, meaning half the caffeine you had is still in your system that many hours later. Most scientists and sleep experts recommending consuming no caffeine after 2 PM. Even if you can fall asleep, caffeine in your system can impact the quality of your sleep.
- Avoid raising your body temperature within 1-2 hours of bedtime. Your body temperature will naturally drop slightly when it is time to go to sleep and will pick back up in the morning when it is time to wake up. This is one reason that having the same bedtime and wake-up time makes it easy for changes to your body temperature to help you know when you should be going to sleep or waking up. Exercise, in addition to energizing the body overall, raises your body temperature as does a hot bath. Because they’re raising your body temperature, they’re counteracting what your circadian rhythm is telling your body to do and they can convince your body that it’s actually time to wake up rather than go to sleep. So you need a little buffer in between them and sleep.
- Minimize exposure to blue light, particularly in the hour leading up to bedtime. Blue light or high energy visible light comes from most light bulbs as well as from our device screens. It has short wavelengths that create a higher energy, which is why it is great at waking us up in the morning. But that same property also frustrates the body’s efforts to fall asleep because it prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates your sleep/wake cycle. Limiting exposure close to bedtime can let your circadian rhythms work as intended. So in addition to avoiding your devices close to bedtime, you may want to don blue blocking glasses to filter out blue light or if you will be watching television (not recommended as it doesn’t allow your brain to relax). Some studies note that night time settings on devices are helpful, but don’t entirely eliminate blue light. If, for example, you want to read at night and do so on an electronic device, one of the Kindles that are not backlit would be a better choice (though not as good as a physical book, though you’d want to make sure the light you’re reading by doesn’t emit blue light).
Put your mind at ease. Many have difficulty going to sleep because their mind is still racing and thinking about all that they have to do or didn’t do. One recommended technique is, as part of your bedtime routine, plan out the next day so you’re ready for it. Or write down all the things you’re worried about and physically put it aside. Taking time for gratitude also may help, as would deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
Wake up well. What we do when we wake up is also important in reinforcing the circadian rhythm. First, re-hydrate. You can lose a surprising amount of water while you sleep just by breathing and sweating, so it’s important to address that depletion upon waking. Also, expose yourself to sunshine as soon as possible to reinforces your circadian rhythm (and let all that beautiful blue light in at the right time to signal that the sleep cycle is over). Having an established morning routine that provides for movement as well as meditation or gratitude can also contribute to starting your day out in a way of your choosing and intention rather than reaching immediately for that device and allowing someone else’s stress to immediately hijack your day, though that’s just a life hack and not necessarily a sleep point.
I encourage you to read up on some of the great information out there, but hopefully trying some of these tips should help improve your quality of sleep as well as helping you understand the things that might be keeping you from awaking as refreshed and ready to conquer the world as you’d like.
*One of the things I read regarding REM sleep noted that it is a time when the brain is sorting through information from the day and figuring out what it needs to keep and where to file it. It suggested that the random things that come up in dreams could be caused by the brain essentially tabbing through a physical file drawer and touching old files as it is trying to slot new files/information in between them. I’m not sure if there is any scientific validity to that at all, but it actually made a lot of sense to me.